Hunter ‘a sneeze away from death’

Rotorua Daily Post - - OUR PEOPLE - Michael Neil­son

An ex­pe­ri­enced Aus­tralian hunter was “one sneeze away from death” af­ter fall­ing 40m into gully in the Kaweka Ranges, break­ing his neck and spend­ing 14 hours in the freez­ing cold be­fore be­ing res­cued.

Joe Prusac, 40, of Mel­bourne, has cred­ited his Kiwi hunt­ing mates Mark Sorensen and Scott Day for keep­ing him alive, as he bat­tled se­vere hy­pother­mia, be­fore be­ing he­li­coptered to Ro­torua Hos­pi­tal the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

But it was not un­til he had an MRI scan two weeks later Prusac learned from a spe­cial­ist he was a “sneeze away from death” due to his neck and spinal in­juries.

The dra­matic ordeal be­gan in mid-Septem­ber when the trio be­gan a four-day hunt­ing trip in the mid­dle of the Kaweka For­est Park, near Hawke’s Bay.

The weather was aw­ful but the trio were hop­ing to catch the tail end of a storm with dry weather fore­cast for their last few days.

Af­ter be­ing chop­pered in to Ngaawa­pu­rua Hut, they split up for a quick “re­con­nais­sance hunt” with a few hours of day­light re­main­ing.

They planned to be back at the hut by dark, and to up­date their po­si­tions on their hand­held ra­dios ev­ery hour — a de­ci­sion that would save Prusac’s life.

Sorensen and Day went in one di­rec­tion while Prusac made his way up to a ridge be­hind the hut. About half an hour be­fore dark Prusac slipped, and plunged off the edge of the ridge, fall­ing some 20m.

“It felt like min­utes,” Prusac said. “I thought, ‘This is it’.”

It wasn’t, but once he hit the ground he rolled an­other 20m down a steep mossy bank, be­fore com­ing to a rest, 5m from the rag­ing Ngaruroro River.

“I couldn’t be­lieve the fall didn’t kill me, but then I rolled over back­wards and about the third roll I felt the pop.”

The “pop” was his neck. A spe­cial­ist would later tell him he should have died, or at least be­come quad­ri­plegic.

In­stead he only felt a “stiff neck”, and suf­fered a sprained an­kle and a deep cut in his hand.

He couldn’t walk due to his an­kle but luck­ily had his GPS ra­dio and called in his mates.

Prusac was only about 750m from the hut but it was ex­tremely rugged ter­rain, and by that stage it was dark.

Sorensen and Day grabbed the per­sonal lo­ca­tor bea­con, first aid kit, food, wa­ter and ex­tra clothes, threw on their jackets and head­lamps, and reached him about 7.30pm.

“We’ll never for­get the sight,” Sorensen said, re­call­ing their mate ly­ing crum­pled on the ground.

Their big­gest con­cern was Prusac’s in­jured neck, but they also no­ticed he was in the first stages of hy­pother­mia. It hadn’t stopped rain­ing and there was snow up on the ridge, with the tem­per­a­ture plum­met­ing.

They ac­ti­vated two per­sonal lo­ca­tor bea­cons, but given the se­vere weather, knew the res­cue he­li­copter would have lit­tle chance of reach­ing them, and they’d be spend­ing the night there.

It was too damp for a fire, so about 10pm Sorensen went back to the hut to get more dry clothes, sleep­ing bags, sleep­ing mats and a fly for shel­ter.

“When I left, I feared he might be dead by the time I re­turned,” Sorensen said.

About 2am he made it back. Prusac was alive but his con­di­tion had de­te­ri­o­rated, with reg­u­lar groans of pain giv­ing way to si­lence.

“The un­con­trol­lable shiv­er­ing had stopped and his skin had lost all colour,” Sorensen said

“He was in the next stage of hy­pother­mia.”

Prusac said he’d re­mained pos­i­tive up un­til just be­fore Sorensen re­turned.

“I was in a bad way. They’d wrapped me in a foil blan­ket, given me painkillers, and I couldn’t feel the pain any­more — that was the scary part. I lost all feel­ing.

“I kept drift­ing off, and was just try­ing to stay awake.

“I started to think I might not make the night, started to think about my fam­ily in Aus­tralia, my wife Marie and my par­ents, and what it would do to all of them if I didn’t make it.

“When Mark got back it was a huge relief.”

His mates fed him lol­lies to keep his en­ergy up, and tried to keep him awake by crack­ing jokes and stay­ing pos­i­tive.

They got him into dry clothes, into a sleep­ing bag and propped him on to a mat un­der a fly to keep him as dry as pos­si­ble.

But by then Sorensen and Day were cold too from the per­sis­tent rain. To stay warm through the night they did squats, and even the odd spoon.

About 7.30am, with it still rain­ing and Prusac fad­ing, they were start­ing to feel des­per­ate, un­til they heard the sound of a chop­per thump­ing down the val­ley.

Five min­utes later Prusac was be­ing winched to safety and head­ing straight to Ro­torua Hos­pi­tal.

“It was such a mas­sive relief, I can’t ex­plain the feel­ing,” Prusac said. “It was like be­ing tor­tured for 14 hours, then know­ing you were in safe hands.”

Scans at Ro­torua Hos­pi­tal showed Prusac had two bro­ken ver­te­brae in his neck.

Sorensen and Day were picked up by their own chop­per the next day, and caught up with their mate at Ro­torua Hos­pi­tal.

“They said I’d be fine, and would just have to wear a neck brace for six weeks,” Prusac said.

But two weeks later Prusac saw a neck spe­cial­ist back in Mel­bourne who, af­ter look­ing at x-rays and an MRI scan, said he was shocked Prusac was alive, let alone walk­ing.

“He said, ‘When I see these scans the peo­ple are ei­ther dead or quad­ri­plegic’,” Prusac said.

“That is when it hit me hard. [The spe­cial­ist] said the fact I was walk­ing around, and had no tin­gling, was a mir­a­cle. He said I was ‘one sneeze away from death or be­ing quad­ri­plegic’.”

Not only were the two ver­te­brae frac­tured but one was dis­lo­cated and was putting pres­sure on the spinal cord. Prusac went straight into emer­gency surgery which fused his frac­tured ver­te­brae and wired them to­gether, with an­other five days in hos­pi­tal.

Two weeks later Prusac was re­cov­er­ing well, with an­other month in a neck brace be­fore start­ing re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

Prusac, who has been hunt­ing “since I could walk”, said the ac­ci­dent hap­pened “so fast”.

“I’ve been on thou­sands of hunt­ing trips, been in much gnarlier coun­try than that. It was just su­per un­lucky.”

Prusac said with­out his mates he didn’t think he’d be alive.

“From the mo­ment I called in on the ra­dio, they were stay­ing pos­i­tive, and do­ing ev­ery­thing they could. There was no hes­i­ta­tion, even though they were cold, and wet, putting their own lives on the line. They saved my life.”

Sorensen, who has been hunt­ing for over 25 years, said the ordeal high­lighted the im­por­tance of be­ing pre­pared for the worst and hav­ing the right gear.

“The week be­fore we went in I bought some top-qual­ity clothes, su­per warm and wa­ter­proof — they prob­a­bly saved his life.”

Sorensen also stressed the im­por­tance of car­ry­ing ra­dios and a per­sonal lo­ca­tor bea­con.

It hadn’t put them off hunt­ing, and they were al­ready think­ing about a “re­demp­tion hunt”.

“We have to get back in and tick it off, but we might try it in sum­mer next time,” Sorensen said.

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