Dean is one of the world’s strongest powerlifters in his weight class, able to lift 150kg, more than twice his body weight.
But it’s the Moreton Bay resident’s mental toughness that’s seen him smash life’s expectations to become one of Australia’s most prolific motivational speakers.
For more than 20 years, Dean has touched the lives of millions of people sharing his powerful story of living with a severe form of the skin disease Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB)
A rare disease, EB is a condition whereby the skin is considered as delicate as tissue paper or butterfly wings, it can blister and peel at the slightest touch.
The pain for those living with EB has been likened to living with third degree burns, with most people having to be bandaged every day to protect and medicate their wounds.
Typically, people with the severest form of this disease have a life expectancy of 30, making Dean, 43, one of the oldest known living survivors of this condition.
“I’ve got wounds that come and are with me for one week or two weeks, six months, 18 months, then heal only to leave fragile, weak skin to break down the second it’s all healed over and then I go through the same process all over again,” Dean said.
“It heals and breaks open, just by the slightest touch or the slightest movement. Then I’ve got wounds that I have had for my entire life that will most likely never heal.”
Dean was determined to defy doctors’ expectations
Diagnosed with EB at 18 months, the former Kingaroy local was not expected to live past the age of 5. At 10, he and his family were told he’d never walk again.
With no ‘binding’ between skin layers, even the slightest brushing against an object created wounds and pain. From months in hospital, to being close to death, Dean has experienced extreme levels of emotional and physical pain.
But in true Dean style, he turned every negative medical prediction, every stare and every nasty comment into a positive. He did this to just to survive but thrived under the extreme hardships and adversity he faced, and faces, every day.
“A normal day for me, if I’ve got nothing planned, is my alarm goes off at 5am. I get out of bed and start the process of getting my skin in the best possible condition. That involves a 4-to-5-hour process,” Dean said.
“My nurses arrive about an hour after I wake and then we literally check over my skin on my little toe through to the top of my head. We’ve got to bandage the worst-affected areas, which are my feet, arms and hands these days.
“But in the past it was literally all over my body. Years ago my entire body was bandaged up, right around my torso and even at times across my face. Once this process is complete, I’m ready to start my day.”
Dean, who is supported by Carers Queensland to access the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), has support workers who help him daily.
The Scheme also funds assistive technologies such as a motorised scooter and home modifications.
After 20 years, Dean found his calling in helping others
Yet it’s Dean’s sheer grit and determination to dig deep through unimaginable pain that has allowed him to live life on his terms and share his story to help others going through rough patches.
“So piece-by-piece I started to think about different stories and different things I had achieved and what my head space was like at that time. Being able to share these experiences is what gives me a deep sense of purpose.”
Within 12 months of deciding to become a motivational speaker, Dean was travelling Australia and the globe, sharing his story and touching the lives of everyone who heard it.
His past clients include the Australian Federal Government, Qantas, Toyota, NRL, Australian Federal Police and the New Zealand Warriors. He’s rubbed shoulders with Prime Ministers, world leaders and some of the world’s most successful business people.
Dean was an International Brand Ambassador for Toyota Australia for 15 years, and in 2018 he was inducted into the Australian Hall of Fame for Disability Employment for his tireless work in this sector. He’s also an ambassador for Debra Australia, the organisation supporting people living EB.
A love of sport runs deep through Dean’s veins
But Dean’s true love is sport. At least four times a week he works out in his home gym, focusing on upper body and core strength work.
“Being able to lift 150kg puts me somewhere in the top 2 to 3% in the world,” Dean said.
“I’m just trying to get as healthy as I can because having upper body strength and power in my legs helps me to get out of the car and do everyday tasks a lot easier.
“When I’m not lifting extreme weights, I’m just focusing on the rest of my body, making sure everything’s working to the best of its ability.”
Dean is also an ambassador for the Brisbane Broncos Football Club, and arguably their biggest fan. As a young fella, Dean says if there was a bat and ball he’d pick it up and use it, if he found a footy, he’d kick it.
“I’ve been a sporting person my entire life, which doesn't make sense when you look at my how fragile my skin is and you look at the medical side of things,” Dean said.
“But I also sort of think that's one of the tools that has got me to where I am today. My parents have been great throughout my entire life, allowing me to push my limits from a really young age.”
For the love of the Broncos
When the Broncos came into the NRL competition, Dean was very sick. His life was touch and go. Supportive locals from the Kingaroy reached out to the Broncos and said Dean was a huge fan, asking if he could attend a game.
“My first experience interacting with the club was in 1989, I was invited to watch them train. I was a very sick and fragile 10-year-old. But after that, whenever I was well enough to go to a Broncos game I was put in a safe area away so I would not get bumped,” Dean said.
Fast forward 30 years, and Dean has attended every possible Broncos game. He also celebrated his 40th with former player and now mate, Shane Webcke.
“As I got older there was sort of a role reversal with the Broncos. When I was young I was hanging out with the players and they inspired me. Now I am the person who inspires NRL players with my story of strength and resilience,” Dean said.
Next year, when the Broncos kick off its NRL season in Las Vegas, Dean will be there alongside his mates, cheering as loud as he can.
“When I was younger, my uncle actually lived in Las Vegas for a number of years and I’ve spent a fair bit of time over there at different stages of my life,” Dean said.
“So when the (Bronco) boys said it was on the cards, I cleared my calendar and said we’re going to Vegas. I can’t think of anything better than my two greatest loves, rugby league and the Broncos playing in my favourite city in the world.”
Dean is proud his story gives inspiration to others
Until then, Dean will continue to inspire school children, staff who work at big corporations and local clubs. He’s chosen not to buy into the glitz and glamour of being a world-renowned motivational speaker, preferring to offer his services far and wide, regardless of their budget.
“I love engaging and connecting with people. I particularly try to make myself available after events for people who want to meet me afterwards and share their story in private,” Dean said.
“I’ve never claimed to be an expert in advice or knowledge, but it's just my experiences I share that seem to hit home with people.”
Dean says he’s proud to be an inspiration to others, particularly because his condition is so extreme, and he has to think carefully about every step and every move he makes.
“I am very proud of my life, and if people find that inspiring, because I have to admit the medical side of my life is pretty extreme, then I’m fine with that,” he said.
“I respect that some people with disability get offended by being considered inspirational, but for me, it is pretty amazing that I am a functioning member of the community.
“Whether you're inspired by me just doing the everyday things, going to do the groceries at the shopping centre, or standing in front of 7000 people speaking, then yeah, I’m okay with that.”
As for being the oldest living person with EB, Dean is pretty stoked with his achievement, and rightly so.
“You know, to have overcome everything that I had growing up and to be as strong and as healthy and as independent as I am these days, and with the quality of life I have, it’s sort of something that I wear as a badge of honour,” Dean said.
Carers Queensland is honoured to have Dean as the Master of Ceremonies for its International Day of People with Disability stakeholder event on 30 November at Pat Rafter Arena.
Carers Queensland can support you to find out more about the NDIS, to apply for funding and to help you get started with the NDIS.
If you have a disability but are not eligible for the NDIS, Carers Queensland can help you identify and link to options for support in your community.
You can also contact Carers Queensland on 1300 999 636, email@example.com, or sign up to our LAC Connect app here.