whelan website
“Every single time I woke up, the first thing I did when I opened my eyes was wriggle my toes to make sure I could still move.”
For the best part of 11 weeks, this was how Detective Senior Constable Matt Whelan started his day.
“I was really paranoid that something would happen and I would lose feeling in my feet again.”
The last time he lost feeling in his feet was when he dived into the Swan River at Deep Water Point in January 2017.
He was enjoying a day out on his friend's new boat with his wife and parents-in-law, who were visiting from the UK. The group travelled from Deep Water Point, stopping off at the Narrows Bridge, East Perth and Bayswater before turning around.
Once back at Deep Water Point, they were going to land on the riverbank so, Matt decided to help out.
He dived into the black waters without an inkling they were only less than a metre deep.
“I remember diving in and hitting my head, I remember banging my head,” Matt said.
“I remember opening my eyes and I was under water. I could see the sun coming through the water at me and I tried to skull my arms but my arms would not move.
“I thought: ‘this is bad’.
“My wife tells me she thought it was a bad thing and looked over the side and waited for me but I didn’t come up. I still didn’t come up. She got worried and looked over the side and saw me floating in the water.
“There was a burning fire, a tingle all over my body and arms like the worst pins and needles ever. I couldn’t feel my arms, I couldn’t move them. I remember saying: ‘I can’t move’ and at that point, I stood up in the water and the wife said: ‘you can because you are standing up.’
“She jumped into the water and she was wearing shorts and her shorts did not get wet because it was that shallow.”
Matt’s wife, Fran, and his friend, who are both police officers, helped him out of the water and onto the riverbank. He had a headache and potentially a concussion. People were telling him to stay still but Matt was moving around in agony while the ambulance came to take him to hospital.
“I was lying on the side of the river trying to stay still but I couldn’t. I remember moving my head and I could hear a grind.
“The ambulance officers put me on a gurney and we went across this stormwater grill and that was the worst feeling ever, the pain of just that small vibration was terrible.”
At hospital, it was revealed that Matt had broken his neck in three places. His C1 was fractured in five places while his C5 and C7 were crushed with some fragments broken off.
For three days Matt was immobilised while doctors decided how to repair his neck.
Doctors elected to repair Matt's neck through immobilisation.
He was fitted with a halo and a body brace before being discharged from hospital. He would spend the next 10 and a half weeks confined in these devices to fix his shattered neck.
“You think you can move but you can’t. Every Friday I had to go to hospital and they would tighten bolts again,” Matt told Police News.
“It is like having your head in a vice and they are ramping the pressure right up again.”
The former butcher from Luton, 50km north of London, had taken up triathlons in 2014 after he made a decision to get fit.
“Being a butcher, I just ate lots of meat, pretty badly, worked stupid hours and drunk beer after work,” Matt said.
“So the first time I got anywhere near getting fit was joining the academy, going through and training well there. Then you come out and you get sucked into shift work, midnight Macca’s and I went country.”
Matt spent four and a half years in Kalgoorlie however, he struggled to live a healthy lifestyle.
“I just got to the point where I had a foot chase. Someone escaped custody out of an interview room and we chased them up the street and I ended up getting into a fight with him. I was so gassed that I couldn’t properly defend myself and at that moment I resolved to be fit.
“I lost over 30kg and it was just a lifestyle change in that eating well and being healthy just became the way things were.”
An injury to his knee while running led to the suggestion from his doctor to try bike riding and swimming to take the pressure off his knee. Within two weeks, Matt was doing his first triathlon and he had caught the bug.
Over the next three years, Matt competed in six half-ironman triathlons which consist of a 1.9km swim, 90km bike ride and 21km run. At the time of his accident, he was preparing for the Busselton half-ironman with the goal to qualify for the world championships in his age group.
He was heavily involved with the Fremantle Triathlon Club so, the time confined to the halo brace was a challenge.
“The worst thing was every weekend seeing people go online, on Facebook or strava and posting what they were doing,” he said.
“During that time everyone was ramping up towards the ironman in Busselton. Everyone’s training is getting big and everyone is doing long distances and there’s lots of sessions.
“For me, I had to work out that the halo was a period of training but mental training and try and get through that time in my head without doing anything.”
Matt ultimately got out of the halo and after another 12 weeks of rehabilitation, he got straight back into training and completed a half-ironman before the end of 2017.
“I did it just to prove something to myself and it was a bit stupid because it was too much for my body, too soon,” he said.
“The year after, I did an ultra-marathon which was again too soon and it took me a long time to recover.
“Now that I am three years post-accident, I am sort of getting back into an area where my volume training is going ok and I am not too bad from it. I also know that my body can’t take it like it used to. Whether that is me getting old or the injury or a bit of both, I don’t know.”
Due to the movement restrictions in his neck, Matt has given up swimming and is now focused on duathlons (bike and run). However, he is thankful for his fitness as without it he could have been in a far worse position.
“If I was fatter, if I was not as fit, I think I’d be dead. If I am honest, I’d be dead. I definitely think my fitness helped save my life.
“They [doctors] didn’t tell me how close it was, I am just really lucky. I like to dwell on how lucky I am and appreciate what I can do now compared to how things could have been and try and make the most of the opportunity.”
Throughout Matt’s recovery he was supported by not only the WA Police Force and his unit, Organised Crime Squad, but Jason Barnes.
Jason is a Detective Sergeant and is also a ride ambassador for Ride Alongside. He supported Matt throughout his recovery and has been instrumental in encouraging Matt to take part in this year’s Ride Alongside in May.
Ride Alongside is a five-day, 580km cycling event from York to Hyden to Collie to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and other mental health conditions experienced by emergency services sustained in the line of duty.
2020 marks the third ride and the WA Police Union is proud to be the premium sponsor which included complementary entry for one rider, a place that Matt will fill after being nominated by Jason.
Jason said he nominated Matt because he was a true testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
“I’m sure Matt would have gone through a myriad of emotions after that fateful day, and even after the physical effects subside, the mental scars would continue to remain long after the event,” Jason said.
“This is very similar to many first responders who are not only exposed to traumatic events that occur during their work, but are also just as susceptible to life’s hardships outside of work.
“It’s an ongoing battle however, with the support from friends, family and work colleagues, people just like Matt can get back to a point where they can maintain a healthy lifestyle.”
Jason said 16 riders, mostly police officers, will take part in this year’s ride.
“The goal of Ride Alongside is to bring people together, foster a culture of mental health awareness within emergency services and defence personnel and the wider community,” he said.
“Riders will illustrate through their own experiences the benefits of good mental health and how it is okay to seek help with personal struggles.”
Matt said he was looking forward to the challenge of completing the five-day event.
“Most of the days are 100km plus. I’ve never ridden more than a 100km so that’s a new challenge,” he said.
“Three hours on the bike is usually enough for me. I find that I start switching off, I get bored and I just don’t enjoy it anymore. So to ride five, six hours in the saddle that is going to be a challenge.
“I’m really looking forward to raising awareness for Ride Alongside and Sirens of Silence and being part of it to try and raise that profile and if I can challenge myself while doing it I think it is a good thing.
“Financially, I couldn’t take part in the ride without the Union, so I thank them.”
By Steven Glover