Two years on: Byron’s incredible journey

Side by side: Byron surrounded by his friends and family for his 21st birthday last year. Photographs supplied



WITH the snap of a finger, Byron Foley’s life was turned upside-down after a workplace incident left him a different man.

The then 20-year-old second-year apprentice fitter and turner was left in a critical condition after he was struck in the head while performing instructed duties at Dennis Jones Engineering in Morwell.

Now two years since the incident, Byron, now 22, has endured an incredible journey which has not been easy on himself nor his family.

His life was forever changed on Wednesday, October 13, 2021, and it’s a day that his family will never forget.

Over the last two years, Byron’s life has been filled with operations, rehabilitation and therapy, filled with the support of his friends and family.

“We received a phone call that there was something happening down at the Dennis Jones workshop … as we were around the corner from the workshop, my husband Paul and I called around to see what was happening,” Byron’s mum Rachel recalled of that fateful day.

When Rachel and Paul arrived at Byron’s workplace, there were ambulances and medical cars everywhere.

Paul went inside to see what was going on, while Rachel’s gut feeling left her waiting in the car.

After five or so minutes, Rachel decided to walk in, but she was stopped by paramedics who told her not to go inside.

“I went numb. Started to shake and just said ‘Please tell me it’s not my son’,” she said.

Her situation escalated when the director of Dennis Jones Engineering, Dennis Jones came out and told her “I think I’ve killed your son.”

“I went numb, I didn’t know what to say. I looked at him in disbelief and moved away from him,” Rachel said.

Soon after, Rachel and Paul were informed that Byron had been placed in an induced coma, and once he was stable, he was to be airlifted for the Alfred Hospital.

Due to COVID restrictions in 2021, Rachel nor Paul could step foot in the helicopter or ambulance.

Byron’s brother Kieren arrived and was instantly “gutted”.

“We thought we were saying goodbye for good,” Rachel said.

“We just got told to go home and wait for the Alfred (Hospital) to ring. I couldn’t believe it, that all of our rights as parents were taken away and reduced to a stay-and-wait role.”

Living close to the local airport, Rachel, Paul and Kieren were standing in their backyard waiting for the chopper to fly over.

“I was thinking, ‘How can Byron be doing all of this by himself without us to help him when he needed us the most?’” Rachel said.

Meanwhile, it was phone call after phone call for the Foley’s, after friends and family had heard of the incident, they had to break the news to everyone that was close to him.

Close friend Aidyn Sheers was left with questions, having not heard from Byron for hours, with the two planning to go fishing that night.

“I started messaging a few mates as I knew something was wrong. I eventually got in contact with Kieren and he told me something happened at work, he’s been hit in the head, he’s been put in a coma, and if they don’t operate he’ll die,” Aidyn said.

“I remember feeling completely sick I couldn’t even speak, I just started crying. I couldn’t even go to work the next day, because all I could think is that I was going to get a call saying that Byron hadn’t made it.”

“I went inside and laid on his bed and cried for hours,” Rachel said.

That evening, Rachel received a phone call from a surgeon, requesting permission to operate on Byron, letting her know that they needed to operate then and there to save his life.

Without hesitation, the operation was underway, and it was once again a waiting game for the Foley’s.

More family poured into their home and supported each other through the night.

“(At) about 10pm they rang me and said that Byron had survived the surgery, but they didn’t know if he would make it through the night,” Rachel said.

Still, due to COVID restrictions, no one was allowed to visit Byron at the hospital, and it was the only thing that his family wanted to do.

“Doctors told us we could only see him if he died,” Rachel added.

“I wouldn’t let anyone leave the house, I wanted everyone to stay. I was scared that something would happen to them if they left, scared to be alone in case someone told me something that I had to do for Byron, scared they would miss updates.”

Rachel woke in the morning and was told that Byron had made it through the night, and she would be told if anything changes.

She visited her nan and pop’s grave and begged for them to watched over him.

“The feeling of powerlessness made me realise I had no control, I was not able to see him. It was a parents’ worst nightmare,” she said.

Later in the afternoon of Thursday, October 14 2021 another operation was needed for Byron as the pressure in his head was getting too high.

They had to operate once again to save his life.

“That was confronting and almost scarier than the night before, because I had time to think about all of the things that could go wrong,” Rachel said.

“I just remember watching Paul and Kieren fall apart, and to see my dad cry, I don’t think I have ever seen that many times in my life.”

Later than evening, Byron was out of his second surgery, but he was still “touch and go”.

But the following day, Rachel and Paul faced some big decisions to make.

The doctor from the Intensive Care Unit asked if Rachel and Paul had considered turning Byron’s life support off, as it was still unknown how damaged his brain was.

“He rang back later in the afternoon, the situation was unchanged, but Paul and I were able to visit for an hour to talk to them and make that big decision,” Rachel said.

“I was totally broken, but I knew that I had to toughen up and do whatever we thought Byron would want us to do.

“Paul and I were pretty much on the same page with our decision.

“We made the decision to hold off and wait, as we had decided that we wouldn’t let Byron be a vegetable. It was not what he would want.”

Rachel recollects seeing her husband with heartache as they sat with Byron, feeling helpless that she couldn’t do anything about the situation directly.

“I just laid on Byron’s chest and cried the whole time I was there,” she said.

“To see your son with tubes coming out of his brain, coming out of everywhere, machines breathing for him, machines doing everything and the bandages around his head with a sticker saying ‘No Bone’. I will never forget that.

“Then we had to leave and that was the hardest thing, knowing that he was going to be alone and we didn’t know if we were going to be allowed to come back and see him.”

Weeks passed, and every day Rachel and Paul would beg to visit once again, even just to drive four hours there and back for a one-hour visit.

When Byron was released from life support to see how he would go by himself, the family could only watch via Zoom.

For weeks that was the only type of contact.

Friends would often join the Foley’s at their house to see Byron via Zoom, all giving their support to one another.

“It was so hard because he was awake, but I could tell he didn’t know what was going on but he could only see our faces on the Zoom link. It was hard because he was there but I didn’t know how much he knew,” Rachel said.

When Rachel and Paul were able to visit again, following weeks of trading back and forth, they filled his room in the Brain Injury Ward with photos of his friends and family, and set up music for him.

But following months of assessment and his titanium skull surgery in February 2022, Byron was released for two weeks in March 2022, over five months since the incident.

“We were finding that he couldn’t talk. He stared a lot. Like he wanted to say something but he couldn’t say it, or didn’t know how to say it but just wanted to express himself. He just looked like he didn’t know himself as though he didn’t know who he was,” Rachel said.

When returning to Melbourne’s Epworth Rehabilitation, Byron and Rachel spent weeks away from the rest of the family.

There, Byron would undergo physio rehabilitation and speech therapy every day, coming home on weekends.

They spent 10 months in this cycle.

But now, over two years since the incident, Byron is still doing physiotherapy and speech therapy five days a week, Monday to Friday, driving up and back, to and from Melbourne.

Rachel now only works casually, while Paul had to change jobs to be closer to home.

Byron suffers from seizures, and each one is scarier than the first, as the attack rolls his tongue back in his mouth.

“One such time I was driving down the highway, Byron and I were hungry and wanted a hamburger, so we stopped at Maccas for a cheeseburger, about 10 kilometres down the road, Byron started to have a seizure,” Rachel said.

“He had food in his mouth. His tongue rolled back in his mouth and I had to pull over.

“I had to grab something out of the console, I cannot even remember what it was now, to stop his mouth from closing down, to scoop food out of his mouth so that he wouldn’t choke. All by myself on the side of the highway. It was horrifying.”

Just another fear added to Rachel’s long list, the fact he could choke on something at any given time.

“I just can never relax because of constant worry and fear,” she said.

Rachel questioned herself, asking what kind of future Byron has, as he will never be able to do anything he once loved.

“He was always out on his motorbike, or in his cars. He lost his girlfriend. He was a very popular boy, social boy, now he is isolated,” Rachel said.

“He is finding more and more of his friends are disappearing because their lives are going places and his is not.

“He is missing those milestones, mates turning 21, buying homes, getting engaged, starting to have families. All things Byron should be doing but cannot.

“He was so fun and the fun seems to have disappeared from his life. He seems to be living just for rehab, for therapy … everything that he loved and lived for is not possible for him now … there are no more adventures.”

The extent of Byron’s brain damage is still unknown as he is still unable to communicate properly, appointments are still ongoing.

As his friends and family celebrate how far he has come in the past two years, Rachel hopes that an example is made from this instance.

“I can only hope that this sets an example of what no one would want to have happen to their child. No one would want to go through what we are still going through. A parent should never have a phone call like that. Your kids should be able to go to work safe,” she said.

“Watching Byron’s recovery while rewarding seeing how far he’s come, has been one of the hardest things a mate can watch,” Aidyn said.

“Byron was the one person I knew that never said no to going out on a weekend, camping, motorbike riding, or just having a few beers. So having to see him learn to walk and talk again was heart-wrenching.”

Dennis Jones Engineering and the director, Dennis Jones himself, faced two charges each at the start of 2023.

The two parties face court again tomorrow (Thursday, November 2), after pleading guilty to the charges.

Support: Byron’s friends gather to see him via Zoom while he was in hospital.
Strong: Rachel with her son Byron during her first visit, three days after the incident.
Reunited: Kieren Foley (left) sees his brother Bryan for the first time in over five months, finally being allowed to visit at the hospital in March 2022.