Peter Bilsborough loved the ocean. He had surfed nearly every day for 42 years until Easter Sunday 2010 when the ocean he so loved left him a quadriplegic.
The Will to Live, the Courage to Die, tells the story of the last four months of Peter’s life. Confined to an intensive care ward at Sydney’s Royal North Shore, he was unable to move, unable to breathe without a respirator and unable to talk, except for short periods. Yet during all of this, he showed the same spirit that had made him always a participator in life and never a spectator.
After becoming conscious and learning of his accident at Sydney’s Palm Beach, he battled through every last option to recover from the daunting reality of becoming a quadriplegic. Drawing strength not only from his family but a vast circle of friends, Peter worked to not only confront his catastrophic injury but to find a resolution in his final months of life. Then, as his medical team ran short of options to sustain life, he was given a choice rarely made available to mankind, the choice of deciding the moment of his death.
Peter's story is told by his niece, Tracey Roberts, a close relative who spent each day with Peter from the moment of his tragic accident right through to his final day.
Tracey tells not only the story of Peter's last four months in ICU but of the spirited life he had lived, getting into more than his fair share of adventures. Like the time he crashed and wrote off the Ducati motorbike he raced at Eastern Creek, only to borrow another bike, to finish the race. Or the time he sailed to Indonesia with mates tangling with the Brazilian Bro boys, thanks to his irrepressible habit of dropping in on any wave that caught his eye - a habit that earned him the nickname the Palm Beach Shark.
He had always been lucky, like the time he walked out of a Jimbaran Restaurant an hour before the Bali bombs went off. And his charm and good luck looked set to continue.
Estranged from his wife, he had recently moved in with his Brazilian girlfriend. At sixty, as he balanced his passion for surfing with his successful building company, life was pretty good.
Then there was the despairing day Tracey received a phone call and arrived at the hospital to find her uncle looking like death, unable to move or even breathe, laid out on a bed of ice designed to reduce his body temperature in a body that was suddenly unable to regulate itself.
Peter had been dragged unconscious from the surf and woke up to find himself in a body that was a cruel and strange prison. Unable to move, he was attacked by phantom pains. His head was painfully sensitive to the slightest touch and his body was racked by continual seizures. The medical team needed to deal out regular thrashing blows to clear his chest and ward off pneumonia.
From initial despair, he was on an emotional roller coaster. Options for recovery were explored and discarded one after the other. He recovered minimal movement in one index finger but his body remained otherwise in decline as his medical team worked through a cocktail of drugs and antibiotics.
The Will to Live, the Courage to Die also tells the journey of the medical staff and the role they played in helping Peter through these final four months of life, providing him with dignity and in many cases forming a personal bond with him. They gave him a gift: four months of pain that were also a chance for him to give the end of his life a shape and a resolution.
While Peter's luck deserted him, his courage did not. Through it all he kept his characteristic larrikin humor and good nature. One afternoon, as the inevitable approached, he journeyed home one last time and his friends gathered for a living wake. He celebrated life to the end.
Not long after this, he decided that it was time to go. With his closest family around him, he refused further medical assistance and allowed himself to die. But he was not to be forgotten; some months later, 200 people formed a circle of surfboards in the briefly still waters off Avalon Beach. They sprinkled his ashes into the deep ocean-the thing that killed him but which he loved the most.