First Responder Story: ‘I try to help first responders before their bucket’s full’

I’m a retired police officer, and I run art classes for first responders and military personnel. The story of how I came to do this probably isn’t what you think.

I joined the police force in 1997, and I absolutely loved my job. I loved being out in the community, doing what I could for people, and teaching the junior staff.

But I was out driving one day, during a cannabis eradication program 10 years ago, and my car went 175 metres over a mountain side. I sustained major injuries through my vertebrae and neck, a broken arm, dislocated shoulder, and a condition in my right arm called CRPS: complex regional pain syndrome. My right arm became pretty much useless: my hand was swollen like a balloon all the time, and it was super sensitive to anything and everything.

My kids had to become cautious around me – if they even bump me in a particular way while they’re hugging me, then I’d be in agony. 

Going through the process of medical discharge took forever and was very stressful. Plus, I had to learn to adapt to a new life of dealing with constant pain, losing the job I loved, and becoming left-handed.

Over three years ago, I had a partial arm amputation. It didn’t fix the pain, but it got rid of the dead weight on my arm and the toxic build-up in it.

My kids have seen me adapt, they’ve seen my stubbornness and independence. They got to see that you can’t give up, even if there are difficulties.

Over time, I got into art. When an art teacher friend was on maternity leave, she suggested we paint together one day. I didn’t know how that would go, being left-handed, but I gave it a go and it was relaxing. Concentrating on that stopped everything else from spinning around my head.

I started doing a bit more of it, and I was showing friends and family my paintings and they gave me great encouragement.  

One day I did a painting of an ANZAC Day service over in Afghanistan, which I’d seen on an army Facebook page. I sent them a picture of it and put a little blurb about why I’d painted it and what had happened to me, and they contacted me and asked if they could pass my story and picture on to the troops. We ended up doing a raffle with the painting, which raised about $1,300, and the troops chose for the money to go to an orphanage over there. They made prints of the painting and that money went to the orphanage too.

I was contacted by a member of parliament from the Northern Territory who was on a tour over there. He put me into contact with an old mate from army days who runs ANZAM – they do art classes and the arts for military personnel and families. And we came up with the idea of starting a little program up here.

We now have firies, police, ambos, nurses, and the different military services, as well as all different age groups, who come along to the art classes.  

The difference that you see in the people who come along each week is phenomenal – they’ve had a couple of exhibitions, and we’ve opened up a shop twice a week for people to come in and have a look. It’s so beneficial for them, and for me as well.

I was asked to curate an exhibition that ran with the Invictus Games in 2018, with artwork from all the nations involved. One lady told me that her husband had said he couldn’t keep going anymore because of what he’d been through – but being accepted into the exhibition it totally changed his life. He now does a similar program in regional Victoria.

When you get feedback like that you think, well I might not be a police officer anymore but I can still help people, offer support, and have the empathy to know what’s going on for them. It’s become a huge thing for me to try and catch people before their bucket’s full. 

It’s the little steps that people need to take – tiny little changes that make bigger changes. 

It gives me a bit of purpose too. 

As told to Fortem Australia

Thanks to Jillian from Art & Soul for sharing your story