Friends for life (graphic content)

CLAIRE ALLISON
Last updated 11:53 04/02/2014
jock mccullough
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Jock (James) McCullough on the family's Waitohi farm.

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Twelve months ago, Jock McCullough's life changed in an instant. The actions of his friends meant he lived, and on Friday he saw them formally acknowledged for their efforts. Features editor Claire Allison spoke to the teenage boy who came so close to dying or, at best, being paralysed for life.

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James McCullough was having a good day.

Thursday, January 31, 2013 - just three days into the first term - and the year 13 student had just been made a prefect at Waitaki Boys High School.

It was a stinking hot day, so after school, James - everyone called him Jock - and a bunch of his mates headed to the Kakanui River for a swim, like they'd done many times before.

It was a steep, gorged part of the river, out by Five Forks. The water was dark and deep. But, the boys still checked it was safe before diving in. A couple of Jock's mates went first, diving into the welcomingly cool water. Jock prepared to dive. He remembers standing on a rock on the river's edge, not much above the water level.

"And the next thing I remember I was in the water and drowning."

What he has been told, since, is that he dove in, and his head managed to find a rock that the others had missed.

His mother, Steph, has gone over it in her mind. Just a bit further one way or the other, and everything would have been different. The rock, she says, had Jock's name on it.

Jock was struggling to get to the surface. He couldn't move his legs, and he had little control over his arms. The deep gash on his head was bleeding heavily.

Friend Jacob Donaldson (JD) says they realised something was wrong when they saw Jock's face appear just below the surface of the water - and then saw him sink back down again.

They leapt in to help. None were trained lifesavers, none had any particular first aid training. But they were all practical boys from rural backgrounds, accustomed to getting stuck in and doing, and they were all competent swimmers.

They dragged Jock as far out of the water as they could, but the banks were steep - there was no flat area they could pull him to - so he remained half in, half out of the water. One of the boys took off his shorts, wrapping them around Jock's bleeding head.

Eels, attracted by the blood in the water, moved in, nipping at the boys. One received a nasty bite on the leg. Jock remembers trying to throw rocks at them to scare them away.

He told his friends he couldn't feel his legs, that he would be a paraplegic.

Four boys went for help - two in one direction, two in the other, trying to find a spot that provided cellphone coverage.

They found some swimmers and sent them back to help because they had towels. With more people on site, including someone who knew how to brace Jock's neck, they were able to lift him completely out of the water and wait for the ambulance.

For the first time, Steph hears that the first group of people the boys asked for help didn't believe them, didn't want to get involved.

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JD estimates it took a trek of three or four kilometres before they were able to make a 111 call.

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When Steph McCullough's phone rang on a sunny summer's afternoon, it was heart-stopping.

It was someone from the 111 call centre. They had received a call from her son's cellphone, but it had cut out partway through. Did she know any more?

Steph didn't know anything for sure at that point, but her heart immediately told her it was her son who was hurt.

How badly, and how, she didn't know.

"But I was absolutely positive that something was dreadfully wrong."

Steph knew the boys planned to go swimming that day if it stayed hot. She knew who Jock would be with, and where they were likely to be.

She got on the phone, tried to find out what was going on; phoning the school hostel, phoning other parents, trying to find out if they knew anything - trying not to frighten the other parents.

"I was trying so hard to be calm and not let on."

It was nearly an hour - an awful hour - before the information finally came through via a call from one of Jock's friends. Her 17-year-old son was in a helicopter, on his way to hospital with a suspected spinal injury.

Her efforts to hide her fears from other parents, she learned later, were in vain. One of the mothers lived in Dansey's pass. After Steph's call, she sent her husband down to the river to find the boys and find out what had happened.

"He was bush bashing his way to the river ... she said she knew something was wrong."

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Ambulance staff made their way to the river, but access was impossible even on foot and it became clear the only way to get Jock out would be by helicopter.

A Dunedin-based rescue helicopter was called and dropped a basket nearby. Jock was strapped in, hooked on, and the chopper lifted the basket into the air. Landing in a nearby paddock to be transferred into the chopper, Jock was soon on his way to Christchurch Hospital.

Was dangling in a basket under a helicopter daunting?

"At that point, I was a bit sore, a full body soreness, just an aching sort of pain. I remember getting basketed out but I wasn't worried because everyone else was in control."

What was it like for his friends watching?

JD: "It was pretty scary watching him being lifted out."

Amidst the rescue drama, Jock's mind was turning to more practical matters. There was food in his van, he told his friends, they should make sure it didn't go to waste. And when they came to see him in hospital they should drive the van because they'd all fit in, rather than taking separate vehicles.

At that point, everyone was sure Jock would be taken to Dunedin Hospital.

His housemaster headed south as soon as he knew what had happened.

Steph and Dougal, Jock's father, started making plans; Steph rang the hospital to ask if they could let her know when Jock had landed.

She's grateful that hospital staff took the time to call her back and say he was being taken to Christchurch instead.

Jock arrived in Christchurch about 9pm, and was rushed into ICU and put straight into traction, with the hope that would avoid the need for immediate spinal surgery.

Steph and Dougal were on the phone to friends, looking for somewhere to stay. She says friends stepped up immediately.

"Our friends were amazing, their son was getting married on the Saturday but they said stay here as long as you like."

Jock had four hours of surgery the following day.

The family was warned to prepare for the risk of Jock becoming a quadriplegic or tetraplegic.

"The surgeon came out and said it was very difficult: 'I didn't know whether I should go ahead and do more or not ... but then I just knew I had to go ahead and do more'.

"My sister is a nurse, she said staff in there said it was the most stressful time they had had in theatre."

Jock, despite telling his mates that he would be a paraplegic, admits that when he was in hospital the prospect of never walking again just didn't occur to him.

"There was probably a bit of naivete, but I just thought I'd be sweet. I never equated it to never being able to walk again."

He remained in ICU until the Monday, wearing compression stockings, being turned every three hours.

The family gathered, his four sisters descending on Christchurch and taking full advantage of their younger brother's inability to defend himself to lavish him with sisterly affection.

With a big family, they were able to take it in turns to sit with him in ICU.

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Four days after the dive that went so wrong, Jock was flat on his back in an ambulance again, on his way to Burwood Hospital for some intensive rehabilitation.

Steph was in the ambulance with him, and remembers a long, slow ride, as the ambulance detoured around the worst roads in Christchurch to try to find the smoothest route possible.

Burwood involved daily hand therapy, twice-daily physiotherapy, laser treatment, and many, many massages from family and friends.

There were visits from the boys - the band of brothers, as they were known - the first just a day after he arrived at Burwood. Those visits meant a lot.

Steph: "All Jock wanted to do was see his friends and talk to them, and he wanted to thank them. In his notes, a doctor at the hospital wrote in it that it's clear that his buddies saved his life."

Jock's injury was diagnosed as an A to C spinal injury, and Brown Sequard syndrome, which sees one half of his body from the chest down unable to feel pain or temperature variations - the left side is ideal for injections when they're needed.

On his right side, he has some muscle weakness in his hand and his leg will spasm. Particularly when he is tired, or begins moving after sitting for a period of time, he walks with a limp.

Burwood was to be his home for 14 weeks, and the rehabilitation saw him progress from lying immobile in a bed in ICU, needing to be turned by nurses, to being able to walk back into that intensive care ward under his own steam.

There are plans to send the staff a photograph of his first wakeboarding efforts post-injury.

He was in Burwood when he turned 18, and it wasn't until the end of the first term that he was to see Waitaki Boys High School again, spending a couple of days there to see how it would go, before returning to school proper in term two.

He says going back to school wasn't a big deal.

"I just slotted straight back in, it was great being back with the boys."

It was good to be back, but the accident had an impact on Jock's schoolwork. Tiredness was a big issue in that second term.

He was an active young man; a member of the school's first XV, into snowboarding, waterskiing - all activities with an element of risk.

"If I was going to break my neck, I wouldn't have thought I'd do it swimming."

Rugby is now off limits. He can't risk any further damage to his spine. With a plate in it now, it's not as flexible as it once was.

Snowboarding was off limits for a year; more news for Steph, he's already had a wee go on a learner's slope.

His family and friends see some of the effects; they notice the limp if he's tired, or has been siting for a while.

He can go out for a night with his mates but it takes him a couple of days to get over it.

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Now it is a whole new year, and a new beginning.

This year, Jock's off to Lincoln University to begin studying towards a bachelor of agriculture. A concession to his injuries will be the assistance of a writer in the classroom and on field trips.

There are still challenges, some tasks prove difficult. Jock needs to continue his exercises, there are weekly acupuncture sessions.

Long-term he wants to work on farms, eventually, the family farm.

"I'd rather be a farm worker, as opposed to a pen pusher."

And we have been sitting talking at the kitchen table for more than an hour. He's had enough and suggests to JD they head outside.

Steph is looking forward to the ceremony, to seeing the boys who saved her son's life properly acknowledged for their efforts.

She's prepared her speech, has tried it out on a few people, found that the more she reads it, the less likely she is to break down part-way through - leaving the tears to the listeners.

It was a mother's worst nightmare.

She is forever grateful that her son is still alive.

She knows that if it wasn't for his mates, he probably wouldn't be here.

- The Timaru Herald

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