It was Joe Sandford's 22nd birthday on Wednesday.

Instead of celebrating his birthday with new friends and loved ones, his parents travelled half way round the world to sit next to him in his hospital bed as he lay in a coma.

On July 3, he was involved in a serious car crash in Northland after his car left the road and has been in a coma ever since. Police believe fatigue may have been a factor.

Joe, an expatriate from England on a scholarship through Inside Running Academy based in Mount Maunganui, was committed to seeing as much of New Zealand as he could before he was due to go home on August 13.


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On July 3, Joe left Mount Maunganui early in the morning to drive the 440km to the Bay of Islands.

Just before 6am he was involved in a serious car crash. He sustained a serious brain injury, as well as a fractured pelvis, a ruptured spleen and a broken vertebra.

Joe's father Steve Sandford said he and his wife, Jane, were at a music festival in the UK when their daughter, Georgie, rang them at 6am on July 3 (UK time) to tell them the terrible news.

The pair rushed back home, repacked their bags, and were on a plane to New Zealand that night at 10.30pm.

"I don't think you realise just how dark some of the places in your mind are until you face something like this. It was a tough flight but Jane and I are very lucky in the fact we have a very strong relationship, in my moments of weakness she is strong and vice versa," he said.

They touched down in New Zealand at 11am on July 5, two days after the initial accident and went straight to Auckland City Hospital to see Joe in the critical care unit.

Joe arrived in New Zealand at the end of April and had been living in Mount Maunganui and playing rugby for the Rangataua Rugby Sports Club.


"He had one or two free days each week and had been travelling around the different parts of New Zealand. He had heard at the northern tip of the country, you could the see the sea meeting the ocean.

"That was what he was aiming to do. He was aiming to get there early to see and take it all in.

"He was going to take full advantage of the fact that somebody had asked him to do something that he absolutely loved which he would never have the opportunity to do again.

"As you would expect any fun loving 21-year-old with a great zest for life to do."

Mr Sandford said the impact of the crash had resulted in his son suffering brain damage, but until he woke up doctors would not know how bad it was.

"He is critical but stable, his injuries after this amount of time are not life-threatening but they would be probably life-changing," he said.

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"Doctors have said he will have life-changing injuries and we have been told to expect a combination of mental and physical impairment. To what extent, they don't know."

Short term, they were waiting for their beloved son and brother to wake up. Long term, he had a very long rehabilitation time in front of him.

Mr Sandford said his wife would stay in New Zealand for however long it took for Joe to be well enough to be repatriated back to England. Georgie would head back in the next week to start a new job while Mr Sandford would go between the two countries.

"It was always going to be bad news, especially for a family which is as close knit as ours, to find out that somebody we love so much is so badly hurt.

"Then to have to deal with it 13,000 miles from home is a whole different ball game."

Each day the family would visit Joe two or three times, he said.

"In a situation like this you feel very helpless. You want to do something but you don't know what.

"So we go in, talk to him, hold his hand, we tell him the news, what's going on, we read him stories.

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"Our sole priority is Joe, we want the best possible outcome for our son. We are just taking things one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time."

At the same time, the family had been inundated with massages and enquires from the UK which needed replying to. The support and medical care in New Zealand had also been overwhelming, he said.

Joe Sandford on a recent trip to Hobbiton. Photo/Supplied
Joe Sandford on a recent trip to Hobbiton. Photo/Supplied

Mr Sandford said his son was a lovable man.

"I know I am his dad and I know I am biased. But he is so clever, articulate and funny.

He's very determined, tough and competitive but also engaging, and generous. He has a great eye for small detail but can see the big picture."

He started playing rugby at 14 and during his last season in England he was the manager and captain of the Heathfield and Warldon Second XV rugby team.

"He's a proper club man, a proper rugby man."

On Joe's birthday Mr Sandford, his wife and their daughter took balloons and cakes up to the ward where he lay.

"The question was, what would have Joe wanted, and Joe would have wanted us to celebrate his birthday."

Murray Ririnui, Rangataua Rugby Sports Club premier team assistant coach and club captain said the club was in shock at the news of the accident.

"He's quite a brilliant young player, he plays for our development team, he's a guy that wasn't shy, he got on with everybody. He was a good guy, real hands on."

The club would be holding a fundraiser for him this weekend at their home game.

"He was a good young player, he came over here to learn more about the game because he thought New Zealand was the best place to come and learn."

Inside Running Academy director Mike Rogers said Joe had been an asset to the organisation since he arrived.

"I spent quite a bit of time with him. He had been doing a few extra things for me like coaching the second XV rugby at Bethlehem College. I asked the boys when they first arrived and he put his hand up to do that.

"He is so passionate about rugby and his club."

To help support Joe and his family, Inside Running Academy have set up a Givealittle page.

-additional reporting Anna Whyte