My legs were melting beneath me

Gretel's morning cycle turned into a huge rescue mission
On the road the recovery

Gretel Hasenauer, 46, Frenchs Forest, NSW

What a beautiful day, I thought, as I rode through the trees.

I was on an early morning bike ride with my friend Ben. We were cycling along a trail which wound its way along a steep ravine.

It was a challenging route with lots of slopes and turns, but I was used to tricky rides.

In the 1990s I used to ride competitively, and Ben is a seasoned rider too.

When I had to take a break after suffering a stroke four years ago, I really missed the sport.

If I’m on my bike, I forget any worries.

So it felt amazing when I finally got back in the saddle.

The bush was dense but I could already feel that it would be a steaming hot day.

It’s a good job we’re under the trees, I thought.

As I rounded a corner, the rocky trail suddenly narrowed.

Surprised, I went to unclip my feet from the pedals so I could put them down and stop.

But instead I lost my balance and tumbled down the embankment, letting out a cry.

As I fell, I was thrown over the front of the bike, but my feet were still clipped to the pedals.

Wind rushed passed me as my legs smashed into the handlebars.

As I tried to haul myself up, something felt very wrong…

I used to race competitively

I kept tumbling through the trees for another three metres before I reached a small strip of flat ground.

But still I didn’t stop. The momentum kept me going and I fell down the other side for around another 2.5 metres.

When I finally stopped, I was stunned.

My feet had unclipped and I was laying beside the bike surrounded by giant boulders.

That was a nasty fall, I thought.

I wasn’t in pain so I went to stand up. But as I tried to haul myself to my feet, something felt very wrong.

I kept stumbling and couldn’t hold myself up.

My legs are melting underneath me! I thought, horrified, feeling the bones in my knees grinding together.

It was as if my legs were jelly. This was serious!

‘Are you okay?’ shouted Ben, hurrying down the bank towards me.

‘I think I’ve broken my leg,’ I said, pulling off my backpack to reach my phone inside.

I wanted to call my husband Tom, 48, and my son Maximus, 13.

With the adrenaline still pumping from the fall, I still wasn’t in any pain.

So Ben called Triple-0 while I dialled Tom.

‘I’ve come off my bike but I’m all right and emergency services are on their way,’ I told him. ‘I promise I’ll call you when I have more news.’

Then I called Maximus.  ‘I’m afraid I can’t pick you up from school today,’ I told him calmly.

I didn’t panic, but I was still in shock. It had all happened so fast.

Ben sat next to me while we waited for help to arrive.

Within 10 minutes we heard the whirr of helicopter blades.

The chopper circled around and around but was never quite overhead.

A team of people came to my aid

There’s no way they’ll lift me out of here, I realised

‘The bush is so dense,’ I said. ‘Maybe they can’t see us.’

Just then the operator called back. ‘We need you to take a screen shot of the compass screen on your iPhone and send it to the pilot,’ she told Ben.

The image would reveal our precise location.

Ben sent the snap and the chopper got closer.

But the bush was just too thick. There’s no way they’ll lift me out of here, I realised.

It was still early, around 7.30am, but it was already extremely hot. ‘It’s supposed to be one of the hottest days of the year,’ I said, hoping we wouldn’t be here too long.

After around 10 minutes we spotted two paramedics heading down towards us.

I was so relieved to see them. By now, the pain was starting to kick in.

They quickly put a splint on my right leg. ‘It’ll hurt even more when we lift you onto the stretcher,’ they said, giving me pain relief.

They explained the plan was for a team of firefighters to carry me out to the road.

First, 10 fireys arrived, then 12 more turned up.

It suddenly dawned on me that this was a huge rescue operation.

Still on the stretcher, I was loaded into a long metal basket.

The fireys wrapped a rope around it and started to haul me up through the rocks towards the trail.

When I reached the path though, it still wasn’t plain sailing.

The trail was rough with lots of slopes and bumps. Sometimes it was easier to haul me, but other times I had to be lifted up and carried.

As the sun beat down, the rescue team made a human chain, passing me along like a parcel.

‘The things you’ll do to get rescued by hunky firemen,’ they teased. I couldn’t help laughing.

After three or four kilometres, we finally reached a waiting 4WD.

I was carefully loaded into the back, and we headed to the road, where an ambulance was parked.

It was as if my legs had been crushed

‘Thank you so much!’ I said to my rescuers. It was amazing how everyone had pulled together to get me to safety. I felt so grateful.

When I got to the hospital, however, it was bad news.

The bottom half of my right leg was broken in 26 places, and the left in 14. It was as if they’d been crushed.

The doctors were amazed I didn’t have injuries anywhere else, given how badly my legs were damaged.

‘We need to rebuild your right leg below the knee, and repair your left one,’ the surgeon said.

He explained they would use titanium and bone grafts from my hip in

an eight-hour operation.

I spent two months recovering in hospital, but thankfully I’m now back home. I’m still learning to walk and bend my leg again.

Looking back, I’m so grateful to everyone who worked to save me. I’ll never be able to repay them.

Call me crazy, but I can’t wait to get back on my bike.

I’ll just be much more careful on the corners from now on!

On the road the recovery

Originally published in that’s life! issue 22 – May 26, 2016

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