Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Real-Life Story Behind Penguin Bloom: How Are You Today, Sam Bloom?

In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check out previous chats with people like Hayley HoltRoseanne Liang and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Today we chat to Sam Bloom.

Eight years ago Sam Bloom’s life was forever changed when an accident left her paralysed from the chest down. Her new reality was devastating to accept, but as she started to slip into the depths of despair, hope turned up in the most unlikely of forms. Her family’s unique and beautiful story is now the subject of Penguin Bloom, a film that’s already earning rave reviews, starring Naomi Watts.

But before that fateful accident, Sam Bloom was an active, energetic mother to three boys and lived life to its fullest. She surfed, ran around after her sons, and travelled to far flung corners of the earth, fulfilling her love of intrepid travel. She and husband Cam spent years travelling, returning to Africa five times. It was there, Ethiopia – their favourite spot, that they intended to take their sons for the family’s first real international holiday together – with a stop beforehand in Egypt. But unrest in Egypt made them rethink their plans, and they decided a trip to Thailand would be safer, travelling with children.

It was in Thailand that Sam took in a beautiful sunset one evening, leaning back on a handrail to take it all in. Unfortunately, the family would later learn that the steel pole Sam leaned against, was bolted into a timber post that was riddled with dry rot. The barrier collapsed beneath her and Sam toppled three stories, to the concrete below.

Her injuries were devastating. Her skull was fractured in several places, her brain badly bruised and bleeding. Both lungs had ruptured, with one collapsing after completely filling with blood. Every organ in her body had been battered, and her spine was shattered at T6 and T7 – just below her shoulder blades.

Once they were back home in Sydney, a specialist delivered the news that Sam would never walk again.

It was a prognosis that seemed impossible for the former nurse to fathom or accept. After spending months in hospital she arrived home and truly began mourning her former life.

It was crushing and her mind wandered to some very dark places. That is, until one day while visiting her mother, her son found a baby magpie who had blown out of his nest and injured his wing in the fall from a towering Norfolk pine. Knowing she couldn’t possibly survive if she stayed where she was, Sam and Cam agreed the family must take home the little fluffball the children named Penguin (due to his black and white plumage).

There, as Sam nursed the little bird to good health, she felt her own spirit healing. Penguin became very much a part of the family, her every move caught on film by Cam, a professional photographer. Cam later produced a book, Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird Who Saved a Family, and Sam has written her own book: Heartache & Birdsong. And now, their story has been turned into a film, Penguin Bloom.

Penguin became the 5th member of the Bloom family, and a little sister to the three boys.

On the eve of Penguin Bloom’s release in cinemas, we spoke to Sam Bloom herself…

How are you today, Sam?
I’m okay today! I’m okay today because we’re busy. And I like being busy because then you don’t focus on, well… you’re not bored, put it that way! I find boredom a bit of a killer, because it tends to make me focus on all of the negative.

You’re talking to me from Sydney, right? How are things going there?
Yes! We live on the Northern Beaches in Sydney and we recently came out of lockdown, after about three weeks. The suburb up from where we live was at the centre of the Covid cases, so we were all in lockdown! But I mean, honestly, we can’t complain. We’re still allowed to go to the beach! How are you guys going?

I’m touching wood right now, because we are currently going well and can move about NZ pretty freely! Which means, we’re pretty lucky really, because we can still go to the movies! I felt very lucky to see your film – and I honestly bloody loved it. It’s incredibly beautiful.
Aw, thank you. Hey, how good is Rachel House in it though?!

She’s sensational. And hilarious. And god we love seeing a Kiwi on the big screen! But tell me, what was the experience like for you watching it? I mean, it’s such a personal story that you’ve shared. How did that feel for you seeing that up on the big screen?
It’s pretty surreal. It’s bizarre – I always say to Cam, like, “How weird is it that there is film about us!?!” We’re just a normal family! But it was pretty confronting watching some of the things in it. I don’t like crying in front of people.

There were a few scenes that I watched being filmed – I wasn’t in the room where Naomi was actually acting, but you have the monitor in the other room. And so you’re watching yourself really. I would sit there and try to distract myself. I must have looked like a weirdo because I kept fiddling with my fingers, so I wasn’t focusing on this really sad thing in front of me. Naomi was absolutely incredible in it.

Oh, Naomi did an amazing job. It’s an amazing cast. Are you a Love, Actually fan? I imagine it would have been quite different watching it last Christmas now that Andrew Lincoln has played your husband!
[Laughs] YES! Oh my God I’ve seen Love, Actually about a thousand times! It’s so funny, because when Bruna [the film’s producer – of Big Little Lies fame] said, “Oh, we found a Cam!” and then she told us it was Andrew Lincoln, we both had blank looks. But when she explained who he was by saying about Love, Actually, I was like, Oh. My. God.

He’s an awesome guy in real life too – how he comes across in the film is exactly how he is in real life. He’s so nice, really down to earth and just a lovely guy. Everyone was like that though – Naomi is super down to earth, Rachel – the whole cast. They were so lovely and made me feel super welcome – they weren’t at all intimidating.

Andrew Lincoln in the film Penguin Bloom – yes, the same guy who plays Mark in Love, Actually. Yep, Peter’s best friend who turns up at Juliet’s house pretending to be a carol singer, but instead professes his love for her in a series of large handwritten cards he wordlessly flicks over.

That’s amazing. And they did a wonderful job. But tell me, what was it like having this award-winning, internationally famous beauty – Naomi Watts, playing you on the big screen.
Su-rreeeeal. But for me, Naomi captured the essence of how I was feeling, you know, she was angry, she was frustrated, she was obviously sad, and guilty – feeling guilty about not being a mum, not being the same mum she used to be. But also happy.

I’m so thankful that she managed to portray all of that, because it was exactly how I felt. The poor thing, it was a lot of crying and being angry – she probably will need therapy after it!

I wondered if we could go back to Thailand for a moment or two if you don’t mind? Am I right in thinking you have no memory of the accident?
Yeah, none! My last memory is when we went swimming at the beach and thinking, ‘well, life doesn’t get much better than this’. I actually remember thinking exactly that.

But now I know what happened was that one of the kids spotted this staircase going up to the top of the roof. I don’t remember going up there or the fall.

My first memory is maybe two days after the accident. My mum and sister quickly flew over to Thailand and I remember seeing them and saying, “What are you guys doing here?” My other memory is when they wheeled me into theatre and I remember them pulling my t-shirt out and cutting it off, while they put a mask over my face and I drifted off.

Wow. That must have been quite terrifying. Is it the opposite for Cam? Does he have those memories burned into his brain?
Yeah, yeah I think he does. A couple of the boys saw my feet go over and then they all ran down. It’s really awful. I was actually talking to Cam about this just the other day – because it’s nearly been eight years. And so I said to him, y’know, what was it really like? And he explained what it was like, having Noah our son, standing next to him, silent with tears running down his face. Our eldest asked if I was going to die, and our youngest one vomited.

It’s so horrific that my kids had to see me like that – unconscious on the ground, not breathing and a lot of bleeding. I bit through my tongue and fractured my skull so there was a fair bit of blood. It must have been awful, and I feel quite guilty that they had to see that.

I can completely understand you feeling that way, despite the fact you must know it was all so completely beyond your control. And it sounds like your husband was incredible in that situation – looking after your children, but also doing everything he could to look after you.
Yeah, I know, it’s just so hard to shake that guilt! But yes, Cam’s an incredible guy and has been amazing right from the day the accident happened. I really don’t know how he’s done it – or how he still does it. He never gets angry. He never gets frustrated at me – even when I’m saying these incredibly negative things. He’s been incredible.

Someone said to me that when you have an accident, it has a ripple effect. It hasn’t just affected me, but obviously Cam, and my kids, my whole family and my friends. It’s hard – it’s huge.

To add another layer, what was it like being a former nurse in that situation – was it difficult being on the other side?
Yeah, totally! I should have been the one looking after the patient, not being a patient myself. That made it so hard.

But, I guess that’s when you had a turning point, isn’t it? When you had someone – or something – to care for when Penguin turned up.
Yes!! Because when I came home from hospital it had been seven months since I’d been there. And I think coming home was when the reality really kicked in.

We live near the beach and I can see it from our house. Everyone around here is into surfing and exercise and living that lifestyle. But when everyone is going to the beach and living that lifestyle right in front of you, and you can’t do it, it just about killed me. I felt like a bad mum. I was definitely sad, and always angry.

So when we found Penguin, I felt like the focus shifted from me, to her. I wasn’t continuously thinking about myself because I had this little fluffball to keep alive and care for – and at the beginning that meant feeding her every two hours! I’d talk to her a lot during that time.

Sam and Penguin.

You’d just walk around the house chatting to her? What would you say?
Yep! I’d just talk to her about everything I was feeling and what was going on. Sometimes it was really dark – I remember saying a few times that I wished I had died in the accident, and things like that. I didn’t want to keep bombarding Cam with those thoughts, so I would talk to Penguin as a sounding board. She’d chirp back – she was a great listener.

I also used to write a lot down. I used to write stuff on my phone and I never showed anybody because I thought, oh my god, they’ll think I’m a little bit of a nutcase. There was a lot of anger – ‘I hate this, I hate that, I hate my life’. I’d write about how I wish I’d died. So I never showed Cam that. But when we started working on this movie I sent it to Naomi, so she could kind of get in my head and really know how I was feeling – and I think it really helped her.

I’ve gotta say Sam, that’s a really brave move. I thought this whole film was brave of you to do – to share every bit of your journey with the world. But even that little gesture of sharing those darkest thoughts with Naomi to then show the world – that’s so brave.
[Laughs] See, that seems kind of weirdly funny to me, because I never, ever think of myself as brave, or that doing the movie is at all brave. I guess I just thought, ‘oh, this will help Naomi!’ so did it!

Well, I’m telling you that I think that’s brave, Sam! Can you tell me more about your husband Cam – you two met when you were just 19. What have you learned about your relationship?
I appreciate Cam so much. He’s caring and compassionate and has been extraordinary. He’s an incredible dad. I think our relationship has probably gotten stronger, which is kind of, odd, I guess. I mean, I know a lot of relationships have failed after something life-changing like this has happened. It’s tough, but he’s been incredible. And yeah, I certainly couldn’t have done it without him.

Sam & Cam Bloom. What a love story.

I read once that you said one of the most difficult parts of this has been overcoming the bitterness. You were someone who truly loved the life you had. Is overcoming the bitterness something that you have to constantly work on? Is it a daily exercise?
Yeah, I think it’ll always be there. You know, it’s summer for me and summer was my favourite – being on a beach or surfing and all that. And now it’s kind of like love hate thing. I wake up and it looks like a beautiful day, but it’s bittersweet. So I think I’ll always be a bit angry and sad inside. Y’know, I don’t go around carrying on like a crazy person, but it’ll always feel like that deep inside.

But, I’m also very lucky. I still have really fun days and I get to watch my boys grow up. And you know, Cam and I still get to go surfing, and hang out – it’s not the same as it used to be, but I am lucky.

And you’re not someone who just goes for a bit of a surf every now and then – from what I understand, you’re now a two time World Para Surf Champion, yes?
Yes! I loved sport, and I sure like to win. But man, the world championship was the best energy. It’s so much fun to get these people together from all over the world. You know, everyone obviously has a different story – there’s so many different injuries and whatnot, but everyone is just so stoked. Everyone just loves the ocean and is happy to be able to go surfing and it’s great. And I was pretty stoked when I won the first time! The boys were there, which was amazing to win it for them and say thank you – thank you for putting up with me and my moods and my grumpiness. So yeah, I was so stoked to win for all of us.

Congratulations! And, thanks so much for talking to us today – it’s been wonderful. Before we say goodbye, is there anything else you’d like people to know, or to think about or to take away with them today.
I always say to people, don’t put your dreams on hold because you never know what is around the corner. But beyond that, I also think we are braver than we think we are. You know, when we do have to deal with tragedies or whatever, we are a lot braver that we think we are and we can get through it. You’re braver than you know.

Penguin Bloom is in cinemas now.

One of Cam Bloom’s wonderful portraits

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