Hurt hunter was just ‘a sneeze from death’

Weekend Herald - - News - Michael Neil­son

Spe­cial­ist says Aus­tralian’s neck and spinal in­juries from 40m fall in Kaweka Ranges are usu­ally fa­tal or re­sult in to­tal paral­y­sis

An ex­pe­ri­enced Aus­tralian hunter was “one sneeze away from death” af­ter fall­ing 40m into a 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 that Prusac learned from a spe­cial­ist he was a “sneeze away from death” due to his neck and spinal in­juries.

The dra­matic ordeal be­gan on Septem­ber 6, when the trio be­gan a four­day hunt­ing trip in the Kaweka For­est Park, near Hawke’s Bay.

Af­ter be­ing chop­pered into 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 saved 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 20m.

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

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 called his mates on his GPS ra­dio. Prusac was only about 750m from the hut, but it was ex­tremely rugged ter­rain and 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 lay­ing crum­pled on the ground.

Their big­gest con­cern was Prusac’s in­jured neck and hy­pother­mia.

It hadn’t stopped rain­ing, and there was snow on the ridge with the tem­per­a­ture drop­ping.

They ac­ti­vated two per­sonal lo­ca­tor bea­cons, but 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 fetched 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.”

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

“That sound, of the chop­per com­ing up the val­ley, I’ll never for­get it,” Sorensen said.

Five min­utes later Prusac was be­ing winched to safety and head­ing 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.”

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

Sorensen and Day were picked up by their own chop­per the fol­low­ing 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 a neck spe­cial­ist in Mel­bourne 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’.”

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