How my mother-in-law became my greatest support after a freak accident left me quadriplegic

The touching story of a man and his stand-in mum.
Hung Nguyen and Barb Boswell

It’s not often you find a man who calls his mother-in-law one of his best friends.

But when a freak swimming accident left Hung Nguyen with a crushed spinal cord, it was his wife’s mother, Barb Boswell, who became his secret weapon in overcoming huge challenges and retraining in a new career.

Left as a quadriplegic, Vietnam-born Hung couldn’t return to the work he loved as a cabinet-maker so he embarked on a Bachelor of Construction degree, with the hope of becoming a quantity surveyor.

Before university classes began, however, panic set in as the father-of-two realised it was still painfully slow to write.

“At the Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Unit, my physios would often give me the Weekly to copy from,” recalls Hung (42).

“Just to write half a page would take over 30 minutes and audio transcription programmes found it difficult to recognise my accent. So by the time assignments started coming, I was really struggling.”

Barb says her son-in-law is a survivor. “Nobody was going to tell him that he wouldn’t walk again.”

Hung’s wife Heather initially helped him type up his lecture notes and assignments once their children were in bed, but after six months, she put out an SOS call to her mum.

“I said I’d take over,” says Barb (62), picking up the story.

“As a typist, I knew I could do it more quickly. But it was difficult to pick up the technical terminology. I thought, ‘How am I ever going to understand it?'”

For three and a half years, Barb – then working part-time – would tirelessly sit with Hung, often typing until midnight.

“Even though Mum didn’t go to the lectures, she can talk about steel construction like a pro!” says Hung. “I tell people she really did my degree with me.”

“Oh, I did not!” refutes Barb, with a chuckle.

“For me, it was in one ear and out the other. He had to work very hard. We’re just so proud he graduated in the top five of his class, and won an award for a research paper on door threshold heights for the elderly and disabled.

“That research was really interesting because it personally impacted Hung. His accident made us see things through different eyes and become aware of the need for more homes to be built with disabilities in mind because one minute he was a very fit and healthy 35-year-old and the next, he couldn’t move.”

Hung endured a long and challenging recovery.

The devastating accident occurred in January 2013 while the extended family were enjoying a swim at Little Huia beach in West Auckland.

Hung and his father-in-law John were climbing on each other’s shoulders to jump back into the water when Hung failed to resurface.

“We kept scanning the water and Hung didn’t appear,” says Barb.

“A wave came and I saw him rolling under the water. I grabbed him, lifted his head and asked, ‘Are you all right?’ He replied, ‘No,’ so we yelled to our other son-in-law to help drag him out of the water. It wasn’t ideal with a spinal cord injury, but it was either that or drowning.”

The water hadn’t been particularly shallow, but Hung had hit the top of his skull against a rock. An MRI showed he was paralysed from the neck down and surgeons put titanium plates in the back of his neck to release the pressure around the spinal cord.

Barb recalls holding his hand while he lay in hospital and feeling a slight pressure coming from his fingers. Initially, she didn’t say anything in case she was wrong.

“Five minutes later, I said to him, ‘I felt your fingers pushing against mine,’ and his face lit up. He said, ‘I thought I was moving them, but you didn’t react!’ He did it again and again until slowly he started to do other things like pick up a water bottle to take a sip.”

Esther, Barb, John, Tai, Hung and Heather celebrate his hard-won graduation.

Understandably, there were dark times too.

“I felt so depressed and worried about the future,” he says.

Barb says Hung, who came to New Zealand aged 12 as a refugee, has an “absolute survival mentality. Nobody was going to tell him that he wouldn’t walk again.”

After 10 weeks in the spinal unit, Hung started to regain feeling from his navel upwards and not only learned to walk again, but also ride a bike.

“I wanted to be able to cycle with my kids, Esther (12) and Tai (10) again. And what did I have to lose? If I fell over, I couldn’t feel anything anyway!”

Hung is driving again and loves his work for a house construction company.

The bond – and endless banter – he shares with Barb is clear to see.

“We’ve always had a good relationship, but the accident brought us even closer,” he says.

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