27 January 2006

South Africa: Shark victim's long wait for rescue

Mauled and bleeding after a shark attack on the Wild Coast, a Scottburgh man watched his emergency air ambulance circling vainly above Mthatha Airport for more than an hour, unable to rescue him because no one was around to switch on the runway landing lights.

Eventually, with the rescue aircraft running low on fuel, a doctor grabbed a fire extinguisher in desperation and smashed open an airport window to reach the landing lights' switch. The drama started just after 2pm on Wednesday, when diver Michael Vriese, 34, was attacked by a shark while spearfishing at Coffee Bay. Its teeth severed two arteries on his right arm, damaging muscles and nerves on his wrist and forearm.

"There was blood everywhere. I don't know how much I lost, but I'm told that I got a transfusion of at least four units in Durban.

"By the time I had swum back to the beach, I was getting pretty weak and my friends had to support me by both shoulders to get me to a car," Vriese said on Thursday night after a five-hour operation at Entabeni Hospital, where vascular surgeons repaired his severed arteries. Diving partner Neil Abel initially drove Vriese to a clinic near Hole-in-the-Wall. "They took one look at my arm and told me to rush for Mthatha.

An hour later, Vriese was stabilised at a private clinic in Mtatha by Dr Tinus Laubscher, who recommended that his wounds required specialist emergency treatment by vascular surgeons. Laubscher also clamped Vriese's arteries to stem the blood loss. When family members in Scottburgh heard about Vriese's plight, they contacted Netcare, which arranged for a team of paramedics to fly to Mthatha in a light aircraft and bring the injured man to Durban. Laubscher said he had accompanied Vriese in an ambulance toMthatha Airport, where they waited next to the runway.

The aircraft was due to land at 7.45pm, but it was dark and the landing lights were not switched on. Laubscher said he had run to the control tower, where a guard had told him no one had keys to get to the light switches.

"We couldn't even contact the aircraft by radio from the control tower and eventually we managed to get hold of one of the paramedics on the plane by cellphone. The paramedic said they were low on fuel and could only circle for another 10 minutes. I told him to hang on while I tried to sort things out.

"I forced my way into the control tower, but there was a huge Trellidor in the way and the only apparent entry point was through a window. So I phoned a senior SA Police director at 8pm, explained the situation and asked if I could break in.

"He told me to wait while he contacted the airport manager. I phoned again at 8.35pm and he urged me to wait a little longer. In the meantime, we were phoning the paramedics and pleading for them to circle for another 10 minutes.

"Finally, at 8.40pm, I took a fire extinguisher off the wall and smashed a window so the manager could get at the lights. The lights went off twice while the plane was coming in and it finally landed at 8.50pm.

"This whole chartered emergency mission was almost a complete waste. He needed treatment urgently because the blood supply to the tissues in his hand and forearm was restricted. Sharks don't brush their teeth, so the risk of infection also increased with time.

"The torn muscle tendons also pull back shorter and shorter and eventually disappear if you don't stop them in time. So time was absolutely crucial. We couldn't delay.

"This is an airport which has just been upgraded. It was going to be closed down at one point because cattle had be chased away from the runway while planes were coming into land."

Back in Durban, Vriese was about to undergo another five-hour operation on Thursday night.

"We felt so helpless while all this was going on," said his mother, Felicity, and sister, Adrienne.

"I could have ended up dead," Vriese told The Mercury. "I'm lucky that Neil and I both know a bit about first aid and I was able to stop some of the blood loss myself by tying a tourniquet around my arm, and loosening it every few minutes to allow some blood to get through."

No one from the airport was available for comment.

Source: www.iol.co.za


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