A farmer's prank went horribly wrong when a lump of clay he threw to splash a mate instead put him in hospital with a fractured skull.
"What was going to be a funny joke ended up being the worst day of my life," Kyle Blenkhorn, 34, said.
Mate Darren Bryant, 17, who was hit by the sun-hardened tennis ball-sized lump, said: "[Doctors] reckon if it was a little bit harder, or a little bit heavier, it would have killed me."
He bears no grudge over the near-tragedy, and has made a remarkable recovery.
After finishing farmwork near Ohau, south of Levin, one afternoon just before Christmas, Blenkhorn and Bryant were checking out a new dam on Blenkhorn's sister's property. Bryant was at the water's edge when Blenkhorn, some five metres above and 20m away on the dam wall, decided to splash him with the lump of clay.
"On a normal day I wouldn't even be able to throw something that far. Everything went wrong," Blenkhorn said.
Bryant added: "He's not that co-ordinated, so he just missed [the water] and hit me."
Blenkhorn had recently completed a first aid course and, seeing his friend topple unconscious into the dam, raced down, got him out and checked his vital signs.
Bryant woke up, confused, 30 seconds later, Blenkhorn said.
"I was like saying, sorry mate, sorry, and he was like, why are you apologising?"
The clod left a 50-cent-sized lump on Bryant's head. He was in good hands - Blenkhorn's sister, a trained nurse, soon arrived, followed by Bryant's mother, an ambulance officer. His uncle, Graham Dyer, chief executive of the Wairarapa and Hutt district health boards, later looked on.
Bryant was taken first to Palmerston North Hospital and then flown to Wellington.
Australian doctor Ryan Duell, a week into his first neurosurgery registrar placement at Wellington Hospital, performed an emergency procedure with neurosurgeon Agadha Wickremesekera. Scans showed a 2.5-centimetre disc of bone pushed nearly a centimetre in towards Bryant's bruised brain.
He could have died from an injury more commonly seen after high-speed car accidents. "It takes a lot of force to fracture the skull . . . You can get larger bruises or more life-threatening bleeding from skull fractures, so yes, he was certainly lucky," Duell said.
"Clay hardened would be like a stone."
The surgical team lifted the scalp, raised the broken bones into place, then secured them with a 6cm titanium metal plate.
Bryant, a Horowhenua College year 13 student, was cleared to return to his beloved hockey, squash and motorcycle riding three months later - much sooner than expected - and appears to have suffered no long-term effects.
Ribbing of Blenkhorn had been gentle, relieved dad Donald Bryant said. "We say, next time aim at him, you'll never hit him."
Blenkhorn said the incident had taught him to think things through more. "And yeah, a clump of clay is not as benign as it seems."
- The Dominion Post