Like the baby birds that tumble from nests near her Sydney home, Sam Bloom knows the devastating impact of a fall.
Just minutes after arriving at the Sydney home of Sam Bloom there’s a bird on my head. It’s Frankie – a one-eyed Currawong who was tossed from its family nest, virtually pecked to pieces.
But Frankie couldn’t have landed in a better place – in the garden of Sam, her husband Cameron and sons Rueben, Noah and Oliver. Also the home of Penguin Bloom – a quirky little magpie who Sam believes saved her life, and that of her family.
Sam Bloom, better than most people, knows the devastating impact of a fall. Her story would crush your heart if it didn’t send it soaring high over the Norfolk Island Pines of Newport Beach, and beyond.
It was 2013, on a family holiday in Thailand after a morning swim, the Bloom family took freshly squeezed juices to their hotel observation deck to check out the view. “Perhaps I was searching for the most promising waves or surveying the countryside, I’ll never know”, says Sam. “I don’t remember anything of the accident. I don’t even remember walking up the spiral stairs to the deck, and perhaps that’s a good thing”.
Sam leaned against a safety barrier. Safety? Rotten timbers gave way and she plummeted six metres head-first onto the concrete tiles below. A fractured skull, bleeding on the brain, ruptured lungs and a tongue partially severed by her own teeth were bad enough. But in the weeks ahead, she discovered her spine was shattered, just below the shoulder blades – she was paralysed from the chest down and told she would never walk again.
“Before the accident a spinal cord injury was my worst nightmare. And yeah, so now I get to live it. I cried every day for a month. I wanted to die. I wished I had died.”
After seven months in the Spinal Unit at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital and rehabilitation at Royal Rehab in Ryde, Sam was back home when her son Noah came in one afternoon with a battered magpie chick in his arms. The bird was badly hurt after falling from a tree in a violent coastal storm.
“I’ll never forget her wobbly head, the funny angle of her damaged wing or feeling her tiny heart beating against the palm of my hand,” says Sam. The boys named the magpie Penguin.
“Here was a broken, fragile creature that needed our help and, in that instant, I stopped thinking about myself.”
Cameron, a professional photographer, had a lens on every moment – capturing intimate scenes as Penguin endeared herself to each of them.
“Initially Penguin had to be fed every two hours,” says Cam. “Some evenings, as we tucked her into bed, we wondered if she would survive the night”.
Penguin couldn’t fly. But, even with her damaged wing she’d launch herself endlessly from the furniture, trying to do what instinct told her to do.
Sam’s eyes sparkle all the time so it’s difficult to know if she’s tearing up when she says “The day Penguin made her maiden flight in our living room, my heart soared. Shortly after that she flew outside and took to the wild skies – it was the happiest I’d felt in a long time.”
Never caged, Penguin was free to stay or go – she chose to make herself at home. She slept in the family beds, cuddled up with the boys to read books or listen to music, ran up and down hallways with them and spent hours “chatting” to Sam when the boys were at school.
“It was an emotional rescue,” says Sam. “I was in a dark place, had contemplated suicide many times, but as soon as Penguin arrived the dark cloud started to lift. There was laughter in the house again.”
Sam grew up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Her parents owned a bakery at Newport and when not working in the shop this self-confessed tomboy was tearing around on a skateboard or catching the local waves on her surfboard.
Now, home and paralysed, the roar of the surf was a cruel soundtrack. Two-time surfing world champion Tom Carroll changed all that. He helped Sam to learn surfing again.
“I grew up with Sam in Newport,” says Tom. “She was tiny and feisty. When we got back in the surf together after her accident I saw the spark re-light. When you’ve been a surfer it doesn’t go away. Watching her pull it together brought a tear to my eye. How can it not? It’s human spirit.”
Within months Sam was on the Australian Adaptive Surfing Team and competing at the World Championships in San Diego, USA.
“As I rode my final wave to shore everyone on the beach was chanting: ‘Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!’ My team carried me out of the water on my board and held me aloft.”
Sam Bloom had won Gold.
“I spotted my three boys smiling from ear to ear. The look of joy and pride on their faces is an image I will cherish forever.”
Cam’s intimate and deeply personal images were loved on Instagram – Australia and the world fell in love with Penguin. A book followed, Penguin Bloom, which is an international best-seller, published in 13 languages.
Inevitably Hollywood came knocking. The motion picture produced by and starring Oscar-nominated actress Naomi Watts (as Sam), Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead) and two times Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver as Sam’s Mum, premiered at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival in September 2020. The film was released in Australian cinemas on January 1, 2021.
And a sequel book Sam Bloom, Heartache & Birdsong, the story from Sam’s point of view has just been published.
Penguin grew up and moved out. She returned occasionally over time, then less so. But, if there’s such a thing as “bird mail”, then the message definitely got around that the Bloom home – was the place to be!
Since Penguin there has been Puffin & Panda, Hollywood and now Frankie, the currawong, who’s pruning my locks (hopefully the greys!) as we talk about Sam walking again. Could it ever happen?
“I’m an Ambassador for SpinalCure Australia and we’re really excited about what’s happening at NeuRA (Neuroscience Research Australia).
“They’ve just launched a new Spinal Cord Injury Research Centre and have three amazing research projects happening, using electrical stimulation, virtual reality and other new treatments. I’d love to be part of the clinical trials, but we’ll see.”
I can hear the surf. We all can. And Sam wants me to take away one last message.
“Penguin opened my eyes and my heart. She helped me to be my best self, or at least my worst self far less often. I always tell people – don’t put your dreams on hold. Because you never know what’s around the corner.’
With her one eye Frankie, I swear, gives me a wink.