"I don't recommend breaking your neck, Pete. It's not ideal," Chris Thwaites says, with a quiet chuckle.
You read that right. Broken neck. Chuckle.
"Of all the accidents I've had, this is probably the most unenjoyable one."
For a bloke recovering from a serious spinal injury, and battling ongoing health concerns, Thwaites maintains a remarkable sense of humour, not to mention perspective.
Five months after the course of his own life was changed in an instant, he counts himself lucky.
"The hardest thing for me has been a kind of 'survivor's guilt'," he says.
"Because I was in the hospital spinal ward, there were 26 of us there, a lot of really nice people, and only two could walk...
"I came in. I was in a wheelchair for two weeks but for the whole time I knew that I was going to be able to walk again.
"That was sort of the hardest thing for me... all these people that have been in there for months and are trying really hard. Some of them are still there."
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In the middle of May, the electrician was playing a farewell game of reserve grade Aussie rules for East Wagga-Kooringal.
Days before he was to move home to New Zealand, a shattered C7 vertebrae would change almost everything.
The teammate known as 'Kiwi' had only just come on to the field against Marrar at Gumly Oval.
"I went down for a ball on the ground, they said I got myself in a bad position... then I remember a big crack, a big white flash," Thwaites says.
"I tried to lift my head and I must've knocked myself out because I woke up with the guys all around me. I couldn't feel much. My arms and legs were pretty much toast."
Taken to hospital, he expected it was some sort of sprain, all just a frightening scare.
"I'd seen the doctor before and I had been chatting with him. When he came back he said, 'There's good news and bad news. The good news is we know what's wrong. The bad news is you've broken your neck.'
"I remember having a little chuckle about that. I'm usually a pretty positive person so I thought it was good to have a bit of a joke about it. But then it started to slowly sink in.
"It's been pretty weird, hey, because I've played sport all my life and never injured myself. Ever. And then my last game, it was sort of my retirement game, and I bloody broke my neck..."
The timeline of Thwaites' life is now split in two: before the accident, and after. He's spent the best part of 2021 in locked-down Sydney, the city he's decided to call home now, for medical reasons.
"Initially I was going to go home to New Zealand, like I was pre-accident," he says.
"But I've got a really good rehab team here. I've got one of the best spinal surgeons in the southern hemisphere and my medical team at Prince of Wales is really good. I've mainly stayed here to stay with them."
Surgery cleared out the debris and bone of his collapsed C7 vertebrae and replaced it with a titanium 3D-printed implant, screwed to the two next to it.
"So, so lucky. I was less than millimetres away from having more permanent damage," Thwaites says.
He'll be forever thankful his spinal cord was bruised but not severed. He was able to leave hospital after nine weeks. But it remains swollen, and is likely to be that way for another 12 months.
"With my initial injury, C7, I lost a lot of power in my arms. I can still use my hands and arms but they fatigue easily, they're quite sore, and I have a lot of nerve pain down the sides of my arms," he says.
"And because I'm doing a bit more activity than I was in the hospital, I've started to develop some pain in my legs. The hard part is that you come out and there's nothing to the eye, physically, that looks wrong. But I've got a fair few health conditions that limit me."
Off a dairy farm in Taranaki, New Zealand, Thwaites grew up playing the accordion, playing rugby union and enjoying being active. It's a mindset that's hard to shake.
"Mentally, I think, well, I can walk. I should be able to go and do things, like go to the beach for a swim. But in the last few weeks I've had three or four falls. They've been pretty scary," he says.
Movement of his neck causes dangerous pressure on the spinal cord.
"The first one, I was going down the stairwell and I looked down to check I wasn't going to miss a step and bent my neck too far. My legs crumpled underneath me and I fell down the stairs."
Thwaites is getting on with the recovery, which his medical team regularly remind him is going to be slow.
"At the moment, I still go to the hospital twice a week for physio appointments. I do hydrotherapy as well, through a different hospital," he says.
"Because I'm not an Australian citizen I don't get NDIS so I fund a lot of my rehab myself.... and the other hard thing was finding accommodation."
The 31-year-old is thankful for the support of East Wagga-Kooringal, a club he joined simply to get a taste of Aussie rules a few seasons ago. After his accident, they immediately kicked off fundraising.
"They've been awesome. They started the Gofundme and they've had a few visits and I get messages from them. If I'm having some hard times, they're always open that I can call the guys," he says.
Plenty of individuals donated, but other football-netball clubs also held fundraisers and made donations.
Family support has helped - directly and indirectly. Thwaites' parents came to help for two weeks. Sure enough, Sydney's outbreak saw them locked in for another month. It was a bonus he wonders now if he could've done without. But it relied, too, on more family support, handling the dairy duties back home
Thwaites knows returning to work as an electrician is unlikely so he's spending time on vocation and education. But rehabilitation remains the first priority.
"A heap of physio. A heap of rest too because there are days when the body's really sore and it's an absolute battle to get out of bed," he says.
"I'm on a heap of medication for the pain and what-not and I've got this electrical stimulator device for the pain. So it's not overly enjoyable. But some days are better than others."
But 'Kiwi' still brightens those of others, as a regular visitor to see hold friends and new patients in the spinal ward, where Thwaites learned all about perspective, and COVID has mostly prevented visitors.
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