Fearful awakening of assaulted nurse
By Belinda Hickman
June 18, 2004
DEBBIE Freeman's first memory of waking up, more than seven weeks after being violently assaulted, is of having something stuck in her throat and of being tied down.
A psychiatric nurse for nearly 30 years, Ms Freeman immediately associated her own restraints with the bindings used to restrain aggressive mental health patients.
"I was scared - when you are tied down in nursing it's because you have been aggressive.
"I thought maybe it was because I got very aggressive," she said yesterday.
Ms Freeman has no memory of the March 6 assault, allegedly by a psychiatric patient at Perth's Swan Districts Hospital, which caused serious head and chest injuries.
"I didn't think I had been attacked by a patient," she said. "I couldn't believe it."
She does not recall 38 days spent in Royal Perth Hospital's intensive care unit, sedated and on life support.
Her fiance, Kevin Mellican, also a psychiatric nurse, maintains a daily vigil and remembers vividly every good and bad moment in her recovery. Three times Mr Mellican held his breath as Ms Freeman's life hung in the balance.
In April, Ms Freeman's battle for life was featured in The Australian Magazine's report on ICUs. At the time, she was awake and opening her eyes but was not conscious of her surroundings. No one could predict how soon or how successfully she might recover.
These days Ms Freeman, 43, sits up in a chair and talks full throttle. Gone is the tracheotomy tube that supported her breathing, and another tube that fed food to her stomach.
She is learning to walk again, and this week cooked a ravioli dinner as part of intensive therapy to restore her independence. This weekend she is making her first full day visit home.
The devoted couple hope Ms Freeman will be discharged in time for their wedding, planned for October 16.
Her recovery seems miraculous but is mirrored in the majority of brain injury patients. RPH's head of rehabilitation medicine, Kim Fong, said only about 30 of the 600 patients a year admitted to Western Australian hospitals with serious brain injuries remained in comas indefinitely, with most beginning to recover within a month or two.
But he said most patients had a lasting legacy from their injury that might not be obvious to others. "People have to work hard to regain the skills they have lost," he said.
Ms Freeman, who has been injured three times while nursing, said she had not lost her passion for the job, which she began as a 15-year-old in Tasmania. If her recovery allowed, she might take it up again. "I love nursing. It's the only thing I ever wanted to do