Recovery takes time after Thredbo landslide disaster

Recovery takes time after Thredbo landslide disaster

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Wendy Hukins bears a smile above a bright scarf, and sporting purple boots she cuts a colourful figure down a drab winter landscape in a Cooma street.

Wendy Hukins.

Wendy Hukins.

Wendy Hukins bears a smile above a bright scarf, and sporting purple boots she cuts a colourful figure down a drab winter landscape in a Cooma street.

She’s running a busy cleaning business based in Jindabyne and in winter her mobile is running hot from staff calls with the ski season in full swing.

Her bright blue eyes dart about and you think, this lady looks happy in life. In fact she says, “life is great, really really good”.

But it is a far cry, from what she has gone through in the past 20 years.

It’s almost surreal to think 18 years ago she was receiving treatment for mental illness in Canberra.

The Thredbo landslide which caused the collapse of Bimbadeen Lodge had a huge impact on Wendy and the wider community.  Wendy knew many of the people in the lodge when the landslide moved down from the Alpine Way at Thredbo into the west of Carinya Lodge, that killed 18 people. Stuart Diver was the only survivor,  found by paramedics and rescue teams three days after.

In the background of the rescue work, Thredbo staff were still working, and having to cope with the trauma of the event.  

For Wendy, a customer relations manager at Thredbo at the time, the landslide was followed by mental health problems that developed over the next two years.

For two years she put on a bright face, put up with the media at the time of the disaster, seeking to get confidential information, sneaking into private meetings.

Or the years afterwards, when visitors would come up to her and ask if they could get a postcard of the landslide site and asked time and again if she remembered the disaster.

Wendy put on a bright smile, and said little.  She knew most of those 18 victims personally. Wendy realised she had to forgive people asking these questions, as they weren’t to know how it impacted her.

She’d been heavily pregnant when the disaster recovery continued, but she battled on with her job amid all the spotlight of media from around the world. 

But there was something welling up in her that would not go away. She tried to push it away but it wouldn’t leave her. She felt she was looking for compassion, she went to counselling sessions.

“I was living two lives at the time,” “Wendy says. “I was trying to make everyone happy while I was falling apart myself. Every one of us was in the deep end.

“I didn’t know what I was going through. I thought I was fine.

“They provided counselling, which was good of the company, and I’d come out trying to keep functioning as an employee, mum and wife.”

But then Wendy  realised something was wrong. It was at a memorial service two years after the disaster. She was pregnant again.

She still remembers it all so clearly, watching a mum trying to control a toddler in the middle of the service.

Wendy realised that her mental health was not improving “People were healing, but I was going the other way.”

She knew something was wrong. She attended Monaro Hospital in Cooma, looking for help. “I refused to go home. They tried to find me a bed.”

Over the following two years, Wendy accessed a range of services to try to improve her mental health, which became expensive and took a toll on family life.

Wendy says, I was broken on the inside. Finally the outside of my body caught up.” At one point, she tried to take her own life.

There’d been mental illness in Wendy’s family and she now suspects it was a problem waiting to emerge.

If it hadn’t been the trauma evoked by the Thredbo disaster, she suspected it may have been another event. She went through many difficulties during this time,  eventually seeing the end of her marriage.

During her battle with depression, medication helped to ease the symptoms. She found a psychiatrist in Canberra who she was able to work well with, and improved her wellbeing.   

When her mother died, a rock of support, she found she had to be able to find her own strength.

“I didn’t realise at the time, but the death of my mum was making me strong.” 

“I wanted someone to pick up my pieces, to hug me, to make it better. But mum wasn’t there and I thought ‘I’m doing it on my own now’.”

It was difficult to leave the family home with her kids and set up by herself in an apartment in Jindabyne.

Wendy found she had no alternative but to start from scratch and start work in an unknown field.

She had been a Type A personality and she now felt she was a completely different type of person. She began looking at different career options and went from managing and caring for people to cleaning, and she was determined to succeed.

Finding the right psychiatrist was an important step. “It’s really important to recognise you need help, it is not a sign of weakness at all.”  

There were also other types of support from friends. “It can also be simple things people do, like someone making you a meal, talking, a hug.”

Wendy acknowledged that recovery takes time “I just hoped somewhere down the track it may be a bit better. There is no quick fix.”

She feels in modern society people are after a quick solution, especially younger people, who may not have experienced much hardship. “There’s no magic wand, no magic words, it’s hard, really hard.

“But some things are worth fighting for and getting better is worth fighting for. You have to keep fighting, you need to manage and deal with it, it is going to be a tough fight.”

Wendy chooses running to help keep her mentally healthy. It helps ease her tension and gets those feel-good endorphins out. She also finds it helps her to remember her friends who were lost in the landslide. 

Snow gums and alpine daisies now grow on the landslide site. It’s a permanent memorial to those who died and a place for those who survived to reflect.

As she said at the time of the memorial service: "We're all part of the mountains. They were part of the mountains and the mountain claimed them. So they're still here. Their spirit. Their love of it all. That's what it was all about. So, yes, they're still with us."


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