A mother s gift - full story
A mother's gift - full story

August 12, 2012

REPORTER: Alex Cullen
PRODUCER: Alex Hodgkinson

Not so long ago, life was good for Ben Cryan. He’d started a new job and was about to buy his first home. The 33-year-old civil engineer was also an avid surfer, and in January of 2011, he travelled with friends to a Micronesian surfing hotspot called Pohnpei, 3000km north of Cairns, for a 10-day surf trip.

On January 21, Ben was enjoying another day of surfing when the force of one particular wave took him by surprise.

“I knew it was dangerous. I still remember riding [the wave] – I was standing up and I was on it for quite a while,” he told Alex Cullen.

“You get to that point where you can pull out and get hammered by the wave, or you can pull into the barrel and go for the glory shot, as they say. I pulled into the barrel, and that was the end of it. It threw me down into the reef, and I landed on my bum.”

Ben was 20 minutes from shore and the razor-sharp coral had slashed him badly. By the time he was in the local hospital, he was blacking out.

When the news of the accident travelled to his parents back in Melbourne, his father was immediately concerned.

“I knew there was a problem with coral, with infection. When I spoke to Ben he said, ‘Dad, I’m scared’,” he told Cullen.

“Dad went into typical dad mode and panicked, and as it turned out he saved my life. I remember us taxiing down the runway, and just as we did I blacked out. I woke up three months later,” said Ben.

Ben went into septic shock as he was being Medevaced to Melbourne. His organs were shutting down, and the plane made an emergency landing in Cairns.

Once there, doctors found the coral had caused a deadly skin-eating infection called necrotising fasciitis, or NF. He was in a critical condition.

As Ben lay critically ill, a category 5 cyclone approached the city of Cairns. He had to be evacuated to Brisbane - and it was another three months before he awoke.

“It was in Brisbane [when he woke up] and he had a tear roll down his cheek. That was very special,” said his mother, fighting back tears of her own.

On his 32nd birthday, Ben was flown to the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. He started suffering seizures. Doctors stabilised him, but four days later he suffered bleeding on the brain and a stroke.

“It was very difficult for me; there was a lot the doctors said I couldn’t do. After my stroke, they said I probably wouldn’t be able to walk again, and if you do walk it’ll most likely be with sticks. That just tore me apart, and six weeks later I thought bugger it, I’m going to walk again.”

And that he did, tentatively at first. Ben got out of bed; then he got out of hospital. He was on the long, slow road to recovery, but there was still one part of his body showing no signs of improvement – his kidneys. After 30 gruelling operations, Ben’s body was failing him again.

Ben was spending 18 hours a week on dialysis, with visits to hospital every second day. He needed a kidney transplant – but with a likely 4-6-year waiting list for a donated organ, the best chance at a normal life came from his mother, Jackie.

Sunday Night followed Jackie and Ben’s journey to operation day – Ben’s 31st operation. Mother and son were operated on in adjoining theatres, with Jackie operated on for five hours as surgeons delicately removed her kidney via keyhole surgery.

It was a slow and delicate process, with every chance Ben’s body could’ve reject the kidney, but as Sunday Night left the pair, they were both recovering well and excited about starting a new chapter of their lives.

INFO: For information about organ donation and transplantation, visit Transplant Australia or the Australian Organ Donor Register.