Alive, Well, and Ridiculously Grateful for New Zealand’s Healthcare

For the past 6 years, I’ve hiked alone and never injured myself.

Until today.

What started off as a normal hike ended up with a rescue helicopter and a dislocated shoulder… and of course, no cell service.

I’m staying in Te Anau, which is a beautiful two hours drive away from Milford Sound. It’s probably the most incredible drive I’ve done so far in South Island aside from the Catlins.

However, that meant I was also hiking in a really remote area. A good friend recommended the Lake Marian trail, a 3 hour return trek through the forest amidst rocky terrain. It’s en route to Milford Sound, just about 30 min away. In the photos, it looked spectacular – like a thousand times nicer than Lake Tekapo, even.

I was about an hour into the trek when I lost my footing and slipped. It happened in a blur – my left arm caught my fall, but I also heard a snap. The colour drained from my face, as I was certain it was my shoulder that had collided with the colossal rock in front of me (like, imagine a rock the size of a car. Pretty damn big).

And then I felt the bone sticking out from my shoulder. I had scored an injury. I was 30 min from Lake Marian itself when I slipped.

Maybe I can still finish this hike and be fine”

(Winced in pain as I could barely lift my arm) NOPE.

I tried dialing the NZ emergency number several times, but alas, even with no cell signal, you can’t even make an emergency call. Anxiety set in for a bit as I tried to stay calm (“Okay, breathe, Debbi – you won’t be like those stories on TV where the hiker is stuck in a ditch in the middle of nowhere…. OR WILL YOU?!”).

However, I guess I’m the luckiest traveller on this planet, since I’ve ALWAYS been rescued. I’m writing a book someday in gratitude to all the people who have helped me (the multiple times I got my motorbike stuck on hills in Thailand, the time I climbed to the top of a temple on a cliff and thought I was going to die on the way down, the time a dude caught me before I slid down rocks on the Cinque Terre trail)…

Within 5 minutes of my fall, I heard voices. A lovely couple was making their way down, back to the start of the trail. I asked if they could send for help when they got back, but the guy (Kyle) suggested I go back with them since I’d be waiting for hours for help otherwise – and it was really cold. He rushed ahead of us carrying my pack in order to get help, and the girl (Gloria) stayed behind with me to assist me on the hike back to the car.

With my injured, pained arm in Gloria’s scarf as a sling (what an angel she is!), I slowly hiked back an hour with her leading the way. Several hikers on the way up to the lake heard via Kyle about my injury and were so caring as we slowly walked past. None of us had service on our phones (nor walkie talkies), so it’s not like any of us could have done anything different – but just knowing the pure goodness of fellow travellers was enough to warm my heart.

Kyle had already summoned help by the time Gloria and I reached the parking lot, but he was worried that they were sending a rescue helicopter. A group of construction workers were up the road, not even 2 min drive from us, so Kyle contacted them for help – and I’m so grateful to all of them for their quick thinking.

Because of the isolated location, it seemed like a rescue helicopter was the only way to go – if they had sent out a rescue vehicle, it would have taken 2 hours from Te Anau or 4 hrs from Queenstown (where the helicopter came from). It’s a bit scary to know that the Milford Sound area, a place with one of the most famous hikes in the world (Milford Track) has to summon help from such faraway cities.

The two gentleman who came from the helicopter took no more than 10 min with me – took my blood pressure, explained the first option to pop my shoulder back into place (anaesthesia gas), and VOILA, within a second, the pain was gone. My shoulder was popped back into place before I even realised it.

They then told me I had to fly back with them to Te Anau’s medical centre, while Kyle drove my car and Gloria drove their campervan back – keep in mind that it’s 1.5 hrs drive back to Te Anau. WHAT GRACIOUS ANGELS.

The 20 min. helicopter ride back was the MOST incredible ride I’ve ever done in my life. It was like those aerial panoramic shots in The Lord of the Rings films, but in real life. I did helicopter rides in Queenstown and Australia before, but oh my heavens. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything in my life as beautiful as all this scenery from above – the snowcapped mountains, the never-ending lush green forestry, the crystal-clear lakes, the towering waterfalls that looked microscopic from up above. Based on the circumstance, I was EXTREMELY fortunate to get all this – and showed that there’s always positivity in a scary, life-altering situation.

The waterfalls at the start of the hike

The helicopter guys reassured me that I wouldn’t be charged a dime for the helicopter rescue or the quick shoulder popping-back-in. Why? because NEW ZEALAND IS INCREDIBLE. They have something called ACC, which protects temporary travellers, residents, and citizens from paying anything if they’re injured. If you don’t believe me, click on the link and read all about it. This is exactly why I’m never living in America again, where I would have been in DEBT the rest of my life if this accident had happened to me there.

Fiordland Health Centre (Te Anau) ended up being only a 2-min drive from my lakefront hostel. With Kyle driving my car back, I didn’t have to worry about anything else – again, I was graced with every good luck morsel with all this. The doctor was incredible and reassured me that I was fine; just a few quick x-rays in Wanaka soon.

Hey, the drive to Milford was still jaw dropping

I’m just so thankful that it wasn’t my head, collarbone, legs, feet, or ankles that were injured instead of my shoulder. And my GOODNESS, I am so thankful eternally to Gloria and Kyle (the sweetest people ever who I could have ever come across to rescue me) – especially for going out of their way to stay with me, drive my car back, and make sure I was okay. You two are pure gems, and I hope I get to help you guys out in any way possible in the future as well.

Thank you to Fiordland Health Centre, Dr. Stephen Hosking, the gentlemen in the rescue helicopter (all the way from Queenstown!), Gloria and Kyle, my parents and neighbors for graciously making sure I always have enough cash (you guys funded my new hiking boots, thanks heaps!), Eden (for offering to fly to me just to take care of me), and for all my friends who have always supported me via message despite my distance. I don’t know how half of you still are friends with me despite all my misadventures, but I love all of you.

In retrospect, my advice to any solo hikers is simple: ALWAYS WEAR PROPER FOOTWEAR. Even if you think your $125 Sorel snow boots will be “just fine,” actually, if you’ve been slipping a lot in them (even on the sidewalk), then you probably shouldn’t hike in them. And yeah, if you’re hiking alone, look into renting a beacon and be sure to let others know where you’re going beforehand…. having only my boyfriend (in Australia) know the general location of the trail probably wouldn’t have been enough info for a rescue team to locate me, had things gone a different way.

And to anyone hiking the Lake Marian track – use extra caution in the winter. That goes for ANY trail in the wintertime – it’s icy and slippery everywhere, and you don’t want to end up like me.

I’ve had the hostel cat sleeping on my lap the entire time I’ve typed this. I’m so grateful, especially to Gloria and Kyle once again, but mostly to ACC and New Zealand for having one hell of an incredible healthcare system that didn’t leave me in debt for the rest of my life.

I LOVE YOU, NEW ZEALAND. I promise to be more careful from now on. And thank you to all the travel Gods who always seem to be watching over me and providing me with angels wherever I go, even when I slip on rocks… 😉

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