Defying the Odds
Rochelle Fraser speaks to a mother who was told she'd never be able to help her son experience a full life.
Rochelle FraserMar 20, 2023, 12:39 AM
In May 1997, Cheryl Koenig’s life changed forever when she was told by hospital staff that her son Jonathan (then aged 12) would not survive after sustaining a severe brain injury from being hit by a car. Since the incident, Koenig has written three books, but it was Paper Cranes, in which she details her journey with Jonathan and her family after the accident, that gained her recognition. She is also in much demand as a public speaker.
Koenig was named NSW Woman of the Year in 2009, courtesy of information secretly passed on by her other son, Chris. The award acknowledged the voluntary and fundraising work she had contributed to the community, as well as the amazing mother and carer she had been. “Ms Koenig’s devotion to the cause of brain injury awareness is one of the finest examples of selfless citizenship I have ever seen,” said Verity Firth, the then NSW Minister for Women.
Reading Paper Cranes, I was struck by just how many obstacles the Koenig family had overcome. To be told that your son has “the worst brain injury” a medical professional has seen in 27 years, is likely to die, is unable to control his breathing and heart rate, and will lose the muscles used for hearing, seeing, walking, eating and talking, is enough to make anyone give up.
I asked Koenig what kept her going. She responded that it was support from extended family and the hundreds of letters and prayers from the community.
“My own prayers too,” she says. “When you’re thrown into tragedy, sometimes all you’ve got left are prayers, that’s what I clung to early on."
“You find an inner strength. I think we all have it but don’t often realise it until thrown into adversity. That small voice that tells you to keep going and not give up. I had two voices, one was telling me to cry and fall apart and stay down. That would have been the easy thing to do. The other voice told me to be strong and that was the voice I chose to listen to. We all have a choice about which voice to listen to.”
A positive person, Koenig chose to ignore the negative prognosis for Jonathan and sought ways to help him. She takes this message to community groups everywhere, encouraging others to never give up, have hope and faith, and to think positively.
Saving lives and finding God
Koenig says that while she’s involved in various government committees, it’s the book that made her feel like she was making a difference. She has had many appreciative messages telling her of how her book has helped save marriages and even lives. Her readers even say that they find God throughout the book even though she hadn’t intentionally sought to do so when writing.
“To know you are making a difference to someone else’s life—that’s the greatest gift of all,” she says.
She feels that the incident has revealed her purpose in life: to speak to community groups, educating them and breaking down prejudices towards those with brain injury, and to communicate to others as a writer.
Although raised a Catholic, Koenig describes her family before the incident as not being overly religious and only occasional church attendees. She says that Jonathan was the one who always had a special relationship with God.
During the crisis however, she found herself talking to God more and asking for His help. Now, after it all, she says, “I have a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God.”
Koenig says that the worst thing during the crisis was being separated from Chris, who had to be looked after by friends and relatives while his parents stayed at Jonathan’s bedside.
It is not surprising therefore when Koenig says her proudest accomplishment is Chris, who she feels she wasn’t really there for, for over 10 years of his life. In Koenig’s words, “He is now a civil engineer and he’s done it all by himself. I think adversity helped sculpt him into the person he has become.”
Koenig is proud of her whole family, describing her husband, Robert, as “my rock” and Jonathan as “her best friend.”
One day at a time
Now in remission from cancer, Koenig says she wouldn’t have got through the experience without Robert who had to field all the phone calls at the time of her diagnosis and gave up work for a second time. Jonathan sat by her bedside, holding her hand, not wanting to leave her side.
As she tells of the painful side effects of radiation, Koenig still looks at the world from a “glass half-full” perspective. She says that compared to the difficulties that others face, she is doing really well.
Of Jonathan’s accident, she tells of how it brought them all closer together and made them stronger. “In a crisis, you’ve got to all work as a team and put your needs aside. . . . Families fracture when they are all pulling in different directions.”
With others telling her that the recovery she so badly wanted for Jonathan just wouldn’t happen, Koenig was resolute. She says, “[It] made me dig my heels in and say, ‘I’m going to prove you wrong.’ ”
She decided that she had to take one day at a time and hope that her family would be all right. Koenig consulted with medical professionals who had helped other brain-injured patients and eventually took Jonathan home.
She acknowledges that while it seemed to be more productive to put time and energy into healing physical symptoms, she decided on a more holistic perspective and to also include the spiritual. So as well as doing exercises at home, visiting the physiotherapist and the gym, Jonathan also went back to school for a few hours a week—he needed the social interaction.
Koenig says that the greatest act of compassion was for Jonathan to be accepted back into the school community and to be treated as he had been before the accident. She was assured that the school would try to meet whatever needs he had. Jonathan says that if he hadn’t gone back to school “the book would have had a different ending.” Jonathan learned to walk and talk again and recovered many of his abilities.
Life as a carer
Koenig admits that as a carer, she didn’t take good care of herself; carers often put themselves last on their priority list. So while she thought she was doing fine, the demands of 24-hour care took its toll on her health. She talks about how one in five homes in Australia has a carer in the household and how she feels that as a society, we need to give carers more help.
When I asked how we can help when others are going through crises, Koenig talks about how every family is a little different, with some wanting more privacy than others. But she also talked about how she often didn’t have time to talk on the phone but appreciated letters, cards, flowers or finding a meal left at her front door. Carers need time with others, to do the things they enjoy doing due to the intense demands on them.
A working man
Today, Jonathan has completed Year 12, a Certificate II in retail, a woodworking course, and a beginner’s course in Italian. He also volunteers part-time at his local video store and gym, works as a packer on a factory floor, learnt to ski and run and is learning to drive, and has been a representative on different NSW Government health advisory committees.
Koenig admits that it does hurt when others underestimate Jonathan or discriminate against him, but she also says that it doesn’t take long for them to be surprised by him. She points out that Jonathan’s great sense of humour helps him deal with such difficulties in life.
Jonathan’s employers at the factory have said that since he has come to work there, their rates of employee absences have been fewer and that the employees complain less about their own ailments due to seeing how Jonathan struggles to do things they take for granted.
Koenig says, “Enthusiasm is the essential ingredient that can drive us to reach what some may see as improbable dreams. When we adopt an optimistic and enthusiastic attitude, we can define our own quality of life or perhaps even alter a path that fate may indiscriminately have carved out for us.”
Koenig compares life to a game of cards and says that too often “we think we’ve been dealt a dud hand, but if you take the time and look at it, you’ll see the hand contains diamonds. . . . Hopefully, people can see that the hand they have is all they need. Sometimes people are looking for another hand instead of valuing what they have.”
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