Woman's struggle to come to terms with being a paraplegic after terrifying BOP crash

A terrifying road smash near Lake Rotomā in the Bay of Plenty last December left eight passengers seriously injured.

While most were able to walk away from the accident, mother-of-four Kaye Tai was told by doctors that she would never walk again.

"There's no other way of putting it, I cried. I was just a bit blank really. 

When he was saying the words to me I was staring right through him like 'are you for real?" says Tai.

Tai is a paraplegic, paralysed from her waist down. The 39-year-old's life changed in a split second on December 17, 2019, when she went for a day trip to Rotorua with seven workmates from Ōpōtiki Primary School as a pre-Christmas treat.

But Tai's excitement for that trip would turn to terror on the drive back home when a ute on the opposite side of the road was following another car which had to slow down because of heavy showers.

 The teenage driver panicked and pulled the handbrake, causing his vehicle to slide across the centre line and into the path of the van carrying Tai and her friends.

 "I just remember aunty piping up in the front asking 'what's happening?' and then bang!" says Tai tearfully.

Ōpōtiki Primary School principal Tony Howe says one staff member permanently lost the use of her left, while another broke her arm and collarbone.

"Nine months later they're still haven't fully recovered," he told The Hui.

 "The staff here, that were injured, they accepted that it was unfortunate - and in Kaye's case really unfortunate accident - that is going to affect her for the rest of her life. The impact on the staff and community was huge. 

"All the people were locals, all were well-known. The staff here organised a karakia at school and 500-600 people turned up," Howe adds.

Meanwhile, Tai was receiving treatment at several hospitals around the country, away from her partner Manu and their four children.

"I cried nearly every night in that hospital, every damn night," Tai says.

As she struggled to come to terms with her disability, the driver who had no previous convictions - was charged with eight counts of careless driving causing injury.  

"I felt so much anger.  It's not good to feel so much anger," Tai adds.

She was battling with her emotions and also her situation as a paraplegic.

While ramps have been added to her home, getting around her house in her wheelchair is a challenge. Tai is now completely reliant on others.

ACC provides 80 hours of caregiving assistance per week, but beyond that, it's her whānau that she relies on.

"The older two have had to step up, they've had to step up to mummy role pretty much and daddy role with Manu being unwell at the time also," says Tai.

With her partner Manu's own health issues, Tai has been the whānau's main breadwinner, but since the accident, with no job, money pressures have added to her stress.  

"Financially, yes it's a struggle. I've got a mortgage and have four children to feed."

But what makes Tai's story remarkable is the Aroha she's shown to the teenager who caused the crash.

She and the other passengers did not want a punishment that would affect the rest of the driver's life and chose a restorative justice hui.

It was at that meeting in September, when she heard the 19-year-old's heartfelt apology, that Tai suddenly had a change of heart.

"Honest I went in there really angry to that restorative hui, really angry. I couldn't even look at him, but I managed to hug him and just held him like he was one of my own. 

"For a young fellow to stand there and man up and own his wrongs, that was just amazing to me.

"He's the same age as one of my babies, he's only young and still starting out in life. Yes, I'm in a chair now but hey, I'm still here, and I'm still with my babies, Tai says.

"I've been to many restorative huis, but that would probably be the most emotional one I've ever been to, it was very emotive," adds Tony Howe.

Kaye Tai.
Kaye Tai. Photo credit: The Hui

 All eight crash victims also refused the $1000 the driver offered to pay everyone. Tai wishes him well and has some advice for all young people who get behind the wheel.

"Appreciate the life you have, be responsible on the roads and drive to the conditions, that's all I can really say".

Deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha has been a staunch advocate for restorative hui and iwi justice panels and believes these alternative approaches can help to address the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system.

Haumaha. Photo credit: The Hui

"Some people might turn around and say 'this is the Police going soft', no it isn't. This is the way of the future, this is where we can be part of changing the pathway in a young person's life," says Haumaha.

"The restoration of that person's mana at 19 years of age, or any young person doesn't have that long-lasting effect for the rest of their life so that they as I say end up in the system,  become a product of the system forever," he says.

Tai's Ōpōtiki community have given her the strength she needs as she grapples with the challenges that lie ahead.

"I love my home town, I wouldn't trade it in for nothing. I don't cry as much anymore, a lot of the time when I do cry it's happy tears now, not sad, angry because I'm home," she says.

The Hui