IT WAS the accident that left Bianca Cockuyt paralysed from the waist down that also gave her a new take on life. The former Belgian military policewoman suffered a broken back after she was hit from behind by a car while cycling home along the motorway from Wellington to Petone 21 years ago.
Diagnosed as a complete paraplegic, which means she had no movement or feeling in her lower limbs, she spent the next 18 months in and out of hospital and was told she would never walk again.
But she defied those odds and now she is classed as an incomplete paraplegic which means she has regained some sensory and motor function in her lower body and learned to walk again.
‘‘I was in a wheelchair for a while and alternated between that and double crutches but I was always in the pool trying to rehabilitate.’’ Since then Cockuyt has also made a major career change and these days specialises in providing laser treatments, particularly in tattoo removal and hair removal. Before the accident Cockuyt had only been in New Zealand for a year, having left her family, friends and military career behind in Belgium to be with her Kiwi man.
They’d got married in New Zealand and she had started working with him in his pool and spa business. ‘‘I was only getting my life back on track after big changes, and then I got run over. ‘‘The accident itself was life changing for me, in many ways. ‘‘A lot of it is about your personality, I could either sink or swim, I just decided to swim. ‘‘I definitely do not feel sorry for myself, I’m probably a much happier person now after my accident, I don’t take anything at all for granted.’’
Her situation forced her to rethink her career and she decided to pursue a fascination she has always had for laser treatment. She spent the following two years retraining at UCOL in Masterton and today she has her own business called SkinDeep Cosmetic Laser Clinic, based in Petone. ‘‘I had had a tattoo removed in Belgium when lasers had first came out in the 1990s in Europe and the results were so amazing it ignited a hunger to learn more.
‘‘I’ve since had a second one removed – they weren’t nice pictures at all, they were multicoloured and thankfully now they are both 100 percent gone. ‘‘I was 18 or 19 when I got them, my taste and the people I was hanging out with at the time were just totally different than who I hang out with now – I just don’t represent that person I was back then.’’ These days Cockuyt is the one removing tattoos via laser treatment. ‘‘It can take as little as five minutes to remove a tattoo, but it all depends on the size – the bigger the tattoo, the longer the treatment will take but it’s a lot faster removing it than putting it on.’’ Like her, Cockuyt says most people want their tattoos removed because it was something they did on a whim or their tastes have changed.
‘‘They might be looking at the same picture that has become blurry and faded over time, and they’re over it, or they may be in a different phase of their life.’’ Whatever the case, she is excited when clients are happy with the results. ‘‘At the end of the day a lot of people are still sceptical about laser treatments, and I admit I’ve always been the biggest sceptic. ‘‘But laser technology has been fine-tuned over the years, and with a good understanding of how that technology works, like I have, any hang-ups are well and truly gone. ‘‘I get excited about the results, I just want to share that excitement and tell people they don’t have to put up with a tattoo they can’t stand or are embarrassed about, nor unwanted hair either for that matter.’’
On any given day Cockuyt could be removing a tattoo or unwanted hair growth via laser treatments, conducting microdermabrasion or non-invasive exfoliation, skin peels for dull skin, giving anti-wrinkle injections or treating nail fungi via laser treatment. It’s been a big career change for the self-confessed tomboy. ‘‘I never played with dolls all that much, I was an active outdoorsy type, I wanted to be out among nature growing up, I was definitely a bit of a tomboy.
‘‘It’s ironic I’ve got into the beauty industry, but beauty therapy as such doesn’t really satisfy me, my interest lies in the laser side of things.’’ Back in her younger days Cockuyt discovered the military police was the perfect career choice for her tomboy-ish nature. ‘‘My Dad was in the Navy, my brother went into the Navy and is still there, but I wanted to be in the Army and I got in straight away.’’ After undergoing basic training and then infantry training for the Belgian military police, she spent the next 10 years in uniform. During that time she also became a pentathlete.
‘‘It was a fairly new sport for women in the military at the time.
‘‘Being into sport I was encouraged to go to an initial training day in Brussels where they handpicked potential athletes to train up. ‘‘I was in Belgium’s first female military pentathlon team, we got to go to international competitions all over Europe – Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria . . .
‘‘We’d compete in militarybased events like shooting, running and obstacle-type races. I always placed reasonably well at the world champs, and when I left the military I was actually Belgium military champion.’’ She made the tough decision to leave the career and the sport she loved to be with her future husband in New Zealand. ‘‘I was torn between my career or the love really.
‘‘I took a year’s leave without pay and thought I’d give New Zealand a chance, if it didn’t work out I could get my job back.’’ But she never went back. Up till her accident and then for some time afterwards she’d help her now ex-husband run their business, while also managing some rental properties they’d bought.
After she made the decision to retrain she worked in a Wellington laser treatment clinic that specialised in hair removal, red veins and skin rejuvenation. She headed to Melbourne three years later to gain more experience in a clinic there. ‘‘I did a lot of research, I talked to a lot of businesses and suppliers and within a year I was back in New Zealand ready to start SkinDeep. ‘‘New Zealand is home now. ‘‘New Zealand has been good to me, why would I want to leave to go back to Belgium, I’ve been there, done that.’’
She is now firmly focused on helping people feel good and gain back any lost confidence. ‘‘I think the accident has made me more compassionate and more understanding, I just want to help people, to do my little thing for society.’’ Work aside, Cockuyt continues to push herself outside of her comfort zone. ‘‘I can’t cycle anymore, but I am riding a motorbike – I have an MV Agusta, it’s an 800cc Italian bike,’’ she says proudly.
‘‘I really wanted to be independent. ‘‘I was determined to ride a motorbike, and now I ride most weekends. ‘‘I tour around New Zealand, it’s the tomboy coming out in me,’’ she laughs.