Gerard Gosen's birth story

Gerrard Gosens OAM has achieved more than most – yet he’s completely blind. He’s run numerous marathons and has competed at three Paralympic Games. He’s run the 2000km between Brisbane and Cairns five times, reached Mount Everest’s Camp Three, co-piloted an ultralight motorglider around Queensland three times and competed in the National Tandem Long Board Surfing Championships. All of this took place while he was Queensland Executive Officer and National Projects Manager of the Australian Paralympic Committee, then Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Blind Foundation and then Special Projects Manager for Vision Australia. In 2009, in a television world-first, Gerrard faced his greatest challenge ever when he took to the dance floor on Dancing with the Stars, something his two children thought was pretty cool. He’s always planning his next epic adventure…

I met my wife Heather in 1990 when I was running from Brisbane to Cairns through Maryborough. She was walking through the mall at lunchtime and I had been given the honour of firing the canon to mark Heritage Week. Heather came over and talked to me and my dog Joey at the civic reception. I asked her out to dinner and the rest is history. You could say it was a blind date.

When Heather and I had children, my biggest fear was passing on my genetic blindness to my kids. The doctors said there was a 50:50 chance. When it comes down to it though, blindness is not as challenging as some other disabilities, for example, the experience of having multiple disabilities.

When Heather went into labour with our son Jordon, I was the CEO at the Paralympic Committee and we were at my office. We drove straight to the hospital, but I wish I could have driven her myself. 

 

I found the hospital environment challenging. As a vision-impaired person, I rely on my other senses and the smell of hospitals always gets to me. It’s also a very cold environment. I couldn’t see what was going on around Heather but I could pick up on her voice. 

Throughout the pregnancy, I had been very hands-on, touching Heather’s belly and feeling our baby growing inside. I loved getting Heather to eat an ice cube and then feeling the baby move away from it.

When it came to the birth, I found that if I kept physical contact with Heather as much as possible, almost wrapped around her, I could feel each contraction and physically support her through it. 

I can’t give or perceive facial expressions so I can’t read Heather’s state of mind like someone else can. In Dancing with the Stars, Jess, my dance partner, would say, ‘Give me a sultry look,’ and I would say, ‘I have no idea what that looks like!’ Physical contact was what I could do to stay in touch with the birth and support Heather throughout the process.

At one point I asked Heather to put her arms around my neck so I could get closer, but when the contraction came, she had me in a tight headlock. That was a mistake! My advice to other men is to make sure your partner has short fingernails. Heather dug her nails into me during contractions and that was certainly painful! 

Jordan was a big boy – a ten-pound baby who wasn’t going to come out the natural way. Heather is only about five foot tall and weighs 48 kilos. Eventually, she had to have a Caesarean. I found the surgery very distracting. I had to separate myself from the commotion around me – the machinery, the sterility, the smell, the coldness of the beds – and totally support Heather. I found the whole emotional change in environments very sudden. I wish I had been better prepared for the first Caesarean, but it all happened so fast. 

The birth of Jordan was a sensational experience. To have been fully sighted would have been even more fantastic. Some men may be fearful of their wife being in pain and may take a step back from it all, but to be there, to share the moment and try to feel that pain with her was awesome. I loved being in the moment with my wife.

I found the first weeks with a newborn pretty easy to adjust to. I wondered if I would be able to care for my baby properly without sight, but those initial fears were quickly overcome. I’m attuned to my sense of hearing so I could quickly work out which cry meant what. I think Heather goes more on the visuals, but I could tell if our kids were ever bunging it on!

Jordan presented a real challenge when he started to crawl. ‘Where’d he go?’ I would think. I was worried I’d step on him or trip over him. Heather always takes great joy in explaining that I wasn’t perfect at changing nappies so I used to give the baby a shower just to make sure he was all clean before putting on a fresh one.

When we had our second child, a little girl called Taylor, all my fears were realised. She inherited my congenital sight problem. She has only four per cent sight.

She was a big baby too and so we had a scheduled Caesarean. I was in the operating theatre and they put Taylor in the crib to do her weights and measures. While they fixed Heather up, I was feeling the baby’s arms and legs. She grabbed my finger and pulled it closer to her face. I thought immediately, ‘Something is wrong here.’ The paediatrician confirmed that she did have something wrong with her sight and the news hit me hard. I had to hang on to the sink to stop myself from fainting.

I think vision impairment is harder for a girl. I wondered when she was born about how she was going to put on her makeup properly when the time came. Those sorts of delicate girl things worried me, but we have overcome what I call the ‘learned fears’ and she’s a great kid, doing very well.

For the woman, birth is a physical challenge, but as a couple, it was an emotional challenge for us. We didn’t have our parents nearby so we were in this together as a couple. I wondered what this newcomer would mean to our relationship. The unknowns of childbirth were a challenge too.

When you run a marathon, you swear you’ll never, ever put yourself through it again, but within a week you’re planning the next one. Childbirth seems to have the same effect on people.

We approached the birth in the same way that I have prepared for climbing Everest or running a marathon or running from Brisbane to Cairns. If you look at the huge challenge ahead in sections, you can handle it. One section at a time. 

It took our kids a while to work out that I’m blind. Heather and I used to cheat with little signals so that I could respond to visual things and the kids would wonder how I could ‘see’ what they were doing. Now that they obviously know that I’m blind, the kids sometimes try to take advantage of it by trying to do something really quietly. But my hearing is very good. 

The kids thought their dad being on Dancing with the Stars was great, though Jordan has hit his teens and I thought he might think it was very uncool. One day, for discipline reasons, I had to tell him he couldn’t do something he wanted to do and he said right back at me, ‘You may be a good dancer, but you suck as a dad!’ I thought that was great! He liked my dancing!

Copyright Lucy Bloom. This story first appeared in Cheers to Childbirth, the first edition. Pure Publishing 2010.

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