Chris Lee stands at the spot where he was bashed and stabbed three years ago. Photo: Dallas KilponenChris Lee was 18 years old when a stranger stabbed him in his left eye, stomped on his head, and watched as the teenager lay thrashing and bleeding on the pavement of William Street early on Easter Sunday 2012.
The assailant would have seen the teenager groaning in pain, and his friends, panicked and scared, call triple zero and bundle him into an ambulance.
But that stranger would not have seen Chris’ mother crying uncontrollably as she sat by her son’s hospital bed.
Or that Chris’ bulbous eyes had swollen shut, his collapsed cheek, the dark purple, blue, black and yellow bruising across his face, the dried blood that coated his knuckles and coloured his fingernails. Or the way a deep cut in the corner of his mouth split open and every time he tried to speak fresh blood oozed out.
And he wouldn’t have known that a handful of first responders helped put the broken teenager back together again. The paramedics, the police and the doctors who met Chris on the worst night of his life.
More than three years on, that stranger has never been caught, and Chris, half blind as a result of that attack, possesses more insight into his own potential and limits than most young men his age.
Instead of burying the memory of that violent night, he relives it over and over again as an ambassador for the Thomas Kelly Youth Foundation as a warning to school kids of the realities of alcohol-fuelled violence.
But did those first responders still think about him and see a battered victim?
Over the past few weeks Fairfax Media has reunited Chris with each of his everyday heroes he met 3½ years ago to show them all he’s not that broken kid anymore. ‘I could have just kept walking’
Chris Lee with sister Olivia (left) and mother Milli at the site of his stabbing in William Street. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
“I could have just kept walking,” Chris said as he rubs the eyebrow above his useless left eye.
“I didn’t have to fight the guy. I take complete responsibility for that,” he said.
Responsibility is something Chris talks a lot about as he sits in the Prince of Wales Hospital where he underwent multiple eye and facial surgeries as doctors worked in vain to save his sight in his left eye.
He watched his father die of cancer in the same hospital less than two months before he was stabbed.
Chris had become the man of the house, responsible for his mother and siblings.
“It was a lot of pressure, and it probably had something to do with why I would go out drinking with my friends a fair bit, but that’s no excuse,” he said.
Now 22 years old, he knows he doesn’t fit the mould of the perfect, blameless victim. The burly Australian of Fijian heritage had been drinking for several hours when he and his two friends crossed paths with a stranger and his girlfriend near the top of William Street.
Chris didn’t need much provoking. Just some passing trash talk and an invitation to brawl.
“It’s a bit patchy, but I remember as we passed them he said something like: ‘Come back and fight me’. I thought, ‘Well, OK’, and I turned around. That’s pretty much it,” Chris said.
The next thing he remembers is hearing the sirens. On the front line of a crisis
Paramedic Glyn Perryman, who helped Chris Lee after he was left for dead. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
Glyn Perryman does a barely perceptible double take when Chris walks into his ambulance station in Summer Hill, 3½ years after the night he met the bleeding and disoriented teenager in Kings Cross.
“You had taken such a beating to the face,” the broad-chested paramedic tells Chris.
“I played rugby for years, I was in the armed forces and the Falklands War, I’ve seen some bad injuries on the job and you were right up there with the worst of them, mate.”
The pair had more in common than they realised. Chris was a talented rugby player and had been working towards joining the army since he was 16 years old.
“It was my dream job. It’s all I wanted,” he said.
But soldiers need two working eyes, a harsh reality his army case officer told him over the phone as he lay in hospital. Chris has not been contacted by the Australian Defence Force since.
“I apologise if I was a handful,” Chris says with a shy smile.
“I don’t think I realised how bad I was. I heard you say something about a detached retina, but I didn’t understand that medical talk,” he said.
The paramedic had responded to his fair share of alcohol-fuelled incidents.
He says the frequency and severity of the violence and injuries were far worse before Sydney’s lockout laws were introduced in March 2014 in response to the death of Thomas Kelly, an 18-year-old who was punched and killed in Kings Cross about 200 metres from where Chris had been stabbed some two months earlier.
“It’s just a sad disease, the drinking culture,” Perryman said.
Chris’ case was particularly difficult for the paramedic to comprehend.
“It was such a thoroughly cowardly act. Why would you want to take a knife when you’re supposedly going for a night out? I don’t understand that mentality,” he said. ‘I saw his whole future cut short’
Dr Nirosha Paramanathan greets Chris Lee. Photo: Steven Siewert
When Chris’ mum called to check on him at 1am on Easter Sunday 2012 he was already in hospital.
He lied and told her he was staying the night at a mate’s place. Two hours later a friend of the 18-year-old called her back and told her the truth.
“I was so angry. I called Chris’ phone straight away to tell him off and his doctor answered,” Milli Lee said.
“She told me Chris had sustained a very serious injury and asked me to get to the hospital straightaway. I wouldn’t wish that call on anyone,” she said.
Dr Nirosha Paramanathan was the registrar on call the night Chris was brought into Prince of Wales Hospital.
“It wasn’t nice, not nice at all to have to tell him how badly he was injured,” she said.
“Penetrating eye injuries are the most devastating injuries we see, and he was such a good kid,” she said.
“You’re one of the patients I always remember,” she tells Chris as he sits in her practice rooms at Frenchs Forest. His stitches, and bandages are all gone.
“You were so polite, and you were more concerned about your mum than yourself,” she said, remembering those first hours in the emergency department.
When Milli Lee saw her son lying in his hospital bed all her anger drained out of her.
“I just saw my battered son. There was nothing left in me. I couldn’t stop crying,” she said.
Paramanathan had to break the news that Chris could lose his eye.
“I said, ‘No, God, please. Isn’t being hurt enough?’ I saw his whole future cut short. He was going to join the army. We had just lost his dad. It was too much,” she said.
But Chris kept saying: “Mum, don’t worry, I’m going to be OK,” she said.
His mother was not the only person Chris was protecting.
“I remember hearing Nirosha tell Mum the bad news, but she was so hopeful. It took her weeks to be able to tell me,” he said.
“But I already knew,” he said. ‘How could someone do that?’
Optimistic: Chris Lee is reunited with Michael Hennessy, who saved his right eye. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
“You tell me if any of this gets too much for you,” opthalmologist Dr Michael Hennessy tells Chris as he prepares to describe the delicate surgical procedure he performed on Chris’ eye.
“It’s called an examination under anaesthesia,” he says.
“We could see before we went into theatre that the eye had been badly ruptured. We could see the inside parts of the eye had spilled out,” he says.
Hennessy met Chris the day after the attack, just as the grave reality of his situation was sinking in.
“You saw me when I was most vulnerable. It’s nice to come back now and show you I’m all good,” Chris said.
“I have children Chris’ age so I have this sense of being a dad to Chris and watching him start independent life,” Dr Hennessy said.
Chris tells Hennessy about his plans to go to university to study business and commerce, work with the Thomas Kelly Youth Foundation and his own organisation, Conviction Group, that aims to empower young males to solve their problems without violence.
Hennessy’s optimism about his young patient is tainted by the knowledge that Chris’ assailant has never been found.
“What happened to Chris is inexcusable in my mind. How could someone do that to someone else? We’ve got to find him. He could do this to someone else,” Hennessy said. Brutal attack a mystery
Responds to alcohol assaults: Detective Senior Constable Mel Scott. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
About 9am on Easter Sunday 2012 lead investigator Detective Mel Scott surveyed the crime scene with her partner.
“We found blood spatter all the way down William Street and up to the top,” Constable Scott says pointing to a raised walkway that overlooks the footpath where Chris was stabbed.
“[After the attack] we believe the offender walked up onto the overpass, and watched Chris for quite some time,” she said.
“For someone to hang around and watch … it’s a horrible person who can do that and not come forward, not take responsibility and be a man,” she said.
Scott said she would respond to at least two serious alcohol-fuelled assaults per week in the Kings Cross area before the lockout laws.
But it’s clear 3½ years later Chris’ case still sits uncomfortably.
“You do get a little bit emotionally involved, and, yeah, it does stay with me,” she said.
“The fact that we never found the offender … Chris was so understanding,” she said.
Chris says he has forgiven the man who stabbed him, but his conviction wavers as he tries to empathise with his attacker.
“No one goes out to hurt someone that badly … but to hang around and watch … there’s something wrong with you.
“If I saw him now I hope I’d be cool, calm and collected … but I think I would call him a dog, and that it was a dog act what he did.
“I know that’s it’s not the right way to react … I’d probably go up to him and say, ‘I’m the person you assaulted I’ve lost the sight in my left eye’.”
He knows the decision to act on a heated compulsion can be all it takes to become the victim of alcohol-fuelled violence, or the guy who throws a brutal punch.
“That’s what I try to get through to the school kids I talk to: you’re not weak if you walk away. It’s weaker to not have control of your emotions in that situation,” Chris says.
He hopes they’ll never need their own Glyn Perryman, Nirosha Paramanathan, Michael Hennessy or Mel Scott.
“It’s a strange situation: being so thankful for a bunch of people you wish you’d never had to meet,” he said.
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