The quadriplegic who taught Superman to fly
IT IS a sweltering Monday morning on the Gold Coast. The shaded deck at the front of a small suburban bungalow offers slight relief from the heavy autumn heat.
Singing birds and the soft panting of the resident Labrador Floyd gently mingle with the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh coming from the ventilator keeping the man in front of me alive.
A few feet away sits a much younger bloke - Joe - who watches his middle-aged charge as intently as the pooch. By all accounts the subject of our collective attention should be dead.
Perry Cross's body cannot breathe by itself. It cannot walk. It cannot bathe itself or toss and turn at night. It cannot stand up. In fact, you can count on a few fingers the things the 40-year-old's mass of skin, muscles and bones is capable of.
He can think, talk, move his eyes and chin, suck sustenance from a straw attached to a bag of liquid on his back and, most importantly, inspire everyone who meets him.
Injured in a ruck
Perry Cross was a fun-loving, mischief-making teenager with a passion for rugby union when his world caved in.
The 19-year-old's neck was broken during try-outs for a Ballymore junior representative side.
"I was injured in a ruck," the former second-rower says.
"The injury went right up into my brain stem.
"It left me unable to feel or move anything below my chin."
Waking from a coma days after the accident and trapped in a body that refused to behave as it once did, the lad slowly realised that life as he knew it was over.
"I remember being conscious and seeing what was going on around me," says Perry, who was born in Taree and grew up on the Gold Coast.
"At the time I couldn't speak because I was ventilated and had a life-support machine in my mouth so no one really knew when I was cognitive.
"The first few days were really dramatic - it was like a dream, a nightmare."
Predicted to die within a few years, Perry astounded the medical professionals with his will to survive.
Aided by his parents Brian and Shirley Cross, his sister Letitia and brother Courtney and a multitude of mates he fought the good fight with unbridled gusto.
"My parents would drive daily from the Gold Coast to Brisbane to see me in the hospital," he said.
"I had mates that were at uni who would fail subjects because they spent too much time with me in hospital sitting by my side, encouraging me and keeping my spirits up.
"I think that's important - as soon as your spirits start to get down your family and friends are the ones that can dig you out of it."
With the wheelchair and respirator as his new constant companions, he left his hospital ward eight months after the accident.
"It's weird," Perry says of his body. "The best way to describe it is like if you sat on your hand for half an hour and it goes numb, that tingly burning feeling.
"The sensation of a body is still there, so when I sit here I can sense everything and the muscle memory is there but you lose the instinctive will to operate them.
"I don't let the paralysis affect me anymore - that's just life."
Perry has constantly amazed those around him with his ability to defy expectations. His doctors said he wouldn't survive two years, but he did.
They - and the statistics on paralysis longevity - said he wouldn't make 10 years. But he did. Everyone believed his 24-hour life-saving ventilator would scupper any overseas travel plans. But it didn't.
And if it wasn't for Perry's determination to beat the odds, another man with the same debilitating injury on the other side of the world would never have regained one of his super powers.
No easy feat
As a three-year-old Perry, like many thousands of little boys across Australia, was awe-struck when Superman soared on to cinema screens in 1978.
This chiselled-jawed Man of Steel who bravely leapt tall buildings in a single bound and soared through the air like a massive blue, red and yellow falcon was a thing of wonder.
In 1995, just one year after Perry's accident, Superman fell to earth with a thud. The actor beneath the cape - Christopher Reeve - was thrown from a horse while competing in an equestrian competition.
He too was bound to a wheelchair and reliant on a ventilator to survive.
"Christopher Reeve had the same injury and the same level of severity as me," Perry recalls.
"For me that was a pretty ironic sort of thing. It was incredible that this happened to the Man of Steel."
Two years later Perry flew to New York to meet his idol. But getting there was no easy feat.
"Flying was the major problem for me at the time," Perry says. "All the doctors said international travel was just off the cards. They said it would never happen because there's so much risk involved including the fact I am on a life-support machine that would have to be powered for the flight across the Pacific. There were all sorts of obstacles that people were throwing up."
But gentle persuasion of his doctor and some help from Australia's national airline and Perry was sky-bound.
"I had a long discussion with my GP about my independence and human rights and freedoms and I really drew on his heart strings," he says. "He signed off on the medical clearance for me to fly.
"And Qantas was amazing. They rewired one of the seats in the plane so I had the power I needed to travel."
In New York, Reeve's wife Dana Morosini and the actor's friends and carers were astounded at Perry's arrival. Like the young man from Queensland, Reeve had been told he would never fly again.
"The first thing they said to me was 'How did you get here?' and I said 'Well I flew'," Perry says.
"They said 'We're not meant to - there are all these reasons why we can't fly'. They had been told travel just wasn't a possibility."
But it was possible - Reeve touched down in Australia a few years later to spend time with his mate and help raise the profile of spinal research. "That's my claim to fame - I taught Superman how to fly," Perry says.
Pushing for a cure
Reeve's death in October 2004 left a gaping hole in his Gold Coast friend's heart. "He was our figurehead for a cure so when we lost him that was a major driver for me to step up and to take on some of the responsibility of driving the push for a cure," Perry says.
Determined to carry on the actor's fight to raise money for spinal injury research, the Bond University communications graduate set up an organisation to drive change.
Over the years the Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through a range of events dinners and recent cocktail parties - one a few weeks ago attracted more than 170 people and raised thousands of dollars - and its annual SIP (Spinal Injury Project) Week, which encourages people to drink their beverages through a straw as many quadriplegics do.
The foundation, which has former governor-general Quentin Bryce, broadcaster Alan Jones and cricket great Adam Gilchrist as ambassadors, also gives scholarships to PhD students to enable them to continue their research that could one day see Perry walk again.
But finding a cure is not easy. The nerves in the spine do not regenerate like the rest of the cells in our bodies.
There are drugs that activate nerve growth but scientists have yet to find a way to make that growth in the area of the spinal cord injury and to control when the growth stops.
"I hope to see something in my lifetime," Perry says of a breakthrough. "There are trials happening in Europe and the US that are showing significant results.
"I think we're on the doorstep of something really amazing."