michael – rebuilding a life

Michael Burrows will soon drive himself to Milford Sound again. No big deal. Except he’s tetraplegic and has been for the last 21 years. The Mataura local has spent the two years planning, talking, writing and saving for specially adapted $135,000 activan.
“It’s one of the last barriers to my independence,” he says. The impact will be momentous. “It means I can take myself off whenever I want. I will no longer be reliant on others to drive me places for work or for leisure.”
It also has memories of the last time he drove car. It was in Saskatchewan, Canada. Burrows had just finished building his first house as developer. Building boat and sailing around the world was another dream. “I was driving back to town from my brother in law’s wheat farm in the late autumn afternoon. It was very cold,” he remembers. Then he lost control and flipped the car. As the car flipped, his head hit the roof compressing the 5th and 6th vertebrae of his spine.
He became tetraplegic, with limited arm movement, limited wrist movement and no hand movement.
His building career was also smashed in the accident, but in the last 21 years, Burrows has slowly rebuilt his life. “Initially I gave little thought to work. Depression was large part of those early years. When part of your body dies, first you have come to terms with that,” he says.
He reckons the first seven years were spent redefining himself, the next seven were spent re-establishing his independence, and during the last seven years he’s focused on his career.
He moved back to New Zealand in August 1981.
Job wise, he applied for everything. He had to. Because his accident was in Canada, the usual ACC benefits weren’t available. It wasn’t easy. “I think even with the best intentions employers still see barriers with disabilities.”
In 1985 he got unpaid work with Tulloch Transport answering the phones and jotting down orders. “I can’t move my fingers at all and I write poorly.” These days he wears simple splint when using keyboards. “Very soon after my disability I purchased my first computer. I sensed keyboards would become big part of any career opportunity. I attended university in Christchurch to study accountancy, but at that time there was little home support Ñ access was severely limited and there were no wheelchair taxis etc. I was ineligible for any ACC help as my accident occurred in Canada.” I returned to Mataura and the support that offered.
He opened his own food bar, and ran his own computer business. He also threw himself into community life, becoming member of the Gore District Council, the business association and chair of the District Health Committee, to name few of the many associations he became involved in.
“Over the years I developed an interest in the human condition, so I undertook three year course in psychotherapeutic theory at Ashburn Hall in Dunedin. Workbridge was of immense support in this and later employment.”
Four years ago he joined Gore Community Mental Health, where he’s moved from two years as management support officer to team leader for Southern Health’s Child Adolescent and Family Service. “This involves liasing with other community agencies Ñ where having independent transportation is paramount,” He knows the Chrysler activan will have monumental impact on his life and is worth every bit of the $65,000 debt.
He has, he says, achieved his immediate goal of moving into clinical area. “Up until five or six years ago I thought computers would be the focus of my work. Now I regard them as very useful tool.
“My primary focus career wise is improving my people and systems management. In the long term I would like to work 50/50 in management and clinical therapeutic work.
“My journey has been challenging one, and I’m mindful that I wouldn’t have been the same person without the struggle.”

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