Madeleine West’s whole outlook on her career and life in general changed after being hit by a bus in 2002.
Madeleine West’s whole outlook on her career and life in general changed after being hit by a bus in 2002.

How I survived being hit by a bus

WARNING: Graphic content

I JUST wanted a fast food fix … but wound up being wiped out by a bus. Go figure! Thankfully I was wearing clean underwear, so that is one positive. And, it is true, I have always aspired to be the kinda girl who stops traffic. Just preferably not with my face.

That night, 16 years ago this June, is etched as clear in my mind today as the resultant scars etched on my face. I arrived in Oxford St, Sydney at 9.30pm. After a full day filming Neighbours in Melbourne, fuelled only by the average young ingenue's diet of sugary coffee, carrot sticks and the fumes of a glossy magazine (not to cast aspersions … some of my best friends are carrot sticks) I was FAMISHED.

My budget accommodation had no room service, just a sole vending machine which stole my $1.50 without relinquishing my KitKat.

So there was nothing for it but to hit the street seeking sustenance. Or anywhere with a deep fryer.

Twenty minutes later, loaded with cereal, milk, grapes, chocolate, and the mainstay of every self-respecting late-night snacker, corn chips and French onion dip, I emerged from a "boutique" 24/7 minimart. Standing beside a bus stop, I looked around for the nearest crossing, knowing this corresponded approximately with my hotel. I glanced right, then left, then ... saw only stars.

Before we proceed any further, let me just make it abundantly clear that I was at this point standing on the pavement. THE PAVEMENT. Not traditionally a location associated with being hit by a bus. And when I say 'hit' I mean literally. Not figuratively, metaphorically or marginally. Fully, completely, unequivocally hit by a bus. "It could be worse," some wit famously said, "tomorrow you could get hit by a bus." That is quite true, until you ARE hit by a bus, that is.

The left side of my face bore the brunt, while my body was tossed a few feet before eating pavement and skidding to a stop. Unconscious, corn chips sent flying, it was two street walkers who cradled me, staunched my shattered epidermis and called for an ambulance before disappearing into the night. Once recovered, I would put a call out for them to come forward so I could thank them. They never did. I am sure they had their reasons, but my decision to take on the role of an escort in Foxtel drama Satisfaction was not for nothing. A tribute if you will.

But back to the night in question.

Once in hospital, cleaned of blood, gore and crushed corn chips, but thankfully no longer hungry due to the blessed intervention of coma, the full damage could be assessed. Three skull fractures radiating from the orbital structure around my left eye, one running beneath the brain shelf. This little bugger remained stubbornly open for some time, leaking air bubbles into my cerebral fluid and cerebral fluid into my mouth. Urrrgh. Tastes like chowing down on aluminium foil - one culinary experience I would not recommend. Thankfully the fracture closed several days later, otherwise this recollection might have included a shaved head, having my skull cranked open and an artificial "shelf" inserted. That or a robust dose of meningitis. An opportunity for some awesome scarwork and a riveting dinner party story lost, but an outcome I am endlessly grateful I was able to avoid.

Madeleine West was lucky to survive being hit by a bus, but the accident did help her focus her goals in life and what she wanted out of her career.
Madeleine West was lucky to survive being hit by a bus, but the accident did help her focus her goals in life and what she wanted out of her career.

The point of impact with the bus gifted me with a crush injury whereby the force of flesh meeting metal at speed left a large section of skin irreparable. The point of impact with the asphalt sheared away several layers of the entire left side of my face. The blood vessels in my eyes were blown out, and a few teeth into the bargain.

Internally, my brain, having ricocheted about my skull like a ball between Nadal and Federer, sported numerous contusions, two cerebral haematomas, and a cerebral haemorrhage was bleeding freely. Along with the leaks and the air bubbles, my head was now strictly subprime real estate, desperately in need of a refurb. That's where things got slightly tricky. Arriving at the nearest hospital, still sleeping more like a roughly felled tree than a log, it was discovered my wallet was missing. In fact, it had been stolen as I lay in an Oxford St gutter.

This unconscious Jane Doe was in no fit state to agree to or refuse whatever surgery the medics on staff that night felt was warranted.

It's no small miracle that the charitable organisation whom I had flown to Sydney to host an event for called my agent the next day when they could not reach me on the phone, and he had the wherewithal to contact Neighbours, the airline I used, my hotel, and finally the local police and hospitals in the area, tracking me down and requesting a surgeon who specialised in putting faces back together before any scalpels were unsheathed.

While Madeleine’s physical scars have largely faded, the experience has forever changed her.
While Madeleine’s physical scars have largely faded, the experience has forever changed her.

My initial interactions with the investigating cops a week later, once I was stable and had emerged from the fog of amnesia, proved quite a highlight. Apparently, I had left an almost perfect make-up imprint, courtesy of the Neighbours glamour department, on the windscreen of the bus. My interviewing officer clearly had designs on a stand-up comedy career as his summary was: "We believe we have found the vehicle in question as you left your face on it".

Hilarious. I could have laughed for hours, were that not the same day I finally caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Graduating from the catheter meant a slow shuffle to the toilets. Glancing up while washing my hands I beheld a reflected face I did not recognise and sharply recoiled from. Grotesquely swollen, a mottled hot mess of pinks and purples, one side a thick carpet of grazed skin and bandages, broken stumps in the place of pearly whites, fiery eyes fit to put Schwarzenegger's Terminator to shame. It was a face no mother could truly love and no sane person would want.

In that moment, I wished for sleep. More specifically, I wished for the kind of sleep one does not wake from. A swift and painless fall to the concrete several floors below. One sleeping tablet too many. One more blunt head trauma to properly finish me off.

For in that moment I thought my career, the one thing I had striven so bloody hard for, the thing I thought defined and justified my very existence was over.

Who would hire this face? Who in their right mind would want this mess front and centre of stage or screen? Unless Phantom Of The Opera was touring or The Hunchback Of Notre Dame?

In that moment I made a mistake. It is a common one, a mistake made by multitudes every day and one young women are sadly particularly prone to. In that moment I believed the way I looked defined who I was. I truly thought my appearance was the most important thing about me.

In order to go on breathing, I had to ask myself: "Why had I become an actor in the first place?" Was it to tell people's stories and let others vicariously live through me and walk in another's shoes, stepping out of their own lives for just a moment? Or, was it so I could be papped and look smokin' on the cover of a magazine? I knew it was clearly and always had been, always would be, the former.

Acknowledging that begged an obvious question: "Well, if that is my true motivation, WHY is my career over? I could write, direct, get behind the camera, take a chance on being cast or write and perform my own material. Because if I was willing to throw away not just those possibilities, but my very life based on some busted teeth and a few kick-ass scars, I didn't deserve to live my dreams in the first place.

Reframing what was important to her lead Madeleine to roles such as Danielle McGuire in Underbelly, for which she won an AFI for best supporting actress.
Reframing what was important to her lead Madeleine to roles such as Danielle McGuire in Underbelly, for which she won an AFI for best supporting actress.

The whole sordid, slow and painful process brought home a crucial and often overlooked truth: The way we look, as definitive as we think it is, actually makes up the tiniest portion of who we are. Yet if we take all we are, all we have to offer, our gifts, our personality, our ambitions, our dreams, and try to cram it into that tiny percentage, that minuscule cavity, then how much will we miss out on? How much will the world miss out on? And what kind of world do we live in if everyone slices and dices the essence of who they to allow their most definitive character trait to be their appearance?

The realisation that I stumbled upon at a tender age would define the person I like to think I have become.

In a sense, the bus left me not just with a bundle of scars, a bit of a stutter and a dodgy eyebrow, but with many, many gifts.

• A clear vision of what I wanted tempered by an appreciation for the frailty of humanity.

• A willingness to forgive others which inexorably taught me to forgive myself for my perceived flaws and failings,

• To embrace my faults not as a handicap or disadvantage, but an opportunity to learn and identify that these "quirks" are what truly make me unique.

• Finally, I learned that no-one should ever be forced to give up their dreams. No matter who we are, where we come from or how we look, our dreams are what sustain us. Our ambitions get us out of bed in the morning, and if you have the courage, the determination, the drive, and the willingness to work hard to transform the dream into reality, then nothing can stop you … not even a bus.

To all the girls out there, desperately primping, pimping and punishing themselves, labouring to make themselves Insta-ready, editing those selfies, all for a world that tells them their nose doesn't seem to fit their face, that their butt is too big, those boobs are too small, where is your waist? Your perfect hair? Your perfect teeth? Your perfect mani-pedi? I call BS, and encourage you to as well. The glass ceiling is yours for the breaking, and at the end of the day, the most attractive quality you can possess is belief in yourself.

Madeleine West is an actor and author of the upcoming children's series D.V.A.P., published by Bonnier/Five Mile and available in May. Follow her on Instagram: @madmadswest

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