Spinal injury doesn't stop Dave

Last updated 05:00 05/07/2014

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Dave Clouston knew his life would change the moment his pelvis jackknifed to his chest.

The fit farmer, hardened from years of mustering, was at his working peak and had earlier run through the forest to grab a tractor before his next job of stacking hay in a barn.

Clouston had worked his way up as a sheep and beef farmer on some of the best mustering blocks in Canterbury, and the young married man was managing a family business at Whitecliffs.

"I was stacking some hay we had brought in, and there was some loose hay on the floor of the barn. I jumped off the tractor to clear that away, and while I was bending over to do that the hay unsettled enough to come down on top of me - I never dreamed it would do that - from five high. They were big, square bales, and at least a couple hit me, and I was left pinned under one of them with my pelvis under my chest."

For two hours he lay there before help arrived, somehow having the presence of mind to avoid moving, fearing he might do more damage to his bent body.

Unable to feel his toes, a pragmatic Clouston suspected the worst. His spine was a "complete J" and he was never to run again.

That was in 1998, and the accident created many changes in his life - both good and bad - that he was forced to accept.

Anyone could be forgiven for going into a deep abyss and being plagued by recurring nightmares.

Instead, he got on with life.

Clouston grew up on the family farm. The 600 hectare sheep and beef farm on Mt Nessing Rd at the back of Albury is set in a high-rainfall area at reasonably high altitude, with the homestead at 550 metres.

From an early age he knew high-country farming was the life for him.

"One of the neighbours ended up going into the high country, and I used to see him coming back with his ute full of dogs, and I thought, 'as soon as I'm old enough that's me'. So when I left school, I worked at home for 18 months until I got a couple of reasonable dogs and I always had a hankering for getting on Godley Peaks at the head of Lake Tekapo."

Clouston wrote a letter asking for work and, at the urging of his father, included a photograph of himself. The picture clinched it for his new boss, who thought it was a resourceful touch and worthy of an interview.

The young Clouston was 18 when he arrived, and thrived on living and working at the tough high-country station as a shepherd for two years. As well as picking up invaluable farming skills, he worked the ridge lines shooting tahr in his spare time.

"I learned how to work hard, and I learned how to also have fun. [Owner] Bruce Scott was a well- known identity, and he was mayor of Mackenzie, and took on Meridian, and did all sorts of stuff. He was a highly regarded man of the district, and did a lot for the community He was a very good farmer, as Godley Peaks is a tough place and reputed to be one of the hardest places to muster. A lot of people who went there might have thought, 'what was the problem with losing a few sheep?' but if you came with that attitude you never got asked back . . . the attitude at Godley was that you got every single sheep off the hill."

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One day Scott's niece - a nurse - turned up to visit and caught Clouston's eye. They ended up dating and Clouston looked for work to be closer to Christchurch and his new girlfriend, who was to become his wife.

He chose to go to Mt Algidus station, in a fork between three rivers in the Canterbury high country. After a six-month stint at the remote property, a job came up at Glenthorne station offering better mustering, and he went across the river and worked for Bob Brown for two and a half years.

The remoteness of the last station didn't appeal to his wife - the couple have since separated - and while Clouston was "happy as", he understood its shortcomings for a newly married couple. So they went to her family's farm at Whitecliffs. The 1500ha farm had previously been run by two brothers, then divided when the next generation came through, with the Cloustons helping run a 834ha farm on hill country running back to Rakaia Gorge and High Peak station at the rear.

On the sheep and beef farm of 4000 stock units, they took up the opportunity in the mid-1990s to become monitor farmers in a programme allowing other farmers to learn from their operation. They never regretted overcoming their original scepticism about the "fish-bowl effect".

Over three to four years, they rubbed shoulders with many of the researchers and top agriculture people of the day. They were already renewing pastures and had changed from coopworths to a romney-texel cross, so they probably refined the business with the help of monitor mentors rather than making major changes.

Clouston says this time was invaluable for sharpening his farming, and the best thing they got out of it was the expert contacts happy to lend their expertise.

This experience was to help him when life dealt him a bad hand.

He was at the peak of his farming when everything changed with the accident.

Clouston explains with hand motions how normal vertebrae should stack one on top of another. His were displaced after the bales hit his shoulders, leaving his spinal cord crushed.

Had he been slightly forward, they probably would have pushed him out of the way. Had he been standing a step back, they might have landed on his head with fatal consequences.

The barn was about a kilometre away from the homestead and, fortuitously, next to the main drive. His former father-in-law came across him. Clouston, in no-nonsense fashion, told him he needed a rescue helicopter and that started the tricky extrication.

"Because I had been there that long, I had figured out that I had broken my back and couldn't feel my legs, and was pretty munted. And I knew I had to stay conscious and knew it was dangerous to lose consciousness ... As soon as I realised I had a spinal injury I tried to stay locked as I could in one position. I did think of trying to dig myself out of it, but the best thing I could do was stay still and wait."

The medical team were amazed he was still conscious, given his pelvis was sitting on his chest. He was effectively folded in half at the ribcage.

Clouston spent three months at Burwood spinal unit, greeted initially by the words: "Well, Mr Clouston what on earth are we going to do with you."

These words reflected the severity of his spinal injury.

Not for once, though, did he give up on the hope that he would return to farming.

"I knew that for sure I had a spinal injury, and couldn't feel my legs, and the implication of that I wasn't sure, but it never entered my head that I wouldn't go back to farming at any stage. Even at Burwood, when they had given me my prognosis, I spent most of the three months just going through tasks in my head of what I reckon I would be able to do and how I would do it - even things like digging post holes. I had figured out how I would do most things, and it just didn't register that I would leave farming at that point of time."

The vertebrae were fused, with titanium rods put in his back and screws inserted. Then came the painful rehabilitation process. Leading up to the accident, Clouston had continued to assist with the autumn musters at Godley Peak, and his natural farming fitness helped him regain some mobility.

Returning home, the adaptable farmer made modifications so he could continue to farm. A sheep-handling system was set up for drafting and automatic weighing. Clouston would sit "axle deep in dags" with a handpiece, and crutch 800 to 1000 ewes a day

"We got an Argo, which is an eight-wheel, all-terrain vehicle and I have done all sorts of things out of the side of that. I have lambed ewes, I have put bearings back in. Because I was a dog trialist, I had a really good team of dogs, so nothing changed with the mustering aspect, except for, if I saw a cast sheep behind the fence, I wouldn't be able to just jump the fence and pick it up. I would have to go home and tell someone about it, but mustering-wise it didn't change that much because I could send dogs a kilometre away."

By hanging out the side of the Argo, he could open gates, and a fibreglass rod he made allowed him to hook and drag it around. He could shift electric fences with a hook by the side of the roll bar and connect the reel to the roll bar, tie the line onto a standard and pin the standard into the ground and drive along the side of the fence, returning to put in more standards as fast, if not faster, than an able- bodied person.

There were limitations, and if he got stuck - "bellied on a tussock" - he had to rely on someone for help.

Not long after the accident, he got a seat on the Northern South Island Sheep Council, a conduit between farmers and researchers which held seminars and made sure research and development was relevant for the farming of the day.

Like the monitor farming, this was to prove invaluable when two years later he had got active farming out of his system.

"I did realise it [farming] was something I wouldn't be able to keep going indefinitely, because it is pretty hard on the body, and I would come in, have tea and lie on the couch because you were quite sore. When my wife and I separated two years later, I thought the next thing to do was to go to [university], as I had never gone to Lincoln as a kid. I had tried farming with my hands and the logical thing, I thought, was to start farming with my head."

Among many uncertainties, Clouston was confident that there would be openings for him off the farm, preferably in the sheep and beef sector.

Gaining a Hugh Williams Ravensdown Memorial Scholarship was a confidence booster, and he graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce in agriculture in 2003. He went with commerce, as it provided more options, despite being tempted to do an agricultural science degree matching his interest in breeding and genetics.

This paid off, and he has since directed other farming paraplegics to Lincoln, where there is no barrier going to university "in a chair".

As a monitor farmer, Clouston had used the business support programme by AgFirst, and found work with the farm consultants. At a primary-industry conference, he began talking to some bankers about looking for work opportunities. A couple of months later he successfully applied for a role with a bank lasting seven years, working with sheep and beef farmers and lower-order sharemilkers.

Clouston, 48 now and living in Christchurch, shifted banks in May to BNZ to become an agribusiness partner with the focus on less of a deskbound job and more work in sheep and beef farming, where his heart lies. This might not offer the big deals of dairying, but he is happy helping farmers, and talking about rams and dogs, and their plans for the next generation.

Visiting farmers creates some logistical problems, but nothing he hadn't encountered in his two years of farming or shooting and fishing since the accident.

"I can jump in and out of 4WD and visit woolsheds. If I can't get into the house we will sit in a hay barn or workshop and run through stuff. I don't see that as a barrier in performing that role of mainly bringing in new business."

Banking has given him the freedom to go onto farms, to talk farming with other farmers, and to use his experience as a monitor- farm and council representative to help and advise other farmers.

To avoid surprises, he forewarns farmers about his condition, and so far they have barely batted an eyelid.

BMX wheels fitted to the chair give more traction on rough ground and push rims further from the tyres keep his hands away from the muck and animal dung.

Farming can be a dangerous occupation, leaving farmers in wheelchairs, and they are accepted by the farming community and remain active in dog trialling and other events.

Clouston's dogs have since been retired, but he was a volunteer at the national dog trials, which the banks sponsors.

It's pleasing for him that son Sam has gone high-country mustering for the Brown family at the back of Fairlie, and daughter Grace is working towards an agriculture science degree.

Clouston says he has learnt from his accident that if you want to do something, you can, and a closing door is usually followed by one that opens.

"When I was 20 I was going to be a musterer farmer for the rest of my life, as far as I was concerned. And at one stage if I had a crystal ball of what happened to me I would have said 'just shoot me'. But I now know that would have been a silly thing to do, because life on the other side is not as bad as I would have thought it had been."

- The Press

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