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Climbing from adversity

Yep – this is a story with that sort of message – that we are still the fortunate ones.

Michael Tarulli was an idealistic kid from a comfortable eastern suburb who wanted to help people and make a difference. Smarter than most and confident beyond his years, he dabbled in community sporting groups and church work before joining the police force aged 21 in 1989.

The Academy course reinforced his belief he had the tools for the job ahead. The reality was somewhat different. “Looking back I had some pretty grandiose ideas and I fancied myself to become a detective or join the SOG.”

As a probationary constable, his opinion was neither sought nor considered. He saw some senior colleagues cut a few corners and saw some arrests where he felt help was a better option than handcuffs. It was a time when armed robberies were nearly a daily event and a heroin plague was turning into an epidemic.

“I found it quite morally challenging,” he says. When he tried to help a woman connected to a crime family who was the victim of family violence, some colleagues suggested she wasn’t worth the effort.

Working in the busy Heidelberg district a shift could include anything from helping revive a drug user – he particularly remembers one female victim because she was so young – to a car chase.

It was a Friday night in April when they received the call of “shots fired”. Tarulli was the observer in the passenger seat when the young driver floored the accelerator. He had the Melway street directory on his lap ready to call out directions rally-style.

He was a little concerned at the speed they were travelling “but we had lights and sirens”.

Michael Tarulli: a high-speed crash in 1993 changed his life.

Michael Tarulli: a high-speed crash in 1993 changed his life.

A car came out of a side street into Lower Plenty Road, Rosanna, and failed to give way. The police driver swerved, the other motorist in trying to get out of the way just managed to move into the path and the police car slid sideways out of control into a guard rail at over 100 km/h.

Tarulli absorbed the full impact and was trapped with horrendous injuries. “The pain was unbelievable,” he says. He only gave way to unconsciousness when he was freed and in the hands of paramedics.

It was April 16, 1993. Even now it is hard for him to tell the story that changed his life forever. He had a smashed pelvis, massive internal injuries, a fractured spine, renal failure, bladder rupture and suffered multiple cardiac arrests.

They had to open his chest to revive his heart. “I died several times.”

When he woke in Intensive Care with his pelvis caged, “I still didn’t know the enormity of the injuries”.

In a scene out of a movie, a doctor stuck his legs with a needle and asked if he could feel it. Michael felt nothing.

He was seen by a spinal specialist who in a matter-of-fact voice said “you will never walk again”.

“It was a brutal way to tell someone. I took it [he cried in private] but I believed I would walk, although I didn’t tell anyone.”

Tarulli is living proof that the routine is more dangerous than the remarkable. In the last 20 years 14 Victoria Police have died on duty – one murdered, 11 in road accidents and two from natural causes.

It was only in April that four police – Leading Senior Constable Lynette Taylor, Senior Constable Kevin King, Constable Glen Humphris and Constable Josh Prestney – were killed when they were struck by a truck on the Eastern Freeway during a routine traffic stop.

Each year police suffer more than 1100 work-related injuries with 400 mental and 700 physical conditions. More than 100 are found to be unable to continue work and released on invalid pensions.

Around the time Tarulli was studying in the Police Academy, Constable Trevor Given was assigned to make a mercy dash from Essendon Airport to The Alfred hospital with a donor heart harvested in Newcastle.

Constable Trevor Given: gave his life trying to save one.

Constable Trevor Given: gave his life trying to save one.Credit:Victoria Police

Travelling at 100 km/h he clipped a traffic island in Flemington Road and slammed into a pole. Unlike Tarulli, he was killed instantly. The heart was undamaged and the recipient, a 53-year-old man, was granted another 20 years of life.

Kenneth McNeil was police recruit dux when he graduated in January 28, 1974. Less than four months later he received severe injuries on duty that would leave him disabled for life.

On his second day on traffic duty he was sent to control the evening peak rush at the intersection of Swanston and Little Collins streets under the supervision of an experienced sergeant.

It was cold and rainy so McNeil wore his police-issue waterproof cape.

As two trams passed in opposite directions McNeil turned side on, as he was trained, but his cape caught on one of the trams and he hit the running board before smashing into the second tram. He suffered a severe brain injury and would never work again. He was 19.

Constable Kenneth McNeil. Suffered terrible injuries.

Constable Kenneth McNeil. Suffered terrible injuries.Credit:Victoria Police

He was invalided out of the police force and was cared for by his parents until their deaths. He would often be seen wandering the streets of Malvern until he was found dead in his home in 2002. He was 47.

Tarulli spent nine months recovering – if that is the right term – but it was when he returned home, away from the medical routine, that he crashed: “I had a breakdown.

“I felt life was not worth living. I was angry at everything and anyone.”

He returned to work in his wheelchair and admits that with no real hopes for the future he “knocked myself about with late nights and drinking”.

One senior policeman made it clear that he felt the force was not a place for someone in a wheelchair. “I felt it bordered on intimidation,” Tarulli says.

Then he took stock. “I knew it was my choice whether I would get better or I wouldn’t. I had to own what I had.”

"I had to own what I had": Michael Tarulli today.

“I had to own what I had”: Michael Tarulli today.Credit:Chris Hopkins

He asked himself what made him happy. It took him back to the reasons he joined policing years earlier: “Helping people and reaching out to the underdog.”

He had been feeling twitches in his right leg but could not have known if they were just phantom pain or his body sending a message of hope. He started to work on his leg movements, achieving minute improvements over the weeks, months and years ahead.

He moved to the Youth Advisory Unit, where he helped set up prevention programs to keep troubled kids out of courts and prisons.

Perhaps it was the type of work that attracted him to policing in the first place – keeping people from offending rather than punishing them when they do.

Meanwhile he continued to work on his legs. Wearing callipers he took a few hesitant steps, assisted by two rails. Then it was two callipers with two crutches and finally he could walk with the assistance of one crutch and a built-up shoe. In 2004 he finally threw away his wheelchair.

Four years earlier, faced with another round of complex operations, he left the force to concentrate on his recovery. He returned to study, graduating in business and gaining a Masters in innovation.

He took to swimming and gym work. He tried wheelchair basketball but says “I’m not a team-oriented person”.

But that does not mean he is only concerned with himself. He became a volunteer worker and a disability advocate.

A climber at North Walls in Brunswick.

A climber at North Walls in Brunswick.Credit:Yvette Harrison

Hence his latest project – indoor rock-climbing for the disabled that assists in physical fitness, mental problem-solving and broadening horizons.

It is one of 15 projects being assisted by a new free business mentoring program for Victorians with disabilities, The Good Incubator, funded by LaunchVic and the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.

At the North Walls centre in Brunswick Tarulli started climbing and found it physically demanding and personally satisfying.

The group, Adaptive Climbing Victoria, provides individual programs for each participant. It has just been awarded a VicHealth Active Club Grant designed to promote physical activity in disadvantaged groups.

Certainly with disabilities just providing a facility is not enough. The project requires special programs and equipment to cater for participants who may be sight and hearing-impaired, amputees, have spinal injuries or cerebral palsy.

As Michael says: “Why should people with disabilities not have quality of life?”

Participants and staff at North Walls Indoor Climbing, which is receiving business assistance from The Good Incubator.

Participants and staff at North Walls Indoor Climbing, which is receiving business assistance from The Good Incubator.Credit:Yvette Harrison

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