17 Feb 2016

Moving Earth, Shifting Patterns

From New Zealand Society, 3:30 pm on 17 February 2016

by Katy Gosset

When February 22 comes around each year, Helen Grice tries to be kind to herself.

A photo photo of Christchurch mother, Helen Grice.

Christchurch mother, Helen Grice Photo: RNZ / Katy Gosset

The 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck Canterbury five years ago brought the chimney of Helen Grice's Fendalton home crashing through the roof, smashing laminate beams “as if they were balsa wood”.

She had tried to get out of the room but says the violence of the earthquake threw her back onto the floor.

 “I heard the chimney go and thought ‘Oh crap, here it comes’. And sure enough it hit.”

Helen was paralysed instantly from the chest down.

While in the week to come tributes will be paid and memories shared around the country about what happened that day, she has stopped counting the days and months since she lost the use of her legs and lower torso.

“The way to heal is not to keep going back. Initially I’d say “It’s been four days since I got up and walked, or it’s been two weeks,” she says. “You kind of have to let that go.”

The mother of four has also learned to stop the “What Ifs?”.

“Hindsight’s a real bugger, especially when it’s two o’clock in the morning and you’re lying there thinking, ‘Now, if only I’d gone towards it, the angle would have meant it may have missed me completely.’”

Her husband points out that a different approach might have seen the chimney kill her outright, she says.

Adapting to life in a wheelchair, changed family dynamics and negotiating with government agencies to access the various services and activities she wants, have meant a steep learning curve.

While she was being treated in the spinal unit at Burwood Hospital, staff there gave her advice to help in her changed life.

The hospital had buzzers that went off every 20 minutes, reminding people to shift in their wheelchairs to avoid getting pressure sores, she says. “If you did [get a sore] that meant you had to be off that area completely to help it heal and that could mean months on complete bed rest.”

She knows of one man who spent over a year doing just that before his wound was sufficiently healed for him to sit up in bed. As a result, Helen keeps a close eye on any possible wounds of her own .

“When my carer comes at night, I get them to check my skin to make sure I haven’t got any bruises or marks or anything and I get them to check me in the mornings, so [it’s] a lot of discipline back in your life.”

A photo of Helen Grice in her modified kitchen.

Helen's kitchen has been modified and a side opening oven installed. Photo: RNZ / Katy Gosset

Like the earth beneath their home, the family dynamics have also shifted within the Grice family. Helen has changed from being in charge to someone who needed help of her own. “I’m used to being the go-to fix it person and it’s really hard to have people come and do for you so that’s been frustrating and slow.”

She struggled to ask others for assistance and started to wonder why anyone would bother helping her. “I’ve had to come through a bit of a change in my own levels of self-esteem and think ‘Well, why wouldn’t they want to help?’”

While she was living away from home at Burwood Hospital, her children also learnt to do more for themselves. Upon her return, they seemed more like flatmates than children, telling her what their plans were and who they would be visiting rather than seeking permission from her or her husband. While she says that independence would have come later anyway, she regrets the lost years.

“It was a hard role to re-establish ‘cos the kids had moved on. The independence was there. You couldn’t go back to being the mother that you were the day before the earthquake.”

Since the accident, her home has been modified and a lift allows her to access the upper floor bedrooms and see what her teenagers are doing.

“So I [] can find out if there’s enough food growing enough mould to cultivate another planet and smelly washing, so it’s good to keep an eye on that.”


While her children have gained more independence, Helen feels she’s forfeited some of her own. She says since her injury, the Accident Compensation Corporation has helped her greatly with modifications to her home. But she says, if she wants a carer to help her with an activity, she must also get approval and funding for those hours from ACC.

“It’s like being a child again, asking a parent for permission to do something. There isn’t that independence as an adult. ”

Now that her children have grown, it’s a time of life when she should be able to look forward to some different activities, she says.

“I now have to go and ask an organisation: ‘Am I worthy enough to be able to have this funding to carry on with something I want to do with my life?’”

“I’m finding that chafing a wee bit at the moment.”

However, Helen says she’s become more adventurous, taking swimming lessons and starting a course in jewellery making.

Her next plan is to learn scuba diving and she’s on the lookout for a wetsuit that helps with buoyancy as she lacks bone density in parts of her body that she hasn’t been using.

“So when I get in the water, that area floats up in the air – so my head goes down low and my butt comes up in the air – not a pretty sight.”

Helen also enjoys driving her car, which has been modified so it lowers to the ground and extends a ramp. She can get in and lock herself into position, staying in her power chair while she drives.

As the anniversary approaches, Helen can understand why some want a public ceremony but says she won’t be attending. “I have given myself permission to ignore it.”

Her preference is to spend the day “hunkering down” at home with her family around her for support.

“I like to indulge myself by saying: ‘Oh, you know it was a terrible time five years ago so go and buy me that luxury ice cream ‘cos I deserve it [] or peel me a grape, why don’t you’ and my family all roll their eyes.”
On Monday, she’ll be making her day a little more comfortable.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to New Zealand Society

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)