He can’t take his little girl fishing any more or get down on the floor and play with her toys, but for devoted single dad Ben Clifford, four-year-old Alizay will always be the centre of his world.
“She’s my reason for staying strong,” says the Aucklander, 24.
“She doesn’t ask me to get out of the chair – she just knows I can’t at the moment. But she’s still Alizay and I’m still her dad.”
Ben was an active young man when a misjudged dive into a friend’s swimming pool last summer changed the world as he knew it. He shattered his C3 vertebrae, leaving him a tetraplegic. He then spent two months in intensive care, unable to breathe on his own.
“The injury to his spine was so high up that the doctors told us he was lucky to be alive,” says his mum Kellie Aitchison, 44. “They also said he would never walk again, but we don’t use the word never.”
After five months recovering in Middlemore Hospital then at the Auckland Spinal Rehab Unit in Otara, Ben has returned home to Dairy Flat, north of Auckland, where he lives with his mum, Alizay, his brother Kalib Walshe, 15, and his 73-year-old nana Janice Charlton.
Despite being confined to a wheelchair, he’s adapting to life with positivity and his trademark cheekiness. “It’s pretty cool – I get to lie in bed everyday and look through my bedroom window at a swimming pool,” laughs Ben. “But hey, the accident’s not going to happen again, is it?
“Stuff happens,” he adds with a shrug. “There’s no point getting down about it.”
His mum Kellie says that her son and Alizay have always shared a close bond. “Alizay massages his hands, wipes his face and gets down on the floor to paint Ben’s toenails. The tables have turned – now she just wants to look after her dad.”
It was a hot summer's day on January 16 when Ben stopped off at a mate's house in Whangaparaoa for a swim in his pool. He'd been at work all day, fitting out the interiors of caravans, and he needed to cool off.
“I climbed onto a fence and dived into the pool. I did it twice and everything was alright,” he remembers. “But the third time, I must have misjudged it.”
He didn’t leap high enough and clipped the side of the pool on the way into the water.
"It was just boom! There was no pain and I was quite calm. I remember looking up at the surface of the water and trying to swim back up, but nothing happened. I just held my breath and waited for my mate to come and get me."
It was 10.30pm when Kellie got the phone call that changed their lives.
"It was my birthday the next day, so I was up preparing things to have some friends and family over," she recalls.
"It was Ben's ex-girlfriend and all she said was, 'Ben's hurt his back diving into a pool.' We didn't know how bad it was at that stage."
When Kellie got to hospital, her son had been fitted into a halo brace, but he was still talking. He then had surgery to stabilise the break in his neck, then things went downhill.
“He was lying in intensive care on a ventilator, unable to move or breathe on his own,” Kellie explains. “But the hardest part was that once they took the tube down his throat out, he couldn’t talk for 40 days – his diaphragm was too weak. We tried lip reading and made charts and cards with letters, but it was so frustrating for him.”
Ben's family stayed with him around the clock to keep his spirits up and eventually a speaking valve was fitted.
Coming home was a big adjustment for the whole whanau. Unable to return to his flat and live independently, his four-generation family found a new house in rural Dairy Flat. It's on one level so Ben can get around in his motorised wheelchair and it has a paddock for Alizay's pony Teddy.
"She loves it here - she can run around safely outside, ride her horse and hang out with Daddy," tells Kellie.
Ben has a caregiver to help out during the day, but when Alizay gets home from kindergarten, the first thing she does is rush to see Ben.
“She sits on his lap, has rides in his chair and gives her soft toys turns getting a ride in his hoist,” says Kellie.
It’s early days for Ben but he’s working hard to regain strength in his upper body so he can one day move into a manual wheelchair. And he’s already setting goals for the future. “I want to go back and study graphic design,” he tells.
“Things have been hard, but they could have been worse,” Kellie insists. “I still have my laid-back son with his sense of humour – and Alizay still has the daddy she loves so much.”
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