In which my brother J, ever the scientist, demonstrably proves that kiwis cannot fly. How the world was turned upside down in two weeks. One trans-Tasman family’s story of free falling in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and escalating travel and isolation advisories. And 10 reasons to be thankful.
It’s been an intense two weeks or so for my family. My initial instinct was not to write about it here. Partly because I wasn’t sure it was my story to tell and partly because I feared starting a story not knowing where it would end up. However in life, as in art, sometimes the best approach is to improvise, trust the process and keep going. Things have moved so fast. Already details are blurring and perceptions are re-calibrating for the new normal in these pandemic times. Stories are important and I
want need to capture this one while I can. Here goes.
The Set Up
My mother is an intrepid adventurer. For her 70th birthday, it was her dearest wish to climb to the crater on Mt Ruapehu (altitude 2672 metres) and so we did a mountain climb together. For her 75th birthday, she proposed another family excursion to Mt Ruapehu. My brother R and I could not make back to New Zealand but my other brother J flew over from Queensland for the weekend – or so he thought.
It was Saturday afternoon and I was wondering why no birthday photos or messages were coming through when my brother R called: J stacked it on the mountain and had to be airlifted out on a chopper.
At this point, I hand the story over to my sister A who was actually there.
In A’s Own Words
Anyone who has ever enjoyed the great outdoors will know that the real success is in getting home to tell the tale. This is my story.
If you don’t read the whole lot, just read the end.
We were in Ruapehu for my Mum’s 75th birthday. Four of her six children and half of her grandchildren. We had picked a trip up the Sky Waka gondola and along the Skyline Ridge as being within our collective capabilities and we took our time. After a picnic at kid’s summit, my brother and I chose to keep walking up, with the others descending. It was midday, the weather was totally clear and we agreed that no matter what we would turn around in 90 minutes. We rejigged a few supplies – and took off. My brother is an experienced mountain climber and I’m reasonably fit.
We easily made it to the north summit in just over 70 minutes. We enjoyed a bit of chocolate and a drink and started to walk down just as we came to the point of our promised turn around.
We were almost at the Skyline Ridge again when it seems that the path my brother was on gave way and he fell [5-6 metres] out of my sight. That was the only thing that went wrong.
I do not wish to underplay the seriousness of his injuries [complex fractured pelvis, grazing and a major cut to his head] … but from that moment everything was the best case in a worst case scenario.
I was able to find my brother without putting myself in danger. He was conscious, and speaking. While he was bleeding he was not gushing blood. He was able to very quickly tell me that it was his hip that was in pain [understatement] and he was able to clench his legs for me. He was however in a very uncomfortable looking position and I didn’t want to risk moving spine etc.
Here is a very brief run down of the things that played out.
- I activated the personal locator beacon.
- I called 111 but the reception dropped out.
- I called my sister who was down the mountain but the call wouldn’t connect to her.
- I called my mother in law (who we had already checked in with earlier in the day to tell her where we were walking). Reception held in long enough to alert her to the situation and confirm we had activated the personal locator beacon.
- Meanwhile the PLB company had called my mother (it was her PLB) to see if she was OK. This alerted our group something was up.
- While we were waiting on the side of the mountain, I used my (actually, Mr 7’s) whistle to attract attention of people I could see in the distance. I waved my bright jumper and my foil blanket.
- I cut my brother’s pack off with the scissors in the first aid kit.
- My brother was warm with the many merinos we had with us. He was also covered in a down sleeping bag he had packed.
- As my phone battery died I used the battery pack brother had packed.
- The people on the ridge eventually yelled a medic was on it’s way.
- The medic arrived about 15 minutes before the chopper did.
There was a fair amount of faff, however we were both safely off the mountain within 2 and a half hours of the fall.
Those “supplies” we grabbed, were the PLB, the whistle, the first aid kit and the foil blanket. Don’t count on your phone being the way you reach the outside world.
Without the “supplies” , the outcome could have been very different. It certainly would have taken longer to find us.
Even the experienced and the prepared can get in to trouble.
Be prepared so you can be found. Be prepared so you can stay put.
Mum missed out on a helicopter ride for her birthday. Instead my youngest sister D, who is a doctor, accompanied J to Rotorua Hospital. Meanwhile, the New Zealand prime minister announced:
…As of midnight Sunday every person entering New Zealand, including returning New Zealand citizens and residents, will be required to enter self-isolation for 14 days. Everybody…
Across the Tasman, the Australian government made a similar declaration. Airline websites, already overloaded from travel changes arising from the bans on mass gatherings, went into meltdown. As a result, J’s wife and two children remained in Queensland although every fibre of their being wished to be transported to J’s side.
My NZ family travelled in convoy to Rotorua on Sunday morning, stopping to buy a new phone with mega data for J to be able to call Australia and shopping to supplement J’s meagre weekend wardrobe. J was stable but very, very sore. An orthopaedic consultation on Monday confirmed a complex fracture to J’s right pelvic wing. Kiwis may have wings but they cannot fly.
We were all buoyed by the news that he would be transferred to Middlemore for surgery by a pelvic specialist. Not only is this the hospital where Dr D works as an OB/Gyn but it is in Auckland which is more convenient for Mum and my other sisters to visit. That buoyancy was short-lived. J was loaded and then unloaded from the ambulance and returned to Rotorua Hospital for isolation under new COVID-19 protocols for recent arrivals from overseas. He was tested for the virus on Tuesday and his swab sent to Wellington via Tauranga for processing.
Mum was on the road to Auckland when we received news that the transfer had been aborted. She was instructed to continue home to Warkworth and self-isolate.
If you have to be stuck in isolation waiting, Rotorua Hospital is a calm and soothing place to be. J’s room looked out over the carpark to the lake and he was even able to conduct some video classes with his distance education students on his phone. Nevertheless, the uncertain timetable was stressful and frustrating and we were all anxious about the delay in his treatment.
Finally results came through on Friday afternoon. Negative. Such a profound relief. And so he was cleared for transfer to Middlemore on Sunday and surgery on Monday morning.
Surgery at Middlemore
While J remained in isolation, my sister C was able to visit him at Middlemore ED on Sunday if she donned appropriate PPE and maintained a safe distance. She was even able to bring real coffee. She stayed with him for several hours as he was processed through the hospital system.
I don’t think any of us slept well that night knowing that surgery was scheduled for 6am. While he was bumped from the 6am slot, the surgery (2 hours) was much shorter than we anticipated. As he underwent intense drills in recovery, the New Zealand prime minister made another significant announcement:
…New Zealand has moved up to COVID-19 Alert Level 3 – Restrict, for the next 48 hours before moving into Level 4 – Eliminate, as New Zealand escalates its response to stop the virus in its tracks…
At that point, the entire country scrambled to prepare for lockdown. We tried to understand the implications for supporting my brother’s care and recovery and for my mother living alone. Juggling work from home and emergency home schooling her two children, my sister A was able to visit J after surgery and again on Tuesday evening – donning PPE and keeping afar. She also delivered a technology pack for J to continue his distance education work when/if he was up to it. Dr D was back at work on Wednesday and was also able to squeeze in a face-to-face visit before midnight lockdown.
J’s surgeon recommended discharge as soon as J was independently mobile so as to reduce his exposure to COVID-19 contact. This was further incentive for J to get back on his feet quickly but he got off to a wobbly start and fainted. With courage and fortitude, he persevered. By Friday afternoon, he had mastered crutches – and other important things. Dr D was granted access to see him through a glass and sent heart-warming photos to the outside world.
As J prepared for overnight observation and discharge, more news came in:
The [Australian] National Cabinet has directed that as soon as possible, and no later than 11.59pm (AEDST) on [Saturday] 28 March 2020, all travellers entering Australia will be required to undertake their mandatory 14 day self-isolation at designated facilities.
J valiantly attempted to book a flight to beat this restriction but was thwarted in three ways:
- he had made great strides but he was not fully flight-ready for 9+ hour (door-to-door) journey;
- no seats available – flights booked out overnight; and
- forced quarantine was implemented 24 hours ahead of the midnight deadline.
So Saturday afternoon, exactly two weeks from the time of the free falling accident, J and A were making the epic drive north to my mother’s house in Warkworth where she had prepared a single-level, self-contained space for rest and recovery.
Here is A’s review of the final installment of Season One of New Zealand Mountain Rescue and the Amazing Hospital Race.
As a recap, the lead character had a serious accident while the hero had to organize a chopper off the mountain.
I’ve been glued to my seat with this series. The characters have been amazing, especially the faraway wife, the heroic red haired doctor and the creative sisters.
And then the plot twists. Who could have possibly imagined the pandemic and the self isolation requirements. The writers really outdid themselves.
Earlier this week, the lead having served days alone in one hospital before being cleared of Covid-19 and being able to be transferred, finally had his shatter pelvis bolted together. Amazing character development as the lead when from immobile to successfully navigating a full hallway on crutches.
In the last episode, the hero was able to break iso for serious medical need [safer out of hospital than in according to the surgeon] completing an epic drive, with no cars on the road to the Northern Rehab Facility where the lead will be in a bubble with the matriarch (think Dame Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey).
It’s been an epic two week mini series and I cannot imagine what the next installment has in store, although to be honest I’m hoping it’s a little more like Masterchef. (B’s edit – a trans-Tasman hot cross bun virtual bake-off beckons.)
10 Reasons to be Thankful
- As serious as J’s injuries are, it could have been so much worse.
- Together the Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation and the Greenlea Rescue Helicopter responded promptly to the beacon activation and stabilised J ready for transfer to Rotorua Hospital. We are so grateful.
- My doctor sister D was able to actively monitor and advocate for my brother and act as a communication bridge between the medical staff and my family.
- Throughout J has received kind and compassionate medical care from a health-care community itself transitioning to new protocols and procedures. (By the way, please stay in your bubble unless you need care.)
- Small kindnesses have been proffered from all quarters: free accommodation for Mum in Rotorua; freebie contact lenses from an optometrist; a thoughtful follow up call from New Zealand police; the nurse that fetched real coffee while J was in isolation awaiting his COVID-19 test results just to highlight a few instances.
- New Zealand’s no-fault Accident Compensation Scheme covers everyone who is injured in an accident in New Zealand. We are spared the anxiety of medical bills for J’s hospitalisation
- Technology has faciliated timely family interaction across three different time zones (although we have all learned how to turn off sounds in Whats App).
- Even before COVID-19 precipitated home-learning, J was working as a maths and science team leader in distance education. He is able to continue this role from afar in New Zealand.
- We have been uplifted by love and light sent by concerned friends and family around the world.
- Family love has triumphed. Each of us bring different skills and perspectives and we are working together to get through this challenging time. The story is still evolving but we will emerge from this stronger than ever.
Timeline of J’s Gravity Overdose
To help me keep the dates straight, I prepared this infographic that shows a brief timeline of J’s inadvertent “gravity overdose”. You will see that many key milestones coincide by major official developments in travel restrictions and isolation protocols.
Healing is not always linear, and there are challenges ahead, but we truly hope that J’s recovery and rehabilitation aligns with a relaxation in travel restrictions so that he can be reunited with his Australian family. And when he next goes through an airport scanner, the only alert he triggers is the extra hardware in his reconstructed pelvis.
8 April Postscript: Soft Landing in the Midst of a Pandemic