The end of a life in Bangkok

In 1990 I was the ABC's Indochina Correspondent, based in Bangkok. Then a drunk driver smashed into the back of my car, on the right hand side, leaving me in a coma. In 1998, almost seven years to the day my life changed forever, I recorded this piece for the ABC's Health Report.

It can also be found at

Norman Swan: Hello, Norman Swan here with The Health Report.

Nicholas Stuart was the ABC's correspondent in Bangkok. At the age of 30, he had already reported from China at the time of Tienanmen Square, from Rangoon, where Aung San Suu Chi had just been arrested. He knew he'd be one of the few people lucky enough to have both a brilliant career and a fascinating life.

Seven years ago, Nick's day began, as life does for a foreign correspondent. He woke that morning in Hanoi and flew to Bangkok, where rumours of a military coup were in the air. He had just visited a senior diplomat and was driving home, when another car smashed into the rear of his Toyota. He was left on the side of the road in a coma.

Nick suffered significant physical injuries, but damage to his brain has proved a far more lasting incapacity.

He briefly returned to Bangkok, but it didn't go well and he was later recalled, and his subsequent efforts to work have failed. Here is Nick, in an attempt to explain the nature of his brain injury.

Nicholas Stuart: When someone calls 'Hey Nick!' I always answer. But I don't feel like the Nick Stuart who died that day in Bangkok. You see he, that is, I, completely stopped breathing while a doctor examined me. And so the first Nick Stuart died.

I'm not sure if I would really have liked him. He was, well, lazy. He wasn't really a nice person. But he was a good journalist. Even if I do say so myself. And I think I'm a good judge because I know a lot about him. But he's not me. Not now.

My first memories are just haphazard snatches as I emerged from my coma. In the movies, one minute you're in a coma and the next you're out. But that's not really the way it happens. It's actually more like childhood. First you'll remember a split second, or a mood, but it's not until later that you can put them together into a sequence that you can comprehend. But let's go back to the moment when I, the person I am now, was born. I don't remember that crash at all. I was driving towards a bridge when my little Toyota was hit by another car, which sped up from behind. My car was badly mangled by the impact. The driver who hit me fled the wreckage, I think he was drunk, but I don't know. His father appeared a few days later at a police station, paying people off with a large wad of money. I'm not really angry about that now, other things seem more important.

They've got small motor bike taxis in Bangkok, called tuk-tuks. It was a tuk-tuk driver who saved my life, stopping on the bridge where my car was just a twisted, broken wreck, and taking me to hospital. I'm told that as the doctor examined me, I stopped breathing. I was put on life support and left on a bed in the corridor of the overcrowded hospital. I hope the tuk-tuk driver got my wallet, but how do you ever pay someone for saving your life?

The accident happened on a Saturday, and it wasn't until Monday that my secretary received a fax saying they'd found a badly injured man who had the business card of the ABC correspondent in his shirt pocket. She came and identified me, assured the hospital that they'd receive payment, and so began the birth of me, the new Nic Stuart. The new Nic's first memory was from the Bangkok Nursing Home. There, I was in a coma for more than a week before being airlifted back to Australia.
The woman who is now my wife, Catherine McGrath, had dropped everything, left her job, left Australia to come to Bangkok the minute she heard I was badly injured. She talked to that body as if it was aware, and eventually it began to respond. Cath was always there, so I didn't really focus on her. I accepted her, she became part of the scenery. I treated her the way we treat people we rely on most of all, by ignoring them. But more about her later.

Let's go back to the important part of the story: my broken and shattered bones. Because that's what we talk about when we deal with injury. Not true recovery, but physical recovery. As soon as I was flown back to Australia a professional medical system took over. And it was a professional medical system, very professional, very thorough, very effective. I was patched back together in the orthopaedic ward at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney. My limp is very slight now, a real tribute to the surgeon who spent eight hours putting my hip back together. But physical medicine can't repair a brain injury, you have to learn to live with it.

I hope I don't sound too bad now, I don't think I do. I look quite normal. But what I lack is the mental sharpness that I used to have. That doesn't normally matter in a conversation, but it does when you're working, or trying to work. My long-term memory is OK, but it's very difficult for me to lay memories down, transferring them from the here and now so I can access them later. I like to think the psychological counselling that I received at the Royal Ryde Rehab. Hospital in Sydney helped me, although I wasn't really ready to face my psychological problems. By the time I left, I felt I had regained the skills that I'd need to live in society. But that wasn't true. At some point you're cast off, and at some point you have to deal with the real world again. That's hard. And it's here, if we're talking about complete rehabilitation, that the real problems begin.

I went back to my job, reporting in Bangkok. But I wasn't really able to cope and my work wasn't up to its previous standard. It was as if I was living in a dream, although I do remember the minute that I realised I was really alive. It was a year after my accident, in 1991. I was desperate to get back to reporting. The ABC had taken a risk sending me back to Indo China. The UN hadn't arrived in Cambodia yet and war was ebbing and flowing close to the capital, Phnom Penh, as the rival factions tried to gain some advantage in the peace negotiations. Just before Christmas I was crouching low on a hotel balcony in the centre of the capital, as the bullets sprayed around us. It was as I watched death being dealt out down below that I was finally shaken out of the dream-like state that I had been inhabiting since emerging from the coma. I finally realised if I died now, I wouldn't come back. This wasn't dreaming any more, I had to make this life work.

I was desperate to recover. I wanted so badly to be a proper foreign correspondent again. But my work wasn't as concise as it had been, my voice was thin. In time, the ABC recalled me and I had to stop pretending that I could still be the old Nick Stuart, foreign correspondent. I had to find a new life, one that was appropriate for the new person that I had become. I tried working at a desk job. I lasted a year before being made redundant. I did have the support of the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service, the CRS, but I didn't want that. I didn't want help, I wanted to be a success again. So I ended up turning back and relying on those people who are the only people that can really make your life a success. Those people who are close enough to you to allow you to turn on them. The people who understand your frustration; those people who will listen to your bitter anger as you rail against the world because you remember who you once were, but can never be again. Your family and friends.

There are no surgical answers for the brain injured, and I'm not happy with the various organisations that try to provide care to people such as myself. I don't think the system works.

When you're brain injured it takes you a while to get around to trying to say what you want to say. But that's why I'm doing this piece for the Health Report. To tell you that it does matter to those that are damaged that you do go to see them in hospital; that when you judge the body lying in the bed, you remember the way they were, how they were when you first loved them, when they were whole people. And after that time, continue to remember them, because some of the best treatment that I've had has come from non-medically trained friends and acquaintances. I still remember vividly every time someone came to see me all those years ago in hospital. Receiving those visits was real therapy, it helped me feel that I was still valued. And since then, the recognition has been so important in helping in my recovery.

On the day that Bob Carr was elected I went in to the State Parliament. I was there, standing in the background, watching my wife work when he, in the midst of the throng said, 'There's Nick Stuart.' Then he was swept away and I haven't seen him since, but I remember that moment. Like when Tim Fischer came to visit me in hospital. He still takes the time to ask after me when my wife interviews me.

She's the one on TV now, and I'm happy about that. But I'm particularly happy that behind the journalist that she is, the great journalist, there is a real human being, one who's helping me become the new person that I want to be.

We've just had our second daughter. And neither Eugenia, nor Anastasia know or really care that their Dad used to be someone different. They just want me to be their Dad. So I can finally accept now the old Nick Stuart, the foreign correspondent, did die on that bridge, seven years ago in Bangkok.

Nic Stuart
Monday 21 December 1998