Haken Visual

In Keoki’s Words

Luck! A four-letter word synonymous for unexpected situations that happen in everyday trials and tribulations. Whether we believe that religion is the driving force for luck or we take it at face value, it would be almost impossible to pinpoint a true source. In my case of nearly drowning and paralysis, you can say that luck was searching for me.

Traveling to remote destinations in search of perfect or dream waves is in my repertoire as a surfer/photographer. Nias is one of my all time dream destinations, but when I left for my most recent trip there, I had no idea it would almost be my last. What started as a 60-hour pilgrimage from Hawaii to Sumatra with big-wave aficionado Trevor Carlson turned into the worst three days of my short existence. The first four days of the trip were mind blowing. We were doing three sessions a day at the famous break with a few sessions at an undisclosed spot. Baffled about the circumstances, we both agreed that we never scored so hard on a surf trip. We needed a down day. I put the camera down and thought with all the amazing content we gathered so far, I could get my piece of my dream wave. I caught a few waves, got barreled on two of them and started to feel hunger taking over. After talking with a fellow surfer and saying I’m getting one more wave in, I waited for a set. Soon afterward, a three foot (Hawaiian size) double up popped on the horizon and I knew it was mine. I caught the wave, stood up, and positioned myself for a lengthy drainer.

Dragging both hands to stay in the barrel as long as possible, I found myself too deep. As I fell in the barrel, I expected the typical thrashing. Then BAM! With full force, I fell on my back on the board in what felt like a jump from a two story building. The first thing I noticed was the air forcefully being pushed out my lungs and the most excruciating pain in my lower back. The pain was so unbearable that my vision went out and my body went into shock. I quickly lost consciousness and started to take on water. From that moment on and for the next 20 minutes, I would be fighting to stay alive. I can’t recall anything within those twenty minutes. Luck at this point seemed non-existent.

When I came back to reality, I found numerous people surrounding me, with yelling coming from all directions. I struggled to figure out where I was as I stared upwards at the ceiling of a grass hut. Stinging pains were running down my back, and my body went into shock.

My limbs were shaking like a fish out of water, and I wasn’t able to control them. Not knowing the severity of my injuries, I began to panic, struggling to make sense of it all. Eventually, I was able to calm down a bit and take stock of the situation. There was no sensation in my legs, and I could feel bubbles in my lungs. Someone in the crowd was telling me to breathe, and I wanted to tell them that wasn’t an option. As I struggled to remain calm, I figured out that half breaths were all I could do, so I just took what I could get.

Under the care of Trevor Carlson, Diego Santos, a chiropractor named Luke Gales and Carlos, a gynecologist from Brazil, I felt I was in good enough to care to get a hold on the situation. The ambulance showed up an hour and a half after the incident and felt as if I was going to be OK. I was totally wrong.

Coming from a first world country, we take for granted that an ambulance is a safe haven for those who need medical help. In Sumatra, an ambulance is a taxi driver with cool looking lights on his ride. No training, no experience, an oxygen tank but no tubes or mask to give me oxygen. What the fuck! I knew what was coming ahead was going to be a struggle. I felt my high school nurse had more experience and training for any medical situation compared to those in Nias.

Luckily, Trevor Carlson was by my side and his training from being a lifeguard and EMT for five years is what saved me over the next three days. Trevor took control of all the medical situations there and even told the so-called doctors what to do in this situation until we got to the medevac team. Luck was making itself known.

I spent the first two days at what Trevor called an apartment complex with a red cross painted on it. It wouldn’t be a place for treatment, it was simply a place to figure out the next move. I needed an emergency air medevac to take me to the closest legitimate hospital.

Working with insurance companies delayed a full day of moving closer to step one of a diagnosis. Finally, after going back and forth, there was a plan in place. An air medevac team was scheduled to fly into Nias to pick me up and take me to Singapore in two days. I needed to move closer to the airport so I wouldn’t miss the flight. What took three hours on the way in took seven hours on the way out, because the taxi/ambulance driver drove very slowly to minimize the pain. We arrived at Tabita clinic at 9 pm, just 30 minutes away from the airport. Relief was getting closer.

The clinic had more trained personnel but little to no experience with spinal injuries. At the most, I was given some pain relievers for my back and some oxygen to cope with the water bubbling in my lungs. I would get the best four hours of sleep I had in two days. Luck made itself visible.

At the airport, a trained air medevac team was waiting for me with proper medical gear and a plan to get me to Singapore. What I thought was a flight straight to Singapore turned into a curveball when we landed in Malaysia. The flight itself took a total of three hours with a stop in Medan to go through immigration out of Indonesia, and then we would have to cross the border to get to Singapore. Since it was Friday and the border was packed, it took another three hours. I was told it was an hour and a half drive. Luck is laughing at me.

We finally arrived at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore at 10pm. The medical facility had highly trained staff and the most up-to-date medical equipment. A huge weight lifted off my shoulders as I knew I was in the best possible hands I could be in. After sitting through an X-ray and two MRIs, I finally got a diagnosis. It made me break into tears: the doctors found nothing life threatening and told me I would be able to walk again. With extensive rehab coming my way, the doctors said I will eventually make a full recovery.

From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, I was ecstatic to find out that I was given a chance to be normal again. Just the simple fact that I will return to normal is a miracle. The endless support from my family, friends, and the worldwide surfing community boosted my spirit. I can’t express how thankful I am to have the support I’ve had through the hardest situation I’ve ever been in. Through this experience, I think that luck is just a small part of a bigger picture. Luck is pushed by love–and where there is love, there is life.

Donate to his GoFundMe here.


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