Holding his broken neck with one hand and the steering wheel with the other, an off-duty paramedic drove himself from a remote beach to seek medical treatment.

Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter advanced paramedic Rob Gemmell has just returned to work after the Easter weekend accident, that has given him a new insight into treating patients.

The father-of-three was holidaying at Mangawhai Heads and went out for "one last surf" when he was picked up by a wave on his walk out of the shallows, and dumped head first onto the sand.

"I was about to step onto the dry sand when I was picked up by a large dumping shore break and started free wheeling around before I was dumped head first onto the sand.


"I felt a crunch in my neck and I knew as I was rolling around in the surf that I had something, that something was wrong."

Gemmell said he could stand up, but his hands automatically went to his neck -- one of three regular reactions to neck injuries.

"People either have no feeling in their arms and legs, or start to lose feeling in their arms and legs or feel like their head is going to fall off. I felt like my head was going to fall off."

He waved down two women who were nearby on the isolated beach and they helped him get his board out of the surf.

"They were very helpful and offered to do everything that you should, lie me down, call the emergency services...but because I know the system I knew that I hadn't had any significant spinal chord damage and the remote location we were in didn't have any coverage.

"So they helped me walk to the carpark, which was about 500m, and I thought if I could do that then I could probably drive to the nearest medical centre."

So he did.

"I had one hand on my neck and the other on the steering wheel and was very sure it was safely done so I wasn't a hazard to other people on the road."


He drove to the St John ambulance base at Mangawhai, about 10km away.

He was hospitalised and an x-ray revealed he had broken his C1 vertebra, which can be a very serious injury: "The location of the fracture itself can be a critical injury, and most often is fatal."

The experience had given him a new insight into his job, which he has just returned to after three months recovering from the break.

"I have lost count of how many surfers we have picked up over the years who have neck injuries, and I wouldn't say you get used to it but it was very humbling experience and gave me a different perspective being on that side of things.

"I now understand how vulnerable our patients feel when they are like that, lying on their back and so reliant on other people."

While Gemmell had the medical expertise to asses his situation safely, he strong advises others not to do the same. Anyone with a neck injury should lay flat and still and be kept warm until emergency services arrive.

• Rob Gemmell is a regular on the Code:1 reality television show that follows the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter service. To donate $3 to Auckland's Westpac Rescue Helicopter, text CHOPPER to 8663