21 Feb 2017

I said ‘Let’s try and figure out a way that you can talk to me’

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 21 February 2017

Charmeyne Te Nana-Williams and her husband Peter were parents of 8 month old twin girls when Peter suffered a traumatic brain injury after a boxing match and become a tetraplegic at 27.

The battle to get Peter home with the family and well cared for was the catalyst for Charmeyne’s home-based rehab organisation – Whatever It Takes.

Charmeyne Te Nana-Williams and Peter Williams

Charmeyne Te Nana-Williams and Peter Williams Photo: YouTube screenshot

The super-heavyweight final of the 2002 National Amateur Championships in Timaru was only Peter’s third bout in about five years, Charmeyne says.

He’d been a very good boxer, but his primary sport was waka ama (outrigger canoeing),

After the fight Peter rang Charmeyne to tell her he’d won. He said he’d call again later, but never did. Peter had gone into a seizure in the changing room as the result of a slow brain bleed.

The medics called the last number in his phone – his auntie.

“So she rang me, then his manager rang me. They were crying, they couldn’t talk to me, so I knew it was really bad. Yeah, it was horrible” says Charmeyne.

Charmeyne flew down from Auckland to Timaru. For a week after they said Peter wouldn’t survive – then he stabilised.

She says as soon as he came out of the induced coma, she could tell by looking into his eyes that he understood everything that was going on.

“When I reflect on it, that’s the part that upsets me the most. Can you even imagine waking up thinking ‘Oh, my god. What has happened to me?”

Peter was never a big communicator, she says, but he has very expressive eyes.

“He would just look at me and I knew exactly what he was thinking. I’d say ‘It’s okay, babe. I know what you’re thinking. You don’t have to say it. He was a bit of an alpha male so wasn’t really one to show emotion.

“We were just sitting on the bed one day at the rehab facility and I said to him ‘Let’s try and figure out a way that you can talk to me’.

They tested every part of his body for movement and the only part that moved consistently was his right big toe. Next Charmeyne started spelling out the alphabet and Peter wriggled his toe when she said the right letter.

Then the battle to get him home began.

“All of a sudden we were in this situation where Peter was the focal point – which was fine – but the system didn’t support us as a whanau to stay together.

“I was just adamant we were going to get to where we needed to get to.”

The family home in Birkenhead wasn’t suitable so they applied to the ACC for help with modifications - the application took two years to process and then was declined.

There had been media interest in the story so out of exasperation Charmeyne agreed to go public – her brother in law’s brother set up an interview with 60 Minutes.

60 Minutes went to air, and it took two years to decline and two days to approve. We got home.”

For two years the family lived on a WINZ benefit while Charmeyne set up her rehab company.

“It gave me the space to develop my business proposal, present it and then get some contracts.”

The model for the business came from her quest to find a set of ideas that described the reactions she was having to her situation – it was a model her aunt (a social worker) had developed based on Māori beliefs.

“The philosophy of tapu – what are the boundaries for you, what is sacred? Mana – it was the mana pou that really resonated with me. When I looked at it I thought ‘That’s why I’m getting upset, because Peter’s mana is being disrespected. When he’s been left there lying in his bowel motion for an hour, that’s upsetting me, it should not happen. The centre of it is around Māori Ihu – what are you about, what is this about, what is the purpose?

These principles guide every aspect of the business – strategy, policies and procedures and even recruitment.

While hiring people with technical knowledge of brain injury is easy, the “heart stuff” is hard to find, she says.

“You can’t give people a heart, you can’t teach them that. They either have a heart for this work or they don’t.”

Whatever It Takes currently employs 100 staff, which will soon grow to 300 once a new contract with ACC begins.