Chris Nolan: a life in limbo

Chris Nolan enjoys the company of his cousin David at the family farm.
Chris Nolan enjoys the company of his cousin David at the family farm.

AS Chris Nolan was wheeled onto stage at the 2002 Meredith Music Festival, the sound of the crowd resonated deep within his soul.
While unable to verbalise his happiness, to his close group of family and friends, his proud eyes communicated everything.
Chris has only missed one Meredith Music Festival since co-founding the event with mates Gregor Peele and Marcus Downie in 1991. That was in 1996 when his high-achieving lifestyle was tragically stopped in its tracks.
Chris went to bed in Hanoi, Vietnam and failed to wake up for six months.
It was later diagnosed that he had suffered a multi-organ collapse and, because his brain was starved of oxygen, a severe Acquired Brain Injury (ABI).
Critically ill, Chris was taken from Hanoi to Singapore and then to St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne.
He eventually woke from his coma laughing at a joke his cousin had made at his bedside. However, he was to discover his athletic body was a shell of its former self. Chris was left a quadriplegic without the powers of speech or sight.
His condition required 24-hour nursing care but, upon his release from St Vincent's, he found no alternative but to seek residence in a high-care aged facility.
Chris was moved into Harold McCracken House in North Fitzroy, where he had 13 elderly roommates die within his first four years. Although later moved into his own room, he has remained at the nursing home ever since.
Chris' plight has prompted his close network of family and friends to campaign for young ABI sufferers to be offered more appropriate accommodation than high-care aged facilities in Victoria.
Last year, they formed a group to lobby governments for a solution.
Their cries grew louder last week following news that Harold McCracken House would be closing its doors this year, with half of the 50 beds to be closed in June. The group of around 30 remains adamant that Chris should not be sent to another nursing home.
"We, as a society, need to have a better solution for people in Chris' situation," said group member and long-time friend Richard Reilly.
"Everyone agrees that it is inappropriate for young people to be residing in nursing homes. This isn't a partisan issue - it is an issue that both forms of government need to work together on to get a result."
Another friend, Christopher Kavenagh, claimed it was a "social disgrace" that Chris and others like him be "left, forgotten or pushed aside by a system that in its current form nurses people to their death".
Chris' mother, Mary Nolan, who has virtually lived in Melbourne since 1996, said the issue had been handballed between federal and state governments for decades.
"I have a cutting from the Melbourne Herald in March, 1968, two months before Christopher was born, with the headline `No place for Michael'," Mrs Nolan said. "Michael was a 16-year-old boy in exactly the same situation as Chris is in now, yet nothing has changed.
"If you have an illness that means you need 24-hour nursing care there is nowhere for you to go except into aged care or acute hospital. Chris was 28 when he went into the nursing home and the average age of people in high care is 82. It's not right."
Chris Nolan has always been regarded as an inspirational figure, especially in Meredith where his family has owned land since 1865.
He was school captain of St Patrick's College in Ballarat, captained the Meredith Cricket Club to three premierships and won the Meredith Golf Club championship.
He later went on to graduate with honours in an economics/law degree at Monash University and went to Vietnam to work as a lawyer with the Austrade Fellowship. He had worked in Hanoi for almost a year before he was struck down by the mystery illness.
"Chris was your stereotypical leader," recalled Richard, who was vice-captain of St Patrick's the year Chris was captain.
"He was a great sportsman, the gun cricketer, the gun golfer, the school captain and he was also very smart.
"He drew people to him as he had a very magnetic personality. He had an enormous group of friends and I think that is the reason why so many people are still around."
Richard said Chris still had a personality, despite being unable to move, speak or see with any clarity.
He communicates through facial expressions and gives a long blink to answer "yes".
Friends and family members regularly take Chris out of Harold McCracken House to attend events such as football matches or concerts, or just to return home to the farm in Meredith.
"He is a passionate music fan still," Mrs Nolan said. "He enjoys people reading the paper to him, or books and loves hearing news of friends."
Chris was also named joint godfather to the son of a good friend last year.
"It wasn't tokenism," Mrs Nolan said.
"This friend wants his son to know this person who, through all this, still has such a zest for life."
As an interim measure, the State Government has made alternative accommodation available for Chris in a nursing home in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.
"The Department of Human Services is working with Melbourne City Mission to find a better long term solution," State Government spokesperson Sarah McKinnon said.
Ms McKinnon said Minister for Community Services Sheryl Garbutt delivered a "concrete proposal" on the issue to Federal Family and Community Services Minister Kay Patterson last year.
"The State Government proposed to provide funding for disability-related support and capital while making a request for funding for nursing care from the Commonwealth," Ms McKinnon said.
"Since that meeting, the Federal Government has only been prepared to offer short-term funding for a pilot project."
However a Liberal Party spokesperson said Senator Patterson's office had not received such a proposal.
The spokesperson said over the five years of the current State Territory Disability Agreement, the Howard Government would contribute around $648 million to the Bracks Government for the provision of accommodation and support.
"This is an area where Minister Garbutt is clearly responsible," the spokesperson said.
Mrs Nolan said she was tired of listening to the federal and state governments deflecting blame onto each other and hoped a solution could be found at the upcoming Council of Australian Governments meeting on June 3.
"Any help we can get to pressure the Prime Minister and the Premier to come to acceptable agreement at that (COAG) meeting would be great," she said.
"We do not want another study or working party. I wonder if they care enough?"
In the meantime, Chris and his loyal band of loving supporters will continue to push for a result.
In the years Chris has been at Harold McCracken House, progress has been made in developing a model for other young ABI sufferers, with a total of four having resided at the facility.
Mrs Nolan, the co-founder of a group called inabilitypossibility, which has its own website, knows that much more has to be done.
She stares at her son and vows to not give up the fight.
Chris responds with a long blink.