Sometimes life slaps us in the face. It’s annoying as hell, we curse and moan, then get over it. But sometimes life knocks us to the ground and kicks us in the head: a serious traffic accident, a child in the ICU, a cancer diagnosis – or mental and emotional problems that take us to the edge. That’s when the language and cultural obstacles in a foreign land can be maddening, and we really need our extended family and deep social network back in our other home. But they aren’t here. So how can we cope?
Contact the Haxstrong Charity, that’s how! This newish group led by Gregg Haxton, Shaun Bettinson, and a team of dedicated volunteers, have made it their mission to make sure that in your time of crisis, should it come, you will never, ever, be alone.
And they mean business. It’s a dedication based on personal experience. Haxton, from Queenstown, South Africa, is a totally likeable guy with a big smile and an even bigger heart. Back in 2010, after teaching English at Hess schools for three years, he parlayed his charisma into a gig working as a manager at the Pig and Whistle pub (for Max Murphy of Brass Monkey fame) down in Kaohsiung. This helped cement his status as one of the most universally loved figures of the Kaohsiung scene, who would befriend – genuinely – anyone who came into the pub.
“He was like a 1-man welcoming party (and I do mean party) who made an instant impression in the best way on all who met him,” said one of his friends, Ryan Jones.
But the laws of biology and physics do not spare the charismatic. “One night at the pub, I’d had a few too many. My friends took my motorcycle keys away from me,” relates Haxton. “But then another friend got them back for me. “ Oops!
His friend Henry was the first on the scene at the hospital. “It was a Sunday morning around 4:00a.m. and I was called by the police and asked if I knew Gregg, then when I said yes, I was told to go to the hospital because he’d had an accident.” But when Henry got to the hospital he was told that Haxton was near death. “There was no real expectation of his survival except from the brain surgeon Dr. Yang, who vowed to save him through sheer force of will.”
Another friend, Yero Rudzinkas recounts: “I remember finding my way into Gregg’s hospital room a couple of hours after the accident, before anyone else was allowed in, and man–It was something else. A twitching mass of bloody purple bandages, unrecognizable as anything except damaged.”
Drunk, Haxton had collided with a car whose driver was also drunk. (Don’t drink and drive folks!) Among other physical injuries, he had a burst eyeball and a fractured skull with brain hemorrhaging. He also lost a femur, since replaced with a titanium rod. But in the days and weeks after the accident, he was hanging on to life by a thread.
His Kaohsiung buddies took over management of his affairs. And thus unofficially, the Haxstrong Charity was born. Ryan Jones coined the term “Haxstrong” because he wanted Haxton to be strong again. To cope with his grief, he created a poster of Haxton – nicknamed “the Plesh”- looking hale and hearty, as he had been before, and as they all desperately hoped he would be again.
Another friend, Henry George Young, took charge of the situation: “I had to make the medical decisions for him. I got hold of his mum a few hours later. I also contacted a trauma surgeon friend in South Africa whose son is a mutual friend of Gregg’s and mine, who was able to liaise with the Taiwanese doctors.” He also took care of Haxton’s family when they came to Taiwan a few days later, and kept the steady stream of visitors to his room down to a manageable level.
Rudzinkas called a meeting to get fundraising started. Haxton was in a coma (at his worst, a 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale) and even in Taiwan, intensive care isn’t cheap.
There were a series of fundraisers at venues such as the Brickyard to cover the lion’s share of the expenses. The love energy at these events created what Jon Hemmings called, “a sense of unity, fire and purpose” that helped people overcome their despair.
By all accounts, it was Haxton’s warm and loving nature that had inspired the intense emotional response to love him back to life.
And then seven weeks after his accident, he came out of his coma.
His mom was there, and he asked her why, and Haxton said she told him, “You’ve already asked me that question five times.”
“My perception of reality had become severely distorted – the only way to describe it to imagine that you are in one of those dreams that that feel so incredibly real that you cannot believe that you are dreaming –until you wake up, that is.
“But for me, there was no waking up…. this was my reality. Indeed, due to the damage done to the frontal lobe area of my brain, I did not even know who I was any more.”
After several operations and court cases, Haxton went back to South Africa to cocoon with his family. But he was far from happy. “I began to suffer from severe depression.”
Mood swings are a normal part of recovering from head trauma. But part of what brought him down was his diminished physical capacity: being weak and damaged, and hobbling around on crutches was frustrating to the former rugby player and outdoorsman. His mental capacity was also diminished, and he was plagued by the constant sense of unreality.
“It was a very dark time full of sadness, confusion, anger and other negative emotions. It got to the point where I was feeling so overwhelmed by negativity that suicide began to become a very real possibility.”
But then he made a breakthrough. Counseling helped him understand that the sense of unreality would fade with time, and that he would get stronger and better. This was a huge relief to him. But there was another understanding as well, sad but useful: he would never be the old Gregg Haxton again.
So he embraced a new one. He became inspired with a mission: return to Taiwan and turn Haxstrong into a charity to help anybody who needed help – and emotional support – in a desperate hour. “What I stand for is sharing love and being by the side of those that need it.”
February 2012, one and a half years after the accident: Back in Taiwan, Haxton and his fellow big hearts started to get busy helping others. One case was José “Miguel” Rios, an American yacht designer who was stricken with a bad case of Japanese Encephalitis back in 2012, and has been in various stages of ill health ever since. They helped with fundraising and also visited him frequently to brighten his mood.
Haxstrong holds an annual fair called “Life’s Peachy”, in honor of a 28-year-old American woman named Debbie Peachy who passed away suddenly from cancer in 2012 in Kaohsiung. The event gives hope to patients and family members and helps Peachy’s loved ones deal with their loss. It also raises money for cancer charities.
Haxstrong also helped with some famous cases of infants with medical issues born to parents who were both non-Taiwanese nationals. Until the age of six months old, such infants aren’t covered by Taiwan’s national health insurance, often leaving the parents with huge medical bills.
One famous baby case in 2016 was Bas and Erica Brull whose identical twins had in utero complications, and required incubator care after birth. Haxstrong and many others helped publicize their GoFundMe campaign. The hubbub over this case and others helped get a draft law automatically granting coverage to such infants passed in May 2017. It is awaiting final acceptance.
Another well-known case that Haxstrong was a big part of was of Canadian John Kelly, who was struck by a car in Taichung last October, receiving serious head trauma. Doctors suggested he be medevacked to Canada, but that plus his already considerable bills was more than his family could afford. So another GoFundMe campaign and fund raising events helped out by Haxstrong. Unfortunately, Kelly passed away in Canada last December.
This is where the current president of Haxstrong, Shaun Bettinson, came in. If Haxton is the heart and soul of the organization, Bettinson is the business brain. He has a degree in Business Computing, and experience in sales to the IT sector in Belfast. He also currently has his own company that sells indoor air quality meters called a “Laser Egg”.
Bettinson also had a history of event management, fund raising, and generally helping out. Back in 2009, an expat named Patrick Byrne in Taichung had a young child who had a serious health problem. “There was a text message going around looking for blood donors,” said Bettinson. Apparently, prevalence of blood types in Taiwan among locals is different than for many foreigners. “Then I heard later that he might have developmental problems. It cost about 15,000NTD per day in the intensive care unit (ICU). The parents owed almost half a million NT dollars!”
Bettinson and others put together a sponsored walk in Metropolitan Park in Taichung, and raised 250,000NT in a day. The news coverage of the event caused the hospital to take 100,000NT off the bill. With other donations, and a BBQ/raffle, they raised 750,000NT and cleared his bill!
Bettinson had actually met Haxton years ago in Singapore at a Hess training event. So when the John Kelly accident happened, and it became clear that Haxstrong was getting involved, Bettinson offered to consult as “their man in Taichung.” Over time, he became the vice president, and then president; his organizational acumen was exactly what was needed to grow a stable and efficient charity.
The Haxstorng team has big plans: Bettinson says there’s a list of about 700 donors for rare blood types who donate on a regular basis. “I bet not one of them is a foreigner.” He’d like to get expats on that list to reduce the time between needing and getting a transfusion. He also is creating an online database listing reliable lawyers and doctors, legal and health insurance information, and so on. They are signing up volunteers -vetted volunteers, actually willing to do work – who can be mobilized when needed. Long term, they even hope to have offices with staff and drop in centers in some locations in Taiwan.
It’s an ambitious goal, and some might shake their heads and doubt they’ll achieve. It. But in response, Haxton would only smile and quote his hero, Nelson Mandela: “When people are determined they can overcome anything.”