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Plugging into the "crippled parrot's" shock survival story two decades on.

CALL SUE Hatchwell accident-prone-she won't argue.

She's broken one leg or the other three times, plus both simultaneously. The first fracture was while skiing in Europe, the second on safari in Africa. The fourth was much closer to home-on Sulphur Flats when a teenage cyclist crashed into her.

Between times was the doublebanger break. It came when her bones, muscles and tendons were zapped by 240 electrical volts circuiting inside her. Had those volts left it, rather than racing through her system, the plug would have been pulled on Sue Hatchwell's life.


The culprit was a minuscule wire protruding from an extension cord she'd used to tidy a holidaying neighbours' garden with power-driven tools. They arrived home to see her being loaded into an ambulance.

"I remember being wheeled into A&E, a nurse saying, 'What do we do with her, she's still alive?'"

Very few survive shocks so severe. That was January 13, 1995. Her right arm remains in a splint, a district nurse dresses it daily and 42 operations on there are more to come. The latest round will involve those troublesome legs; they've taken objection to the foreign bodies implanted into them to replace her fried ankle joints.

There's been some horrendous surgery, gruesome skin grafts included.

Her lowest point came when an arm amputation was mooted- surgeons she met while a guest speaker at a United States burns conference counselled against it. Throughout, Sue's remained upbeat. The nearest she comes to acknowledging her life's not always easy is her reference to herself as "a crippled parrot".

"Well, we have to be [optimistic] don't we?" is her batback to our facetious remark that her personality's that of a live wire. Her coming as near-as-damn-it to extinction coincided with the anniversary of her mother's death.

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She'd just returned from visiting her grave when her good deed went so radically wrong. Sue's been a Rotorua fixture since 1980, arriving at the Chateau Caravel (today's Distinction Hotel) as its conference marketing guru.

It was the continuation of a New Zealand first for the woman who'd broken into the male dominated field at the Caravel's sister hotel in the capital. With both her parents national swimming and surf lifesaving champs, she was genetically primed to beawater baby.

At 21, she took out the national surf belt and surf race, a title her father had previously held. As a teen she joined the Wellington Ladies' Club and was in the thick of plucking Wahine survivors from raging surf, storming her way through a police cordon to reach them.

"Saving people was what I'd trained for."

By 1970, Sue was surfing a different sea-the Indian Ocean off Durban. En route to her OE, she'd dropped by for a three-week visit to her brother Peter, a Canterbury rep rugby player the South African club poached. She stayed three years, studying hospitality and marketing, skills she honed at the Durban Recreation Club "where we continued our swimming by teaching it, that was neat".

In Lucerne she bolstered her qualifications with a food and beverage course: "A wonderful
experience, it's a jolly shame we still can't cook."

Leg break number one was on Austria's skifields.

"I was following an instructor, he went over a ski jump, I didn't." Despite a broken leg, this hardcore Kiwi skied down unaided. The plaster was newly off when she joined a three-month African safari.

"In Uganda I was putting a towel on the line, looked up, saw this huge bull elephant eyeballing me, turned to run and tripped over a tent rope."

Concerned locals carried her to a witch doctor.

"He had all these jars of insects' eyes, frogs' legs- we've never hopped so fast with our pants down."

A Leprosy Mission Hospital was less fearsome. It wasn't her only African hospital admission; she contracted malaria. Adventures continued to compound. "At a Maasai welcome, our group was invited to drink this mixture of goat's milk and cow's blood. They pierced the cow's neck with a porcupine needle in front of us."

A border post ambush slipped into the mix. "Machine guns were pointed at us, for about five hours we were forced to hold our arms in the air . . . horrific."

Pre-accident, her Rotorua life and times were far more staid. From the Caravel it was on to the newly opened Hyatt (now the Millennium) before founding Galaxy Convention Planners with friends. A short spell with Tourism Rotorua followed, leading to the birth of

Sue's long-running company Conference and Function Services.

"It's what kept me sane- business blossomed, we were doing conferences around New Zealand."

She's recently retired. For the record, Sue's magnetic field that draws "accidents" to her remains active.

For this profile's picture, photographer Stephen Parker settled her on a tree stump; within seconds a hidden wasps' nest swarmed into life. Sue is hyperallergic to wasps. Had she been stung it would, in her words, have been "all over rover".

Miraculously, both escaped unscathed.

Meanwhile, more than two decades on from Sue's near electrocution she nurses one major regret.

"There's still no education about the dangers of electricity, safety around it-had I used a $35 adaptor 'my little accident' would never have happened.

How many know that?

Sue Hatchwell:
Born: Christchurch, 1949.
Education: Fendalton Primary, Rangi Ruru Girls' Christchurch, Queen Margaret's Wellington.
Family: Former partner the late Denzil Ibbetson, brother (Durban), sister (Auckland), five nieces and nephews, five great nieces and nephews, two "special" godsons.
Interests: Burns prevention, surf club (assists with Mt Maunganui Nippers), cycling, member WOW - Women on Wheels, has completed REAL Women's Duathlon. Pre-accident member Ruapehu ski patrol, played tennis and squash. "Golf and croquet when I'm fully functional again."
On Rotorua: "No doubt it's New Zealand's number one conference destination -we have the accommodation, venues, activities, our suppliers are very creative."
Personal philosophy: "Love and enjoy every day