“The ocean stirs the heart, inspires the imagination and brings eternal joy to the soul.”
Robert Wyland, marine artist.
Bronnie broached, slipping sideways in small spilling surf.
Kayaking in wind, waves and swell is exhilarating. It’s the ultimate freedom to be chasing runners then planing on them. Some time ago I caught a breaking wave off Fairy Bower. My perfect little TideRace Xcite slid down the face of the wave, yee-haa. I want to do it again and again. , As I was hidden by the wave behind me, Roy wasn’t sure whether I had caught it or capsized. Then he saw the blade of my paddle above the foam.
I love the ocean. Every time we paddle it shows a different face. We’ve paddled north from Sydney Harbour past Blue Fish to Shelly Beach on flat water. It’s also been lumpy seas with rebound causing clapotis tossing our kayaks. Other times there has been white horses and green water surging over our bows. On rare occasions we’ve had a north wind pushing us home and we ride wave after wave.
Bronnie half broached, slipping forward and sideways in small spilling surf.
The kayak has completed the broach. In the shallows, Bron relaxes the brace and lean.
We have paddled many sections of Australia’s East Coast, often slogging for hours into a blustering head wind. When I catch a wave it’s exciting. The pinnacle is surfing.
Some say “why would a blind woman want to surf”. It’s exhilarating. There’s a desire that burns in my heart to be a thrill seeker. While surfing a wave my heart stops, I hold my breath while my heart jumps from my chest.
Why to people BASE jump, ice climb vertical peaks, explore dangerous, dark caves or race fast cars? It is for an adrenaline rush, to release tension, to be challenged or simply it’s because they can.
I want to learn to surf to land on remote, surf washed beaches. When we’ve been out all day and the surf is too strong at our planned break. Roy’s skills are good. He could land easily but I cannot.
That means we eat our lunch in our kayaks. We have to turn around and paddle back without a shore break. Then we have eight hours in the boat and a sore bottom. That’s why I want to surf. Truthfully, I want the thrill that goes with it.
Bron leans aggressively into the wave. The paddle brace gives stability.
Bron recovers and stays upright.
On 21 April 2016 I had been practicing in the surf zone. I had broached using bracing strokes both to my left and right. I was doing well. It was fast and exhilarating.
After a dozen runs we had a brief shore break to discuss my progress and how I was feeling. I may have been tiring. I said “let’s do two more runs.” The next two broaches were really good. The surf was getting a bit bigger and I was bracing powerfully and leaning into the waves.
At the end of the last small wave I was almost to shore when another spilling wave came only three seconds behind it. This one was much bigger at eighty centimetres. The keel rocked towards the wave and then started to rock away. A quarter of a second later the wave hit the keel. I didn’t rotate into the wave with my hips in time. The kayak was rotated away from the wall of foam and water. The edge opposite the wave front flipped down and was pushed under the surface. There was no way to recover. The kayak rotated away further. My head went over and under and smashed sideways into the sand.
In the first of a series of four photos, Bronnie is side on to the metre high surf. Just at the instant when the wave hits, Bron’s kayak has edged away from the wave and starts to dig in on the beach side.
My kayak capsized and forced my head into the sand. I thought I would pass out. If I don’t get out now I’ll drown. That’s what was going through my head as I was being pounded by surf.
The kayak was pushed onto firm sand. With adrenaline pumping I grabbed the deck strap. I had to get out before the surge took me out. I thought I’d feint.
Releasing the deck I kicked the kayak away and struggled to my feet in knee deep water.
I was not sure whether I had the strength to walk to the dry sand.
Roy retrieved my boat to prevent it torpedoing into me. My friend was at my side in moments. He ask if I was OK. I said “Get me out of here.” He took me to the beach.
The guys were concerned. My left hand and arm were numb. “It’s broken” I thought. My right shoulder and arm were tender, I held it close to my body. My back had shooting pains. I was hunched over and felt a sorry sight.
I wriggled my fingers. It was clear my arm wasn’t broken. The thought went through my mind “Oh no, I have a neck injury”. I’d much rather a broken arm than a neck injury.
In this second photo, Bron’s kayak is getting pushed further underwater. As Bron struggles to lean into the wave, the kayak is rotating away from the wave.
I work as a masseuse and have seen many results of neck trauma. Without adequate rehabilitation the victim rarely regains full range of movement and function.
Sitting on the sand with some assistance I just felt terrible. My whole upper body was paining. I wanted to cry for my misfortune. I lay on the sand and didn’t want to move again. I was helped to my feet and we slowly, very slowly walked to the carpark.
The kayaks were quickly packed up and Roy drove me at 40kms an hour to Mona Vale Hospital. Each turn in the road was excruciating. Stabbing pains went down my neck into my left arm. I felt ill.
At Mona Vale hospital I was given a neck brace, x-rays and scans.
The CAT scan and physical assessments indicated a fracture with associated nerve damage in the cervical spine at C7. C7 is the last vertebra above the thoracic spine.
An MRI was indicated to determine the full extent of the fracture and for following treatment. I had to be transferred to Royal North Shore Hospital (RNSH) for the imaging.
At midnight I was in the ambulance. It’s a windy road. The journey was slow but as I was stabilised in a neck brace and lying down the trip was not too painful.
In this third photo, the wave is bulldozing over Bron. The mass of water rolls Bron and the kayak upside down.
That early morning passed with pain, tests and questions. My heart rate dropped to 40 beats per minute and I had very low blood pressure. My body went into shock. My heart was monitored. ECG pads were put on my shoulders and other points around my chest. My heart showed an erratic pattern so the monitoring continued through the morning.
Thirty minutes after the ECG pads were put on I experienced intense pain and lost function in my right arm. I was given pain medications which did not reduce the pain. It became intense. I couldn’t move my right arm at all. Nor could I wriggle my fingers. I was very scared. I thought through frightening scenarios of living without use of my right arm and the prospect didn’t help my anxiety.
My left side was numb with no feelings in my left fingers and a lot of pain. Then my right shoulder and arm lost all feeling. I was anxious and started hyperventilating.
The registrar reviewed my symptoms. I still couldn’t move my right arm and the pain level was intensifying every second. I thought I had paralysis. I had to focus on breathing slowly. This was difficult as I was becoming more anxious as the pain increased.
My thought was that I was allergic to the adhesive on the ECG pads but the doctor said he’d never heard of that at all. I suggested to move the pad as I really believed it had something to do with the paralysis. He relocated the pads and slowly the pain reduced. Over the next 30 minutes he sat with me while my right arm regained movement and the pain reduced. He couldn’t understand why.
The following morning, Friday, I was wheeled to radiology for the MRI. I was strapped onto a narrow trolley and pushed into a cave like machine. It’s not painful or frightening just claustrophobic and very noisy.
My left hand was numb but I could move my shoulder but had shooting tingles down into my hand.
On Friday afternoon I was settled on the ward in the spinal unit.
The surgeon was unsure whether I would be requiring surgery. No food, I was almost starved by Friday afternoon. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast Thursday morning. It was late Friday when it was determined I would not require surgery.
Hospital food never tasted so good.
The MRI showed a fracture at C7 articular facet joint, the C7 and C8 nerves were severely inflamed as were the posterior and anterior ligaments.
The specialist explain these injuries to me and the treatment I should receive for these type of injuries. I asked him about my mid thoracic pain. He had one of his cohorts check the MRI. Sure enough there was a compression anterior fracture at T7. That accounted for the terrible pain in my back.
The C7 fracture was a neck flexion injury. That is where the neck is forced forward and downward which happened when my head was slammed into the sand initially. The T7 fracture was an impact on the top of the head forced downward
I am very thankful that I was wearing a helmet.
In the last photo, Bron goes head first into the sand under the shallows.
The rest of the week was resting in the hospital and further x–rays.
I had to lie on my back with no pillow. I could move my arms and legs as long as I kept my head and torso still. I still had numbness and tingling down my left arm and no sensation in three of my left fingers.
My body and hair were full of sand. No shower. The nursing staff rolled me regularly using the spinal cord injury roll technique. Each time they rolled me one of the nurses would brush the sand out of my bed. We never got it all out. There’s probably still sand from Palm Beach in the hospital.
After seven days in RNSH I left for home with a more comfortable neck brace and strict instructions for the next eight weeks.
The hospital physio and occupational therapist ensured Roy was proficient changing my neck brace from the daily one to the foam one for showering.
Over the next 6 weeks every time I brushed my hair handfuls of hair came out in the brush. I worried I’d go bald. It must have been a reaction to shock. I am not bald and my hair has stopped coming out.
At the six weekly check-up I thought the neck brace would come off. Alas another two weeks of wearing it. The brace was removed gradually over weeks nine and ten.
At the twelve week visit physio commenced. That made me very happy as I knew once the physio started I’d get stronger.
My physio is an angel. She’s very knowledgeable. The exercise routine was designed to rehabilitate my shoulder muscles which had atrophied. We also focused on neck range of movement and to stop the painful shoulder spasms.
The specialist wanted me to do range of movement exercise with no resistance.
This routine was to continue to the six month visit.
A half metre wave breaks right at the kayak. Bron is leaning into and bracing on the wave. Edging, leaning and bracing just right to maintain stability.
Yippy! After my six month check-up I was released to do resistance training and some gentle kayaking. Only a few kilometres to start with.
My first paddle in the new boat was sad. It seemed like a different boat to the one I tried at Port Stephens.
My paddling strokes were slow and water mud like. The boat was heavy and it just didn’t work for me. The second paddle was a little easier.
Throughout the six months I have tried to keep positive. However, there have been moments where my mojo went missing and I felt very sad.
Once we are paddling long kilometres again I’m sure I’ll find the mojo somewhere in the wide blue ocean.
On 10 November 2016 I paddled 14kms through Sydney heads. The wind is fresher, the water bouncy, just beautiful.
“The spirit of adventure is burning brightly still.
It fires up the heart of man to exercise his skill.
For this they leave their beds of ease to test the raging seas.
Braving all the elements with reckless, savage glee.”
From The Odyssey of Don Watson by Herbert H Totning