Richard Moore: Air mercy crew is there for us all

By Richard Moore

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The Trustpower rescue helicopter
The Trustpower rescue helicopter

The other week the phone rang and a very polite lady asked me if I wanted to become a friend of the TrustPower TECT rescue helicopter.

She began to list the benefits of said friendship, but it had been on the to-do list for a while and so going through the positives was not needed.

The helicopter provides such a great service that it behooves everyone who can to sign up and lend a bit of financial support.

And over the weekend, I got to see the rescue helicopter in action - in too close a manner.

I had spent the Friday and Saturday with the Papamoa Surf Lifesaving Club team that was competing in the Inflatable Rescue Boat National Championships at Whangamata.

The seas were challenging and the IRB crews were using all their skills to complete the rescue tests in the races.

If you haven't seen IRBs going full pelt through breakers, you should take time to do so.

The most exciting moments are when they rise at almost perpendicular angles to the seas and then hang momentarily before crashing back into the churning waters. It is spectacular and - for the crews - not without risks.

But the crew - made up of a driver, a crewman and the "patients" - are well trained and very good at what they do. They love the excitement of pitting themselves against big waves.

And, we shouldn't forget, the crews need to be able to save people in big surf, so rough conditions are part of the job description.

Of course, there are accidents and on the Saturday the casualty list began to mount.

One Papamoa crew member - Stephanie - came a cropper when the IRB took off and threw her up in the air before it began to come down from a big jump.

From a distance the crowd went "ooooohh" and through my telephoto lens what I saw made me go "OMG". Well, that's the sanitised version.

Stephanie came down horizontally from 3 metres and as soon as her driver raised her arm straight up in the air we all knew something was amiss.

She was rushed into shore, where her colleagues and senior lifeguards secured her neck and back before placing her on to a board to be carried to a soon-arriving ambulance.

Fortunately, she was back at the beach a few hours later, managing to steer crutches on sand. She had damaged knee ligaments and would be out of action for a month or so.

The first race on Sunday served up a broken leg and within an hour or so three ambulance journeys were needed to hospital.

Surf lifesaving officials told team managers they were concerned and IRB crews needed to drive to the conditions or else the champs would be called off. That would not have gone down well with any of the teams, as not one of those hurt - or their mates - would dream of quitting.

Soon after, one of the Pap teams zoomed into shore on the last leg of a race. Its driver was Nathan Smith, better known among New Zealand's lifesavers as "Gumby". He's a great guy and a real character.

Somehow Gumby tripped from the boat and speartackled himself headfirst into the sand.

Everyone's hearts were in their mouths as he'd broken his neck and back a few years before. His first reflex was to get up and power on for the team, but courage sometimes isn't enough and his legs collapsed under him and he was out cold. Flat on his back as waves engulfed him.

Instantly, his teammates ran from everywhere, managing to protect his neck and back while raising his head above the water.

As they formed a human forklift to carefully move him to dry sand, the looks on their faces showed real worry and another emergency call went out.

Goodness knows what was going through Gumby's mind in those long minutes he lay on a backboard, but you can bet his previous injury would have been front and central.

He is only 22 and is a teacher's aide at Papamoa College. He was also planning on competing at the World Lifesaving champs in France this year.

You can bet the fear of disablement would have been lurking like a spectre. As it was for those of us with him, including his dad Shaun who took over from the medic to keep his head still.

The ambulance crew arrived and took him through his paces. Pain? Movement? Any sensations? He could move his arms and legs - much to everyone's relief - but had pins and needles in some fingers and toes.

Then he gently needed to be carried to the ambulance to be taken to the helipad where the TrustPower TECT rescue helicopter would land to take him to Tauranga Hospital.

He didn't want that, he said he'd be back to watch his mates complete their races but everyone else knew that wasn't going to happen.

At the pad, Gumby was prepped for the flight and then it was into the aircraft and, in the experienced hands of pilot Liam Bretkelly and an air medic, he was taken to Tauranga.

I'm pleased to report Gumby is up and about - albeit carefully - and has some ligament issues in his neck. Next time I see him I'll let him know that's the closest I ever want to be to the rescue chopper.

Mind you, it won't stop me continuing to be a friend of the service or help them with donations, as you just never know ...

NB: The Smith family has been a member of the rescue helicopter service for 15 years.

Richard Moore is an award-winning Western Bay journalist and photographer.

Richard@richardmoore.com

- Bay of Plenty Times

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