Real Life

Caroline Breure was given a 5% chance of survival

Somehow she found the will to go on living.

When a love story goes wrong, the whole truth is the death of everything. My problem is that I don’t know the truth anymore. I do know I was head over heels in love. I know that I was in Europe on a romantic holiday with the man of my dreams. I also know, just from looking in the mirror, that something terrible happened to me. Something horrific. 

Byron and I had been living together for almost two years. With Byron’s support I’d started No Saints, an ethical shoe company, we’d bought a home in Bondi in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and had begun talking about marriage and children. My mum, back home in Brazil where I was born, was waiting for us to announce our engagement. I had a strong feeling something life-changing was going to happen in Europe. 

We strolled through London’s fairytale laneways and the historic gardens in spring, walked hand-in-hand by the Art Nouveau bridges and palaces in Budapest and swam in the Adriatic beneath the lighthouse and ramparts of Dubrovnik’s ancient walled city. It was heaven, but the best was yet to come. 

We squeezed in a stopover in Barcelona, my favourite city in the world. Sun-kissed cobblestone streets and tiled footpaths, stunning architecture, incredible museums, art everywhere, music everywhere and delicious local cuisine. Byron knew it was a fantasy of mine to live there one day. 

Caroline Breure

Up early the next morning, we set out for a vegan cafe in the Gothic Quarter, a kilometre from our hotel. We got a little lost, and finally popped out on Via Laietana. Our destination was just minutes away, but we never made it. 

Unbeknownst to Byron and I, an ugly fight had broken out down by the waterfront. The police had been called and a squad car was already racing to the scene. No siren, just flashing lights, all but invisible in the streaming sunshine. 

The pedestrian signal turned green, and I started walking across the road. I was taking my third step when the speeding police car hit me. It folded me in half over the bonnet, my head smashing the windscreen like a bowling ball. For a split second I stayed there, my face embedded in the broken glass as the car sped on, my toe tips sanded clean off by the asphalt. Then the driver slammed on the brakes, and I was sent flying, 13 metres through the air, spearing head first into a concrete gutter. 

Byron ran screaming to my side, but could do nothing but wrap my head in his T-shirt and weep in front of horrified onlookers. Paramedics peeled me off the road and loaded me into an ambulance, but couldn’t stabilise me. The impact had almost torn my brain in two. 

I was rushed into the emergency trauma unit at the nearest hospital and put on life support. Byron called my mother. Mum was on the first flight to Barcelona. When she walked into the hospital, I was being wheeled out of emergency surgery, my broken body laced together with metal pins, bandages and tubes. Bones were splintered, one eye bulged out like a squashed fish. A third of my skull had been removed. I looked nothing like the daughter she’d raised, but I was still the daughter she loved unconditionally. 

Doctors gave me a five per cent chance of survival. And if, somehow, I lived, I’d be unable to see, hear, smell, taste or speak. I’d never walk again or use my hands. Mum sat down by my bedside and didn’t get up for six months and 19 days. 

While Caroline Breure was recovering, her mother stayed by her side.

Byron and Mum made a great team. Watching over me while I was in a coma, providing what comfort and encouragement they could, changing dirty nappies, praying for a miracle. I had no idea they were there, yet at some level, I sensed their presence. When Mum entered my room, I’d moan and thrash, desperate to be close to her. When Byron spoke, I’d grow calm, I felt safe and loved when he was near. 

My head wound became infected, requiring surgery. Then I was ordered to leave Spain when my tourist visa expired, even though I was paralysed, in a coma and on life support. No matter the crisis, Mum and Byron prevailed, and eventually their faith was rewarded. My brain stem was found to be intact, meaning recovery was a slim but real possibility. 

Byron had returned home when the first COVID-19 wave hit Europe and my hospital was evacuated. Three brain surgeons worked to repair my skull. But when I was medically cleared to fly, Australia had locked down. Our only option was to fly to Brazil, where I spent six more months undergoing rehabilitation away from Bryon. 

Every day was painful, some impossible. I learned to stand inside a frame, but the swelling in my brain often caused me to collapse. My fingers, lips, tongue and feet were alien to me. I couldn’t even eat and breathe at the same time and picking up a spoon was a major victory. 

Words had no meaning at first and I couldn’t recognise a single face. But gradually, with hard work and treatment, I improved. I watched old TV sitcoms on repeat, trying to understand what conversation was. I pushed myself in physical therapy until I was able to get out of my wheelchair. 

The two best days of my life were when I finally realised that the beautiful stranger caring for me was my mother, and when I was allowed to fly home to Byron. 

Caroline Breure started her own shoe company.

I returned to Australia one year after my accident. I wish my story had a happy ending, but it doesn’t, at least not in the way you’d expect. I’d dreamt of seeing the friends I’d missed, sleeping in my own bed, and kissing the man I loved. But Byron didn’t want to be with me anymore. Sure, he worked tirelessly to help me, nothing was too much trouble, but he wouldn’t kiss me. After a few awkward social interactions, even my closest friends began to distance themselves. To me, they were still the people I adored. But to them I wasn’t the person they knew anymore. I walked with a limp, spoke slowly and took longer to understand what was said. I struggled to remember things and control my emotions. I annoyed my friends; I embarrassed them. 

A traumatic brain injury is also a broken heart, and a broken life. Recovery is slow and difficult, and people are often rejected by friends and family. Thank goodness I still had Mum and my cat. 

There have been moments I wished I’d died inside that ambulance. But today I’m happy and grateful to be alive and, no matter how many people have given up on me, I refuse to stop believing in myself. I’ve already accomplished so many things my doctors said would be impossible. Fourteen surgeries complete and three to go, maybe more. 

I’ve lost so much, but have so much more living to do. So many memories to reclaim, so many to make. A cat to cuddle, a company to run and I still believe in true love. Nothing is going to stop me now. 

Read more about Caroline’s recovery in Broken Girl: A True Story, by Bradley Trevor Greive and Caroline Laner Breure. 

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