'Locked-in' woman finds purpose after losing everything

Airlie Kirkham cannot walk, talk or eat by herself but she knows God cares

For six long years after a catastrophic car accident, Airlie Kirkham was “locked in” – fully awake and alert but unable to speak or move a muscle.

The articulate and high-achieving teacher of Japanese, English and music says she lost everything “except her breath” when, in September 1991, she lost control of her car on a gravel road.

She hit another car and that caused her to sustain a very severe and permanent brain injury. At age 25, she lost any control over her daily life or mastery of her destiny.

“It felt like being shut in a glass cage but no one would communicate with me or help me get out.” – Airlie Kirkham

Defying doctors’ predictions, Airlie survived – thanks, she believes to the prayers of her parents and friends – but spent many weeks in a coma. This was followed by a period of post-traumatic amnesia when she was confused and disoriented.

After being transferred to Julia Farr Centre in Adelaide for rehabilitation, Airlie gradually returned to full consciousness. She could see everything and knew everyone but could not respond, even by blinking. She could hear people writing her off as in a vegetative state.

“Being locked in is the worst possible thing to happen to me as I can’t talk,” Airlie tells Eternity in writing.

“I was a very articulate person and I used to do radio music programmes for the University [of Adelaide] when I was studying there. Now I can’t even talk.”

Airlie says she tried to attract people’s attention in various ways, because they thought “I was not there in my mind as I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t communicate in any way as I couldn’t move at all.”

“It felt like being shut in a glass cage but no one would communicate with me or help me get out.”

She was frightened because she didn’t understand what had happened to her at first, and she was afraid she wouldn’t ever get better.

“My mum organised parent groups of persons in my ward at Julia Farr to advocate for better and more therapy.” – Airlie Kirkham

Airlie was put in the “slow stream” at Julia Farr, which was a wait-and-see, do nothing group, but her mother Pamela refused to accept this. She knew from day five when Airlie responded to a doctor’s command to breathe that she was still “there.” Pamela organised a roster of friends from church to come and do stimulation and exercises routines, to get Airlie moving and wake her up properly.

“Mum is a good organiser and she made sure Julia Farr knew what I needed,” Airlie tells Eternity. “With the help of the head physio she helped run programmes of stimulation for me with a few others in a small group. She went to board meetings to make requests for changes. She organised parent groups of persons in my ward at Julia Farr to advocate for better and more therapy.”

Eventually, after corrective surgery to her limbs, Airlie regained some movement in the fingers of her right hand, so she tried wiggling them to attract attention.

In 1996, Pamela noticed Airlie’s fingers moving and put a pen in her hand to help her write, but she kept dropping the pen.

“We got some money and made her a pen holder,” Pamela says. “We persevered and when we got a new therapist she turned out to be so brilliant that she got Airlie writing very quickly.”

“I wanted to be in control, to be master of everything.” – Airlie Kirkham

It was only then that Pamela discovered that Airlie’s cognition – and sense of humour – were intact. As well as writing notes stating her dislikes and frustrations, Airlie started producing reams of poetry expressing her deepest feelings, as well as her gratitude to God.

“I used to think a lot and dream a lot, but I didn’t really start to cope at all until I re-learnt to write after six long years,” she says.

“At first, I expressed my feelings using the words ‘master’ or ‘masterly’ in every sentence. I wanted to be in control, to be master of everything. I wrote many poems about this. I used these words many times. I had control of my life before my accident. I loved my teaching job. I controlled my classes. Now I couldn’t even control myself.”

“I turned to God and put it all in his hands, and he has helped me to cope.”

“Gradually I could see and understand that God would still care for me…” – Airlie Kirkham

Airlie says that, to start with, she was puzzled why God had allowed this tragedy to happen to her and  forgot to trust God or remember his promises.

“A local minister started visiting me regularly. Colin was his name, and he brought me little cards each week. On each card was written one of God’s promises. He talked to me about each one and pinned it on my noticeboard for me to look at. Gradually I could see and understand that God would still care for me and would give me a new purpose in life.”

With these new positive feelings, Airlie became determined to write a book about her story to give comfort and hope to others. There is a Light at the End of the Tunnel was published last month by Gininderra Press.

“I am just so happy I have finished the book. I have been trying to do this for many years. Now people know my story, I am strengthened in my life, because they know and understand what I have been going through, and what I have been thinking.”

“I am happy that the book will contribute to providing hope and knowledge to others that they will come to know the same trust that I have in God, to help others in their lives. I can be assured that God is using me in a way I never thought of it happening. Finishing the book is not the end, just the beginning of continuing to help others.”

These are remarkable achievements considering that Airlie still cannot walk, talk or eat properly

The book took ten years to write because, after Airlie came home in 1998, she decided to go back to university to study music. In 2005, she gained a Bachelor of Musicology with Honours and in 2010 she gained a Master’s Degree in Music, which involved a 50,000-word thesis.

These are remarkable achievements considering that she still cannot walk, talk or eat properly and needs a team of dedicated carers to help her in all aspects of daily life. But she says she has been sustained by all the loving people around her. She also continues to have ambitious dreams.

“I would like to keep healthy so I can complete my poetry books,” she tells Eternity.

“I would also like to continue writing if I could find a job doing that. I want to get my poetry published properly, for my poetry to be well read and published by a big publisher.”

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There is a Light at the End of the Tunnel

Airlie Kirkham

Available from Koorong

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