My Brother Sam

After surviving a vicious assault on the Gold Coast, Sam Ford moves toward recovery with the help of his brother Joel

On a late night in October of 2009, Sam Ford was assaulted on the streets of Coolangatta in NSW, Australia. Sam, a promising young surfer in the area, sustained severe head injuries from the unprovoked and violent attack, and was given little chance to live. After emergency surgery and 37 days in a coma, Sam woke up, and his long path to recovery began. Now, almost three years later, Sam serves as an inspiration to his younger brother Joel, a Tweed Heads freesurfer and his brother’s biggest fan. This is their story of surfing, art, and brotherhood.

Tell me about your relationship with your older brother Sam.
I have always been close with Sam, and I always looked up to him when I was growing up. Growing up a kilometer from the beach in Cabarita, our dad taught all three of us boys how to surf, swim, and love the ocean at a young age. We've always had the beach as our backyard and playground.

What do you remember from the night that changed everything?
I was 16 at the time. On the night of the incident, I had been working in a local restaurant and was picked up from work around 10 p.m. At the time of the assault, I was at home asleep in bed. My dad came into my room, yelling at me to get dressed quickly and get in the car. He gave me no other explanation until we were in the car and on our way to the hospital; neither of us had any idea what had happened, all we were told was that Sam was in the hospital. We didn't know how severe the attack was until we had arrived at Tweed Heads Hospital. I swear to God, it was the longest night of my life. After waiting for the results of the brain scans, the doctors from the emergency ward informed us that Sam's injury was serious. Sam was still unconscious, and he was being transferred to the Gold Coast Hospital. He was operated on instantly. They needed to cut out a piece of Sam's skull to try to release brain pressure, and then placed him into an induced coma. Other than these basic facts and a few dulled memories, the rest of the night was a blur. The only clear part of the night was when we were told that Sam probably wouldn't make it through the night.

And what was the result, for Sam and your family?
Sam spent 536 days (18 months) in the hospital, but now almost three years later he lives with an acquired brain injury, and will remain disabled for the rest of his life. But in those two years and eight months, Sam has come further than they predicted he would in five years. We are all so proud of his strength and motivation to move forward with ongoing rehabilitation, physiotherapy, speech therapy, and art therapy.

What strides has he taken since that night?
Sam's been helped by the physio- and speech-therapy, but he still needs 24-hour assistance with everything, whether it's showering, changing clothes, eating, or moving around in his wheel chair. He is still unable to freely move on his own, but it's all slowly but surely coming together. We see constant progression in everything he does. He tries so hard every day, but everything he does is limited due to the part of his brain that's damaged.

How has art helped Sam’s recovery?
Our main goal is to keep Sam's brain stimulated--keep him smiling and as happy as can be after everything he has been through. Although Sam is everyone's hero and such an inspiration, my family and the local community have remained Sam's inspiration as well, and helped so much to get him to where he is today.

How has surfing helped you get through it all?
After the attack, surfing was the only place I could be by myself and not feel trapped in my own mind. I could channel my anger and frustration, and release it in the water. These days, I get my joy out of surfing, not having to be serious and trying to compete, but going out there and having fun going big. To get that feeling of being free in the is still the only place I feel 100 percent relaxed.

How do you hope his story affects people?
The main message I want to get across was to be aware that these things do happen everyday, but you don't feel the full affect of such an event until it happens so close to home. It doesn't just affect one person for the rest of their life, but it affects a whole community. The inspiration I hope people get from Sam's story is that violence doesn't resolve anything--I think it's taught everyone who knows Sam that violence is never worth it.

After their lives were changed forever, surfing took on a new importance for Joel. Photo: O'Brien