Graham Belben is adjusting to a new appreciation for the simple things in life, like being able to go for a walk in the sunshine.
What may seem a simple and relaxing task now, is something he will never take for granted when his mobility was nearly taken away from him in a matter of seconds after a fall at his home in Kerikeri.
On March 31 of this year, Graham was woken in the early hours of the morning to his cats fighting outside – in an effort to stop them from injuring each other, he stepped outside from his home and stood on the underground water tank to call out to them. Once sorted, he remembers looking at the stars in the sky and thinking how lovely they looked in that moment as he stepped down off the tank – and then bent down and before he knew it, everything went black and he fell forward, landing face first on a nearby large rock.
The jolt of the landing sent his neck jarring backwards. Everything was a blur for Graham, who quickly realised he couldn’t feel his body, he had lost sensation. He was paralysed.
“I must have been off balance where I landed because as soon as I moved my head a little, I rolled down the ground a bit more and was lying there, unable to do anything. We operate a Bed and Breakfast in Kerikeri and our house is quite large and long – my wife Elaine was recovering from hip surgery and was in the other end of the house. I was yelling for help but didn’t know if she could hear me,” he says of the terrifying ordeal.
“Finally I heard the water pump going and realised Elaine must have got up and was in the kitchen. I was yelling as loud as I could and finally, she heard me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her come out of the house in her white dressing gown and I yelled again.
“Elaine quickly realised she couldn’t move me as I told her I was paralysed, and she rushed back inside to call an ambulance. When they arrived, they were worried about trying to move me and drive me to hospital so called the Northland Rescue Helicopter.”
But just when he thought help was on its way, they received the call that the helicopter was unable to fly due to heavy fog in Whangarei – but the moment it came clear, they would be on their way.
Graham was moved into the ambulance, with his neck in a brace, and driven towards Bay of Islands hospital to await news on the helicopter’s arrival. After a couple of hours, the fog had lifted and help was on its way.
“The relief when I heard the chopper – you can’t describe it. I knew I was in all sorts of trouble and I was so happy to be loaded into the chopper. I really was. You just don’t understand it until that moment where it is you using the chopper. It was utter and sheer relief knowing I could get to help so much quicker.
“I was briefed and then the staff from the hospital and the helicopter’s paramedic gently loaded me into the aircraft. A quick brief and reassurance from the paramedic about the trip and flight and we took off. I was thinking ‘jeez these guys are quicker than any naval helicopter I’ve flown in with the Royal Navy’ and took off.”
Graham was flown directly to Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital. The flight itself went fast and he says he joked with the paramedic on board that there wasn’t any inflight entertainment.
“That helicopter ride was just so helpful. I got to Middemore so fast and went straight into MRIs and CT scans and then into surgery.”
Through hard work and rehabilitation, the feeling came back in his body and he was able to walk again much sooner than anyone anticipated. But he knows it could have been a lot worse.
Fortunately, an earlier neck surgery Graham had undergone meant titanium plates in his neck stopped it from going too far back and permanently damaging his spinal cord, or worse, severing it completely in the fall.
“Due to those plates, I ended up with a severely damaged cord but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Elaine was told it would be at least 16 weeks before I would be walking and being allowed home again but I was determined to get walking.
“I really thought I had buggered myself up, I thought I was going to be paralysed forever. I thought my life had been changed and I would be in a wheelchair at the very least. I spent 5-6 days in a wheelchair and I was determined to get out of it.”
Now home and continuing his recuperation, Graham is full of praise for the Northland Rescue Helicopters.
“You never know when you are going to need it. I have been on the scene at crashes before and assisted the helicopter when they arrived, but this was so different being the one that needed help. I can’t speak highly enough of them, I really can’t. They helped save my life as I know it, I really believe that.
“When you see them in action, it is just amazing – how the paramedics and pilots work so well together. It takes a strong team with strong people and a lot of professionalism to do the job they do – it is phenomenal.”
“Everyone needs to support the service however they can. It is just so essential to Northland.”