I have interviewed many inspiring women, but rarely has anyone touched my heart as much as the lovely Sam Bloom. I felt I knew Sam before we had spoken. I’d read the heartfelt story Penguin Bloom and Sam’s own follow up story and honest account of her life, Heartache & Birdsong, whilst I was holidaying at the beach. We both have three sons, an affinity for Africa and a love of travel, the beach and birds.
But….. Sam has experienced a traumatic event that few of us would understand or have the strength to claw our way back from. In 2013 whilst on holiday in Thailand, in the presence of her beloved family, Sam fell six metres from a high Thai lookout , crashing to the concrete below. Rotting timber had caused the safety barrier she’d leaned against to collapse. Sam survived against all odds and was left with a damaged spinal cord that left her completely paralysed from the chest down. What happened next has been made into new Australian movie, starring Naomi Watts, as this petite powerhouse.
On a sunny January day here in Brisbane I had the pleasure of speaking to Sam , who lives in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Sam’s voice sounds so young , happy and full of life and I know that if she lived nearby we would be friends. In my mind I can see her sitting in the lounge-room of her home staring out across the beach, watching crashing waves and gazing towards a solitary lighthouse high on the opposite hill. Sam has had the darkest of days and the darkest of thoughts but today we are celebrating her triumphs, the film, her sporting achievements and the love of her family and a little magpie called, Penguin.
Sam tells me that serendipity was at play when their award winning book was chosen to be made into a film by Naomi Watts. Her husband, Cam, who is a professional photographer, has a friend called, Emma Cooper, who knew Naomi. He gave Emma the award winning book, Penguin Bloom. It had been written by Cam Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive , who you might know from his Blue Day books. The story resonated with the actor and producer, Naomi, as well as Emma, because they both have kids, and soon they were scouting talent and locations for the film.
Arriving at the Bloom’s house they knew they’d found their setting.
Sam continues, “They did use our house in the film but it looks very different. They changed it a lot. Our house is so white. They painted walls, gave it a timber ceiling, changed the furniture and added darker full length curtains to convey a darker mood.”
Even with these changes the shape and aspect of the house remained. There is a flat roof where the boys play and the views from the top of the headland, over to the lighthouse and cliffs is simply breathtaking. This house is a star of its own in the film.
Before the accident Sam was a keen traveller and she and Cam loved exploring those places off the beaten track. She’d been to Africa five times and said, “I love Africa, I’ve been fascinated with Africa since I was kid.”
I told Sam that I’d been to Africa three times and was due to head over again just as the pandemic hit our shores. We both agreed that it was a magical land that completely changes your outlook on life.
When the boys were old enough the Blooms decided to start travelling again.
Sam said, “You know we had planned to go to Ethiopia with the boys, not Thailand. It was too dangerous politically at the time and travellers had been warned not to go, so we went to Thailand instead, thinking it would be safer.“
It’s those twists and turns that can change your life in an instant. Sam’s boys had all voted to go to Disneyland.
Sam laughs, “We ended up taking them eventually…. but that was much later.”
Sam relives her darkest days in the movie.The accident (which thankfully she can’t remember), her months of rehabilitation and her homecoming , which felt isolating and lonely. She cut herself off from friends, she felt she could no longer be a ‘proper ‘ Mum to her boys and the water, one of her great loves, was now off limits to her.
Sam says, “I always say the ‘real me’ died in Thailand. I was the active Mum. I was always playing with my boys. I loved surfing , mountain biking , skateboarding and I played soccer. Suddenly I couldn’t do any of those things. It was really hard.”
I asked Sam about her boys and how they reacted initially, “ The boys found it hard, super hard. Reuben, our eldest, found it so hard. Our middle son, Noah, was the angriest. I spoke to him about it and said , ‘ It is what it is, we can’t change it’.”
The Arrival of Penguin
The relationship with Sam and her boys is a crucial part of the movie and one of the heart wrenching moments for any Mum. Then along came a baby girl, a magpie that the boys aptly named, Penguin.
Sam says, “We were at my Mum’s place for lunch and Noah found a little baby magpie had been blown out of a high tree. She just changed the dynamics of the house. We thought she would die but the boys wanted to take care of her.”
Sam was hesitant to have a wild bird in the house but as each day passed and Penguin gained more and more strength, a bond began to grow. In the movie it shows some of the difficulties. Penguin messed on their white couch, stole Sam’s teabags and needed constant feeding, but she also began to survive and thrive, even with her broken wing.
Sam said, “I love Penguin. She was gorgeous. Magpies have a great energy. We have another one at the moment. He’s about four months old and his feather’s kept snapping off. Another family were looking after him but it was difficult so they rang Cam and now we are nursing him back to health.”
Sam noticed that having another living creature to care for took the family’s minds off their own problems, made them laugh and Penguin did not judge. She could be a sounding board for Sam’s hopes and fears, she would sing to Sam when she was down and she soon became the daughter that Sam had always wanted.
I asked Sam to share a special memory of Penguin.
She explained, “Penguin had been travelling further away and for longer. She needed to make her own place in the world. We hadn’t seen her for so long. It must have been about six weeks. We were worried that something had happened to her. It was Reuben’s thirteenth birthday and I said jokingly , ‘ Wouldn’t it be great if Penguin came back for your birthday?’
We were having lunch at my Mum’s house, again, and Cam got a call from someone saying that they thought Penguin was in their house. Sure enough it was Penguin and it made it such a special birthday for Reuben.”
Sam has also regained her love and mastery of the water. Firstly by taking up kayaking and then modified surfing.
Sam said, “When I was in rehab I used to complain that I’d never be able to play sport again and we had a recreational officer who was there to help. I thought maybe I could do some kayaking. It was hard at first, man so hard. I have no balance, no core strength.”
But one thing Sam did have was determination. She was so determined that she was eventually chosen for the Australian Paracanoe team which competed in Milan, Italy and the Bloom family were off and travelling again. Sam is also able to enjoy modified surfing and the endorphins from getting out and being active have really helped Sam in moving forward. The relationship with Sam and Gaye, who trains her in kayaking, is just beautiful to watch on screen.
I asked Sam what she hoped people would learn from watching this beautiful movie.
“I just hope they don’t take anything for granted and even just small things like jumping out of bed in the morning and going for a walk on the beach. Learn to appreciate the little things.”
She continues, “Also we are braver and more capable than what we think in difficult situations. One thing I am grateful for is that up until the accident I had done everything I wanted to…. like I wanted to trek in Bhutan….so I did it. I wanted to go to Africa ….so I went. Don’t put things off and keep travelling.”
We talked about COVID and how now in many parts of the world people’s lives are restricted.
Sam agrees, “It ‘s funny, with COVID everyone has had a little taste of what I’ve been through when you can’t do everything you want to do.“
Sam Bloom is an absolute inspiration to us all and her infectious laugh and strength of spirit will stay with this columnist forever. It has been a long , hard road and continues to be so for the Bloom family, but those little wins make it all the sweeter. To watch Sam’s journey for yourself, Penguin Bloom, starring Naomi Watts and Andrew Lincoln, will be showing in cinemas from January 21. It’s based on Sam and Penguin’s journey and watching this poignant film will remind you of the joys of life and help you learn how to fly.
Listen to my podcast with Sam Bloom below:
Freelance writer, wife and mother of three sons, occasional supply teacher and aspiring romance author, Michelle Beesley can be most often found in a coffee shop chatting with friends or beside a rugby field cheering on her favourite teams.
Michelle is a prolific—albeit reluctant—traveller, keen walker, bookworm and yoga enthusiast who loves anything pink or sparkly (including champagne!).