Perhaps mercifully, Kelsey Tarrant doesn't have any recollection of what hit her.
One minute, Kelsey, 20, was heading from Taupō along Poihipi Rd to her job as a fencer. She only recalls snatches of what happened after that.
The car windshield was draped across her. A fireman took the car door off and said: "I don't know how you did it but you shouldn't be alive". She spat her loose teeth out into somebody's hand and asked him to give them to her parents. She was in a vehicle — she realises now it must have been the Greenlea rescue helicopter — being taken somewhere. That is all.
The facts are this: at 6.50am on March 12 this year, Kelsey was driving her white 2004 Nissan Pulsar from Taupō to Oruanui to start work. She was wearing a singlet, shorts and work boots. She had a passenger in the front seat. At the bottom of the winding hill on Poihipi Rd, a car heading towards Taupō crossed the centre line and collided with Kelsey's head-on. Her side of the car took the brunt of the impact. The airbags went off, adding burns and friction grazes to Kelsey's list of impact injuries.
Jaw fractured in three places. Concussion. Broken teeth and crowns. Whiplash. Broken nose and sinuses. Fractured sternum and three broken ribs. Dislocated and fractured right shoulder. Left arm broken in two places. Lower spine fractures. Broken tail bone. Three breaks in her pelvis. Dislocated right knee and a compound fracture in the other. Crushed right ankle. Lacerated spleen, bruised lungs, kidneys, bladder and other internal injuries.
Really, it's a miracle and a tribute to Taupō emergency services and the skill of medical staff that she survived. Even more so when Kelsey walks into the room under her own steam, smiling cheerfully and radiating positivity.
It took nearly an hour to extract Kelsey from the wreckage of her car, a careful process aimed at not making her life-threatening injuries worse. She was then helicoptered, at status one (critical), to Waikato Hospital.
While Kelsey was being prepared for emergency surgery, her parents Jeni and Blue were fretting about her failure to show up for work. Jeni rang Kelsey's phone, checked her social media and tried contacting her friends. Eventually, Blue heard by chance that there had been an accident involving a white car on Poihipi Rd. They were about to head out there to see what they could find out when a police car came up the drive. Jeni felt sick. Sergeant Shane McNally stepped out and simply said: "They're alive".
The Tarrants hurriedly threw some belongings into a bag and set off to Hamilton, with Kelsey's brother Fergus arriving there ahead of them from his home in Morrinsville. By then Kelsey was already in theatre and did not emerge until after 9pm where surgeons had been busy setting her broken arm and washing out all the glass and plastic from numerous puncture wounds on her bare arms and legs caused by the broken windscreen. Over the next two weeks, she underwent six more operations.
Medical staff attributed her survival to being young and fit but Kelsey did everything she could after the crash to give herself the best possible chance of recovery. For her, that included the power of positivity.
"They kept saying mindset is a big part of healing and, if you have a negative mindset, it apparently goes slower because your endorphins promote healing," Kelsey explained. "I tried to stay positive because I didn't see much point in being anything else."
Just after the Covid-19 alert level four lockdown began, Kelsey was transferred to Taupō Hospital where she was unable to have visitors. Her cellphone had been destroyed in the crash but her parents bought her a tablet and she spent her time messaging friends or reading online. She also took a lot of pleasure from seeing people walking their dogs past the hospital every day, particularly the regulars — "it made me happy".
Part of staying happy included not keeping up with news of the lockdown. Kelsey says she just wanted to focus on healing and all the positive things she could and, as she continued to improve, she became more mobile inside her hospital bubble.
"I was able to transfer myself into my wheelchair and go off around the halls and talk to the nurses and go to the lounges. It was a fitness kind of thing because I was so used to being fit and active. I just filled my time in doing things, talking to people and stuff."
She was active on Facebook and Instagram, posting about her recovery and was buoyed by the many supportive and encouraging comments she received.
"It was amazing and even people who had barely talked to me over the years were messaging me and saying 'was I okay' and saying if I needed anyone to talk to, they were there. So many people came out of the woodwork wanting to help and support and be there - anything I needed. Having people there to be able to talk to was really good."
Kelsey got her casts off on April 30, went home in a wheelchair and four weeks ago began walking again with crutches, although she's now able to walk around at home without support. Two days after getting out of the wheelchair, she went bowling on crutches in Rotorua with her friends — and won.
She says what has happened has happened and focusing her sights on what's ahead is, for her, the only option.
"Yeah, it [the accident] happened and I cry every now and then and I cried about my scars on display and not being able to do some sports and activities and maybe not being able to do my job again, but I'll deal with that when I come to it.
"I'm not willing to let everything I've planned on doing in my life go. I've got tramps I still plan to do and places I still want to go so I'm going to try my best to get back to where I was."
As part of her new life, Kelsey went along to the Blue Light Taupō AGM last month and joined the committee, saying getting involved is something she wants to do to give back to her community.
She also has other plans that have arisen as a result of the accident.
"Something I'd like to do in my future is go around schools and promote road safety and use my real-life near-death experience as to why it's important to wear a seatbelt, safety ratings in vehicles, working brakes, things like that. You might think you're the best driver in the world but [an accident's] not necessarily your fault.
"Our philosophy is there's no point dwelling on it. Yes, something bad has happened but sitting there crying about it isn't going to fix it. You have to try and get up and make the best of what you've been given because you can only go up."
Kelsey wanted to give a big thanks to everyone who was involved on the day of the crash and says, when the time is right, there will be a lot of cakes being dropped off to various emergency services.
"I have a much higher respect for those people and what they do for their job now. If it wasn't for them I wouldn't be here. I'll be forever grateful for that and I'm going to give back by doing this Blue Light thing and maybe other things in the future and maybe helping out with my community more."
Kelsey says she now regrets having been driving a car with only a one-star safety rating, although that one star — the driver and passenger-side airbags, undoubtedly made a difference.
Taupō road policing manager Senior Sergeant Fane Troy says although cars are becoming safer as technology improves and a car with a five-star safety rating might help reduce the likelihood of being killed or seriously injured in a crash, it is not a silver bullet.
"Unfortunately we've been to a number of crashes over the years where there's been serious injuries where the vehicles have a five-star safety rating," he said. "The safest way we can be protected on the road is through driving behaviour."
Mr Troy urged drivers, particularly young drivers and parents of young drivers, to look for a five-star safety rating when buying a vehicle, even brand-new ones. The website www.rightcar.govt.nz will give ANCAP, USCR or VSRR safety ratings for vehicles.
A man has been charged in connection with the crash, including driving while under the influence of drugs and causing injury, driving while disqualified, dangerous driving and failing to stop or ascertain injury after a crash.