Michael Ussher's daughter Imogen heard the familiar rotors of Auckland Westpac Rescue's BK117 passing overhead and her heart sunk.
As the helicopter made its way in the direction of the local mountain bike park, she knew it could only mean one thing.
Her dad was in trouble. Imogen was right.
On Sunday, November 22, on what should have been a routine cycle run around the popular trail, Michael's day turned to custard.
"I wish I was doing something incredible at the time," says Michael, a Whangamata lawyer, dad of two and avid sports fan. "But I wasn't. It was on a grade one part of a grade three track."
In 2020, the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopters were tasked to 217 missions in the Coromandel and Hauraki Plains regions — 50 more missions than the year before. It was also a record year for the service with 1187 missions undertaken. Among them, Michael Ussher.
Michael enjoys getting out mountain biking at least twice a week and was thinking about calling it a day when he fell off his bike.
He landed head-first, hitting a tree stump and destroying the expensive helmet his wife Natasha insisted he wear. That helmet helped save his life.
Natasha was away on holiday at the time.
Michael has supported the rescue helicopter since he moved to Whangamata but having had to use the service himself, its importance has taken on a new meaning.
"Ironically," Michael says, "my daughter and her brother, Hunter, have also had problems on the 'fairly benign' stretch of track. Imogen broke her wrist and Hunter, his collarbone.
"In the back of my mind I thought Hunter, who is an avid fisherman also, might need it one day," says Michael. "I never imagined I would need it myself."
Being the self-described sports-mad family they are, it didn't take his children long to get on their bikes again. Michael's road to recovery, however, would be a lot longer.
He says moving to Whangamata from Auckland in 2006 was the best decision their family could make with everything they love to do all within easy reach.
Michael Ussher's helmet was worn on the insistence of his wife.
Generations of Michael's family, including the grandparents, aunty, uncle and cousins have used the same mountain bike track.
"I think that's something pretty special," he says, "everyone in the family getting together and enjoying themselves."
On this occasion however, Ussher was out on the track alone and his injuries were significantly worse than those of his children. To make matters worse, he couldn't be tracked by his loved ones on their mobiles.
"Imogen would typically ring me halfway through the course to check in on me, but on this occasion, I hadn't activated the app."
He says he won't make that mistake again.
Regardless, as with many rural communities, news got back to his children fast.
"By the time I had asked some fellow mountain bikers to get in touch with my kids, a mutual friend of Hunter and Imogen had already called them and he didn't mince his words either.
"There was no holding back on the drama," Michael says. "Amongst a few choice words, he told them, 'Your father's in the chopper and he's broken his neck'!"
Michael had difficulty using his cellphone to get help. He said the toughest part wasn't dealing with the pain of the injury but with the mental mind games that were playing out.
"I've played rugby and been concussed before. I've been hurt before. I knew instantly that I'd done something significant to my neck. It was the sensations, or rather lack of sensations, that concerned me the most. I just knew I shouldn't move."
Not long after calling for help, his friends and the local community rallied. He says he was grateful for all the people he knew and didn't know that day.
"Knowing the helicopter was coming too assured me I was getting the best possible help I could get," he recalls.
He says it was the good humour of Westpac Rescue's veteran Intensive Care Paramedic Chris "Deacs" Deacon, that kept his mind off the accident as they made their way to Waikato Hospital.
"I know these guys have a professional duty to perform but to have compassion and empathy, which they don't have to exercise, made a huge difference," Michael says.
"They must see some serious stuff and to have that humour while being so incredibly capable and professional astounds me. They deserve every bit of credit for the role they play and in our community.
"I was in tears and they used humour to snap me out of it," he says. "You can't teach someone that human aspect."
While originally being told it would take six weeks to recover, a specialist at Middlemore brought him back to earth and said it would be much more.
"They told me I would be 12 weeks minimum in a neck brace and another 12 weeks after that before even considering doing any form of exciting sport."
Through regular physio, Michael is back in the pool and even on his bike — be it a stationary exercise one while he builds up his strength.
He hopes to compete in the Whaka50 mountain bike event on Labour weekend, as he's done for the past eight years with his sister.
"And I don't want her to beat me!" he jokes.
Although not being active has been hard, he has enjoyed spending more time with his family. "Natasha," he says, "deserves a medal.
"I am so grateful for the super mum she is. Hunter's been playing golf, waiting for me to recover, and Imogen's been the best mate you could hope for. She's been hanging out with me non-stop."
He adds: "Like the importance of family, I've come to realise how important an asset having a rescue helicopter available for our community really is. It encourages people to get out there and be active but reassures them that, should they need it, they are always going to have the best care available wherever they are."
"Being active is a part of who we are as Kiwis and we should never let go of that."