Seizing Life Single-handed
Hayley Gale – Nelson Mail, New Zealand. November 2006.
Golden Bay guitarist and songwriter Tina Bridgman has made a remarkable comeback after losing her hand in a car crash two years ago.
She talks to Hayley Gale.
When contemporary folk singer, Tina Bridgman lost her left hand in a car crash in 2004, her greatest fear was that she would never be able to play the guitar again.
As a professional musician in the U.K. for more than 15 years, that loss was almost impossible to bear.
Yet two years on from that terrible accident, Tina feels she has a new strength that has transformed her life, in which music still plays an integral part.
Her rehabilitation now complete, she has taught herself to play the guitar with one hand and, remarkably, now looks upon her loss as “a gift”.
“I feel incredibly fortunate and I want to share the relationship with music that I have developed. It does not matter what happens to you. It’s how you deal with what happens to you that really counts and makes the difference.”
A singer-songwriter, Tina is recording her third album ‘In the Company of You’, which she recently tested on the local Golden Bay community at Onekaka’s Mussel Inn. The songs are very personal and one of them, Whispering Angel, tells of a spiritual experience she believes saved her life at the time of the car crash.
She will never forget the icy morning of July 12th, 2004. She had started a new job at Living Light Candles, just one month after arriving in Golden Bay. While on her way to work that morning, in the front passenger seat of a car being driven by a colleague, the vehicle skidded on ice, struck a tree and turned upside down in a ditch.
“As the car started skidding, I heard the words ‘This is it. Go limp’. It was as if someone was shouting in the back of the car at me.
“I was sandwiched in a tiny space, upside down, between the top of the front seat and the roof. I had an out-of-body experience where I was looking down on myself, thinking ‘What are you going to do now?’
“Had I not gone limp and put my head to the side, it would have been my head and not my arm that was crushed and I wouldn’t be sitting here now.”
While the car-driver escaped with minor injuries, Tina was airlifted to Wellington Hospital. She remembers the pain being not in her arm but in her collar bone, which had also broken in the impact.
“I recall saying to the surgeon in Wellington: ‘I am a guitarist. You can’t take my hand away’. ‘We have to take what’s already dead,’ was the reply.
“It was a shock to the body on every level. Before the accident I’d been a massage therapist, a second-chef and had worked on an organic farm as well as being a guitarist and performer. All those skills involved my hands and in one swoop they were all gone.”
The following day Tina had a strong desire to see and “say goodbye” to the hand she had lost.
It was presented to her in a cardboard box.
“I touched it and it was ice cold and dead. I noticed the hard callouses on the fingers caused from playing guitar.
“I put a rose on it and said goodbye. A huge wave of grief came over me and I just howled and let it out. That was the moment of letting go and the most poignant point in the whole process.”
Tina spent the next few days and weeks living “one day at a time” without considering the long term.
Get-well cards, gifts and letters from friends all around the world flooded in.
“The love I received from so many made a huge difference to my physical healing,” she says.
Once out of hospital Tina underwent a rehabilitation programme which included physiotherapy, occupational therapy and counselling for several months.
Phantom pains in her missing hands, a common condition among amputees, went on for several weeks.
Strong painkillers controlled the problem but Tina was determined to avoid their prolonged use.
She visited Golden Bay homeopath Meryll Talbot and within two weeks the phantom pains had disappeared. “It felt wonderful to be pain-free.”
“I had to keep telling myself to be patient with how I did things, but it’s amazing how the human body adapts so quickly. I had to stop and think about everything I did and learn to find a new way.
“I’ve now got to the point where I feel there is not much that I can’t do – even playing my guitar.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way – and if you truly want to do something, you can.”
Medical staff recommended she try a prosthesis but when she was given one from the Artificial Limb Centre in Christchurch she was not impressed.
“By then I’d already been without my hand for over two months and what they gave me was quite primitive.”
The artificial limb was meant to be used to grasp things but the primitive harness over her shoulder made it very difficult.
“It was microlight apparently, but the huge grasping effect of it made me keep dropping things. They said it would take time but in fact it rendered both hands useless.”
Tina cannot believe that so few resources are put into developing more efficient prosthetics in today’s technological age.
She tried out the new harness for a while, but she found she was better off without it.
Later, she was given a cosmetic hand but decided she preferred to be without that, too.
“It was meant to stop my sleeve flapping in the wind but I’ve seen more technology in a doll’s shop.
“I could see people looking and they weren’t sure if it was real or not.
“I felt I was trying to hide and cover something up to make me look normal.”
Initially, she wore ponchos to cover her arm but has now come to terms with her loss and feels no need to hide.
“I feel that going about like I really am makes me accept it.”
Working in the Golden Bay Information Centre two days a week, she is used to children’s open stares.
“Sometimes they ask me directly what happened and I tell them. I’m totally open with it.”
As she settled back into life in Golden Bay, she never lost interest in writing songs and expressing herself through music.
She also offers one-to-one guitar tuition, vocal coaching and voice workshops.
For 15 years before her accident she had been a member of two contemporary folk bands, in the early years as the guitarist and song-writer of a thirteen-piece “high-energy” dance band which played at England’s Glastonbury Festival alongside Billy Bragg.
“That was an amazing experience, looking at a sea of up to 4,000 people and seeing them raise their hands and clapping. The sound was huge.”
Tina later toured Europe with six-piece folk band Seize the Day before recording the album Hearth with two other musicians, Matt Tweed and Richard Osborne.
A second Hearth album, called Deep Sun Inside, was released in May 2002. With Hearth, she performed at Glastonbury Festival again as well as at folk festivals in Cambridge and Jersey.
Although happy in England, she had fond memories of a holiday in New Zealand 15 years before and longed to return.
Tina returned in November 2002 and lived in Christchurch for a year before coming to Golden Bay in June 2004. Like many others, she was attracted to the slower pace of life.
“I wanted to get back to basics and lived the life I was singing about. In England I felt I was on a treadmill and it was difficult to slow down.”
It was only one month after arriving in Golden Bay that the accident occurred, yet she has no regrets.
“I would not turn the clock back because of all the things I have learned about myself since,” she says.
Before practising the guitar, Tina experimented with a whole range of instruments, including harp and a medieval triangular instrument known as a bowed psaltery.
Having previously relied on the guitar, she now concentrated more on developing her voice.
“Having been to so many voice workshops and groups over the years I’ve now developed my own style.”
When she realised she could still play the guitar, albeit without a chord base, by making fuller use of plucking styles and experimenting more with dynamics, she started to write songs on the instrument.
Golden Bay provided the inspiration for the songs on Tina’s new solo album, which is being recorded by Sam Hopley in Golden Bay.
“It celebrates life, nature and the seasons, including the seasons we experience on an internal level.
“I can’t stop the music. That is the gift of my accident. It has opened me up to learning how to express myself through music in a completely different way. I really want to thank everyone who has supported me – they have all played an integral part in making me feel blessed with life.”