On 14 June 2022, the day after meeting friends in Annecy and flying out into the hills, I flew and crashed and was airlifted to hospital with L1 spinal damage. I remember the day and the flight but have no memory from the accident (maybe a few minutes before) until probably the first few days at the hospital. I still haven’t done a full review of the accident, writing this exactly a month after the event, and a week (tonight) after arriving back in Brisbane. But I know there are voice messages sent between me and my friends after the crash, I’ve seen the footage a few minutes before crashing, my friend saw the incident (from a distance, while flying), and a helicopter pilot friend who was nearby has spoken to the rescue team. So for sure I intend to do an analysis at some point, most likely in the form of a youtube video. But for now I am going to write down some of my thoughts and gather the material I have so far.
Andrew and I had flown to a beautiful campsite on the Aravis range about 30km west of Mont Blanc. Hammed had hiked up to join us during the night, and the next morning Luke drove to the other side to hike up and meet us at launch. It was a relaxed and friendly atmosphere with blue skies and no wind first thing in the morning. Haze filled the valleys between us and Mont Blanc. After a leisurely camp pack we wandered up to the ridge, and I started to descend towards Luke to give him a hand with his gear, as his trip was not a vol biv focus and hey, I was fit.
Luke launched first and disappeared out of view, but had good flying following the ridge north. I was off next and started riding up the morning sun anabatic flows on the slope. Andrew was in the air soon after me and we flew together for a while, although I pushed around the corner looking for a thermal. Hammed was still on launch and a short time later reported that the wind was no longer pushing up the morning sun face, and he might try flying the other side of the range. I was high by now and decided to turn back to the south, overflying Hammed and also getting a closer look at the cliffs where I dropped my phone last year. I suggested to Hammed that while he could launch into wind, I still recommended the morning side for steeper terrain and a better chance of thermals. He launched and this plan seemed to work.
Now I was heading north again so I was second last, in front of Hammed. I climbed high to cross the Col des Aravis then close to ridge height I noticed the wind from the west and decided to pop over to that side. Not long afterwards I was in a bowl, facing the wind, with my last footage less than four hundred metres from the crash site taking several turns in a gentle thermal. Hammed was higher than me now but a few kilometres behind and he could see me. Next I had a few turns, searching for lift, until I fell out of the sky. We will analyse the details later, but Hammed saw me spiralling and throw the reserve, which did not deploy. Well, at least not until after I’d landed – meaning there was a second crash. Hammed and Andrew communicated with me, and Hammed arranged the helicopter.
Hospital in France
Later that day I had an operation on my back to stabilise an L1 fracture, with other injuries from the impacts including a subdural haematoma (head knock), aortic intimal tear (minor artery damage), and minor pulmonary contusions (lung knock). Three days after the accident I posted an obscure facebook update, using the temporary “stories” format which I never normally use accidentally, and the following day a short youtube video which you can see I made sense but wasn’t my normal self mentally.
On day six I made a slightly longer youtube for my public audience and by now I was overwhelmed with messages of support, so the video was partly to expedite responding! (Back in Australia over three weeks later I finally read through all the messages, many of the earlier ones I either hadn’t seen or had forgotten.) After “half a month” I released the first public youtube video, which of course was much more popular than the average video on my latest vol biv adventure.
I also made a couple of “leg survey” videos (2 July , 5 July) which examined what kind of feeling I had below the belt, although I’m unsure if at the time I was able to feel pinching, sharp pokes, heat or cold, or the “pimple squeeze”. In general my legs usually feel “hot”, and there is a kind of “sunburnt hair pulling feeling” but I can’t even say if this is “in my head”. I don’t feel skin touch on the balls, bum, or below the waist, and I do not have any motor control. But the patchy glimmers of sensation (particularly in my left leg) give hope. I can also feel and identify movement in various parts of my legs with reasonable accuracy, although it’s hard to say how I’m getting that information (maybe vibration reaching my waist) and yesterday Mum said that I correctly identified movement although the direction of the movement I (thought I could but) could not ascertain (with foot rotation).
The support crew
Andrew, who flew with me on the day of the crash, was intending to support me ten days later in xpyr and then return to Oz. Since I crashed on the second day his xpyr duties were relieved, but he had his hands full in arranging my repatriation – a similar role to his job in Australia in which he was able to enlist his employers help to make it all “legit” as far as the medical-legal side is concerned. My brother was also very helpful assisting with various logistical, legal, and who knows what other scenarios, and my Mum arrived on scene in a few days. Like the way I learnt to think as a pilot, she doesn’t seem to get caught up in emotion but rather thinks about what she can do to improve the situation. In a similar way the strongest emotions associated with this event to me seem to be what I encounter with messages of support – some are like walking on eggshells and afraid to broach taboo topics, and there is a strong theme of reinforcing my morale and overcoming signs of depression – something I generally find myself far too busy to think about.
Being located by the most popular paragliding site in the world I had plenty of visitors, it seems half of down unders’ pilot population is in Europe this summer and there were also friends from Europe. My girlfriend was a little less confused after talking to my friend and Mum and she came over from Romania to be there for me. I felt very well supported and while I’m still holding off recommending this kind of experience, it certainly has perks. Figuring out to do with all the supplied condiments was a new challenge – in Australia we have made a box of sweets from various gifts to offer medical staff whenever they visit.
I certainly had some better days, and was grumpy at times, but at least there weren’t any episodes of repeated melancholic wailing (often heard from my neurochirurgie ward in Annecy), except for the two times where I was desperate to attract the attention of the nurses. In both cases I rang the police, who don’t necessarily speak English, and once the nurses arrived to unblock the tubes preventing the outflow of 1.7 litres of urine! I was at times a bit mad, particularly early on with recent head trauma and on the drugs (let’s blame it on that). Two nurses came at 11pm and finally quit, before returning later on, I was speechless, their behavior seemed too conspiratorial and ridiculous. I told myself to let the crazy thoughts leave my mind and just go to sleep, but twenty minutes later I had to call my girlfriend and my mate – not long before the nurses came back wanting to confiscate my phone!
Finally, given my COVID diagnosis, an isolation was enforced and for my last days in the hospital I realised that the social interactive environment of various visitors did make the time go faster. By the time my departure date arrived I’d had several slow days to think about it and it was nice that it was time to go – I prayed for no disasters.
It was the big day. The nurse seemed to treat my morning shower like a pit stop, there was a few less haste more pace moments (try loosening the shoelaces before putting them on) but in the end we left the hospital on time. I left a little unfinished chocolate with them, I hope it was appreciated, the medical staff in France were great. We left the hospital in good time and Andrew and Josh were the official medivac crew, my girlfriend came along for the ride, and Nikki who had hosted my mum came to see us off. There was no problems hoisting me into the Emirates supplied taxi although I found the roundabouts a little exciting without my legs to brace against.
At Geneva airport we found ourselves an hour too early to check in! So some last time with Alina before we were ushered through – each airport supplies staff that would rather push the wheelchair themselves – and we got ourselves a feed at the Emirates lounge. No-one seemed to mind the atypical business class passengers, one with a bag of golden liquid on the floor between his knees. Next it was onto the Boeing 777 for a trip to Dubai, leaving mid afternoon and arriving close to midnight. Great views of Mont Blanc on departure, and great onboard service even if my lemon lime and bitters order flummoxed them a bit. It was a relatively short flight and not too late so I didn’t sleep but I got horizontal, although my legs had to be moved to the side a bit for that.
In Dubai our mission was to get to the medical centre for a routine cleanup. Despite Andrew having booked it there was some reluctance from the ground staff and a lot of delay and confusion about the entrance. In the end we got what we needed but with hindsight I think we could have called the whole thing off. At least Mum’s pillows served us well for stabilizing me in the airport wheelchair for the long trips here and there. Finally we still had a pitstop at the business class lounge before heading out to meet the Airbus 380.
Again I was alert and fine through the whole process, and while Josh and Andrew were very keen to help, and did from time to time, the main reason they were there was in case something went wrong, to assure the responsible people that everything was being taken care of. On the final 14 hour leg into Brisbane we had the windows boarded shut and I slept for large parts of the flight, also watching Jagged for a blast from the past. The onboard food rubbed in the stodginess of the hospital fare, but there’s only so much you can eat. My attitude towards business class is unchanged – the main differentiator is that you can get horizontal and sleep – but then you miss out on the hospitality experience! It was also nice to chat to the flight attendants, including one who had heard I’d be coming through a friend of Kamila’s.
Another wheelchair volunteer took us through Brisbane airport and we enjoyed the latest COVID relaxation policies – no mask. Close to midnight we took the taxi through to the Princess Alexandra (PA) hospital, where Mum came to join us.
Hospital in Australia
With the wards being full my first night was in a room not far from the emergency entrance. The next day (8 July) they moved me to an outside tent. I’d been waiting for the transfer across the world to winter, and it was a chilly dry windy day outside – but they parked me in front of a reverse cycle air conditioner! Had to be on for the other guests apparently – I suffered for a while then asked if I could be moved out of the airflow by the wall – and they said we’ll just turn it off. What a great idea! Soon my sister Anna arrived and was full of enthusiasm, she was later joined by my sister Rachel and Mum as we moved to the new ward in orthopedics and the enthusiasm was across the board.
They came again the next day and I got a lot of extra attention, Rachel being adept at interfacing with her environment, snaffling some flex exercise bands after just a few minutes diversion. I also had a visit from my cousin and her family, who left a huge box of treats which we have now drawn from to make an offering bucket for the nurses on every visit where we remember. Bec also dropped in to say hi with Andrew waiting in the car with the kids, who had made the biggest “get well soon” card I’d ever seen. You can also see that I made an update, apparently having enough time to trawl through my messages.
While Mum can be critical of the French, having been denied a spectator seat for the hoist process (a routine there), I think they were great. But I do have to admit that the attitudes and openness here seems to be part of a healthy culture. There was the time in the physio room where I explained that in France I’d already done wheelchair to bench lift transfers and the boss, across the room, piped up “We’re not in France”. But once they’ve seen how I go there is no holding me back and life goes on. I think I was a little weak after a few days in the bed and the (electric) hoist here was a bit too much for me, feeling like the blood was draining into my legs, but at the physio yesterday we made a game plan for moving past the hoist.
There have been other visitors (mountains of supplies here, I won’t starve!) and lots of input from professionals. It was a little sobering to hear that the waiting time to join the 40 bed spinal unit could be weeks or months (the state wide list has increased to 30 recently) but the guy who came up to help out with physio yesterday has loads of spinal experience, and that’s a practical example of the cross fertilization we are expecting to see.
It’s a long road ahead here, and uncertain what the prospects of recovery are for my legs, but especially with spinal injury it seems the mental side of things is quite important. I was sent a recommendation to an audiobook recently which I must get through so I can start on those visualizations. I’ve always valued placebo but it does seem like hard work – a bit like being born again – but I’m having a lot of laughs on the way.
Video showing what I can feel with my legs after just over a month. That night I “busted out” of the hospital, pretty much car transferring myself, to have Eritrean restaurant dinner with Elissa, Phil, Andy, Sophie, Suzy, Chris, and Andrew.
At one point we noted that my toenails had barely grown since the accident, and mum made me laugh saying that my keratin cells had retrained to work on my spinal cord. Looking back I see that I commented on 14 July that I’d been getting cramps in my left calf over a 12 hour period, now and again – a curiosity and I don’t think there was any corresponding muscle tightening it was just the sensation. A couple of days later I started getting electric shocks in my leg, first in one place then more widespread, although still seldom, and again a curiosity. Sometime later (20 July) I drew a cartoon showing the keratin cells lining up to train for connecting broken spinal tissue, and since then (writing this 28 July) I think that the electric shocks have really picked up! Oh the power of visualisation.
An update on the day we leave for Christchurch (28 July), to skip the spinal ward waiting list queue:
The spinal clinic at Burwood in Christchurch seems full of helpful and friendly staff.
Since about the second week in NZ I did my own bowel care and on the third week I begin intermittent catheters, the new way to go for a pee without having permanent (indwelling) attachments. I also started doing outdoor wheelchair drills with some “real world” wheelchair veterans (the transitions unit), unfortunately no footage but I was busy jumping curbs and dealing with various hazards.
Here’s one of the drills with the transitions crew:
My first go in a pack raft post injury, on the weekend (the following week in the hospital pool I successfully transferred from water to raft, with some assistance initially to keep opposite side down):
And my first floor to wheelchair outside the gym wasn’t successful!
Nearly three months since the accident and one more week until discharge.
Finally discharge from hospital on 17 September, just over three months after the accident.