It was supposed to be a routine mountain bike outing - but for Andrew Leslie, the day ended up anything but.
He was riding Wellington's Makara Peak last year on a trail he'd done before but failed to navigate a drop off - crashing off his bike and crushing his spine.
He was choppered to Burwood Hospital's spinal unit in Christchurch, put in an induced coma and doctors told his family he was tetraplegic and to prepare for him to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
But after four months of intense rehabilitation, Andrew managed to walk out of the hospital.
He joined Nine to Noon to talk about his miraculous recovery and the lonely nights he spent in hospital during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Leslie recently returned to the scene of the accident and tells Kathryn Ryan he felt a range of emotions being there.
“For me, it was about getting closure on that accident and also to learn a bit more about it. Whilst I remember the accident and was conscious through most of the aftermath, there are things about it didn’t quite understand.
“It was a big day. I went there with a friend and a couple of the mountain bikers who found me that day which was hugely useful in terms of hearing their accounts of what happened when they came about me.”
He says, arriving on the accident scene, he was overcome with emotions.
“It was quite a shock to see where exactly I was lying in relation to the drop off. I had this memory that I was lying straight underneath it but, in reality, I’d catapulted forward maybe five or ten meters down the track. The shock of how serious the crash was was one of the emotions I had.”
Leslie says he knew he was in trouble immediately after somersaulting over his handlebars and hitting his head on a rock.
“As soon as my head hit the rock, my whole body went numb. I knew I was paralysed basically, right from that split second.”
Having crashed right on a path, Leslie knew that if he didn’t sound a warning the next biker would ride straight into him. He managed to draw enough air into his lungs and let out a noise which the next rider, luckily, heard.
“That guy stopped just in time and he got the ball rolling. He rang 111 and then one of the next guys that came down, Russ – who I know – is very well trained in first aid so he started looking after me and doing an initial assessment.”
Russ figured out relatively quickly that he was dealing with a potential paralysis but managed to keep Leslie calm and safe until the paramedics arrived.
“It’s an extraordinary system in New Zealand. How they got me from that point to Christchurch and into theatre 10 hours after I crashed, that’s a pivotal thing. Once I moved through into the rehab side of my recovery, it was absolutely about focus, determination, and knowing that there’s the expertise available there and they’re there to work with you if you put the hard work in.”
The doctors in theatre discovered that one of the discs in the high part of his neck had imploded backwards into his spine damaging the C4-C5 part of the spine.
“They had to remove this disc that had imploded, stabilise the whole area with a metal plate, and they also took a bone graft from my hip to put in between the vertebrae so that it all stitched up together.”
The induced coma was partly done to allow for healing but also to assist breathing.
“I was intubated for that first week I was in that coma, I couldn’t breathe by myself. The muscles around the diaphragm and lungs weren’t working.”
He remembers parts of the coma including some very vivid dreams, some of which were nightmarish and continued after he was aroused from the coma and was suffering delirium.
“That whole ICU period was very scary and there were moments where I was awake and in a living nightmare. That’s when the fact that New Zealand was in lockdown and the world was in the grips of a pandemic, all those things talked about by doctors and nurses around me started to feed into my nightmares and my dreams.”
Due to those restrictions, he was only able to see his wife for one hour a day while his school aged children were flown down to a friend’s place in Arrowtown to be closer to the family.
“In the early stage, it was quite grim. My first diagnoses was very serious. You hear the word tetraplegic and it conjures images of someone being paralysed from the neck down and being in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, so that’s quite a scary word.”
He soon learned that there’s a grading scale for tetraplegia with ‘A’ being the most severe to ‘E’ which is an able-bodied person. Leslie was placed at ‘B’ in the scale.
While in ICU, Leslie only had some random jerky arm movements but no other sense of his body at all.
“You need everything done for you and you get moved from side to side every few hours so you don’t get bedsores.”
After three weeks in ICU, and just before getting transferred, he noticed a flicker in the legs.
“I’d been asked, can you move your legs, so I thought ‘move your legs’ and, all of sudden, there was a little movement and it was quite unexpected and hugely exciting. That meant when I was transferred to Burwood I was going there with a little glimmer of hope and that just started to awaken further and further.”
While the leg movements were a positive step, recovery was a full-time job for Leslie and he experienced dark moments when he was alone at night.
“That was when you start going down into these different tangents where the dark thoughts started to happen. Being in hospital, you don’t sleep much and those were the times where your mind would wander, and I would despair about what was going to become of me.”
Nonetheless, Leslie and his physiotherapist saw exponential growth in his ability to get back to walking and he’s still progressing now.
“When you’re in hospital, rehab is your fulltime job. When you come out of hospital, you’ve got other things going on in your life. Doctors caution that things are likely to slow down when you leave hospital, but I think it depends on the level of commitment and effort.
“Right here and now, my rehab programme is very extensive. It combines stretching, going to the gym, going for walks, a physio session where we focus on things like getting back on the bike.”
Leslie still needs to think when he walks which causes a slightly uncertain and unsteady gait.
“I have progressed since leaving hospital and my goals with walking are to become more efficient and fluid in my movements.”
And one year on from the accident, he’s back working full-time and able to lead a relatively normal life.
“I’m a little bit different in terms of not being able to do things now that I used to be able to do. But, in terms of normal everyday living, there’s not a lot different now. I’m with my kids, I’m able to drive them places… by and large, things are the way they used to be.”