“When am I going to walk again?”
Hours earlier, the former swimming champion and personal trainer, chose a daredevil-like plunge off Omanawa Falls to round off what had been a perfect Waitangi weekend road trip to Gisborne.
At three times the height of a full Olympic diving platform, the 35-metre leap off Omanawa Falls near Tauranga isn’t for the faint of heart.
It’s also forbidden with signs warning against entry into the park area.
But as a young man living life to its fullest, the former Matatahi Mataora kaiako in Te Awamutu wasn’t one to shy away from a challenge and a thrill.
“But as soon as I jumped I was thinking “something’s not right”. It was taking a long time to hit the water and I knew straight away that something was going to happen,” said the 24-year-old.
His instincts were to prove horribly right. And his actions were to have devastating, life-altering consequences.
Ephraim hit the water in a near seated position. The impact caused his knees to slam into his chest sending a crippling wave of pain through his body unlike anything he had ever felt before.
He would later learn this searing agony was his t12 vertebrae fracturing and pressing against his spine.
And the moments he spent surveying his jump were the last time he has stood on his feet.
Onlookers, who nervously cheered as he jumped, watched Ephraim surface and thinking he was okay applauded him not knowing he was now battling for his life.
“I hit the water and there was a lot of pain – and I couldn’t feel my legs,” he said.
“ I tried swimming but nothing was working. I couldn’t use my legs because they were gone, I just couldn’t feel them. And I only had one arm to swim with because I had broken my right hand boxing the week before.”
Ephraim called out for help, but his cries were drowned out by the waterfall. Agonisingly, he hauled himself to the shore where his wife Arian and others could see things were dire.
“My uncle sat me up a bit but I realised that I could have a spinal injury so I had to lie down. My wife held my hand and they covered me in towels and yelled at me to stay awake."
Ephraim was airlifted to Tauranga Hospital. But medical staff there quickly realised the severity of his injury was beyond any level of assistance they could offer.
He was taken to Middlemore Hospital where his damaged vertebrae was operated on and the pressure on his spinal cord was relieved.
In and out of consciousness, Ephraim still remembers his whānau and friends coming to the hospital to support him and others who came in to wish him well and a speedy recovery.
He also recalls the moment when he found out he had lost the use of his legs.
“I remember asking the surgeons “when am I going to walk again?” They would say “give it time”.
“But they also said “people with your kind of injury normally don’t walk again”.
“But I didn’t really care what they said because I do believe I will walk again and no-one has really told me that I won’t walk again.”
The realisation he was paralysed has obviously meant changes to Ephraim and his wife, who had their whole lives ahead of them and immediate plans that included travel, perhaps running their own gym and children.
The things he took for granted as an able-bodied person now present new challenges and hurdles.
His wife has also given up her job to aid her husband in his recovery.
“Of all the challenges I now face that has been the biggest for me. Just the fact that my wife has to give so much, it’s a bit hard seeing my wife has to do so much for me and she doesn’t get so much time to herself.”
“After that it’s the ability to walk and the little things you take for granted like if it rains you think you can just run into the car jump in and it’s sweet. Or to be able to go to the bathroom, I have no control over my bowel and bladder.”
Ephraim’s road to recovery began almost immediately during his seven-week stay in hospital with daily therapy sessions in the Auckland Spinal Unit.
He has tried accupuncture, neurology sessions and other unconventional means to spark life back into his legs.
“I would talk to my legs and would imagine my brain sending messages through to them. I tried heaps of things and then one day I saw a little twitch in my groin area. It went on for another day or two and then my wife saw it.”
“I carried on focusing on my left leg, and the twitch moved to my right leg about a week later. Now, if I’m lying down on my bed I’m able to lift my leg right up to my chest and if my legs are apart I can bring them together. I can move them around. People say that’s something but to me it’s everything.”
Ephraim is determined to walk again and his research into treatment has led him to stem cell therapy at a clinic in Thailand.
But at a cost of $60,000, the treatment isn't cheap. Ephraim has started a Givealittle page to help raise the funds to make it to the clinic.
“I’ve compared the clinic to other places and they have a 100 per cent success rate with their patients’ improvement - whether it be control over their bowel or their bladder or if they’re able to stand and even to the point where they’re able to walk.”
“Even if it is assisted with crutches that’s better than sitting down all day. In saying that, if I can walk without going there then that’s even better. The mind is a powerful thing and if you work hard enough and stay focused it can do amazing things.”
Ephraim recently started work managing a gym in Gisborne and is being aided by local man, Lenny Wawatai, whom he said helped a paralysed person to walk again.
He said the support he’s received has been overwhelming and humbling. There have been donations on his Givealittle page, letters in the mail, random Facebook posts from kind strangers, people bringing cooked meals to his home and others have mowed his lawns.
“There are people from overseas giving little donations here and there, these are people outside of my family so I can’t begin to express how grateful I am, it’s very humbling.”
“But I get haters as well. People see my story on Facebook and say I want handouts. I don’t focus on these people getting me down and try to push that aside. I’m just keeping positive and not worrying about what these people think.”
Thinking is something Ephraim has had a bit to do of lately. Understandably, there are days when his frustrations and challenges get him down and he often gets asked whether he has any regrets about what has happened.
“I hear it often, that there were signs saying not to go in and you shouldn’t have done it. But I remember someone commenting on my Givealittle page when they donated saying not to worry about those who say you shouldn’t have jumped off the waterfall.”
“I think this person was paralysed themselves one time and they are now up and walking. They said to not worry about those who put you down because they will never understand what you're going through.”
“The question about whether I did the right thing came later on after surgery, I asked myself "what have I done?"
"You do have your challenges though like seeing my wife put aside everything to help me and I get really frustrated that I can't walk. To be able to move my hands comes so easily but I can’t move my legs, it’s that frustration that really gets me down to the point where I just cry, I’m not ashamed in saying that, pretty much every day. Every time I cry my wife is there and says just to keep going.”
“But there is good that has come from it. I think I have become more understanding of peoples’ situations and have learned more about humility. I happen to be someone who believes in God and my faith has increased ten fold. I believe through my faith and hard work that I will walk again.”
If you are able, please support Ephraim in his goal to get treatment by going to his Givealittle page here: