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In this episode, we discover how Mike Rolls contracted meningococcal, how he survived and how he came out the other side with a whole new perspective on life.
Produced by: Black Me Out Productions
Growing Bold as an amputee with Mike Rolls
Welcome to the Grow Bold with Disability podcast brought to you by Feros Care. A podcast dedicated to smashing stereotypes and talking about the things people with disability care about most to help us live bolder, healthier, better connected lives. I’m journalist Pete Timbs.
And I’m Tristram Peters. I work for disability service directory, ClickAbility, and am a wheelchair user living with spinal muscular atrophy.
Today’s episode of Grow Bold with Disability is growing bold as an amputee. And our guest is meningococcal survivor and amputee Mike Rolls. In this episode, we’ll discover just how Mike contracted meningococcal, how he survived and how he came out the other side with a whole new perspective on life. Mike, welcome to Grow Bold with Disability.
Thank you so much for having me.
So, let’s start back in 2001 when you were 18 on a footy trip to Tasmania with the Hampton Football Club. What exactly happened, Mike?
Yeah, look, it was a long time ago now, 2001. Jezz. That’s over half my life ago. I feel like a bit of an old boy now. I was just a young kid I feel like. Looking back, I just turned 18. And the opportunity came up to go on a football trip with a few mates that I was very close with. I remember being so excited. I could barely sleep the night before and I grabbed my bags. I popped them in the car. And Mum drove me around to my friend’s house in Sandringham where I lived. And from there we were going to the airport. I gave Mum a kiss on the cheek and I jumped into the car and off we went to the airport. And that was the very last memory that I had of anything.
My very next memory was waking up after a 5-and-a-half-week induced coma back in Melbourne at the Alfred Hospital And all I can see are these tubes and machines next to me that are beeping, and I very quickly realize that I’m obviously in hospital. And I look at the end of my bed and all my family are there. I make out their faces, obviously it’s a very gradual wake up. But my mom, my dad, my brother and my sister, they’re just staring down at me in this bed with this look that I’ve never seen before. Of just total despair and helplessness. And obviously, you know, I want some answers because I’ve gone from a happy, healthy, 18-year-old kid with no issues in the world to being in some pretty significant strife because I looked down at my right hand. I remember that was one of the first things I noticed that two of my fingers were missing. And I had a sheet across my waist, so I wasn’t really aware of all the other things that had happened. Until the doctor comes in. He starts to lay some pretty intense news on me. So, he tells me, first of all,
“Mike, you’ve been really sick. I’m sorry mate. You’re gonna be in hospital for a very long time.”
I’m thinking shit, you know, like I said, running around a football field to being in the hospital for a long time. What’s happening here? And then he sort of explains a little bit more. And he says,
“you’ve been sick and, you know, I’m sorry to tell you but you’ve contracted meningococcal septicaemia”. And as you can imagine, like many people, I’ve never heard of that before. I had no idea what that was, you know. What does it mean? How has it happened? All I knew was that I felt like I’ve been run over by a truck really. And as I said, I had to sheet across my waist.
And then he gives me the most heart-breaking news because being so sporty growing up and relying on I guess, my physical ability in many ways. And he tells me,
“Mike you have been really sick, you’ll be in hospital for a long time. Unfortunately, it is meningococcal, and it evolved into sepsis, and we’ve had to remove your right leg below your knee and half of your left foot”.
And I’m just, you know, obviously it’s crushing news to hear something like that. And obviously never meeting an amputee, it sort of was dawning on me that wow, my life has actually changed forever in that moment. So obviously it was a pretty sobering thing. And I don’t really think I have the words to explain what was going on in my head. It was just an absolute mess of emotions, not great ones. And then the injury side of things was kind of one thing. Then the complications of the meningococcal was another.
When I was in the Alfred Hospital, I had a tracheotomy in my wounds. I was a mess. The amputation at that point was probably the least of my concerns which sounds crazy to say, but I was kind of life and death, right? I was not able to breathe on my own very well. My injuries were so extensive. I had skin grafting all over my body. It looks like a patchwork quilt. I’ve got two fingers missing on my right hand. My right leg below the knee was removed, half of my left foot, lots of skin graft in front and back on the shin, and my nose was actually taken away and my weight went from 80 kg right down to 47 kg.
That is incredible.
And obviously when they removed the leg that sort of is that muscle.
Mike, I’ve been listening to your story and reading about your story. The thing that intrigued me was that you kissed Mum goodbye pretty much at the airport and you’re on your way to Tassie. Then you wake up in the hospital. You didn’t go straight off the airplane to the hospital. You went on a footy trip. What happened in all of that sort of part?
So, I tell it exactly as I recall it. So, I went from one thing to the other. I went to the airport. I got on the plane with all my teammates, and we had a great time from all reports in Tasmania. Got up to plenty of mischief. And I’m sure there was a lot of drinking and shenanigans going on. And then at the end of the trip, I went to the airport with my teammates, and clearly, I wasn’t very well. But the problem was, everyone thought I was probably just hung over. And I was, you know, at the tail end of a football trip. But I was lying on the on the airport floor, groaning and everything, and one of my teammates, Rohan said,
“he doesn’t seem like he’s really good. Maybe we should call someone”.
Eventually, they ended up calling the ambulance. My team flew home and I stayed back in Hobart. I got rushed by ambulance back to the Royal Hobart Hospital. And they did all these tests. And eventually they found out what was wrong with me and I think I slipped into a coma. They called my parents and they said, get down to Hobart. Mikes got about one hour to live.
Did they work it out pretty quickly? Because meningococcal is notoriously difficult to diagnose, isn’t it?
It is. It is really difficult to diagnose. It did take a little bit of time, and obviously, the longer that you wait, the sepsis can take hold. And obviously your chances of dying increase.
I was obviously a fair way along the line and then by the time they got the antibiotics in me the damage was kind of already done. And that’s why I was slipping into a coma. What it does is the sepsis causes clogging of your blood, I believe, so it starts to struggle to pump. Your extremities are affected badly, so they start to lose circulation. And eventually they have to remove the parts of your body that aren’t viable anymore. And that have gone black and are going to continue to infect you if you leave them on. They’ve got to amputate to save your life.
Right? And I mean on that I want to specifically ask about wound care. I mean, that would have been so important for you, with all the serious skin grafts that were going on. Tell us a little bit about that.
Wound care was, you know, like I still remember when I was in the Alfred and up on the Sixth West Ward, they’d have to come and change the dressings. I remember it being a couple of hours process because I had dressings all over my body. On both legs, shoulders, the back of my head had a wound on it, just from bedsores. I kind of find it funny talking about this sort of stuff because it’s like you put it out of your mind. But when you go back there, you think God, jeez, that was really shit. Like that was a horrendous thing. And the daily rituals and routines.
You know, I remember the first time I had a bath. It was just this big epic goal that I’d had and they’re like, we’re gonna try and give you a bath because I hadn’t had one for so long. And they’ve got this thing that they put you on and they dip you into the bath like you’re a dim sum in a fryer. Literally. But that was a great day.
I got in there and I was able to have a bath. And that was kind of my biggest goal in those early days when all my friends and mates are all out traveling and partying and going to school and living their lives. And I’m getting dipped into a bath at the Alfred Hospital. Pretty depressing to be honest with you.
How long before you went home? I mean, it must have been hard. Also being a very active 18 / 19-year-old kid. How long were in the hospital?
Three months at the Alfred. My parents were in and out and doing sort of shift work. They were in every single day and resting when and where they could, and then three months at rehab. So, I got transferred to Caulfield General Medical Center and they have an amputee ward where you can go and get fitted for a leg and these sorts of things and then eventually build your strength and go home. And even when I went home after six months, I was still coming back five days a week for rehab for a very long time after that.
And so, when you did go home, I mean, you must have all these thoughts going through your head around your future and what that entails. What were you thinking around this time?
I think I can sum it up in one question that I would continually ask myself, and I think it is a very destructive question, but it is a very normal thing for people to ask when they go through some type of physical trauma or any trauma for that matter. And I remember I started asking it specifically when the magnitude of what had happened to me hit me in the face. I remember in order to get home from that three-month period at rehab, I remember the nurse saying, you’re gonna have to prove to us that you can have a shower by yourself. And I said, Okay, I’ll give it a go and I got out of my chair and I got undressed.
And they had this adjoining shower in Caulfield General Medical Center, which is built to house the returning war veterans I believe, way back when. And I wheeled myself into the bathroom, and I don’t know why, but someone thought it would be a good idea in a rehab ward to put a full-length mirror from the floor to the ceiling on the only entrance in the way to the shower. And I remember as I wheeled past, I stopped, and I sort of faced the mirror. And I got a glimpse of my myself in the mirror, this naked figure. My leg was gone. My grafting was both front and back of my left leg and half a foot. And I’m just looking at my body and my rib cage is showing. My eyes are sunken in. Half of my nose is taken away as well. And I’m just looking at myself thinking, how on earth do you ever get back from something like this? Like you can’t? I could not really see a way. I guess that’s when I started to ask that question I mentioned before. I started to ask, Why me?
You know, I was thinking about the unfairness of the situation. And why did it have to happen to me? You look at the numbers of meningococcal, and in any given year, it affects one in a million people who get to the point where they lose limbs or die. That’s not the kind of lottery that you want to be winning, and I won it. And I remember thinking about that question a lot and looking at my reflection, I remember thinking that my hope and my optimism, because I’ve always been a really optimistic and upbeat kind of character, but it really, really took a hit right then and there.
I am like, wow, this is actually it. It dawned on me how real it was and the initial shock and denial of what had gone on soon turned into resisting my situation and wanting to go back to the way things were. So, I guess that question sort of followed me home. And it was all day, every day, kind of, you know, slip into this depressive state where I would not want to do anything. I’d literally be dragging my feet for lack of a better term, even though it is not an applicable one here, where every time I have to get up in the morning and go back to Caulfield, I’d cry and stuff on the way there.
I just think back on how incredibly hard that would have been for my parents. And how incredibly strong they would have to be. You know, not just them, but my sister and my brother as well, just trying to continually motivate and push me because they know that it was the best thing for me. And whilst I’d sort of lost an element of hope and optimism, I’m really pleased that I was just so fortunate and so lucky to have such an amazing support network with me, because for some people, that’s not the case, and it’s really, really challenging.
How do you get out of a rut like that? You mentioned your family. What did they do to help?
I speak professionally in schools and corporates, and one of the stories I tell was a real catalyst for that change and that shift in mindset. And sometimes when we’re in those situations and we all are, right? We get in those situations. We have
“why me?” moments every single day. It’s perfectly normal. It’s a natural human response. You know, even little things can tip you off or change your mood for the day.
You know, I love to get a coffee in the morning, and I get a half full, flat white with half a sugar, which I’m sure is a really annoying order for the barista and then often like, you’ll drive off and you have a sip and they forgot to put the sugar in. I have a
“why me?” moment right then. But the first thing you have to do in order to shift away from that is say,
“okay, look, it’s not the end of the world”.
Even though this did seem like the end of the world, I literally had to shift my focus into something else and start asking a better question. And the story that I share a lot actually happened, is where my dad on a sunny Sunday morning, he really wanted me to do something that I didn’t want to do. I had spent a long week at rehab. All I wanted to do was sit in front of the TV and relax because lying down in front of the TV was the position that I was in the least amount of pain, right?
Of course, I would not want to go somewhere because going somewhere means you have to get up, get in the wheelchair and go wheel out the front, get in the car, transfer, big hassle.
So, Dad pops his head in the room on a Sunday morning and he says,
“hey Mike, what are you up to?” He’s got this really cheeky grin on his face.
And I said,
“oh, not much, mate. I’m just going to sit here and watch telly.”
And he goes,
“well, it’s a lovely day outside. How about we go for a bit of a drive?”
My dad and I are incredibly close. He is my best mate. We spent many, many years growing up, lots of time on the golf course together. It was kind of our thing to do. And when he asked me what I’m doing I said,” No, I’m going to watch TV.”
And he says,
“why don’t we go for a bit of a drive?”
And I’m very reluctant.
I’m telling him all the things that I can’t do, and that
“why me” is circulating in my head. And he keeps pushing. He goes,
“Come on. We’ll go for a quick drive. 10 minutes, and then we’ll get you straight back to bed and you can relax for the rest of the day.”
So, I reluctantly agree. I get in the chair. Dad wheels me out the front. I get in the car and I put my seat back so I’m comfortable. I didn’t have an ass. Not that I’ve ever had one, but I feel like that got amputated as well. I get a lot of pain through my backside as well. And we’re driving. And I remember thinking,
“OK 10 minutes”.
And it gets to around the 10-minute mark and I turn to my dad and I say,
“okay. Enough is enough. 10 minutes. Let’s turn the car around. Go back home. I’m pretty sore mate”.
And he keeps on driving. He smirks at me and he goes,
He goes 10 more minutes, and he keeps on driving and I bit my tongue. We get further down the road 20 minutes and then 25 minutes. I’m thinking, you know, I’m doing mathematical sums. I’m thinking 25. That’s 50 minutes away from the bed. That’s a long time. And I’m thinking, how unfair, he’s not really considering me, what I’m dealing with here. It is just all about my dad and he keeps on driving and I said,
“Okay, enough is enough. Turn it around. We’re going straight back home. I’m really sore. I’m tired. I need to get back into bed, mate”.
And he keeps on. He goes
“five more minutes. I promise that we will turn around, we’ll get going” and I bit my tongue for a second time. And then we start getting down from my house and we’re like 45 minutes down the road. We’re on the Mornington Peninsula. I’m thinking, you know, I’m just furious at how unfair he’s being.
And then all of a sudden, he pulls the car into The Dunes, which is a golf course we spent lots of time playing at together. He parks the car. I look at him, I said,
“you know, what the hell are we doing here?”
And he goes,
“I just got to go up and take a quick piss Mike.”
I’m thinking all this way so he could take a wee, like, ridiculous. He parks the car, leaves me in the car and I’m steaming. And he disappears and 5, 6, 7 minutes pass. I’m thinking, you know, how long does it take to go to the toilet? Honestly? And then I see him coming back and he’s driving in a golf cart. He’s got that same look on his face. Parks it next to the car, and he’s got a grin from ear to ear. He opens the door and I remember just unleashing and letting him have it and telling him how unfair and how ridiculous.
“what are you doing with that?”
And he looks at me, you know? He just cops all this abuse for a moment and through all the abuse, he looks at me. He waits for me to finish, and then he says,
“hey, he goes, I get all that. But what about we go for a quick drive? We’ll go for a quick drive up the first fairway and we’ll turn the cart around, put you in the car, take you straight back home Mike.”
And I can tell that he’s not taking no for an answer. And he just keeps on pushing me. And really, I can’t run away at this point in time, you know, he’s probably gonna steal my leg or do something like that, knowing my dad, and he really wants me to do it, and I really don’t want to do it. And again, all the excuses to everything I can’t do start to come out of my mouth. You know, I’ve only just learned to stand on this leg. I’ve only just learned to transfer from a wheelchair to a car from a car to a wheelchair. You’ve got no idea how much pain I’m in mate. I can’t believe how unfair you’re being like, I want to go home.
And as I said, it just washed over him. So eventually he convinces me I get in the cart, he helps me into the cart. And as we drive up the first fairway of The Dunes golf course, I’m looking around. I’m thinking to myself, wow, like I got to admit all the pain kind of disappeared. I’m smelling the fresh cut grass and the sun on my face and, you know, away from that awful sterile hospital environment that I was stuck in for so long and it was really nice to be out there and then all of a sudden, he stops the car in the middle of the fairway.
I’m thinking what now? And he looks at me and he’s a cheeky bugger. He’s snuck a 7 iron into the cart and pulls a golf ball out of his pocket and he says to me,
“Hey, Mike, how about you have a hit?”
And I look at him and I said,
“Dad, now you completely lost it. There’s no way I can hit a golf ball down the fairway. I know you want me to. I’ve only learned to stand on this leg. I’ve got this stupid little booty on my left side. I’m too unbalanced. I’m too sore. I’m tired. I need you to take me home right now.”
He looks at me very calmly and he says,
“it’s OK I’ve got an idea. I’ll hold you up by your hips. Why don’t you have one swing? If you fail, no big deal.”
So, my dad helps me out of the car and promises to hold me by my hips. He’s got me up. I get as balanced as I could. I dropped the ball on the fairway and then I swing back with the golf club and as I came through, I made the most beautiful contact with the golf ball. Flush this thing right in the middle. It’s gone like 140 m down the middle of the fairway like I absolutely flushed it and Dad is so excited.
He started clapping and he’s completely forgot to hold me, and I fell flat on my face on the fairway and he’s dancing around like a cat on a hot tin roof, thinking he’d hurt me and everything like this. And I’m so sorry, you know.
But the excitement got the better of him. And then I rolled over, and we sort of both burst into laughter. I hadn’t hurt myself and it was a really, really special moment that I share with my dad. But it was also a moment of realization and a shift away from the
“why me” mindset because I guess thanks to the help and the encouragement, and I guess the stubbornness of someone to push me even when I didn’t want to be pushed, he helped me to realize something that day. I realized that if I’ve got any chance of living a happy, healthy life through sudden change and adversarial circumstance I needed to stop telling myself all the things that I couldn’t do and start focusing on some of the things that maybe I could.
And that was a really powerful moment and a shift away from a
“why me” mindset and into a better mindset where we move away from that resistance to change and we move into an exploratory phase, which is more around exploring our new normal.
You know, we’ve heard that a lot through this pandemic everyone’s talking about. I can’t wait to things to go back to normal. Unfortunately, that’s probably never going to happen, and it won’t happen. So how can we explore ways to make what is currently the normal or the new normal we’re working towards? How can we use that to our advantage and leverage so that we can be better and more positive in the future? And that’s what I guess my mindset mentality was from that day forward, it was,
“okay. What’s next?
I can focus on all the things I can’t do. I can’t play footy. I can’t hang out with my mates. That’s never going to be the same. Or I can start saying well are some things that I can do, like golf, still a sporting outlet and do it to the best of my ability?
And since then, I’ve taken golf really seriously, and it’s been a really, really big part not just of my life but as a way of managing my mental health too. I love nothing more than going to the golf course, turning my phone off and just being out there for four or five hours with people enjoying an activity that I absolutely love. And you know what, some people hate golf, it’s boring and everything. That’s fine. But we’ve all got something that we do that recharges us, and for me, that’s what that became.
What’s your handicap at the moment?
I think it’s 5.3 or 5.4 at the moment.
Yeah, not too bad at all, although you’re in Victoria so you would have had a year off too. No-one is allowed on the golf course.
It was quite a battle, but then again, we have a bit of a ”why me?” moment then we realize that there’s people that are losing their jobs or losing loved ones. And you’ve got people, not to mention any names, but high profile people complaining about golf 24 7. It’s like get a grip mate. The good thing about being in Melbourne is who likes to play in the middle of winter anyway?
Yeah, it’s been good and look, you know, like I said you’ve got to get a bit of perspective. We’re very fortunate to live in an amazing city. And if being stuck indoors for six months is what we have to do, that’s what we have to do.
Now Mike, there’s one thing I did want to touch on, and that is so now you’ve got a disability. OK, your legs are amputated. Did people start treating you differently? I don’t mean your family. I mean, just the general public. Did they start treating you differently? And then what did you tell them about your disability?
Yes. It’s an interesting one. I definitely think there was, you know, everyone handles things differently. So, I had some friends that maybe didn’t handle, you know, the magnitude and the gravity of the situation so well. And I had others that I wasn’t so close with that were really great and stepped up. That’s not saying anything negative about the people that didn’t. It was a lot to handle. And to be honest with you, I pushed everyone away, and it had to be family first in those early days.
But I think I gravitate naturally towards people that don’t treat me differently. And they don’t give me any special treatment or fall over themselves to help me or assume that I need help or assume that my life is tough and I’m always sad. And these sorts of things. I tend to gravitate towards people that just treat me that I’m just Mike and I just happen to have legs that I clip on in the morning. That’s really the only difference. And the word, you know, disability is something that comes up a lot. I don’t necessarily live and breathe disability. I understand I have one. And I’m aware that society gives me that label. But I find if I focus on that fact all day and it becomes my world, and that’s not necessarily going to be a helpful mindset to be in. So I just kind of get on with things.
Of course, it’s going to cause complications. I’m going to get soreness and not be able to walk well sometimes. I might end up on crutches and it’s going to create complications. But they say where focus goes energy flows. They say that all the time. And that’s so true. Like if I focused on just getting on with things and managing the things that I have to deal with, then I think I can live in far better life.
But in terms to answer your question do people treat me differently. Sure, of course they do. It’s normal, and it’s often comes from a place of innocence. I don’t think it’s a malicious thing. Some people are very curious, and they might ask questions that can be taken the wrong way. But I think it’s important to understand if they’re asking questions that’s a great thing because they’re starting dialogue with people, and I think it comes from a good place. I’ve never had a situation where someone’s like,
“hey Mike, can you put some bloody pants I made that’s offensive to look at?” You know, that’s not a situation I’ve ever had and I don’t think I ever would have. You know, I think people are generally good. You know, I believe that. I don’t think there’s people that go out of the way too upset or offend.
Absolutely. And Mike, as you know, this podcast is called Grow Bold with Disability, and we always like to ask our guests this final question. What does living a bold life mean to you?
That’s a great question. I think I’m actually in a situation like that at the moment, I think, pushing yourself through uncomfortable scenarios, I think that the easy option is and I’m not obviously talking to a point like don’t push yourself into a burnout or something like that. But obviously the tendency when we are faced with challenges is to shy away or to walk the other way. And I think you know, there are times when that’s the easy option for me. I think that growing bold to me would be to continually test yourself and continually challenge yourself.
Because when we get used to that uncertainty, whilst it’s not pleasant at the time when we are experiencing it, it’s those times where we get the most learning, and we get the most value and the most character building. So that would be my advice was, you know, if you are challenged, lean into it and embrace the challenge as opposed to shying away from it.
Fantastic. Really well said. Mike, thanks so much for joining us here today on our Grow Bold with Disability podcast, which is brought to you by Feros Care. And our listeners can find out more about Mike, and the book too
“Ditching the Dead Weight”. You can also hit up Mike’s website www.mikerolls.com.au. And there will be links provided in today’s episode show notes. Mate, that was very inspirational today. Thanks so much for joining us.
Pleasure. Thanks, guys. Appreciate it.
This podcast is brought to you by Feros Care, an NDIS partner delivering local area coordination services in Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. Feros Care is a people care organization committed to helping people live bolder lives. We call it Growing Bold. For over 30 years, Feros has been making it real for both older Australians and those living with disability. To find out more head to www.feroscare.com.au
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