July 16, 2022
We see its bright red and yellow livery buzzing above us, and hope we never need its services ourselves. But when we do, Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter is there, getting us to hospital as quickly as possible. In support of it’s latest fundraiser, people it has helped tell Cherie Howie their stories.
It was just another winter workday for Matt Smith as he pumped fuel into his ute at Warkworth Mobil on a Thursday morning in June last year.
"I had concrete coming to the job I was doing in Sandspit [near Warkworth], and inspectors turning up," the 50-year-old construction manager says.
Then, abruptly, it was Sunday night, and Smith was lying in a North Shore Hospital bed "with a whole lot of people standing around me".
The married dad-of-four from Mangawhai had collapsed, whacking his head on the pump as he fell.
His heart had stopped beating and he needed help, fast.
Thanks to everyone from the strangers on the forecourt to the rescue helicopter that got him to hospital in 20 minutes, he got it.
Station manager Wilbert Vissers was first to help, quickly assessing Smith before starting CPR while a colleague called 111.
"He’d just slumped on the ground like somebody had turned the lights out", Vissers says.
"He was like a rag doll."
About a minute later Warkworth volunteer firefighter Karl Yeo arrived, having been driving within sight of the petrol station when his pager alerted him to Smith’s cardiac arrest.
Yeo took over chest compressions until ambulance officers, arriving a few minutes later, were ready to use a defibrillator.
Over the next 20 minutes, Smith’s heart restarted and then stopped again on at least three occasions.
"He definitely died a few times."
When Smith eventually began breathing on his own, he was taken by ambulance to meet the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter, where he was further stabilised before the journey to hospital.
By air, the mercy dash to North Shore Hospital took just 20 minutes.
Thirteen months on, Smith doesn’t know what caused his cardiac arrest. But he has to take a moment when asked what he wants to say to all who helped.
"They’re incredible ... they did the job to save my life. It still gets me a bit today. I’m just ever so grateful to everyone that was involved. If you’re going to [go into cardiac arrest], I suggest it’s at Mobil Warkworth."
‘Like a duck on ice’
Bruce Tomlinson just wanted to deal to some thistles. Instead, a slippery one dealt to him.
The Warkworth father-of-two had a new sprayer hooked up to his tractor last November when he stopped on a hilly section of his family’s Wellsford cattle farm to switch the four-wheel drive on.
But as he braked, the wheels of the tractor "slid on some juicy thistles".
"[I was] like a duck on ice ... I remember correcting one way and then the other, and thinking, ‘S---, this isn’t going to end well.’"
The 63-year-old was right.
As the tractor flipped, Tomlinson could hear his bones "cracking and crunching".
"Somehow my legs were spared. I don’t know how. I’ve got a stronger belief in angels than I had, that’s for sure."
He ended up splayed on the grass after the second of three rolls, before the tractor landed wheels-up and continued rolling 80 metres down the hillside.
Unconscious after suffering skull fractures and a head injury later described by doctors as a "degloving" of his forehead, it was about 10 minutes before Tomlinson came to.
Despite his injuries - which included fractures to his skull, seven broken ribs, fractured vertebrae in his back and neck, and injuries to both scapulars - Tomlinson was able to fish his cellphone from his pocket and dial 111.
Forty minutes later the "wonderful" crew from St John Ambulance reached him and, soon after that, he heard the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter.
"What a fabulous sound.
"Landing in a nearby paddock, crew carefully loaded me on to a stretcher and navigated their way over challenging terrain to get me ready for take-off."
Most of the 20-minute flight to Auckland City Hospital is a blur, but it was not all gloom for the injured man.
"[I remember] a laugh or two with these incredibly giving souls."
Sand surf goes wrong It had sounded like fun - getting together with workmates to go zooming down a sand slope on a boogie board, after months of social isolation.
But last December the reality, for Auckland mum Tina Mason-Riseborough, turned out to be somewhat different.
Picking up too much speed as she slid down the sand at Te Henga (Bethells Beach), the fun came to an abrupt end for the 52-year-old when she face-planted at the bottom, causing a traumatic brain injury, damaging a facial nerve that left her unable to open her left eye for three months, and fracturing her T7 and T8 vertebrae.
"They didn’t tell me to follow someone else’s track," Mason-Riseborough says of her ill-fated super slide at the West Auckland beach. "So what does Tina do? She just goes straight down ... and boy I must’ve got velocity, and when I hit the bottom, well yeah, it all ended there."
For someone who spent three months in a back brace, only able to open one eye, as her front-office job for a gym disappeared when the business fell victim to the impact of Covid-19 restrictions, the mum-of-two is remarkably upbeat.
Seven months after her accident, Mason-Riseborough is back on her feet, back at exercise boot-camp and, hopefully, will soon be back behind the wheel.
But the emotions aren’t too far from the surface when she talks about those who helped after her flying face-plant left her unconscious and seriously injured in a remote corner of West Auckland, 45 minutes’ walk from the nearest road.
"I’m sorry," she says, voice catching, when asked about her helpers, including the helicopter crew who flew her to Auckland City Hospital, a journey she barely remembers. "I get a bit emotional talking about this.
"But I’ve always believed in [the rescue helicopter], and I wouldn’t be here without them.
"We’ve always supported them. I’m no one special, but if I can help them, by telling my story, I will."