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Real Life

I nearly died in an earthquake and now I'm using my trauma to help others

Bonnie shares her inspiring story of survival and how she is using her experience to help others overcome trauma through tattoos

By As told to Take 5

Bonnie Singh, 36, Lyttelton, NZ shares how her life was going perfectly until it fell apart;

My workmate Matti and I bopped along to the radio as we mopped the floors and sterilised the equipment.
I'd just started a new job as an apprentice tattoo artist and I was buzzing with nervous excitement as we got ready to open.
My boss, Matt, and the senior tattooist, Emma, were outside having a smoke and my first client Rachel was next door grabbing a coffee while we were setting up.
Suddenly, we felt the ground shake. There had been an earthquake a few months ago so we instantly recognised it.
"We need to get out of here," Matti urged, pulling me towards the door.
But I ran back in to grab 
my phone.
It was my mum's birthday and I hadn't called her yet to celebrate.
Suddenly, everything went black.
I woke up choking on dust and my head was throbbing.
I felt something heavy on my legs and there was rubble all over me.
Where am I? The shop, the earthquake… I recalled.
Get up Bonnie or you'll die.
I could hear Matt's voice at the back door, calling out to Matti and me.
Everything was pitch black and my head hurt.
I saw a small crack of light about an arms' length away, I needed to move towards it.
It took everything I had to sit up and pull a wooden beam off my legs but slowly 
I was able to crawl 
out over the bricks.
Matt had gone by then; I was all alone.
The shop was destroyed after the earthquake. (Image: Supplied)
Where's Matti? I panicked, glancing around.
"Matti, Matti!" I screamed.
Suddenly people rushed over and started pulling bricks off him.
I tried to get up on my knees to help but a pair of arms wrapped around me.
"You need to get to hospital, sweetie," she urged, dragging me away.
She waved down 
a car passing by, and helped me into the back seat.
I knew I'd received a hard knock to my head but I wanted to stay and make sure Matti was okay.
Christchurch Hospital looked like a bomb had hit it, part of the roof had collapsed and patients were being evacuated.
I was helped into a wheelchair and given pain medication.
People much worse off than me started arriving, so I had 
a long wait to see the doc.
After trying for hours to call my husband, Daniel, I finally got through to my brother Tony.
"We thought you were dead," he cried.
He'd ran to the tattoo shop after the quake in search of me and rescuers told him they'd dug out the body of a female.
I gasped.
It must have been Rachel, who'd returned with her coffee.
Tony assured me Daniel and my daughter, Ebony, one, were safe.
Me in hospital with my daughter, Ebony. (Image: Supplied)
Finally I was taken for an X-ray.
"Don't move another inch!" the radiologist urged.
I'd broken my neck and back and shouldn't have been moving at all.
It must have been all the shock and adrenaline, which had kept 
me going.
I spent the rest of the night in hospital in a brace.
One man was told his wife and daughter didn't make it.
It 
was heartbreaking to watch.
The next day a social worker came into my room to tell me she'd found out about Matti.
"But he didn't make it," she continued softly.
I started sobbing.
Why had 
I made it and he didn't – we'd been standing a metre apart.
The next few days were 
a blur.
When I slept, I had nightmares of the horror but real life was even worse. 

I felt so guilty about leaving Matti in the rubble, I didn't think I deserved 
to be alive.
When I started physio a week later, all I could do was stand up before collapsing.
Going home two weeks later I was still recovering from my head injury.
It made me angry and upset and ruined my memory but docs said I need to give it time.
I couldn't pick up or play with Ebony but Daniel was amazingly patient.
I had to continue physical therapy for six months and see 
a psychologist.
Learning that 185 people tragically lost their lives in the earthquake made me feel incredibly guilty.
When Matt opened a new tattoo parlour, he called me.
"We'd love to have you back," he offered.
I was desperate to finish learning my trade but couldn't work full time due to constant pain.
Matt's wife Jak, also a tattooist, offered to teach me at their house, so I practised on fruit.
I love being able to help other survivors. (Image: Supplied)
One day, she thought I was ready to try the real thing and let me give her a tattoo of a small rabbit just near her knee.
I was so proud!
Eventually, Jak, Emma and I decided to open our own tattoo parlour so we could split the time between work and looking after our kids.
Daniel and I had sadly broken up so I needed a fresh start.
We found 
a perfect underground place in Lyttleton and opened our business, Maid of Ink.
One day, I made a passing comment complaining about the stretch marks on my tummy from pregnancy.
"Why don't you let me tattoo over it?" Jak suggested.
She made a beautiful floral pattern all over my lower waist.
It filled me with so much confidence – I loved it!
A tattoo I did to cover a clients tummy tuck scar. (Image: Supplied)
A week later a young girl came into the shop and explained she'd had depression as a teen and 
used to cut her arms, which left her with scars.
She cried when I covered them with a flower.
"I can finally put 
my past behind me," she wept.
Word seemed to spread quickly after that, as people with all sorts of scars called in.
A man called about his mum who'd had her breast removed from cancer.
"She's not normally the type to get a tattoo but it might help her," he said.
I opened up the shop late one night by myself, so his mum could come in and take her shirt off without feeling 
too exposed.
She shook as she showed me her scars and I covered them in a lace pattern."Thank you for making me feel beautiful again," she cried.
It fills me with so much pride to be able to help.
Tattooing over scars has become my speciality.
The burning I feel in my back as 
I hunch over just reminds me 
I am one of the lucky ones, 
like so many of my customers.
We're all survivors.

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