VIVACIOUS 23-year-old Clare Sultmann had the world at her feet when she set out from her Sydney flat about 6.15am for her daily jog from Bondi to Rose Bay one fateful August morning in 2000.
Less than an hour later, the Brisbane-born former All Hallows’ student would be jammed beneath a 10-tonne garbage truck fighting for her life.
In an instant the young law student’s bright and promising world would change, plunging her into a place of fear and pain.
“I remember everything about that morning,” Clare writes in her recently launched book Standing On My Own Two Feet.
“The sounds haunt me still – the screeching of the truck’s brakes too late, the anguished cries of the truck driver staring at me in disbelief, his grief so very apparent, the tearing of my flesh, the cracking and breaking of my bones, my cries so harrowing, so full of fear.”
Clare has battled through 37 operations over the years as surgeons fought, first to save her life and her mangled legs and later to support her determined efforts to walk again.
Today as she sits in the family’s Clayfield home telling her story, holding her book, fresh from its launch at her beloved All Hallows’, it’s hard to credit Clare has been through such trauma.
In the course of the interview, I gain some insight into not only how much she has lost, but also what she has gained as she relates stories of kindnesses received in her torturous and dogged journey to mobility.
Central to the story is the Catholic faith – her own, that of her parents Noelene and Bill, of the three orders of religious sisters who provided prayer and practical support through her ordeal, and of the love of a circle of friends and complete strangers.
And perhaps St Mary of the Cross MacKillop played a part too.
Now a barrister, happily married to Cam with two little boys – William and Joseph – the distance she has travelled from that terrible day is almost unimaginable.
They’re vigorous youngsters and the signs of her injuries become apparent as she limps around after them.
“Their presence in my life has made the past 12 years well worth the fight,” Clare said.
Another part of the secret to Clare’s remarkable recovery is her mother, Noelene.
Cheerful and upbeat, she’s giving a hand with the boys at the house.
Clare wants to make it clear from the outset she’s “not a particularly devout person”.
However, her response to those who asked how she could still believe in God after her terrible accident perhaps indicates otherwise.
“I would tell them I know I still believe in God because when I went in to have an operation or a surgical procedure, I would still pray to Him that I’ll come out (a) alive and (b) that the operation will be a success,” she said.
“That’s how I know I haven’t lost faith.
“For a long time I did ask the question: Why me?
“But you’re never going to get an answer to that.”
Certainly the temptation to give in to doubt and despair was a constant in Clare’s life for years.
She describes, in Standing On My Own Two Feet, the terrible day the bandages were removed from her shockingly injured legs about two months after the accident.
“I stare at the these two mangled limbs which are nothing short of miraculously attached to my person and I die inside,” she said.
“I am shattered, completely and utterly …
“My left knee to foot is covered in circumferential skin grafts and looks like a discoloured scarred beanpole devoid of a calf muscle or any muscles for that matter …
“My right leg looks like a shark has taken a huge bite out of it from the upper thigh to the calf, so great is the muscle, tissue and skin loss …”
In this time of great darkness, the support of the Sisters of Charity, who ran St Vincent’s Public Hospital in Sydney, stands out.
“Sr Anthea Groves, in patient relations at the hospital, visited me regularly,” Clare said.
“Any concerns, any problems myself or Mum and Dad had, all we had to do was call her.
“She was always onto it.
“Sr Annette Cunliffe saw me quite often.
“There was Sr Barbara, too – she was very special.
“She was going through treatment for cancer at the time so she could never stay for long, because she got easily tired.”
Clare recalls her great-aunt Elsie, a member of the Poor Clares, who got the whole congregation praying for her.
“The Sisters of Mercy organised Masses for me at All Hallows’ as soon as they heard what happened also,” Clare said.
Then there was her mother’s ceaseless care and concern.
“Mum would always go to the little chapel at St Vincent’s Hospital and pray,” she said.
“She’d do the novenas, prayers to an Irish mother, to Mary MacKillop.
“Mum used to put a holy card with a picture of Mary on my legs … this was in 2000, long before she was canonised.”
Clare’s father Bill – well known in educational circles throughout Queensland and beyond, holding roles including executive director of Catholic education in Cairns diocese – provided a different kind of support.
“Dad’s attitude was ‘Do you know what, Clare – it’s tragic it’s happened but let’s move on’,” she said.
“‘When are you going to do your Master of Laws? “‘You need to think about your career.
“He was always looking forward. That was a very good thing to have around at that difficult time.”
Despite such support, Clare’s rehabilitation was inevitably a prolonged process with setbacks such as an outbreak of infection, which sent her back to St Vincent’s Hospital for months.
“Around 2003, about three years after the accident, I started to feel more connected to everyday life,” she said.
“I was able to walk unassisted without a cane and would spend hours a day in the gym of the Elan Apartments in Sydney where I was living.
“I still needed Mum with me and had the support of my father and many friends at that time.
“But I was getting more confident, starting to go out to functions, even though I was in chronic pain.”
Fast-forward to today as our talk continues.
Clare is still on a high from the launch of Standing On My Own Two Feet
More than 300 turned up to the event at All Hallows’ on May 16.
Guests included former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss and wife Roisin, Justice Martin Daubney, Brisbane Catholic Education executive director Pam Betts and All Hallows’ principal Dr Leanne Perry.
Youngcare, the charity with which Clare has been involved for some years, will receive profits from any books sold.
What has Clare taken from the accident?
“A lot of pain, a lot of grief,” she said.
“On reflection, it also gave me inner strength – it taught me about courage and about the loyalty of friends and family.
“And the accident wasn’t just about me – it affected those surrounding me.
“I have a lot more empathy for people since the accident. “I believe it made me a far better person, one who is more grounded, spiritually and emotionally.”
Clare also has advice for anyone facing such a catastrophe.
“Believe there will be a better day, and work through the pain,” she said.
“If it’s a permanent thing, accept you can’t turn back time.
“You have to manage this new reality and get on with life – because you only get one life and have to live it as best as you can.”
To buy a copy of Clare’s book or to read more about her story, visit www.standingonmyowntwofeet.com.au
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