Presenting Sam Bloom – Heartache & Birdsong

Flourish Australia hosted Lunch with Sam Bloom for International Women’s Day 2021 because we know the transformative power of sharing lived experience.

Sam Bloom’s story of resilience and hope, in the face unthinkable physical and mental challenges, inspired the international best-selling book and major motion picture, Penguin Bloom. Sharing her story at our virtual lunch on 10 March, for this year’s International Women’s Day #choosetochallenge, deeply touched everyone who joined the free webinar.

Many of us were brought to tears as Sam described the anguish she and her family experienced in the wake of a tragic, life altering accident, which left her physically and mentally broken. We smiled as she talked about her unlikely recovery companion; an injured magpie chick called Penguin, who ushered hope and laughter back into Sam’s family home.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but as I cared for Penguin, she cared for me. We were saving each other”

Sam spoke of “so much change in such a small amount of time,” that turned her family’s world upside down. “I felt like a failure as a woman, a mother and a wife,” Sam shared.

Something that resonated with many people watching, was Sam’s description of her doctor’s lack of empathy and compassion in bluntly delivering the soul destroying news that she would never walk again.

“It seemed unbearable to me, at the most vulnerable time in my life,” Sam said. “I was left without an ounce of hope to cling to.”

Sam revealed that she was living her worst nightmare. “I didn’t think I would survive it,” she said. Flourish Australia knows the importance of carers and family to a person’s recovery journey can never be underestimated and this is something Sam testified to. “I’m still here because of my kids and husband Cam, “ she said. “They made it their mission to make me happy”. Discussing the lengths that Cam went to, to get her out and about, Sam laughs about being strapped to a Bunnings trolley and wheeled about.

“When Sam was happy, we were all happy,” Cam explained. He would motivate Sam to get moving in the mornings for workouts with her personal trainer. “I would resist because it all seemed too hard, but always felt a million times better afterward,” Sam said. “I wouldn’t have found the motivation to try without Cam to push me.”

“There was a ripple effect to what I was going through, that impacted every member of my family and our friends.” Sam said. She acknowledged pushing away the people closest to her, who wanted to help, and encouraged anyone experiencing physical or mental health issues, to be willing to accept help. “It’s important to realise, it’s not a pity thing,” Sam said. “There are so many kind people in the world who genuinely just want to be supportive and while may feel embarrassed, you need their love.” 

In response to a lunch participant’s question about what carers can do their loved-one withdraws, Sam’s advice was to recognise that the person needs to process what they are feeling and experiencing, in their own time. “Just letting them know that you are there for them when they are ready, can make all the difference in the world,” Sam said.

For Sam, the turning point in her recovery came with finding someone she could identify with, and share the journey; “even if it is only a scruffy little injured bird like Penguin.”

Sam’s husband Cam captured their journey together beautifully, with intimate video footage and exquisite photography. Some of the highlights were shared during our webinar – including Penguin making herself right at home, eating cereal at the breakfast table or cuddling into bed with Sam’s boys, as though she were one of the family. 

“It’s the little wins and moments like these that make your life better and must be celebrated,” Cam explained. Together, Sam and Cam discussed how days are always going to seem bad when going through a traumatic life experience, unless you choose to do something about it. “You CAN control some aspects of your day,” they explained. “I wake every day in pain and can’t just jump out of bed and do what I want to do,” Sam says. “It’s vital for my mental wellbeing that I arrange to train, six days per week, so that have something to get out of bed for, and those few hours of activity and having a laugh with someone, set up the rest of my day to be better.”

Animals can be wonderful recovery companions for anyone who feels isolated. “I talked to Penguin all the time about everything that was going on in my mind.” Sam said.  “Putting my energy into caring for her stopped me thinking about myself all of the time.”

Sam explained, “When I saw other mums at the supermarket, I wanted to shy away because I felt I had nothing to share, but once Penguin came into my life, they asked about her which helped with my confidence and socialisation a lot.” Sam believes that reconnecting with people is what brings joy in tough times. “Some of the complete strangers who reached out to me have become my closest friends.”

People from all walks of life have reached out to Sam since sharing her story through her book and feature film, Penguin Bloom. “Many thank me, because it’s easy to feel painfully isolated in your suffering, until you connect with others who have been there.” It’s for this reason that Flourish Australia place a high value on lived experience and continue to build Australia’s largest Peer Workforce.

“When you find someone who has walked in your shoes and really gets what you’re going through, that understanding between you is a tremendous support,” Sam said. “I’ve connected with a man in Melbourne who struggles as I do and we support one another through our bad days.”

Reconnecting with her love of sports played an equally important role in Sam’s goal setting and mental health recovery. “My happy place has always been my own company, out on the ocean, surfing or kayaking,” Sam said. “When I surfed again for the first time since my accident, I recall being pain free and loved feeling just like everybody else again. It seemed like a lot of my problems disappeared while I wasn’t confined to a wheelchair, surrounded by people all the time.”

Sam went on to do far more than surf for pleasure. She found a renewed sense of purpose and strength in taking up competitive paracanoeing, eventually placing 13th in the world and winning two Australian titles, before representing her country at the 2015 World Championships in Italy.

“I always felt that Penguin had a remarkable sense of timing and around the same time as I spread my wings to travel to Italy, she returned to the wild for good.”

Sam also went on to compete for Australia in Para Surfing, winning World Titles in 2018 and 2020.

The Penguin Bloom movie came to be when Sam and Cam sent the book they’d written about their journey, to a friend in LA, who took it to Naomi Watts. “Naomi read it to her kids who loved it and she resonated with it as a mum,” Sam said. Sam and Cam did some of the screen writing and the movie was filmed in their home, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. “Naomi was wonderful and invited me on set often, to authenticate the way she was portraying my lived experience.” Sam said.

“These days I feel grateful to be here to see my sons mature into wonderful men,” she says. “They’ve grown through being exposed to so much on our journey together. Walking through this with their mum has given them empathy. They understand that you never know what’s going on in another person’s life.”

In addition to her remarkable sporting achievements, Sam has become a passionate ambassador for Spinal Cord research. “I’m mindful that I had done everything I had ever said I wanted to do, by the time I had my accident at the age of 41,” Sam says. “It breaks my heart to see young kids, whose lives are just beginning, go through something like this.” Some of the royalties from sales of Sam’s book are donated to a global quest for a cure for Spinal Cord injury. Sam is adamant that she will walk again and says that clinical trials in Sydney appear very promising.

In response to a viewer question about how carers can support someone experiencing physical or mental health issues, when they withdraw, Sam’s advice was; “Simply letting them know that you are there for them when they are ready to reach out, can make a world of difference. Respect that they may need to take space to process their thoughts and feelings, in their own time, and try to be patient.”

“What my journey has taught me is that we are a lot stronger than we think we are,” Sam says. “I am living my worst nightmare and once thought I would never survive, but I have and I’m here to tell the story.” Not only did Sam find the strength to continue to live her life with hope, she has gone on to become a World champion, doing what she loves most.

Sam’s story has been a wonderful inspiration for our celebration of International Women’s Day, which introduced the theme #choosetochallenge. Just as Flourish Australia encourages the people we support to do, Sam chose to challenge not only stigma and significant physical and mental health issues, but her own limited beliefs about what was possible for her life.

Thank you for joining us for Lunch with Sam Bloom and for the many questions you asked about her experience. We hope you found the whole experience as rewarding as we did!

Watch event video here

Feeling inspired by Sam's story? Support our Women & Children’s Program

Flourish Australia's Women and Children’s Program provides a sanctuary of support and hope for mother’s experiencing mental health issues who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and have children in their care. We take these women by the hand, providing safe and secure accommodation with 24/7 support, mentoring and opportunities to develop better parenting and life skills, to prepare them for living independently in the community and ensure positive outcomes for their children.

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