One Frozen Moment.
My name is Robbie Pacheco, I’m 44 years old and live in Sydney’s inner west. Been surfing at Maroubra beach for the past 3 years ever since I made a come back to the sport after a very long hiatus. Living approx. 20 minutes from the beach means I can sneak an early session before getting ready for work.
On March the 6th there was a pretty sweet ENE swell coming in at around 4-5 foot with very light offshores (ideal conditions fro the Bra’)
Met up with my crew of boog brothers right around sunrise, we knew that first reef at southern end of the beach would be firing. We weren’t wrong, there was some right hand peelers right in front of the reef which was mostly submerged due to high tide. You just had to get enough speed to avoid some of the shallow sections of the reef which would pop up every now and then.
We were all buzzing, hooting each other on some excellent rides…spirits were high and big smiles beaming on everyone’s face. After bailing under one of these waves a mate of mine who was paddling past gives me a cautious warning about getting too close to some of the submerged rocks. His words would later resound over and over in my mind.
After about 45 minutes I was starting to get ready to end my session and get back home in time for a quick coffee before heading to work.
The wave I took which would end my day in an unexpected way was not particularly large, I momentarily had lost my bearing and was deeper than I should have been. When I knew it was closing out on me I bailed my board and dove headfirst into the water.
The impact was sudden, I saw a white flash, and the next thing I feel absolute calm. I’m not sure if I momentarily passed out but all I remember is being still as I’m floating about. I can’t even tell which way is up until suddenly I feel my face break the surface. At that moment I react by taking a deep breath of air…this is also the moment I realize that I am completely paralyzed from the neck down.
Before fear fully sets in my eyes scope the area for anyone who may have seen me wipe out. I spot a young grom’ a few meters away, he’s just about to paddle away when I scream out for help. To my surprise he hears my call, I can tell from his eyes he knows I’m in real trouble so paddles over to me but not before another wave breaks and the white water pull me under. There’s something about being completely helpless and not being able to move that gave me a sense of calmness. I just held my breath until my body would resurface, in hindsight, I still don’t understand how I never ended up facing down especially straight after I hit the reef? This thought of how close I came to drowning weighed heavily during my first few weeks of recovery.
When this young fellow made his way to me he realized he could not manage to help keep me above the water on his own. He yelled at another bloke who was nearby, an older surfer that by this stage was already heading over as he had seen we were in trouble. When he lifted me from behind and I got a glimpse of both my arms, they were these two foreign limbs….they didn’t belong to me as I couldn’t feel any connection to this body at all. All I could think was how I didn’t want to burden my wife for the rest of her life looking after me as a quadriplegic.
I was in complete disbelief this had actually happened to me, I think I shed a few tears as I closed my eyes thinking I was having a bad nightmare and soon I would wake up from. I could hear this bloke telling me how I was going to be ok as he was pulling me closer to shore.
I was told at this stage someone had run up the beach to grab surf lifesavers who within minutes had sprang into action. They immobilized my neck and were treating this as suspected spinal injury, by then my buddies had quickly come out of the water and were leaning by my side. It was good to hear their concerned voices and see their familiar faces which provided me with much-needed comfort. Also have to mention how awesome the boys from surf lifesaving were, these guys do such an amazing job under high-stress situations.
Twenty minutes later I was being carried into the ambulance and rushed to Prince of Wales hospital which later I found out have one of the best spinal trauma units in NSW. My mate Chris offered to ride in the ambulance to keep me company, by this stage I had an intense burning pain down the back of my neck and across both shoulders. Even a shot of morphine couldn’t hide this pain but did calm my mind somewhat. Another 20 minutes and I was on a bed in ER surrounded by nurses asking me questions such as date of birth, full name, and age…who’s the current PM and so on. Moments later and my springy cut to shreds by one of the nurses, a small team of doctors came over and physically checked each and every one of my vertebrae for obvious signs of fracture or damage. I was then told that I needed to undergo a CT scan to rule out a broken neck or worse yet, a damaged spinal cord.
My mate who had brought with him some of my belongings managed to contact my wife who was at work and in the best possible way gave her the shitty news. “Rob’s been on a surfing accident and you better come over, they don’t know what damage he’s sustained yet”
Fuck! I muttered to Chris, it was her birthday today!
Katja arrived in no time and was soon standing by my side holding my hand. Once again my head was flooded with guilt as the heavy realisation that she may end up looking after a crippled partner for the rest of our lives. I started crying at the thought and all I could say was….how sorry I felt.
Shortly after I was wheeled away to another section of the hospital where I would have my CT scan done. New faces around me innocently joking how I had half a beach worth sand stuck to the back of my body. By this stage I had my eyes closed, now I’m not a religious person but I do remember praying to the Gods that I would walk again.
The results of my scan took approx. 1 hour…..this This would feel like the longest 60 minutes of my entire life. During this endless wait, other family members including my mother had made their way to the emergency room to be by my side and receive whichever news awaited us.
A young doctor calmly walked up to my bed and delivered the results, he may as well have told me I had just won the lottery. No structural spinal injury or broken neck as he then reached out and removed my neck brace. Groggy under all the morphine I had been given I asked if I could shake his hand as he reached and grabbed my limp left hand and smiled. Around 8 hours later and having regained some feeling and mobility to my legs my wife and I managed to slowly shuffle our way out and into an Uber heading home.
It would be another two weeks before I was referred to a specialist and was given a more accurate prognosis. I had suffered from Cervical Neurapraxia or a mild case of spinal nerve injury which had caused transient quadriplegia. A quick google search confirmed this and all the other symptoms I would be dealing with. Best of all is I can expect a full recovery which can take up to 3 to 4 months.
It’s now been 8 weeks, 5 of which I have been receiving physiotherapy. No longer taking pain meds and almost have a full range of mobility on my neck. At this stage, I feel confident I will be back in the surf at the end of May early June….fingers and toes crossed!