David Donovan accident and survival story
IF YOU LOOKED at me today, you might not notice anything unusual about me. If you looked very closely, you might see I have some scars around my neck. If you spoke to me, you might notice I have a deep husky voice, like a heavy smoker, even though I don’t smoke.
In fact, I am lucky to be alive, for when I was sixteen years old and alone, deep in the rugged outback of Australia, I suffered an horrendous motorbike accident. It was only the most remarkable confluence of circumstances that enabled me to survive.
This is the true story of my survival.
The accident happened on one of the cattle properties our family then owned, this one located west of Rockhampton in Central Queensland. It was over the Christmas holidays in 1987, before I was due to go back to boarding school to begin year twelve.
The previous year had been a wonderful, affluent, time for our family. On our main property, "Burkan", the paddocks were lush with buffel-grass and our cattle were shiny and fat. And Dad had gambled on rain falling on our black soil plains at just the right time that year and so our revenues were bolstered when a record harvest was reaped from a thousand hectares of sunflowers.
So, Dad had decided to expand our holdings and had bought a new place six hundred kilometres due west, not far from Longreach in the heart of central Queensland. The new, thirty thousand hectare station was perched on the rugged western side of the Great Dividing Range, about 60 kilometres north of Jericho. To reach it, you drove nine hours westward the last stretch being up the aptly named, ominous sounding "Desert Road". The property was called, appropriately enough, "Speculation".
With Mum and my brothers back on Burkan, Dad and I spent the summer holidays working hard to bring the blue grass and spinifex block up to scratch — mustering, checking waters and fences and doing the countless other jobs requisite for a cattle station’s survival. There was no television, telephone or mains electricity. Indeed, apart from the weekly mail-run, our only contact with the outside world was through the Royal Flying Doctor Services’ two-way radio network.
I was as fit as I had ever been. Apart from all the other manual work I’d been doing over the two months I’d been there, for the previous few weeks I’d been fencing in our newly created airstrip, using only crowbar and shovel. Eventually, the fence was finished and that night over steak and chips Dad asked me to check the far boundary, which ran parallel to the Desert Road for fifteen dreary kilometres.
The weather had been stormy for the previous few weeks. Dad said he expected trees and branches to have fallen over the boundary as a result, making the job a hard day-long chore. I groaned when he told me I had to take the farm motorbike – a little eighty CC, fat-wheeled, agricultural model – since I normally would have taken one of our four-wheel drives. But, he expected the only road along the boundary – an old firebreak on the neighbour’s side – to be washed out in parts and so he had an irresistible argument.
I set off from the homestead at about ten o’clock. It was rather a clear, sunny morning. There had been rain the night before, and so the air was crisp and tangy. As I rode towards the boundary, I rode off the road a ways to inspect a recent burn-off on one of the paddocks. In almost no time, I was lost amongst an immense open stand of iron-barks amidst a huge, charred, homogenous plain. Eventually, after half-an-hour or so of aimless riding, I found a fence-line and made my way back to the road. I noticed the fuel guage was down to just over half-full; I hadn’t filled up before leaving the homestead and I wasn’t sure whether I had enough fuel to last the day. I almost turned around and headed home to top up, but shrugged my shoulders and decided the risk was not likely to exceed my father’s wrath. Unfortunately, upon such relatively banal decisions destinies often lie.
The boundary was about twelve kilometres from the homestead. I reached it just as the sun began to radiate heat-waves from the red dust off into the distance. I opened the wire-gate to ride into the neighbour’s property and looked left and right. To my right, downhill, was the seemingly endless boundary fence. To my left, the fence was obscured by a hill, but I knew our boundary ended only a mile or so away. I turned the motorbike in that direction.
At the top of the hill, I was a little surprised to see I had come to the end of the neighbour’s paddock. Even more curiously, the gate through this fence was set in the corner not on the road, so that you needed to ride off the road to go through the it. I shook my head at the sheer stupidity of this arrangement. After opening the gate, I checked to see whether there were any cattle nearby. There weren’t, so I decided to leave the gate open — unless the boundary needed significant repair, I would be coming back through the open gate very soon.
I rode to the where our property ended. The boundary fence was taut and true. I turned around in the corner and rode back uphill.
Riding up the hill was slightly difficult because the road was so old and unused scrubby saplings had begun to grow up on it, forcing me weave my way between them. Halfway up the hill, I accidentally brushed against one and found myself instantly covered by thousands of tiny, angry black ants. Yelling in pain and surprise, I began brushing them off with one frantic hand.
At that moment, in my confusion, I recalled that I had left the gate open on top of the hill, but it momentarily escaped me that the gate was not on the road, but in the corner. When I finally managed to swat away all the biting insects, I looked up.
Ten metres away, glinting in the midday sun, a single silver strand of shiny barbed wire was flying rapidly at my head. Desperately, I tried to throw myself backward off the bike. and almost managed to escape underneath the wire.
I wasn't quick enough. The high-tensile wire caught my neck, the barbs leaving two deep gouges underneath my jaw before catching on the end of my chin and snapping my head back so sharply, my neck seemed sure to break. It didn't, however the whiplash was so severe my voice-box disintegrated. The trachea, that elastic pipe, broke in two — the bottom half dropping down into the bottom of my chest. My vocal cords also snapped, abruptly quelling a terrified scream.
My hands flew to my throat and the bike toppled over on its side, dumping me in the dust. It had broken the bottom two wires, but the top one had merely stretched and lay limp behind me. I clutched at my throat and tried to moan, but only a dull whimper escaped to break the sudden silence.
I instantly noticed I was not getting enough air. I later learned that most of the oxygen gathered from my suddenly stertorous breathing was escaping uselessly into my chest, between the two broken pieces of my windpipe. My lungs began to collapse and I made hideous wrenching gulps for the merest trickle of oxygen.
Panicking, I opened my mouth wide to scream for rescue – “Dad! Dad!” – but all that issued was a tiny muted croak. A small sane voice told me no help would be arriving that day, since I was not expected home until dusk. I sat down in the dust as my very deep peril dawned in my consciousness.
I hung my head and sobbed for what seemed like a very long while.
Abruptly, a moment of clarity forced me to sit up and a calm enveloped me. It was time to take stock.
This was my predicament: I was some 12 kilometres from the homestead. I was not expected home till dark and it was only 11am. My only chance to save myself was riding home in the hope my father was there when I arrived. Then, he could call the Royal Flying Doctor Service and perhaps they may come to rescue me. I also acknowledged, with dread, that oxygen deprivation was draining my stamina with every choking breath.
“You stupid bugger,” I thought, “you’ve bloody well gone and killed yourself!”
Then I thought, “Well, if I’m going to die, I’m not going to die sitting in the dust bawling. When they find me, I want them to see that I was trying to get home”.
With that gloomy motivation, knowing the odds were stacked strongly against me, and without much hope, I pushed myself up out of the bull-dust and stumbled to the motorbike, stepping over the strand of barbed wire my neck had caught upon.
Picking the bike out of the dust, I threw a leg over it and settled into the black leather seat, which was hot from the harsh, bright, sun. I punched my leg down on the starter pedal. The bike grumbled but failed to start. My deflating lungs immediately expelled any air and I almost collapsed. Again, I tried. I gasped with relief as the bike rumbled into life. I set the bike off slowly down the slope towards the gate back into Speculation. Next, I had to open the gate.
It was a typical wire bush-gate. Essentially these are just an extension of the fence. Opening one of these fences takes substantial effort since it involves straining the wires of the gate with a short "gate-stick" to the same tautness as the fence.
I stopped as close to the gate as possible. I hoped to undo the gate-stick without needing to dismount the machine as I was already deathly tired and gasping for breath. Propping the bike on its stand, I flicked the machine into neutral. As my right hand let go of the throttle to unlatch the strainer, the bike sputtered a few times. Then it stopped.
“What the…” I mouthed and checked the fuel gauge. The machine was still half full of petrol, so that wasn’t the problem. I shrugged and, with grunting belaboured effort, managed to undo the gate-stick. I lifted the gate out of its loop and threw it as far away as possible. The last thing I needed now was a tyre puncture riding over the barb-wire.
With effort, I gunned the ignition again and the bike immediately roared back into life. I had no notion why it was performing so badly. I spat on the ground in disgust. Engaging first gear, I moved off slowly, narrowly avoiding the barbed-wire gate, which lay halfway over the road.
Soon, I was back on the Desert Road. Once onto this wide, corrugated, gravel and bull dust road, I flicked the motorbike into second gear. Again, it spluttered, stalled and stopped. Exhausted, gasping, I spurred the bike into life anew. It started straight away, but as soon as I flicked it into second gear, again it stalled. This new development was totally demoralising, since I felt utterly at the end of my endurance. It seemed the bike would not idle, or move in any gear other than first.
A mechanic was to find later that the cylinder head had been damaged in the fall. It was miraculous, apparently, the bike had even started.
I knew travelling home twelve kilometres in first gear might overheat the bike’s engine. It was also going to double the time it would take to get home. As the little motorbike crawled along in first gear at about fifteen kilometres an hour toward the turn off to Speculation homestead, I gasped for breath and I wondered which one of us would die first.
At Speculation’s white mail-box – a cut-in-half forty-four gallon drum wired to a post – I turned off the highway onto the road to our homestead. Soon, the bike and I reached another gate.
This one was a bit friendlier to the disabled and dying. It was made of curved pipe, sturdy wire mesh, swung on hinges from a post and was held shut by a chain. The motorbike stalled afresh as I took my hand off the throttle, though now I had less trouble unlatching the gate and swinging it open from my seat. There were now only two more gates left to open, one wire and one more swinging.
Grunting with effort, I started the bike again and rode into another paddock. Another kilometre along the furrowed two-wheel track to our house, I came to the last wire gate.
It was troublesome, but I managed to undo the loop and limply throw the gate into the dust, this time so feebly the barbed wires lay completely across the road. Too exhausted to move the gate out of the way, I just started the bike and risked roding straight over the top of the wires. Fortunately, the thick lumpy tyres did not puncture.
The next paddock was the largest on Speculation. I was relieved to now not need to open another gate. My clothes had begun to feel tight. I was later to discover I had developed a condition called subcutaneous emphysema, in which the tissue of the body actually inflates with oxygen. It seems that air was entering my body cavity between the two severed ends of my trachea. Gradually, I was expanding like a balloon.
While I was riding, I began thinking about my Dad discovering me dead. Then, I thought about my mother, sister and brothers and how they would react to the gruesome news. I wondered whether I would be missed and thought about my friends and many other people who’d passed through my life. Tears welled in my eyes, though I felt no sadness on my own behalf, but rather sorrow at the sadness of those who I felt would grieve for me.
I started inwardly and repeatedly to recite the only prayer I knew:
who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day
our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil,
for thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Soon, a tremendous sense of peace enveloped me. I stopped worrying about my family, my condition, the bike, or anything else. I entered a peculiar, dream-like state. Soon, it seemed, I saw passing by me the towering posts and open stretch of land where the yet unconnected power line crossed the road to the homestead. I knew this signified I was half way home. With a start, I realized that since starting to pray I had travelled about five kilometres in what had seemed like moments.
Out of this meditative state, I noticed the day was starting to grow dim, but the sun was still uncovered by cloud. I guessed my eyesight may be beginning to falter because of lack of oxygen. I still had six kilometres left to ride. I urged myself to not succumb to any more of this dangerous languor.
I checked the heat-gauge again. It was approaching the red. Inexplicably, out of the blue, a thought popped into my mind: “I’m not going to die today." I clutched hold of that thought with all my strength and kept riding.
What happened next, I don't know, because the rest of the ride is a blank. The next thing I recall riding over the metal grid into the House Paddock and seeing my Dad.
My heart rejoiced. I had been worried that he would be out all that day fixing one of the artesian bores watering our herd, as that was what he had discussed doing that morning.
But instead, providentially, he was instead working in one of our dilapidated corrugated-iron sheds. He looked up at me as I rode towards the shed. Strangely, I thought, he then looked back down at the metal part he was holding in his hands. I was later to discover that because my body was so swollen with oxygen, I looked like the "Michelin-Man". My father simply didn’t recognise me as I rode towards him.
He looked up again, sharply this time. His face went white, his eyes widening. He ran towards the bike as I pulled up outside the shed.
“David, what’s wrong?” he cried.
He helped me off the machine. Then, despite both my vocal cords being snapped, I somehow spoke.
“Aerial ambulance,” I croaked, pointing at my throat. “Aerial ambulance!”
As I leaned wearily on Dad’s shoulder, we struggled together into the homestead, if you could call a hot, little pre-fabricated metal cottage by such a grand name. Inside, we walked into the main bedroom and Dad helped me lie down on the bed, fussing over me awfully. Comfortable that I was comfortable, he walked into the office. Then he spoke into the radio.“This is S479 Speculation to T29 Charleville Base, can you come in please.” Surprisingly, his voice sounded remarkably well modulated and controlled.
“This is Charleville Base,” came the crackly reply. “What’s the problem, Gordon? Over.”
“It’s my son, David. He’s damaged his throat and seems to be suffocating. He needs the flying doctor, urgently. Over.”
Meanwhile, as I lay on the bed, my lungs were deflating and I began again to gasp for air, like some sort of bloated, beached fish. I decided lying down wasn’t helping, so I got off the bed and walked into the kitchen. I sat at the head of the table so I could see the clock on the wall above the stove. Placing my hands palms down on the table, I began to push down, straightening my upper body to try to manually inflate my lungs in time with my breathing. I noticed some relief. Soon, I was gasping with less urgency than before.
Dad came out of the office. He stopped and looked at me quizzically.
“Is that better for you, David?” he asked. I nodded.
“They said that the plane would be about an hour and a half – it has to come from Charleville.” I looked up at the clock; it was precisely noon.
A voice came over the two-way asking for Speculation. Dad rushed in to the office again. When he came out, he said, “Colin and Jenny Price are going to come over here. They said they’d bring a medical chest.” The Prices were our nearest neighbours and lived only about 20 kilometres away.
I watched the clock. I felt strong, but realised the effort and accompanying slow suffocation could only be endured for so long before my body collapsed.
Dad wandered around the house, wringing his hands and looking increasingly stricken. The minutes crawled interminably on. When the clock rolled over to 1pm, he abruptly rushed into the office.
“Beryl, can you update us on the status of the aircraft,” he said, urgently. “David’s getting worse. Over.”
“Gordon, the aircraft is running through some weather. It’s going to be about 10 minutes late. Over” My heart sank at the thought of having even more minutes to survive. Dad instantly echoed my disappointment.
“That’s too late, we need someone soon. He’s slipping away,” he uttered, throatily.
“Just one moment, Gordon. Over,” Beryl replied. A few seconds passed. “I’ve just spoken to the dispatcher. He’s sending the flying surgeon from Blackall. He should arrive soon after the other plane. Can David last that long? Over.”
“I just hope so,” Dad replied. The rest of the conversation faded away from me.
Soon after, Dad came back into the kitchen.
“They’re sending the Flying Surgeon,” he said, rummaging around underneath the sink. “But they said I have to find some pipe and a sharp knife … to cut your throat open to let you breathe!”
He turned to me, his eyes red. “I said I couldn’t do it,” he sobbed, walking over to the table. “How can I cut the throat of my son?” He knelt down and put his arms around me. “How can they expect me to cut my beautiful son’s throat?”
I felt chilled so see through his eyes how sick I truly was.
A vehicle pulled up outside. It was the Prices. Dad went to greet them. I was rather surprised to hear Dad offer our guests a cup of tea, but then astounded when I heard Colin Price drawl soon after: “Been getting much rain, Gordon?”
At precisely 1:40 pm, I heard the sound of aeroplane engines overhead. The Prices took directions to the airstrip, a kilometre distant, and went to fetch the Doctor and the crew. They were back minutes later. Several people rushed inside.
A young lady came over to me and started examining my neck. She pulled out two open-ended syringes from her case. Then, she carefully pushed one of them into my neck, into the cartilage. She left me and I heard her talking with my father. He approached me.
“Is that better, David?” he asked. I met his eyes and pointed at my throat, shaking my head. Then I raised my shoulders and looked away.
“It’s no good,” Dad shouted. “He still can’t breathe!” At that moment, the sounds of another aircraft were heard overhead — the Flying Surgeon, I hoped.
Again, the Prices raced to the airstrip and at 2pm a new lot entered the kitchen.
A brief, frantic, discussion ensued between the doctor, the newcomers and Dad. I felt a finger under my jaw. A middle-aged man looked into my eyes and then at my neck, before turning back to the group.
“I’ve never seen this,” he said. I heard gasps of despair from people in the room. My heart echoed their disappointment.
Unexpectedly, I heard a new voice, male and deep. “I think he’s fractured his voice-box,” the man said. “Let me have a look.”
My chair was turned to one side and a youngish-looking fellow asked me to open my mouth. He placed a speculum on my tongue and peered down my throat. “I’ll need some pipe – about eighteen inches worth – and some topical anaesthetic spray,” he said, briskly. “Open your mouth wide, Dave.”
I did and he sprayed a foul tasting substance into my mouth. I immediately vomited violently, expelling a red glutinous liquid all across the kitchen table.
The young man, whom I learned later was an anaesthetist on holidays from the Royal Brisbane Hospital and had been only accompanying the Flying Surgeon as an observer, seemed unfazed. “Just be brave,” he said calmly, “I’m going to spray a little bit more anaesthetic in your throat now.”
I nodded and, when he sprayed, I forced myself not to retch. Encouraged, he then tried to force a tube down my throat and into my chest. I gagged and writhed, reflexively trying to avoid this invasion.
“This is for your own good David. You need this to breathe,” he said to me quietly. I opened my mouth once more and, this time, though gagging and struggling, I reluctantly accepted the intubation.
I breathed through the pipe. Air passed into my lungs. I breathed again and closed my eyes as oxygen began to fill my lungs for the first time in hours. It is difficult to describe the feeling of finally receiving enough air after a long period of deprivation to anyone who has never been unfortunate enough to have almost suffocated to death. Suffice to say, it was one of the greatest feelings of my life.
“Get him to the Royal Brisbane Hospital straight away,” the anaesthetist said. I stood up. People came to try and carry me, but I waved them away and walked from the house leaning on my Dad’s shoulder, as he helped me into the Price’s four-wheel drive.
Colin Price drove to the airstrip once more and pulled up next to a light aeroplane. A pretty brunette nurse came to the vehicle. She helped me from the car and into the plane. I sat down in a seat bolted to the wall, medical equipment all around me. She strapped me in and handed me two small white tablets and a paper cup full of water.
“These will stop you gagging.” she explained. I forced them down.
To my left, Dad climbed into the co-pilot seat and the pilot hopped in after him. After an instrument check, the plane began to taxi up the dirt strip. I noticed that the sky was dark and overcast. As the plane took off, a flash of lightning lit up the horizon.
“It looks like we’re in for a wild flight,” muttered the pilot.
After the plane levelled out, the pilot – a burly, bearded, wild looking fellow – turned around and peered at me for a few moments.
“David,” he said, grinning at me through large white teeth that glinted gold, “on the wall to your left is a clock. In three hours time we will be in Brisbane. Watch that clock and forget about the weather outside, that’s my problem." I looked at Dad. He smiled at me nervously.
I looked out the window at the sky outside. The air was heavy with electricity and dark, as if the day was fast approaching dusk, although it was only mid-afternoon.
I had come a long way in my mind that day. Initially, I was utterly, incontrovertibly certain I had killed myself. Later, that dreadful surety gave way to cautious a optimism, to which I clung for dear life. Now, I felt there was only one thing that might stop me from surviving — bad weather.
I began to cough then and I thought, “hey, maybe this is all just over-confidence?” I had been a childhood asthmatic and now, though I was able to breathe, it felt like I was suffocating again. Also, my chest was in agony, as if the tube into my lungs was abrading my windpipe. Seemingly to compound my suffering, the local anaesthetic was beginning to wear off and the pills to stop me gagging on the tube stuck down my throat had not yet kicked in, so I had great difficulty not regurgitating the tube in my throat every time I breathed.
Indeed, I was now in more pain and discomfort than I had been at any other time during the entire ordeal. To take my mind off my physical discomfort, I looked at the clock and counted the number of breaths I drew each minute. Then I calculated roughly how many breaths I would need to take before we reached Brisbane and began to them count down.
Arguably, my struggle in the plane was actually quite fortuitous, for I was far too preoccupied to worry much about the weather problems.
In a later interview, reported in a national magazine, Dad said the following about the terrifying conditions we experienced that day:
The sky was a mass of storm clouds when we took off and there were severe thunderstorms for most of the flight. I knew it was vital to get David to Brisbane Airport as soon as possible. A hospital retrieval team was waiting.
“How are we going to get through?’ I asked the pilot as we approached the city.
“The storm clouds are a fair way ahead yet,” he told me.
David was in real trouble now. The anaesthetic had worn off and he was distressed by fits of coughing. I didn’t think he could last the journey.
“Why are you worrying?” the words came clearly into my mind. I immediately recalled a time, ten years before, when I had been told by God not to worry. I promised him that I would never worry again. The words both challenged and comforted me and I knew that David was safe.
To my relief, gaps were now seen in previously impenetrable looking clouds. Then a clear channel through which the plane flew to land safely at Brisbane airport.
At 5:30 pm, I’d run out of numbers to count down and we still hadn’t landed. It annoyed me. The plane landed ten minutes later, but it seemed much longer as I gasped and gagged in the back. The registrar of the ear, nose and throat ward of the Royal Brisbane Hospital met us on the tarmac. I was placed on a stretcher, then into an ambulance, which ferried me to the hospital, sirens wailing.
At the hospital, I was frantically shuttled onto a bed and then strangely left all alone outside an operating room. I lay on the trolley as staff frantically rushed around me.
Eventually a male staff member came over. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting son, we’re can’t seem to find the surgeon,” he said. I groaned in response.
He rushed off. I closed my eyes in resignation.
After a remarkably long wait, I was eventually wheeled into the theatre. A mask went over my face and, finally, I passed from consciousness.
I had four hours surgery that night and woke up the next day in the emergency room, porcupined with tubes. Least annoying of these were the two monitors on my chest that checked my vital signs. I also wasn’t too bothered by the drip, or the tube that fed me, though it did run down my nose.
The catheter, however, was very unpleasant. More painful yet were two lung drains, which had been incised into both sides of my chest and which drained my lungs into two enormous brown bottles that sat beside my bed. About every five minutes, an air bubble passed out of my lungs into one these bottles, sending me into paroxysms of agony.
I stayed in the emergency room for a day before I was taken away for a long series of cat scans and x-rays. The medical staff seemed surprised I had not suffered any brain or spinal damage. A day later, they decided I would probably live and so they wheeled me up to the ward.
Though I had survived, I had suffered many serious injuries. Apart from the collapsed lungs, I was still suffering from the surgical emphysema, which took a few days to subside. In surgery, my voice box had been remoulded by a synthetic brace which completely blocked my air canal. I was unable to speak for six weeks after the accident, until more surgery saw the brace removed. I breathed initially through a tube in my throat.
In an interview with the Brisbane Courier-Mail, the brilliant surgeon who performed the operation, Dr Robert Hodge, said: “almost certainly the nerves of the windpipe will be permanently damaged and David will always require a tube."
When he told me this himself, three days after the accident, I cried bitterly for hours. Afterwards, I resolved to never accept his diagnosis and so I told myself constantly for six months, every waking hour, “I’m going to get rid of this tube!”
I was discharged from hospital after just eight days. Six months later, Dr Hodge operated to remove the tracheotomy tube from my neck for good.
I should also mention, my vocal cords were severed in the accident. Because they are nerves, they should never reattach. So for years, I spoke using what I known as "pharyngeal speech" and resonated a deep, almost inhuman sounding, voice. I never accepted this was the best voice I could have.
A few years later, a check-up with Dr Hodge revealed that in the years since the accident, inexplicably, my vocal cords had somehow, miraculously, reattached themselves. Indeed, I work as a journalist, using my voice as one of the tools of my trade.
So, to conclude, let me say just this: If you looked at me today, you would probably not be able to notice anything unusual. If you looked very closely, you might see that I had some scars around my neck. If you spoke to me, you might notice I have a deep and husky voice, like a heavy smoker.
In fact, I am lucky to be alive, for when I was sixteen, I suffered an horrific accident and almost died — and things have never been the same since.