By ERWIN CHLANDA
I’ve written many traffic accident reports, beginning in the ’60s as a police roundsman for a daily newspaper in Vienna. All were written in the third person.
At about 8:25pm on Tuesday, November 19, 2013, at age 68, I had my first serious traffic accident. So here is my first person account of what happened, what it meant to me, what it made me discover about my family, friends, profession, community. My life in general, really.
I was travelling south on the Stuart Highway, south of The Gap. I had come from a Rotary meeting in town and was heading home to the rural area off Colonel Rose Drive. It was one of my two weekly alcohol free days – so I hadn’t had any alcoholic beverage since Sunday night.
I was riding a scooter, a small motorbike really with a 125cc engine. I’m a very experienced motorbike rider, having owned around 20 bikes in my life, the biggest one a Harley Davidson and the smallest, a string of 250cc upwards dirt and road bikes. I reckon my nicest machine was a red 640cc Ducati Monster V2 (more about Ducati later).
As I approached Old Timers a car had crossed the John Blakeman bridge. It was on my left, obliged to give way to the traffic on the highway. It was dark but I noticed the car was dusty and it was slowing down.
What I remember next is not visual but acoustic – a huge crunching, metal rending sound. My thought: “This is serious”.
Then I was lying on the road, looking at the shoes on the feet of ambulance crew and police officers moving around me.
From what I’ve been told, and from my own conclusions, this is what had happened: the car hadn’t stopped and I’d done what’s known in the biker parlance as a Superman – flying through the air, over the top of a car or its bonnet.
The landing or the impact caused me a compound fracture of my left thigh, a broken pelvis, a major laceration, abrasions, and a lot of bruising.
A vertebrae was cracked slightly but – incredibly luckily – there was no serious damage to my spinal cord. It was just a bone injury that is now healing on its own.
The full-face helmet took care of my head pretty well – no damage worth noting.
The driver had driven off. I was the victim of ‘a hit and run’.
Three witnesses had seen the crash, called the ambulance and gave police statements. Police are still investigating. I hope they find the driver who left me for dead on a dark road.
What then unfolded was what I’ve added to “the many reasons why I live in Alice” manifesto: we may well be a small town in the middle of the desert, a very long way from major centers, but the medical attention I received must surely rate amongst the world’s best.
It is wholly publicly funded and organised, something Australians can be very proud of. For NT residents, in no doubt hundreds of complicated cases, the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH) and others in the southern city pick up where the NT hospitals are overstretched in terms expertise or capacity, with the Royal Flying Doctor Service often providing the link between the two.
It’s worth giving a thought to how much, in a world where boundaries are losing significance, this marvelous life-saving cooperation could be extended to other spheres of endeavour.
I’d been briefly unconscious. The ambulance was apparently in the vicinity on its way to another call-out and was diverted to me. It was on the scene in less than three minutes.
They did what they had to, wonderfully well and reassuringly, then carefully transferred me onto a stretcher and lifted me into the ambulance. I was now more alert, the adrenalin was pumping.
“Do you have my backpack, it’s got my laptop in it?”
“Do you have my camera? It was in compartment under the seat.”
“Can you give me my mobile, please? It’s in the backpack. I need to ring my wife.”
I called Kieran and told her I’d had a bit of an accident.
Not long after she was there in the new emergency department of the Alice Springs Hospital, the opening of which I’d covered only a few months ago.
My memory is sketchy but I asked her to get a photo – “This is news.” I was in overdrive, things needed to be done. She was reluctant but eventually took one (see at top).
I felt a complete trust in the medical professionals around me. I’d given them permission to cut my pants off. Four or five people attended to me, putting me through the big doughnut-shaped ECG machine.
I complained about pain. They gave me a tablet that, in what seemed less than a second, dissolved everything around me into a swirl of black and white shards.
It’s apparently a drug you can get on the streets. Why anyone would take this stuff for fun has me perplexed.
I thought, OK, this is it. I’ve died. That’s what it’s like to be dead.
It was the greatest relief that the shards slowly reassembled themselves into the picture of the emergency department room and the people caring for me.
I remember the surgeon standing there, silent, waiting, his arms folded, watching every move made by the nurses who were cleaning me up. He was ready to start my stabilisation, including attending to the hole in my thigh through which my broken femur had pierced, readying me for the Flying Doctor trip in the morning. His job was perfect, no infection ensued.
My next memory is being in the ambulance, passing the place where I’d crashed, on the way to the airport and being loaded into the RFDS Pilatus.
With me were a nurse and a doctor. As a patient you lie on a stretcher which can be loaded easily into the plane. That and a good deal of morphine made the trip almost a pleasure.
The flight is a little slower than a passenger jet – three hours.
In the RAH Department of Orthopaedics and Trauma, Associate Professor Lucian Solomon is clearly the leading light. Several doctors formed my welcoming committee. The groundwork for my surgery was being laid.
The University of Adelaide website tells us Mr Solomon (surgeons are not addressed as Doctor) studied medicine in Romania and trained as an orthopaedic surgeon in Romania and Australia. He undertook clinical and research fellowships in USA, Germany and Australia. He has worked in clinical orthopaedics and performed basic and clinical orthopaedic research for over 20 years focusing on traumatic, developmental and degenerative pathologies of the pelvis, hip and knee.
To have a man of his calibre working on me was my great fortune: it took him and his team four hours to fix me up.
As a kid I had a broken arm and was in plaster for six weeks and bed-bound for much of it. None of that. Mr Solomon fitted me with plates, screws and wire. His additional challenge was to incorporate in the repair job an artificial hip put in, here in Alice, 18 months ago. I must have a look at an Xray some time – or maybe not.
Two days after the operation a physiotherapist got me out of bed and had me walking with a frame, just a few steps. His name is Chris, and he became the friendly but stern driver of my return to mobility. When he found out I was from Alice, he asked me whether I knew Dave Tuzewski – the former Alice Springs identity now living in Adelaide is an old mate of mine. Small world.
Mr Solomon usually does his ward rounds on his own, separate from the team of doctors, nurses and physios who call in every morning. He told me to put as much weight on the leg as I could without causing serious pain. He also mentioned in one of our briefs chats that he’s climbed Mount Gillen – twice.
Days later I was on two crutches and now, three weeks later, I use just one and can walk a couple of hundred meters at a time.
The healing effort at the RAH is by no means restricted to the operating table. The ward staff, from cleaners to nurses, are incredibly friendly, skilled and responsive.
“My name is Paul (or Susie, Vaughan, Steve, Jasmine, Simone among many others) – I’ll be looking after you today.”
“Hi, I’m Charlotte (or Salim or Liz among others). I’m one of the doctors here.”
You’re likely to be called “darling” or “sweetheart” or “buddy”. Kindness, lots of jokes, and smiles are a great medicine.
Even the food was much better than I had expected: usually three tasty main courses to choose from, plus soup and dessert twice a day. I was told now was not the time to lose weight: “Eat up!” I obliged.
Visiting hours seem to be unlimited. The proximity of a loved one is made easier by the provision of rooms – “the resi wing” – on the hospital grounds for people from the bush. Nothing fancy but adequate. Lots of people from country South Australia and from the Territory stay there while they’re supporting a family member who’s a patient.
So Kieran was able to be with me every day, and with the brilliant convenience of online publishing, we were able to keep running the Alice Springs News Online from my hospital bed for the best part of a month.
Being there allowed me to see unexpectedly my older children, Lesley and Laurens – who grew up in Alice but now live in Adelaide – and my six grandkids. (Kieran and my kids, Jacqueline and Rainer, born and bred in Alice, arrived today to spend Christmas with us.)
My “big” kids’ mum, my first wife Gail, and her partner Eddie also called in for a hug and a chat. Gail was a champion show rider during her many years in The Alice, and still rides competitively in Adelaide.
Former Alice Springs reporter Jill Bottrall, who worked with me on the Advocate back in the day and went on to become the previous SA Premier’s minder, called in, and so did Mike O’Reilly, with whom I’ve been mates since the ’70s when he was first NT Chief Minister Paul Everingham’s minder in Alice Springs.
All that plus about 200 good wishes, on this site, by email, phone or in person, from friends and readers, gives me a pretty good idea where I’m placed in the world.
The RAH is a location, location, location story (though set to soon change): the lively entertainment district of East Rundle Street is just a brief wheelchair ride away, and so are the Art Gallery and Museum of South Australia, the magic Botanic Gardens and plenty more.
Talking of wheelchairs, the ones on the orthopaedic ward were donated by Ducati. Fair enough, they helped supply the patients! In the same vein, the ward’s DVD collection was donated by the 4Bs – the Bent and Buckled Bikers Brigade.
My mate over decades, Daryl Gray, a fellow skydiver and a former Alice town council alderman, has been in a wheelchair nearly 30 years, paralysed from the chest down.
He was a great guide through a city that has become wheelchair friendly, although I needed Kieran to give me a push from time to time – quite a lot, really.
“How do you get shoulders like yours?” I asked Daryl. “29 years 1 month and 10 days in a wheelchair will do it,” was the answer.
The friendliness towards people in a wheelchair – in taxis, in the street, in the museums – and the facilities for them, were another revelation. That’s also something Australia is doing really well and I confess I’ve never given close thought to it before. There’s nothing like being in someone else’s shoes … or wheels as the case may be.
The art gallery, for example, has lots of little staircases throughout the old building, which in the past would have prevented wheelchair access. Now small lifts discreetly fitted into alcoves and corners – and warm, courteous staff who help you use them – open up the great art collection and exhibitions to the disabled.
The RAH building is old and tired but under construction, as we speak, is the new RAH, to cost $3.2b over 30 years, touted as Australia’s most advanced hospital. It’s going to be part of a whole new health and biomedical precinct, incorporating the University of Adelaide’s new medical and nursing school, in the West End of the city. The striking new building for the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (right) opened while we were there.
This atmosphere of high skill and massive achievement helps reduce the horror of the kind of accident I had, but there is plenty of it left: an orderly is taking me, in my bed, through the long corridors to the operating theater … when they knock me out for the main surgery, will I wake up again? What about the people around me who seem to have given up hope? Am I kidding myself thinking I can resume a normal life? Why has some bastard torn at least two months out of my life and fill them with pain and worry?
When I am lifted onto the operating table, a wink and a smile from Mr Solomon helps – a lot.
The flight home, sitting up, able to look out the window down to the backyard of both Adelaide and Alice Springs reinforces the link between the two places: the brown and soon the red dirt, the salt lakes, Eyre and Torrens, the massive drainage systems of (now) dry creeks and rivers, the tiny specks created by humans, the vastness of it all, the clear air on this fine day.
Like the needs surrounding health, our shared outback, its endless opportunity for adventure and freedom, could be something that joins, rather than separates Alice and Adelaide.
I know that to the left of our flightpath is the Eyre Peninsula where I ran the West Coast Sentinel for five terrific years shortly after migrating to Australia. There farmers grow food – wheat, oats, barley, sheep, cattle – at a scale and with an efficiency that puts much of the world in the shade. And fishermen get their catch from the ocean off the West Coast, a coastline of thousands of kilometers, zig-zagging in and out of countless bays that are waiting to become a playground for the world.
It was a pleasant daydream after days of gnashing of teeth in the media over the announced shut-down of Holden. Hadn’t we seen this coming? Were we living in a fantasy land of being good – compared to the rest of the world – at building motorcars? Should we not focus on what we are really good at? The kind of brilliance for which the RAH is a hub? And turning our bush and beaches into a playground for the world?
Meanwhile, back to the task at hand. Across from me on the hospital ward was Steve, in his forties, fit, an occasional visitor to Alice on business. He suffered multiple injuries after being knocked off his pushbike by a car. He’s just starting rehab.
We deal with the big question in a brief chat: are we going to ride again? Yep. No worries. Fall off the horse – get back on again.
PHOTOS (from top): In the Alice hospital about an hour after the hit & run that nearly killed me. •The scar after major surgery in the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH). • Getting a lesson in wheelchair driving from Daryl Gray, former Alice alderman and skydiving buddy. • An avenue of Moreton Bay Figs in the Adelaide Botanical Gardens, adjacent to the RAH. • Treasures from Central Australia in the SA Art Gallery, 10 minutes by wheelchair from the RAH. • Updating the Alice Springs News Online. • Part of the new health and biomedical precinct, which will include the new RAH, opened while I received expert treatment in the old one. • Back in the Red Centre, home.
By ERWIN CHLANDA