Alex and Mary Stewart win QSM accolade for brain injury efforts

(taken from an article in the Kaipara Advocate 6 June 2005)


A car accident that changed the lives of Alex and Mary Stewart and their son Tommy has led to royal honours for the Ruawai couple. They have been awarded the Queen's Service Medal for community service for their work in setting up the the Brain Injury Association and rehabilitation centres for people with head injuries.

A day in April 1980 is one Alex and Mary will never forget. But Tommy, their only child, cannot remember a thing about the horrific accident in Western Australia that day when he received severe head injuries.

Police were not sure what caused the accident but it was believed the then 22 year old may have either fallen asleep at the wheel or he possibly hit a large animal. Early the next day Tommy was found in a paddock beside his wrecked car. He spent three months in the Royal Perth Hospital before he was well enough to take a trip back home to New Zealand, where the family then lived in West Auckland.

Alex Stewart was in the air force at that stage and he remembers the first reaction Tommy made after the accident. "He hadn't spoken or moved for nearly three weeks and I asked him what day it was. Then I said it was ANZAC day and to our surprise he lifted his hand and gave a salute," Mr. Stewart said.

But it was some time before the young man started to respond to being spoken to more frequently. "It was wonderful when he started to respond. We would talk to him all the time while he was asleep and believe he knew everything we said but he just couldn't respond," Mrs Stewart said.

Mr Stewart said his son's condition is classed as the second worst category of head injury anyone could suffer. Injury is graded from minor to moderate, to severe and the last one is vegetative and we were told Tommy was categorised as severe," Mr Stewart said. However, Tommy has been driving for the last twenty years and he works as an assistant caretaker at Ruawai primary school.

"It is hard to get people to understand why you have difficulty speaking and moving," he said.

"Before I had my accident I thought head injury was just a cut on the head which needed a band aid or something. But with this, people can't see the injuries that make you the way you are, which can be hard sometimes."

Tommy said he still got frustrated at having to think about things others took for granted.

"I have to think about walking or talking and I sometimes find it hard to swallow all things you would just do and not think about," he said.

Tommy believes it is the work his parents have done in setting up the Brain Injury Association that has made his life easier since the accident.

"The public need to be more aware of it," he said.

Mrs Stewart said the QSM awards would hopefully bring a plight of head injury victims to the forefront of public attention. "Setting up these support groups was a necessity at the time because when Tommy had his accident there was nothing here in New Zealand to support people with this condition," she said.

There are 13 Brain Injury Association branches throughout New Zealand and 7 Stewart Centres which are social day-stay places run by registered nurses and life skills teachers where people with brain injuries learn cooking, carpentry, computer skills and arts and crafts to get them back into life as much as possible. The Stewarts came to New Zealand in 1975 when Mr Stewart transferred from the Royal Air force in Britain to the Royal New Zealand Air force and Mrs Stewart took a job as an administrator for the Woolworths chain.

Both Mr and Mrs Stewart are life members of the Auckland branch of the Brain Injury Association. Mr Stewart is current president of the Northland branch and life member of national branch.

The Stewarts are also members of the Lions and RSA.