Monday, February 26, 2024

A Rod of iron that proved tough enough

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They don’t breed them tougher than Rod Vowles, a Hawke’s Bay farmer who climbed out of a steep gully cradling his broken neck after being caught in the aftermath of the cyclone.
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When the water started to flow into his mouth, Rod Vowles regained consciousness.

The Hawke’s Bay farmer was still half in the side-by-side, but he knew he needed to get out before he drowned.

His chin was on his chest and he couldn’t lift his head. He knew his neck must be broken.

But his legs and arms still worked so the spinal cord remained intact.

By holding his left shoulder blade with his right hand, he was able to prop his chin onto his bicep to raise his head enough to see how to get out of the bike and creek.

Once out of the water, his overriding concern was for his three dogs, but they didn’t appear to be under the side-by-side which miraculously was back on its wheels in the creek having tumbled into this steep gully.

Rod had survived a nasty accident, but he was still in serious trouble.

Cyclone Gabrielle had occurred two days earlier at dawn on Thursday, February 13 2023.

Rod’s farm is on the Pourere Road in the Tamumu district, only 3km from the Tukituki River. The farm had over 300mm in this brief event, which was less than the rainfall further north, but the intensity had damaged a lot of tracks, wrecked several nearby council bridges and taken out power and communications.

He had spent some of Friday on the bulldozer trying to open up track access around the farm, but it was slushy, and he hadn’t been able to clear a culvert.

Early Saturday morning after shifting lambs, Rod travelled back to the problematic culvert but decided he wouldn’t chance going through the water and slush that was still covering the track.

He reversed the side-by-side 20m up the track where it was a bit wider, and backed up to turn back in the direction he had come from.

He felt the vehicle going over the edge and instantly knew he was in serious trouble. He gripped the steering wheel with all his might.

It catapulted end over end several times, 50m down into the sharp gully, and that’s where he found himself some time later when he came to.

Once out of the side-by-side, Rod searched for the personal locator beacon that had been in the bike, but it was gone, probably down the creek.

His cell phone was in his pocket but wet having been in the water – and even if it had worked, there would be no service in this gully.

There was no sign of his beloved dogs, and their wellbeing was front of mind despite his pain and predicament.

Rod lives on his own and with no one else due at the farm for a couple of days. Even if they were on farm, they would likely assume he was out working and have no idea where he could be found. The bike wasn’t visible from the track.

He knew that if he was to survive this, it was going to be by his own means.

For now though, because of the pain and shock, all he could do was lie there in the gully and rest. He felt absolutely buggered, but he was unable to fall asleep and the day passed.

Later his heading dog reappeared and stayed with him, which soothed him and gave him great comfort.

It was hot all day and his legs got burnt but the sun dried him and kept him warm.

Then it was night and he slept fitfully through the night but didn’t get too cold.

Sunday morning dawned and it was coming up to 24 hours since his accident.

He hadn’t eaten or drunk anything in that time.

Rod knew that if he stayed there he would die.

The slope he had crashed down was very steep and he wasn’t able to walk forward as he needed one arm to try to support his head due to the broken neck. However, he was never aware of the acute peril he was in with an unsupported and exposed spinal cord.

All he had to hand was a pigtail. 

“I couldn’t walk forward because of my neck. And so I had to sort of turn around and on my back and crawl up backwards.”

He finally got back to the track and found that now he was on level ground, he could walk – still clutching his shoulder to cradle his head – and be able to see where he was going.

It was extremely slow progress and required regular stops to sit and rest.

At the closed gate, he was relieved to find his other two dogs still safe and sound.

Rod estimates it took some five hours to travel the two or three kilometres from the accident site to his home.

Perhaps as an indication he still didn’t quite appreciate his dire situation, he stopped at the house to get the generator back on to keep the freezer operating while the power was off. He didn’t want his food to spoil.

Driving with difficulty because he struggled to keep his head up, he travelled the two or three kilometres to neighbours Sam and Chrissy Spencer and asked them to call an ambulance to fetch him from his house.

They took one look at the state he was in and pointed out the roads were impassable and that he would be wise to lie down while they got help.

Chrissy drove to cell phone service and within 30 minutes, the Lowe Corporation Rescue Helicopter arrived. Twenty-seven hours since the accident.

The doctor wanted to put a needle into Rod, but he resisted as he said he’d prefer the pain. He’s no fan of needles. The doctor asked him what his level of pain was and doubted that Rod’s estimate that it was five out of 10. After some negotiation, the doctor was finally able to give him some pain relief.

“You’d be the toughest old bastard I’ve ever met given you’ve got a broken neck,” was the doctor’s verdict on the flight to Wellington.

Another helicopter collected him from there and he was flown to Burwood in Christchurch.

What followed was months of recovery in Christchurch and then in Hawke’s Bay Hospital.

Rod has nothing but praise for the health system, ACC and all the folk involved in his rescue.

He is now very wary of backing his side-by-side anywhere and advocates that the personal locator beacon be worn on your belt.

“That’s been a good lesson for me – anyone who’s got a beacon make sure it’s on you. Physically on you.”

The seasons have been kind to the farm since the cyclone, although Rod says it’s getting harder to plan that it used to be.

“It’s been a funny season. We all thought there was going to be a drought. And look at us, we had a huge amount of rain yesterday. And it just it makes farming very difficult because your seasons are not what they used to be in my time. I’m pleased my son’s doing it now.”

In the movie Cast Away, the character played by Tom Hanks has only one companion for the four years he is stranded on an island.

Wilson the volleyball helps Hanks’ character get through the torment.

That heading dog was a great comfort to Rod during his own ordeal and the now-beloved pigtail sits in pride of place in the corner of his living room.

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