December 1, 2019
You wouldn’t know it when you meet him, but cancer survivor John Riley has navigated through a lot of obstacles in his 52 years of life. What’s evident is his cheerful and easy going nature, even for a man who sadly lost a son in an accident while doing an OE, as well as losing one of his eyes to melanoma - an extremely rare event.
One obstacle John couldn’t avoid was while out quadbiking in Woodhill forest, yet he still recalls the ordeal with a sense of humour and a smile on his face. In a freak accident, completely out of the blue, he collided with a deer!
It was a sunny Saturday on 7th May 2016 when the young grandfather from Kaukapakapa, decided to take his two son-in-laws out for a quick ride.
Riding is John’s passion. Growing up on a farm, he’s been riding dirt bikes since he was five years old. John enjoys the freedom of getting out and not having to think about anything else as well as the comradery of it. Over the years he’s had a few spills, but never anything like this. “Not to the point where I was crying,” he says.
John was teaching one of his son-in-laws to ride while his other son-in-law awaited their return in his four-wheel drive. They were on the first lap around a track John had used often, for more than 20 years.
“I stopped at one point and waited for my son-in-law to catch up and gave him instructions to hang a left, then took off again,” John recalls, “then lights out!”
From out of nowhere, a deer had crossed John’s path.
John remembers seeing an eye and a hoof before impact, and feeling his quad starting to roll. His son-in-law watched in horror as it rolled forward and over from front to back, not once but twice, with John on it. His son-in-law still has sleepless nights thinking about it.
“My bike hit me twice,” John says of his son-in-law’s recollection of what unfolded, “I had marks on my shirt, chest, helmet where it ran over me. It bounced over a second time then threw me to the side, before rolling another three times and hitting a tree.”
Because of John having one eye, and losing his depth of perception, it is safer for him to ride a quad than a two-wheel bike. “There is one drawback however if you have an accident on a quad,” he says, “A two-wheel bike runs off and does its own thing, while a quad bike chases you.”
“I remember hearing crunching noises and hitting my head,” he said. John has kept his helmet where it split on impact.
In a state of shock, his son-in-law struggled to know who to call in a location with very little mobile coverage. John, who came to, told him to ring his sister, because that’s the only number he could recall. Dazed, confused and in shock, calling 111 might have been the more obvious choice. His son-in-law found a hill nearby where he could make the vital call for help.
At 11.53am the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter was tasked to respond. At 12.15pm Westpac 1 landed in a car park some distance from where John’s freak accident had occurred. Waiting for the crew’s arrival was John’s other son-in-law. He would take HEMS Doctor Gareth Richards, Intensive Care Paramedic Marcel Driessen and Crewman/Co-Pilot Aaron Knight down in his ute to where his father-in-law lay.
“No easy feat,” John says, “for a track made for bikes and not four wheel drives.”
John recalls the crew being very professional.
“I felt bad for putting people out on their weekend,” he recalls, “I wasn’t really thinking they were just doing their job. I apologised and made light of it.”
The crew would use the back of the ute to transport John back to Westpac 1, while they walked out behind. Although fearless on the track, John had a real fear of flying to the point where he’d done a five day course to try and deal with his fears.
John said he would be fine and could walk out. In his condition however, he knew that was never going to happen.
“I was used to putting my life in my own hands on the track,” he says, “But putting my life in the hands of others wasn’t so easy for me. When I felt quite vulnerable, that’s when the guys kicked in – they took that concern away.”
John remembers Gareth and Marcel talking it through with him and the ketamine having a surprisingly calming effect.
“I remember their care from start to finish, from taking off and landing through to the emergency department at Auckland Hospital. It was amazing. I can’t praise them enough. It was a traumatic situation, extremely painful, and everything was a haze, but they obviously left a very good impression. I suppose you can’t get much better than that!”
John’s injuries were extensive and life-threatening. His lung was punctured and needed to be drained for four days, he’d broken his scapula (shoulder) which just hangs in place now, as well as many of his ribs. When his helmet was removed, blood poured out but this, thankfully, was from a cut lip as opposed to a more serious head injury. Miraculously his spine was spared also, his side and ribs taking the brunt of the force.
John was transferred to North Shore Hospital where he would spend a week recovering. It took John about a month before he was up and mobile, and six weeks before he could go back to work.
For John it was another life-changing experience, but he hasn’t allowed it to quell his love of life. His son-in-laws still ride with him and he considers them among his best friends. “I say that’s a good place to be with your son-in-laws,” he laughs.
John thinks he is very lucky to be alive.
“With the bleeding in my lung, my choking and struggling to breathe, I think that another half hour later my story would have ended up very differently,” he says.
“How do you tell these people what they’ve done? Because the accident not only affected me, but Donna, my much loved wife of 21 years, my kids, and my grandkids. How do I say, ‘Thank you for enabling me to walk my daughter down the aisle? Thank you for all the Christmases I can look forward to and giving me more time to watch my grandchildren grow’. I don’t think there is one word. You could thank them a million times over though.”
John says losing his eye was hard, but that fateful day in Woodhill was something else.
Some of the family went back to find the injured deer. They found a blood trail but were unable to find it. John hopes that it too, lived to see another day.