Stronger together

A Batemans Bay couple's story on beating all the odds for a brighter future.

How UOW is helping young Batemans Bay couple Tom and Teja Roberts build a bright new future in the face of serious adversity.

For Tom and Teja Roberts, the road to higher education has been filled with more speed bumps and hairpin turns than either could ever have imagined. In the last few years alone, they have had to contend with a horrific car accident, chronic health problems, redundancy, and the general juggling act that comes with balancing work, study, and raising two small children.

Within minutes of chatting to the young couple, it becomes clear that they are a team. They finish each other's sentences, play off each other in conversation, and look at each other with admiration and affection. That connection has helped them through the dark times and led them to the University of Wollongong's Batemans Bay campus, where they have found a home.

"We've experienced so much," says Teja, during a rain-soaked day on the South Coast campus. "We've just been getting through and raising our children. We've had a lot happen in the last few years, but we still have each other."

In search of a fresh start

Tom and Teja were TAFE sweethearts. They met as teenagers in Orange, where both were studying at the vocational institute. Teja had left school in Year 9 and was completing her School Certificate and later Higher School Certificate. Tom, a few years older, was studying a Certificate IV in Audio Engineering. The connection was instant and they settled in to a new life together.

But after their home in Orange was robbed twice within the space of a few weeks, and they lost everything, they made the decision to move to Batemans Bay, where Tom's sister was based. The couple, who now have two children - a five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, were drawn to the idea of a fresh start and bringing their future children up on the coast.

"We needed a change," says 25-year-old Teja. "We wanted to bring our children up in a safe community and we loved Batemans Bay.

"I never knew what I wanted to do with my life. I had been studying visual arts at TAFE, because I was interested in that, but I had no idea how to make a career out of that.

"I spent a few years raising my kids, but we wanted to retrain ourselves so we could work in the area and be employable."

Teja saw an advertisement for the University of Wollongong and decided that this was her chance.

"I sent an email to the uni. That first step was the hardest part, sending the email and thinking, 'Yes, I'm actually going to find out more about this'. I had no firsthand reference for university, I didn't know what it would be like.

"We came in for a meeting. I made Tom come with me because he needed something to do, too, and he ended up starting university before me," she says with a laugh.

Choosing their paths

As a teenager, Teja had not been sure of what she wanted to do, but by the time she had two children and was helping to care for Tom, who has his own health concerns, she had a feeling that she would make a good nurse.

"I wanted to be a midwife. I can't think of anything nicer than delivering people's babies," she says. "The maternity ward is the one place in the hospital where it's good news more than bad news."

Unlike Teja, Tom knew exactly what he wanted do from a young age - music. He's a passionate musician and metalhead, and spent more than a decade working in the industry as a promoter, audio engineer, podcaster, and gig booker. His love lies with heavy metal, and he has co-founded Pitted music festival, which showcases heavy metal bands on the Far South Coast.

"I'd been in the industry for 13 years. I've worked for Big Day Out, Homebake, Soundwave, I've run my own gigs and festivals. I even created my own podcast, Full Metal Lockdown. But a few years ago, the Australian music industry died and no one was really creating music anymore. All the festivals shut down and there weren't any opportunities."

As the first in his family to attend university, Tom had also no experience with the higher education system. But the young couple left that meeting at Batemans Bay campus with a plan.

"After speaking to Jaimey Facchin [UOW Batemans Bay Campus Manager] and Jade Andrews [Careers Consultant], I found out the best path to pursue midwifery in the region. I was aiming to become a registered nurse first, then enroll in a program called MidStart, where you are trained in the hospital," Teja says. "That program is offered at Moruya Hospital, which is where I would like to end up. Both our kids were born there, so it would complete the circle of life.

"It took caring for Tom and having my own kids, and experiencing life in a hospital, which was quite traumatic for both my kids. It was those good and bad experiences with healthcare professionals that made me realise that I want to be the good side of that.

Teja enrolled in a pathways course through South Coast College, with the aim of easing into the university experience.

"It was incredibly helpful because in addition to getting my Certificate IV in Aged Care and First Aid, I also got the chance to learn essay writing through the University. It got the cogs turning after years of being at home with my children."

For his part, Tom enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in History and Indigenous Studies, with the aim of pursuing a Masters of Secondary Teaching when he finishes his undergraduate degree.

"Teaching is just like being an MC, but on a small scale," he says with a laugh.

"It was those good and bad experiences with healthcare professionals that made me realise that I want to be the good side of that."

- Teja Roberts

A brutal disease

The young couple's fight to build a bright new future has been complicated, and heightened, by Tom's terminal illness. The 29-year-old has Friedreich's ataxia, a genetic disorder that causes progressive damage to the nervous system.

"The best way to describe it would be if you took MS [multiple sclerosis] and cerebral palsy and smooshed them together, and then it gets worse over time," Teja says, before Tom injects: "And add a sprinkle of Parkinson's disease, too."

Diagnosed at the age of 14, Tom has been dealing with the brutal reality of the disease for more than half his life. He is in pain. It affects his speech - "not my brain, but the way my brain communicates". He has undergone two major reconstructions on his feet and on all 10 toes in the last few years, to correct the club feet that are common with the disease. He has a 30-degree curve in his spine, and another 30-degree twist, which forces his spine to face to the right. Friedreich's ataxia can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and scoliosis.

It is a difficult reality for a young, vibrant man, with two young children and a wife who clearly adores him.

"I've had it my whole life but I was only diagnosed at 14," he says. "My life expectancy was 10 to 15 years. I'm turning 30 next year so I've lived passed that life expectancy now. I should have been in a wheelchair full time by the time I was 20 but that didn't happen until I was 26."

Teja is his full-time carer. Tom credits Teja for helping him both physically and emotionally through the ups and downs of his illness. His love of music and his love of his family are what motivates him each day.

"Teja and I have been together since we were younger, before I started to have many effects from the disease. I was open and honest with her about it," Tom says. "When things started to go downhill, before we had the kids, I told her she could leave."

Teja shakes her head at this, at the idea that she would leave when the going got tough.

"I said no. We've gone through everything together. That should have been the clue there that I was supposed to be a nurse."

Married for five years, Tom and Teja manage with the day to day of their lives, studying, looking after two children. They have been raising funds to buy a wheelchair-friendly vehicle, with community help, but have not yet reached their goal.

Despite all the other demands on their time, they also give back to their local community and to their fellow students at Batemans Bay campus. They are both involved in In2Uni and AIME, both programs that help local high school and primary school students to access higher education. They are also working to create a local garden and playground in the community, aimed at young children, that will celebrate Indigenous culture and storytelling.

In March, Tom will shave his hair - which is more than two feet long - as part of Shave for a Cure at the Batemans Bay campus, to raise money for cancer research. He will be joined by his three-year-old, who will also be shaving his head in an act of solidarity with his dad.

The day they will never forget

Just over a year ago, Tom and Teja's life took another unexpected and devastating turn.

Last November, they were on their way to a gig in Canberra, just minutes after dropping their kids off to be minded. It was pouring rain, and as they drove on a winding stretch of road south of Batemans Bay known locally as Mad Mile, Tom lost control of the Commodore VX he was driving.

The car slammed into a tree, the force so great the front of the car was all but obliterated. Teja, who was in the passenger seat, was holding on to her phone at the time. The intensity of the impact shattered her right arm - the one holding the phone - as well as her left arm, which, more than a year on, is still broken and held together by plates and pins.

"It was two days before the final exam of my pathways course," Teja says. "You know how they say traumatic things happen in slow motion? It was very much like that. I was tensing up, waiting for the impact, and the full force of the crash went through my arm."

They were rushed to hospital in Canberra. Tom sustained a cracked sternum, and although they didn't know it at the time, he had also broken his back. Six months later, he would discover that injury after suffering excruciating back pain.

"I couldn't move my fingers, I had no feeling and no movement" Teja recalls. "I had plates put into my arm. I had to relearn how to use it. I also had broken ribs and I kept rebreaking them, because without my arms, it was very difficult to get up and move around."

"My life expectancy was 10 to 15 years. I’m turning 30 next year so I’ve lived passed that life expectancy now"

- Tom Roberts

As primary carer for her children and for Tom, Teja struggled with the physical and emotional repercussions of the crash. But the community - including her new family at UOW - rallied around her, with food, childminding, helping out with presents for Christmas. Unable to complete her final exam, she felt her dreams of being a nurse had been ripped away. She also contracted a flesh-eating bug during the course of her recovery, which needed huge doses of antibiotics to contain.

"It has been a really rocky road. I was in really bad shape. I thought nursing has been taken away from me, just as I was about to get into the course. I watched all my friends start the degree that I had been working towards.

"It was so much to deal with, on top of everything else we have going on in our lives."

Still in pain - which she experiences to this day, particularly when it rains - Teja's strong academic performance and extenuating circumstances earned her a place in a Bachelor of Arts at UOW's Batemans Bay Campus. It put her dreams a year behind schedule, but has kept her mind active as she recovered.

Tom has just finished the second year of his Bachelor of Arts, and this year Teja will transfer to the Bachelor of Nursing, her dreams now back on track. They have found a close-knit and supportive community at Batemans Bay, which has proved essential to helping them navigate the ups and downs of their daily lives over the past 12 months.

A close-knit campus

Jaimey Facchin, Campus Manager at UOW Batemans Bay, says that from the moment she first met Tom and Teja, she has been impressed by the couple's courage and grit.

"UOW Batemans Bay is a small campus, so our staff get an opportunity to really get to know our students," Ms Facchin says. "Tom and Teja, and their gorgeous kids, are part of our family.

"I remember the first day I met Teja and Tom, when they were thinking about applying to university. I was blown away by their determination, their passion for learning, and their attitude towards life.

"They have become an integral part of the student community. Everyone knows them and they are constantly holding events for students to engage in, such as 'Pop Culture Chats' and video game tournaments, which our students really appreciate.

"They are exceptional role models for their peers both at university and those who are seeking to change their lives through education. Both have overcome so much adversity since I have known them. They are not only model students, but exceptional human beings."

For their part, Tom and Teja relish the community vibe at the South Coast campus. It has made their transition to higher education much easier, knowing they have the support of the staff and fellow students.

"We will bring our kids in if we need to," Tom says. "Everyone here knows our kids' names and they spoil them rotten."

"It has been a really rocky road. We keep a very delicate but very good balance in our day-to-day lives. Being here on campus has been exactly what we need to fit in with our weird, complicated lives."

Tom and Teja still have a long road ahead to achieve their dreams. The daily juggle of children, study, and health is hard, particularly for a young couple. But whatever happens, they will continue to do what they have always done - tackle each obstacle, each new detour, as a team, with the help of their community.


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