Photographer, Founder of Hungry Walrus
Life Flight Tavarua

The island of Tavarua in Fiji has given me many unique experiences, memories, and stories throughout the years, but this is one I will never forget.

One evening, after running boats all day in the sweltering equatorial sun, I parked the boats on the moorings and the Fiji Bitter’s started flowing. Fiji Bitter is the working man’s beer down there in the islands.

There is a saying we live by on Tavarua: “The more you drink, the better the surf gets.” Well, this night in particular I was drinking for the best surf of all time.

This hot little 18-year-old blonde who I had recently started seeing while I was back in the States had taken me up on an invitation to come down to the island, and she had just arrived that evening.

Instead of crashing out in my infamous one-room-shack house with my roommates, we moved into the old tree house on the other side of the tiny island because it was a bit more private and vacant. The tree house sits 30 feet off the jungle floor and is actually three separate rooms in three separate trees that are all connected by narrow bridges. The tree house is one of the oldest structures on the island, and it looks a lot like something out of Robinson Crusoe. It was built so you could sleep without deadly sea snakes and other jungle animals crawling into bed with you, or having storm surge and heavy rain wash you away while you sleep. A great deal of history rests in those branches, and the tree house is even said to be haunted. There are graves beneath its leaves, marked in Fijian tradition with stones and coral heads.

That night we got pretty hammered, drinking cheap tequila and Fiji Bitters. It was probably about “Fiji midnight,” (which is actually only nine o’clock) when we went to go to bed. I picked the poor girl up, threw her over my shoulder like I was a caveman, and, carrying her, tromped through the midnight jungle all the way to the tree house.

To get into the tree house, you have to climb a steep staircase and traverse a wooden bridge that sits in the highest branches. The bridge has a thin, low, wood railing on either side and is 20 feet away from another room built in another tree. The entire structure sits about 30 feet off the jungle floor. The staircase, which is more like a ladder, climbing up and down from the tree house is connected to the middle of the bridge. Needless to say, it takes complete concentration to get up into the tree house, then traverse from one room to another.

However, bathroom is conveniently located on the jungle floor, so you have to cross this bridge and scale the ladder if you have to go. Well, I eventually had to go, and by this time happened to be pouring down rain from a violent storm front that had rolled through in the night.

As I got out of bed and wobbled across the bridge, I hadnt even reached the ladder before I grabbed for the railing to brace myself and completely missed it.

 

I must have reached over the railing when trying to brace myself and grabbed nothing but a fistful of air. All of the momentum of my body weight flung forward over the rail, and I did a full front-flip face plant, falling 30 feet to the dirt below, buck-ass naked. The last thing I remember was saying to myself, “Oh god, this is bad” as I free fell head first off the bridge to the jungle floor below. It was like a terrible cartoon turned real-life drama. When I hit the ground, I was immediately knocked unconscious.

Eventually, after an unknown amount of time, I regained consciousness and found myself strapped to a stretcher, in a neck brace, getting carried to the infirmary by  my friends. The Australian doctor working on the island at the time was doing all he could to help me.

So luckily, and completely coincidentally, it was the doctor who stumbled across my lifeless body in the dark, then sent for my friends to get the stretcher. If one of my Fijian friends had found me, they probably would have picked me up or rolled me over to wake me. If that had happened, they probably would have accidentally severed my spinal cord, causing paralysis or even death.

When we got to the island clinic I was able to move my right-side appendages fairly well, but my left side did not respond. I was having difficulty breathing, was in shock and then serious pain. The doctor called for a Life Flight team from Australia, ran an IV, and gave me a lot of morphine. The island crew and doctor did an incredible job keeping me stabilized before turning me over to the rescue-helicopter medic team 12 grueling hours later.

Due to brain swelling, morphine sickness, and a wicked hangover, I was vomiting all over the infirmary and then in the helicopter, where I passed out again. Since I was strapped to the spinal board to prevent movement, I could not turn over when I vomited, so the puke went straight up and back down onto my face, body, and the surrounding area.

When the rescue helicopter landed at the international airport in Fiji, which is located on an island near Tavarua, there was a Life Flight Learjet waiting for me. The same crew that came in the helicopter worked the Life Flight jet and had come all the way over from Australia to save me on Tavarua. After a short delay on the runway, the medic team packaged me in the jet and we took off from Fiji to Brisbane Hospital in Australia.

The Life Flight was crazy because the pressure on my swollen brain and organs mixed with a combination of serious drugs was causing my body to convulse violently, and puke. I was having these crazy seizures and cramping badly. Four hours later we landed at the Brisbane airport in Australia, where a ground ambulance was waiting for me. After a half-hour hell ride in the ambulance, I finally made it to the hospital — 17 hours after the accident.

Doctors then ran tests, X rays, CAT scans, and MRIs. They eventually found that I had broken some vertebrae and big ribs near my collarbone. I dislocated my left shoulder and crushed my auxiliary nerve. I also had shredded cartilage, muscles, and ligaments throughout my body. What scared me the most was the fact that I was unable to move or even feel my left arm, and I could barely move my left leg. My left eye went lazy, and the left side of my chest was inches lower than the right side. The doctors seemed really concerned by the tremendous swelling of my brain and vital organs, which didn’t help to calm me down.

I was restrained on this stretcher in the same position, naked and dirty from the jungle floor, with a swollen brain. Unable to move my left limbs, with a shut-down digestive system, broken back and ribs, I was stuck this way for over 24 hours. My lengthy stint stuck to the stretcher led to a staph infection, caused by the cuts on my back getting impacted with jungle dirt and rubbing in sweat and puke on the filthy backboard for all that time.

The staph infection eventually turned into boils that covered my back and chest. It was the least of my worries, considering my injuries, but was yet another issue to address with strong antibiotics.

I ended up staying in the spinal ward in Australia for a pretty short time, considering the severity of my injuries. I had a constant pain-killing concoction pumping into my system through an IV and a nurse would shoot me up with another needle every four hours. The drugs nullified all of my feelings.

After a week or so, I was transferred to San Diego, California, where my parents live, via three stops. This transfer was approved with strict orders for me to be taken directly to a neurologist and spinal specialist.

During the grueling 14-hour flight from Australia to California, the pressure in the cabin was so intense that all I could do was look down at my feet and throw up. My brain swelled so much that my skull wouldn’t let it expand anymore; I felt like I was going to explode and die. It was so painful that I took six Ambien sleeping pills, six oxycodones, and a pile of tramadol and Percocet with my red wine and bourbon.

I lost the plot. I was real dope-sick with withdrawals from the morphine concoction I had constantly been loaded with in the hospital. I was having radical hallucinations and was in so much pain. I was absolutely miserable and thought I would actually die — truly thought I might. I remember having these hallucinations of little spaceships, birds and little people flying around me in this cosmic Milky Way. They would fly in and out of my mouth, ears, nose, and be buzzing all around me. The stewardess was really worried, eventually becoming my personal in-flight nurse.

When I arrived in Los Angeles, waiting for my flight to San Diego in my wheelchair, I was shaking, convulsing, dry heaving, and passing in and out of consciousness. It was January and freezing cold. Since I had no belongings with me in Australia, all I had on was Qantas Air first-class pajamas and one of those thin airplane blankets. It took over an hour for the lady pushing my wheelchair to get me from terminal to terminal on the buses and outdoor walkways.

Security and customs still takes a long time even when you’re seriously injured en route to the hospital. All this time, I was still throwing up bile, just so sick and broken.

I was so incredibly lucky that when I fell out of the tree house, I  had landed on the dirt walking path below. All around the area I hit were large coral rocks, cement stepping-stones, blocks of demo scrap wood, complete with rusty framing nails and all kinds of debris from a remodel project that was going on at a hut nearby. If I had landed anywhere else on the floor, in a slightly different position, or had been picked up before the doctor found me, I could have been paralyzed.

It was a real lucky break. The doctor and many others have since said things like, “God has a plan for you.”

I regained total use of my left side after months of intense physical therapy. The top orthopedic spinal specialists told me I had one of the fastest recoveries for that injury they had ever seen.

The girl who came to the island to visit me never knew I had fallen until the crew grabbed me that night, and she ended up staying on Tavarua while I was in Australia.

The total bill for the Australian rescue team, helicopter, jet, hospitals, tests, doctors, physical therapy, and everything else came out to over $100,000.

It was covered in full by the secondary travel insurance I purchased for a hundred bucks just before the trip. Without travel insurance, they never would have come for me in Fiji. Life Flight runs your policy number before the jet is permitted to take off.

Life’s a trip…

The Tavarua accident was part of a series of six serious events that all happened around the same time in my life. I was mentally, physically, and spiritually leveled by the heavy combination of situations, and during the final stages of physical recovery from the free-fall, I was forced to make the most important decision of my life: “Live sober, or die?”

The decision to go sober was made initially for the sake of my family, and eventually led me to deep spiritual realizations, heavy emotional connections, and complete appreciation for the gift of life.

It wasn’t easy finding direction and figuring out contentment fundamentals during the initial stages, but once I became comfortable as a sober being, everything changed. I can’t articulate the beauty of sobriety into words (for anyone thinking about it), but trust that it’s really special. A much better alternative than a torn family and paddle-out ceremony.

Taking the culmination of heavy events as a sign to change my life was a blessing. Acting on the gut feeling to go sober, and coming back from rock bottom stronger than ever was a miracle.

Everyday I find space in nature to meditate, get humbled by the big picture, and talk to my dead friends. Reminding myself of how fortunate I was to act on the desire to turn life around, and how painful recovery was, helps prevent relapse. My passion for surfing is also an important creative outlet that helps keep me motivated to live a positive lifestyle.

Funny how some of our little daily dramas can hang us up and snowball into unnecessary unhappiness. In reality, we’re all lucky just to be here, and everything else is a bonus. These days, I celebrate accomplishments with a good meal and a plane ticket, and instead of covering up issues with intoxication, a clear head gives me drive to properly take care of them.

It’s crazy how time allocation has shifted as well. I don’t want to waste a second on meaningless situations.

It’s been five years since I made the big decision, close to six since the Tavarua accident. I’m incredibly fortunate to be functioning physically at 100%, and am surfing better than ever.

Thanks for taking the time to read my story, there are many more on my travel blog www.hungrywalrus.com. If you would like to rap out about anything, I’m always available through the contact page on Hungry Walrus.




  • Erik

    Thank you for telling your inspiring story. It has had a great impact on me. Cheers
     

  • Tim Hamby

    “We’re all lucky just to be here, and everything else is a bonus.” Amen. Sounds like a brutal experience, or set of experiences. So often, that’s what it takes. True in my life, as well. So glad to hear that you’ve recovered fully, have something so profound to share with others and are doing so.

  • linda

    How often in life do we have a random, or so we think at the time, string of experiences that lead us to change profoundly, look at the world differently and appreciate each day more.  you have an angel on your shoulder.  Thank you for sharing your story – one you never would have wanted to write but wrote so very well. 

  • Anonymous

    The ending saved me from throwing-up and feeling depressed before I go to bed. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a guy I knew who got coked out and fell off a balcony. People can throw everything beautiful away in seconds. I am glad that you are sober. Hey, you are not the “typical” young pro surfer anymore. Shaka!

  • Dave F

    Thank you for sharing such an honest story, Johnny. It’s inspiring to hear true thoughts and makes me want to be a better person. Thank you.

  • bob

     1/07/08 a day I will never forget or regret!! Thanks for the share-

  • Anonymous

    Life is truly precious, what a scary and miraculous story! Made me stop and think about how life is short and can be taken away in an instance, loved your writing!

  • Anonymous

    Life is truly precious, what a scary and miraculous story! Made me stop and think about how life is short and can be taken away in an instance, loved your writing!

  • CDT

    As a surfer with 22 years of sobriety I can honestly say it was the best decision I ever made. Thanks for the story.

  • Mark Randall

    Awesome story John, thanks for sharing. I really do think God has a plan for you!

  • tum kritcher

    booze will fuck your life up- use it in moderation…you were very lucky…get a decent job so you can get a nice hotel room..the girl deserves better and so do you..old burnt out drunk ex surfers are a dime a dozen.

  • I wonder if you would not have drank so very much if this terrible accident would have happened. If you cannot control your drinking, I highly advise that you find sobriety. This was a wake up call for you. I am glad you have your life and did not harm anyone else.

  • I am glad you are doing so well and appreciate the beauty of sobriety. A drinking problem can be the worst disease one can have.

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