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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

A sporting chance

Ben Hekenui’s love of sport was a crucial factor in his recovery from a shocking injury, he tells ANGELA GREGORY.

He’s officially a hero at work but double amputee Ben Hekenui is equally highly regarded at home, on the sidelines of New Plymouth sportfields, and even when just out kayaking with his mates.

Hekenui lost both his legs after falling nearly 5m into a paper baling machine which sheared off his lower legs at Taranaki Recyclers in April 2008. It would be a devastating injury for anyone, and for the sports-mad Hekenui it could have robbed him of his very passion for life.

But it is that involvement in sporting activities that Hekenui attributes to his remarkable recovery which has seen him back in part-time work and re-involved in his local community.

“I get the right mental attitudes I need from having played sport – like commitment, determination, and goal-setting.”

Social networking from his sporting contacts helped with Hekenui’s recovery. He had regular visits in hospital and at home from fellow rugby league players, and more than 1000 people attended a charity league match played after his accident to raise money to help him face his new future.

Hekenui was a keen rugby and rugby league player, in the top level senior teams in Manawatu before shifting to New Plymouth not long before the accident. He had played just one game for Marist Dragons, a club for whom he now coaches.

During the league season Hekenui coaches two nights a week, then watches the game on Saturday, walking up and down the sideline on his prosthetic legs. The season had just finished when Safeguard met him. “I’m in relaxing mode now,” he says with a guilty grin.

It’s hard to imagine Hekenui relaxing for too long. As he says himself: “I like to get out of the house … and if young people can see someone like me get out and do things then they know they can too. Some people find it hard just to get up and go to work.”

Hekenui still plays some sport, and picked up a bronze medal for javelin at the national paraplegic games. He’s had a go at wheelchair basketball and is waiting for a purpose-built wheelchair to become available through Sport Taranaki. “I enjoy the action and it’s a good workout.”

His wife Chrissy plays softball and if her team is short Ben puts his hand up to play. “I can still hit a ball. In one game three of us were playing – me, one guy with his arm missing, and a single leg amputee.”

Hekenui has more recently taken up kayaking, which provides the perfect opportunity to catch a fish off the beach, just down the road from his Bell Block home.

He also supports youth sport, not least cheering on his son who plays representative softball for New Zealand in the under-17s team, and also for the NZ Maori under-16s rugby league squad.

His inspirational comeback has seen him recognised at his workplace, a Countdown supermarket, which nominated him as a company hero. The award was recently personally bestowed on Hekenui, and other Australasian Countdown heroes, at a function in Sydney. Such an accolade was not new to Hekenui, who in 2008 was named the Taranaki Person of theYear.

Hekenui has worked at Countdown since July last year in the butchery department where he unloads and prices meat trays. Hekenui says as soon as he got home from his month in hospital after the accident he had wanted a job. “I was always an active person, and wanted to get back out there.”

Most advertised jobs were unsuitable but then Countdown opened a new supermarket in New Plymouth, and was looking for 300 workers. “There were 1200 applicants – I was one of the lucky ones.”

Hekenui works there a total of six hours a week, which he spreads over two days as he gets tired walking on his prosthetic legs. “They make it 300 times harder to walk.” But as the judge who prosecuted the recycling company noted in sentencing, Hekenui is a “strong and resilient man”.


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