Backing Max

Sergeant Mick Shearman & son Max Shearmon

The 96-kilometre Kokoda Track is an unrelenting test of durability, strength and stamina. So too is a life lived with Cerebral Palsy. One test lasts eight days, the other a lifetime.

When Mick Shearman took on the challenge in August, he did so with the added difficulty of 27 extra kilograms on his back, but the precious cargo he shouldered was an inspiration rather than a burden.

It was his six-year-old son Max, who has Cerebral Palsy.

The Kokoda mission provided an apt vehicle to raise awareness for Max’s condition and the physical limitations it engenders, and to raise money to give Max and other affected children access to expensive therapy that has been shown to limit those limitations.

“To take a six-year-old disabled boy on the Kokoda Track is not a decision I made lightly, particularly given he had to be carried the whole way,” Mick said.

“First stop was Monash preventative medicine clinic, then a paediatrician, then getting advice on how to carry him, then testing him in the backpack, all this before our training even commenced.”

A Sergeant at Rosebud Police Station, and a Police Association Delegate, Mick is aiming to raise $450,000 to fund a trial of TheraSuit treatment for 15 children with the same condition, to evaluate its benefits on their range of movement.

“This therapy works, I was a sceptic but I have seen firsthand how it worked for Max. I would love to see other kids benefit from this too,” Mick said.

The TheraSuit, derived from a Russian space suit designed to counteract the harmful effects of weightlessness on the body, has been refined into a therapeutic model that helps children with Cerebral Palsy and other neuromuscular disorders.

It is used in several countries around the world, but not widely in Australia and isn’t subject to government funding.

One year’s therapy using the suit, which has a vest, shorts, knee pads, shoe attachments, hat, and uses bungees to correctly align and load the body during physical therapy sessions, costs almost $30,000.

Mick says after trialling the TheraSuit, Max showed obvious improvements in his movement and strength.

“He was stronger, more flexible, more confident and had a greater range of movement. He was walking unaided and started to ride a bike with training wheels,” he said.

If a wider study involving other Australian children with Cerebral Palsy shows similar results, it will strengthen the case for the therapy to be subsidised down the track.

“A national case study will not be commissioned unless results can be proven in a small group of 10 – 15 kids. Normally, medical companies can fund trials and case studies because they have the backing of billion-dollar companies. This is not a medical trial, it’s a physical therapy trial and is not supported by a billion-dollar company.”

The Kokoda Track fundraiser was one branch of the ‘Max on a Mission’ campaign to fund the trial.

Mick charted the gruelling journey he and Max shared in a daily diary, which is reproduced on these pages.

By Brendan Roberts

Mick & Max's Kokoda Diary

Kokoda to Deniki: 3-hours trek

A 3am wake up for a 6am flight to Popondetta. After walking for an hour we passed through a village where a lady who had read about our trek in the PNG news came up with her child, Cameron, who is severely affected by Cerebral Palsy. It was a really emotional chat and encapsulated the importance of what we were embarking on. A great, but tiring first day. Max was full of fun and loved hearing the songs of the porters. I’m in awe of the landscape, have never seen anything like it.

Deniki to Alola: 6-hour trek.

We enjoyed an emotional visit to Isurava and held a minute silence in respect of the battle that took place here 75 years ago. As we reached Alola we were greeted by a lot of the local kids, some wearing footy jumpers. Max really took a shine to the boy with the Collingwood jumper. The played soccer for over an hour together, neither of them spoke the same language but they all spoke the international language of sport. We’ve been greeted in each village with handmade gifts and big smiles. Having the time of our lives.

Alola to Templeton’s Crossing: 1.8-hour trek.

The hardest day so far, but we’re still feeling strong. Max was fascinated by all the mountain gun sites and the weaponry we trekked past today and even went for a quick swim in the water. He has been such a little champion, singing along with the porters and telling us stories all day to keep us entertained.

Templeton’s Crossing to Kagi: 8-hour trek.

We’re now well into the groove of hiking. We’ve reached the halfway mark, via a big climb up Mt Bellamy, the highest point of the track. Very greasy conditions after some rain in the afternoon. The porters decided it was their turn to take Max. Today was the hardest, but most rewarding experience so far. A big, tough day, but it’s downhill from here after reaching the half way mark.

Sleeping at a great village near Kagi called Naduri, we had fun shooting popcorn at each other with a slingshot. Max looks forward to stopping each night and playing with the local kids.

Kagi to Menari: 7-hour trek

Today took us 17 kilometres, uphill for most of the way. Even Max was having a hard time towards the end, needing to get to camp and rest. After arriving at camp, he was back to himself, full of stories and laughs. He played in a soccer game with about 40 village kids. So much fun and love.

Menari to Nauro: 6-hour trek.

In comparison, today was a walk in the park. The weather was nice and sunny and Max enjoyed a float down the river, with the team guiding him along the way. He’s having a great time at every village we walk through. The porters are really making the walk fun for Max with songs and jokes. There’s only two more nights left and we’re feeling a little bit disappointed that the trip is coming to an end. We’re both having a lot of fun and feeling stronger every day. Max is loving it. All smiles.

Nauro to Ua-Ule Creek: 7-hour trek.

Tonight is the crew’s last camp site before our final trek tomorrow to Port Moresby. A massive day today with a trek over the Maguli Range and finishing up in the beautiful Ua-Ule Creek rock pools. Max was so excited to get to the village and be greeted by all the local kids. He was on all fours, so all the village kids got on their hands and knees and played with him at his comfort level and playing ball games and crawling with him. Just beautiful. The porters sang songs all night while the kids toasted marshmallows. A memorable last night.

Ua-Ule Creek to Owers’ Corner: 6-hour trek.

Inspired, proud, overwhelmed, emotional, relieved, exhausted and elated. It was a hot, long walk, and when we saw the arches we just lost it. A sense of achievement but also sadness that after ten months of training and preparation this trip is over. What an achievement by all. Eight days, 96kms, 8 men, three women and two 60-year-old boys. Thank you to the amazing porters for getting us here. I did it with my 6-year-old son on my back. The trip of our lives!