Joel Cooke – I Caught A Wave That Changed My Life

Well I was up at Lancelin, an hour and a half north of Perth, surfing with a couple of mates. Just a normal day really… when I caught a wave that changed my life. I fell off backwards and the surfboard came up over the wave and hit me straight in the mince pie (my eye). The pointy end went right into the eye. At the time I came up and went to one of my mates and said, “I think I’ve hurt myself”. I didn’t realise what had happened. He said, “You better paddle in.”

It was a fairly long paddle, about 500 metres. Half way in I put my hand up and felt blood. I was trying to feel if my eye was still there by pushing on my eyelid not knowing that in fact the eye had burst. I cried out to my mate, “Find my eye before the fish eat it!!” By the time I got to the beach another friend had waved down a four-wheel drive. That guy gave me a towel and rushed me to the medical centre. From the medical centre I got an ambulance to Charles Gairdner Hospital.

All this time I was thinking will I ever see again, asking everyone that looked at me “is it bad?” I had surgery for three hours trying to save my eye. The doctors had to make my eye back into a ball but they still couldn’t tell me if I was going to see out of the eye again. Then all I could do was wait and see (pardon the pun). The whole area was so swollen. During those couple of days I was bracing myself for the worst and that was living the rest of my life with one eye.

Once the swelling went down the doctors shone a torch into the eye but I couldn’t see anything. Not even any light. I’d damaged the optic nerve too severely. They advised me that removing the eye was probably the best option due to the extent of the damage. I saw Professor Constable, a leading eye doctor around the world. He was my only hope that maybe I could see again. It took him less that ten minutes to tell me that there was no hope. I was devastated, I remember sitting in a wheelchair in the waiting room waiting to go back to my ward, crying to myself. I just couldn’t stop.

Professor Constable was concerned the other eye might go in sympathy. It was a very slim chance but trying to deal with having lost sight out of one eye was bad enough but now the other could die as well. I didn’t know what to do. He said surgery should happen within twelve days to avoid this. The next day I had the surgery and the eye was removed and the grieving process began.

My parents flew over from Melbourne, my girlfriend and my mates didn’t leave my side but it was like I’d lost a good friend. I didn’t really know how I was going to look after the operation, everyone kept telling my how good artificial eyes look these days. I kept thinking it’s easy to say when it’s not you. I’d had to wear an eye patch for four weeks.

Once the bandages did come off and the swelling went down from my fractured cheekbone I looked exactly the same but with a red eye I couldn’t see out of. I was relieved that my face looked the same and wasn’t all smashed up. The doctors did a wonderful job but the little conformer shell kept falling out.

They had to stitch my eyelid together for four weeks to keep the conformer in while it did its job. This was the most painful time, putting the needle into the eyelid so the doctors could stitch it up. That night the conformer fell out again, so I had to go and get that same needle all over again. Was it ever going to end?

About eight weeks later and after my conformer did stay in I met Paul and Jenny. They started making my prosthesis and helping me come to terms with my loss. Reading and hearing stories about other people’s eye loss helped. I started to understand that your life could be exactly the same as what it was only now you’ve got one eye.

Getting the new eye was exciting. When Paul put it in for the first time I closed both my eyes and looked in the mirror. When I opened them, it was like the past couple of months were a dream because I looked no different.

I was still coming to terms with not seeing out of it and having to look at myself with an eye instead of a red dot. I was happy again. I felt like the whole accident was over and my luck was changing.

I knew life would go on but I was nervous about driving, using power tools and if I could stay in my trade. It has been almost a year now and I still get angry and ask why it happened to me. What did I do to deserve this? I think this to myself but I know you can’t live like that because there is no answer.

Every night I turn on the news and hear about someone else’s horrible day and think that life with one eye isn’t so bad. One thing that I’m still dealing with is the fact that my eye will never be the same. Having had my eye removed I know I’ll never be able to look through that eye again.

Sometimes when you are walking around people might notice. You do wonder what they think of you or what you really do look like and I feel like I have to explain what happened. Sometimes though when I am telling my story to strangers I feel I’m just sooking but I think it does help. It helps by just the reaction of everyone. The more people you meet the more comfortable you become with yourself.

I’ve been surfing again, not on the same board. I tried to once but there were just too many bad memories. I’ve been snorkelling and swimming nearly everyday and have no problems with my eye. I was with my girlfriend at the time and we are still together. I still go to the pub and out to meet other people. To other blokes going through this I want them to know that girls still come up to you and want to talk to you. It doesn’t make you unattractive.

It is coming up to about a year since my accident. Looking back on the last ten months and I can see how much I have moved on and got back into my normal life. I know that life will keep getting better with each day. Even when I do get angry and upset about the accident I know over time things will get better.

As told to Julia Sutton. Reprinted with permission from Joel Cooke. You may link to this story, but please do not copy or otherwise circulate.