Not every holiday is a great success. Friends and family invariably wish the associated travellers a happy and safe holiday. What happens if it is not.
It all started with the best of intentions (a hike in a wilderness area), and then suddenly a simple slip on a walking path on the Routeburn track in New Zealand and we were in serious trouble – as it turned out a broken wrist and cheek bone fractures. It was a bad fall, which could have happened to anybody.
We were an hour from the nearest hut, but walking in a tour group. Staff came on the scene quickly enough and then the patient had to be managed, in cold blustery conditions and on wet, steep and stony ground. After some hours of waiting mostly directed to keeping the damaged patient at ease, the emergency helicopter showed up. No complaints – but being in remote area and with pressures on the emergency services, we experienced nearly five hours of broken bone injury waiting for rescue with the most minimal treatment (Panadol and a book of hiking instructions for a make-shift splint). It is amazing how resilient people can be in the circumstances (as compared with – I am going to break a few of your bones and leave you in the cold for a few hours with a couple of Panadol (you would scream!!).
When the helicopter did arrive, it could not land in the heavily wooded and hilly location, so a basket was lowered with a medic aboard. The patient attached to the medic was whisked into the air in the basket to fly 100 metres below the helicopter in freezing conditions for about 15 minutes to a landing location. Landing involved the helicopter lowering the basket to the ground and then the helicopter itself landing next to (and not on top of) the basket.
The helicopter team were all-stars, not young SAS types but a tough middle-aged crew who had seen and done everything. They had just rescued a hang-glider who had been electrocuted flying into power lines. Our job was fairly routine, although the medic did acknowledge that he had never travelled in the basket below the helicopter in such strong winds – a new badge of honour. The pilot added that he was worried about crashing – another badge of honour. We were quietly praying for skill to beat danger.
From there to Invercargill Hospital. This was not my idea of an ideal place to be treated for a serious injury. How wrong.
The hospital casualty was staffed by a team of mostly foreign doctors who had discovered south New Zealand for lifestyle and a culture of caring that they all remarked on – it was nothing like any hospital they had worked in before. Then, of all things, our managing nurse was an Israeli from a kibbutz – “What am I going to do?” he asked. “Be shot at for a cause I don’t believe in, or be in a place like this”. “We don’t get paid well,” he explained, “but no one is here for the money.”
Invercargill is a large country town on the wind-swept southern coast of New Zealand – the closest town of any size before you get to Antarctica. It was summer and the town looked like it could blow away in the roaring southern wind (which was no doubt a tame version of the winter variety).
The doctors there could do anything, and were especially accustomed to late middle aged walkers falling on their faces on remote tracks – they referred to the condition as FOR (Face On Rock). And to be honest, we looked a bit interesting – not drunk, on drugs or elderly and dying of heart failure. Even the local policeman trying to maintain order in casualty looked vaguely interested with the occasional glance towards us.
And adding to the sense of love, we were being attended by a hospital volunteer – a spritely woman about 10 years older than us, wanting to know if she could help with anything – “I am an emergency ward volunteer.” It was a little heart-breaking. We were not meant to need any help.
The nurse who attended on us on admission, before the arrival of the Israeli, had spent a working lifetime in hospitals. She was a middle-aged woman, fresh from the untimely death of her husband, and seeking solace from us, which was a bit unexpected but helped deflect attention from our various ailments.
Amazingly, the whole experience was free, including the helicopter rescue – a service of the New Zealand taxpayer. And all done in the best spirit – help at hand as needed.
Returning home (at a limp), we came to love Invercargill and its decency and kindness. At every turn we were greeted with warmth and consideration by strangers. Despite our predicament, we were grateful recipients of the tuition we had been receiving in civility.