Real Life

Speedway horror: I was dead for 16 minutes

It was meant to be a fun family outing to the speedway, but it was a day that saw little Joanna Bright’s life changed forever, when a freak accident left her clinically dead for 16 minutes.

Not expected to live after being struck with flying debris from a stock car collision in Palmerston North, not only did Joanna, then six years old, miraculously survive – she did so with just 20% of her brain intact.

With no recollection of the accident, Joanna (now 36) of South Taranaki has to rely on newspaper clippings and her family’s memory for details of the accident, which saw a piece of fence hit Joanna, tearing through her skull and sending her flying back in the stadium.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the fateful day on 15 March, Joanna has decided to publicly reveal the huge cost the incident has had on her life.

The loss of 80% of her brain tissue means Joanna has no memory of her childhood, and although the injury has not affected her intelligence, it has hada serious physical impact. She’s only just learned to drive, has dizzy spells and little tolerance of heat.

Joanna was on a family outing and standing near the front of the stadium when a stockcar crashed into the fence. When another stockcar crashed into it, the first one was shunted through the safety barrier and a piece of it flew into the grandstand, hitting Joanna.

“I landed half on a man and partly on the concrete. My head hit the concrete and I was clinically dead for 16 minutes. The stockcar driver was told he had killed a little girl,” Joanna says.

If it hadn’t been for the persistence of a first-aid officer who managed to bring her back to life, Joanna wouldn’t be alive today.In hospital, the surgeon rushed in to operate. “oy ear had to be stitched back together. I was left blind in one eye and I am lucky to still have it.”

Doctors warned her parents that she wouldn’t make it through the night, but Joanna survived and was in a coma for five weeks, during which time she was visited by Prince Charles who was touring New Zealand.

But it wasn’t the royal visit that eventually woke Joanna from her coma – it was a nurse chopping jelly and ice cream in her room. “That makes people that know me laugh as I like my food. When I got home from hospital I was unable to walk or talk, was blind in one eye, and was paralysed down the right side of my body.”

Thirty years later, Joanna lives with a short-attention span, memory problems and delayed information processing.

“Sometimes it takes a while to get the words out. I apologise and say they’re taking the scenic route. I haven’t got very good balance and I have dizzy spells,” adds Joanna, who also can’t tolerate rock concerts. “I black out and end up with a headache which takes days to get over.”

Her wounded eye is one of the only physical signs of her Joanna’s accident, and she used to be the target of spiteful teasing from classmates in college.

“People sometimes said stuff that was wrong like, ‘You should do something about your eye, because it looks really ugly’. But I’m lucky I’ve still got my own eye. one weird thing is my blind eye cries tears and my good eye doesn’t.”

But one of the hardest things for Joanna is her lack of childhood memories. “If someone is talking about when they were young I can’t really join in.”

Despite the challenges she’s faced in her life, and other cases of spectators in accidents at the speedway, it hasn’t turned her against racing events.

“They’re just freak accidents and they’re out of anyone’s control,” she says. Looking back, Joanna, who has been married for 13 years, is amazed at how well she has recovered considering she’s lost so much brain tissue.

oedical specialists never thought she would be able to hold down a full-time job, but Joanna has worked as a finance control manager for most of her life.

“Never lose faith. If you want something that seems out of your reach, make the effort to do the best that you can and be proud of what you have achieved.”

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