Four years ago, Nick Stanley lay unresponsive on a busy Tauranga road as his wife Nicole knelt beside him in shock, six weeks' pregnant with their second child.
The occupational therapist had been hit by a van while cycling to work, devastatingly breaking his spine.
For the high-school sweethearts, dreams of having a large brood were cut short when they learnt Nick was paralysed from the chest down. But in October last year they received exciting news – Nicole was pregnant!
"We always wanted a big family," says the dad of three, 34, whose eldest Rylee-May, now five, was 16 months when he was flung from his bike heading to Tauranga Hospital. "After the accident there was always something we felt was missing. Our family wasn't ready to be finished with two kids."
When Nick, a former surfer, found out Nicole, 33, was pregnant with their third child last October – thanks to a successful third round of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) – he was ecstatic.
"On a deeper level, you don't want the accident to take away something as special as having children because it takes away so much else," the doting dad tells.
"We were pretty sceptical when everything kept coming back positive because you don't want to get your hopes up. But we got our little fella!"
Nicole, a qualified teacher, gave birth to their healthy baby boy Thomas in July this year, a few months before the fourth anniversary of her hubby's near-fatal accident.
For Nicole, the painful memory of driving past the crash site and seeing Nick is still raw.
"If he hadn't been as strong and had a helmet on, it would've been a very different outcome," says the tearful mum, whose hubby fractured his neck, skull and spine in the collision after ploughing into a van that didn't see him.
"I remember standing there touching my stomach, thinking I didn't want to go into shock and lose the baby. Then I sat next to him and reassured him everything would be OK."
At Auckland's Middlemore Hospital, Nick was told he'd never walk again.
The sports loving dad recalls, "When you wake up and three quarters of your body doesn't work, it hits you pretty hard. You either get on with it for your beautiful family, or you just give up." But Nick definitely wasn't giving up.
"The first thing Nicole said to me was that in terms of a spinal cord injury, it wasn't too high. So right from the beginning I was filled with a lot of hope," tells Nick, who lost function in his left arm.
He focused on rehabilitation for his wife, precious toddler and unborn child.
When Nick held a newborn Lincoln, now three, for the first time in June 2016 – eight months after his accident – it was in an electric wheelchair. But by the end of that year, thanks to an intricate nerve transfer surgery, he started regaining movement in his arm, switching into a normal wheelchair.
For the optimistic family man, who insists there are a lot of people worse off than he is, it was a blessing. "I'm very fortunate," says Nick, who was happy to finally reach out and cuddle his loved ones again.
With patience, he learned to adapt to life in a wheelchair. "You can't kick a ball around with the kids, but you can still read them books, give them hugs and smiles and get them dinner," he tells. "I take them to swimming and athletics and we've started fishing off a local wharf. At the end of the day, I'm still their dad."
When the couple decided to try for a third baby, they knew IVF was their only option. They also knew the odds of conceiving were slim.
But with the belief another addition would bring joy after heartbreak, they endured the emotional rollercoaster of IVF, travelling to Christchurch's Genea Oxford Fertility clinic for treatment.
When little Thomas arrived by Caesarean at Tauranga Hospital – where Nick's back working full-time – the Stanleys had the much-wanted final piece of their family puzzle.
"Thomas is very chilled-out and just slotted straight into the family," smiles Nicole, who married Nick at Ohope Beach, near Whakatane, six years ago. "He's neat and we're happy, living the best life we can."
She says now, when Nick's outside rolling a ball for their adoring trio, he has the same energy she fell in love with as a 16-year-old. "There's an enthusiasm about Nick – his words and his smile. He can wind the kids up more than me!" she laughs.
His family is the reason Nick happily fights through some of the harder days with gratitude.
"Our children are remarkable and know when they need to listen, and that things take a bit longer for Dad. And they always come and make sure I'm OK," he beams. "Nicole's also been by my side since the beginning of this journey and has never really left. That's amazing as a husband and I'm pretty lucky."
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