Talking To Nick Ormerod About The Wave That Almost Killed Him
Earlier this year, Nick Ormerod survived a brush with death after wiping out on a Kony’s screamer – a notoriously heavy wave located in the remote South Australian desert, miles away from any semblance of official emergency response. Basically, the last place in the world you’d want to be suffering from life-threatening internal bleeding, a collapsed lung, broken ribs and a fractured spine. All those ailments combined and then some – Ormerod is lucky to be alive.
Bodyboarders are constantly pushing themselves into bigger, wilder waves of consequence; unsurprisingly, Ormerod’s incident is one of a long list of recent near-fatal wipeouts within our sport. Without trying to sound too much like an overprotective parent, we hope you all stay safe out there, know the risks, look out for each other and – at the very least – learn the basics of how to save a life. Ormerod’s resilience and strength got him through, but it was truly the riders, photographers, and bystanders on the ground – the ones who literally whisked him to safety – that kept the him alive.
We checked in with Ormerod during his recovery (things are looking up) to hear about that fateful wipeout from the man himself:
“I'd been wanting to do a trip to South Oz with my girlfriend, Deb, for quite a while. We got down there in April and, as luck would have it, the waves pumped the whole time. It was pretty epic – I'd surf with whoever was around all morning, then we'd spend the afternoons checking out the landscapes and relaxing. We planned on stopping for a night around Adelaide at the wineries on the way home to de-’feralise’, but I saw on the charts that Kony's could be epic. Deb was also cool with staying a little longer out West, so we stuck around.
I woke up for a piss that night, and a few cars were rocking up with jet-skis. I wasn't surprised, as it was looking like a pretty epic swell. I was actually happy I'd have someone to surf with. Next morning, I woke up and walked down the track to find Gornz [Nick Gornall] crawling out of his sleeping bag. I said hey, went surfing at a different spot and then came back for a beer on the cliff in the afternoon to watch the new swell fill in. Next morning, I walked down in the dark, tripping out at how under moonlight, it felt like you were on another planet. Gornz and his crew emerged and we watched as it got light – and saw that the swell was bombing.
You could tell it was really heavy with a huge period. It was exciting and scary. Gornz and I suited up and scrambled down the cliff. As we paddled, Andrew Mooney and a guy from Sth Oz were already out there and starting to tow into a few. We got to the takeoff, bobbed around for a bit and waited for the right ones to paddle. I was excited but shitting myself. I hadn’t surfed for sponsors in a while, and I was telling myself to take it easy. But I knew that I'd be spewing if I didn't have a good go, too. It ended up being an epic session – trading big, heavy pits with a mate in the middle of nowhere. A few more guys came out but with plenty of waves to go around, it was sweet.
“I thought I'd check to see how bad the damage was by coughing to see if there was blood. Sure enough, a mouthful of it came straight up. I think I realised then it was a real dire situation.” - Nick Ormerod
It got to late morning and I was pretty hungry and keen to start the drive back east. I guess I started to get a little less picky and thought, ‘I'll just get whatever and head in’. I saw a medium-sized one coming, but it had heaps of draw on it and was draining really hard. I scraped into it, looked up and instantly thought, ‘Oh fuck, I'm too deep’. Because of the extra draw, it ran so much quicker this time so I had no option but to pull in and hope I didn't hit the bottom. I knew for sure – it wasn't a question of ‘if’, but ‘how hard’ (in a photo of the wave, you can see me nervously laughing because I knew I was about to cop it).
As the shockwave hit, I tried to bounce up with it to give the trough a bit of time to fill in with water. It was one of those waves that stops on the reef, then suddenly it catches up and releases forward. I got pushed down and was getting violently thrown around, over and over – deep in the bottom of the whitewash, I knew I was way inside where there's some gnarly, chunky bits of reef. For a second, I thought about pulling my leash off because it was dragging me. Then, all of a sudden, a huge bit of turbulence shoved me back-first into a chunk of reef.
It's hard to even describe in words what the impact felt like. It felt like I got folded over backwards. My first reaction was to kick to check if I was paralysed or not, and to get to the surface. I was so unbelievably winded and spent. Then everything went white and silent and blank. No feelings of anything. Not even ‘This is it’ – just a couple of seconds of complete blankness. I still think about that moment a fair bit. Then I guess the adrenaline kicked in and I got to the surface and scrambled onto my board, getting knocked around and pushed into the deep water on the inside.
I knew I was in bad shape, so I waved to Kane Overall (who was filming on a ski). They rocked up pretty quick and asked if I was OK. I was stunned, winded and couldn't make a sound, but I was trying to tell myself I was OK, so maybe I gave them the vibe that I was actually OK. I think they thought it wasn't super urgent – and they couldn't pick me up as they didn't have much room – so they went and asked another ski if they could help me. I had no idea what was going on, but knew I couldn't move or barely breathe, and was drifting further away from land.
My initial thoughts were about how spewing I was to have fucked our plans for that day and maybe the next few. I tried to kick and paddle towards the shore, but there was no chance. And even if I got to the shore, there was no way I could climb the cliff. I was desperately gasping for air the whole time, and thought I'd check to see how bad the damage was by coughing to see if there was blood. Sure enough, a mouthful of it came straight up. I think I realised then it was a real dire situation. I felt so fucking lonely and helpless. Everyone was enjoying a pumping sesh and a few eyes on the cliff were fixated on the waves, but I was drifting into oblivion, to drown in agony or get eaten by a shark – and no-one would even know [laughs].
Oh man, it felt shit. I wanted to cry and give up but knew I couldn't. It felt like ages had passed – I don’t know how long it was, maybe 20 minutes in reality – then Mikey Brennan and his mate Jerry appeared next to me on their ski. It was a relief, but I was far from relieved. They helped me onto the ski, and straight away I felt some crazy hot pains in my hip. But I was more worried about internal bleeding and just wanted to get to help, so Jerry started driving me around the cliffs towards a beach and when I could get a breath, I kept apologising for the awkward sounds. He kept telling me I probably just squashed a lung. I wanted to believe him but I couldn't.
As I got to the beach, I got off the ski and started walking up the beach. Some guys (Rob and Felix) from Adelaide saw from the cliff that I was in trouble and came around to the beach to fetch me. They pulled my fins off and I got in their ute. We met Deb and Felix told Deb to call an ambulance, and that we'd drive to the closest caravan park a few kays away by dirt track. We were bouncing along – Felix apologising and me saying, ‘Don't worry, just get me help’.
I kept thinking about BP in Ireland – I knew how serious internal bleeding could be. We got to the caravan park and they laid me down in the shade on my back and while we waited a couple of hours for the ambulance, I tried to concentrate on breathing and telling myself I'd be OK. There was a guy from the caravan park making the shittest jokes ever, and a retired nurse that visibly freaked out when she saw me coughing up blood. After a couple of hours, the ambulance got there and gave me the green whistle. Nothing eased the pain but at least I felt a bit safer. It took another two hours to get to the hospital.
Once there, they did some scans and revealed that I had blood in my chest cavity – presumably from a punctured lung – but they weren’t sure how much. After a couple more hours, the specialist came (the desert's a big slow place) and confirmed there was about two litres of blood and my right lung was punctured from one of several broken ribs. They organised a flying doctor's plane and before I knew it – 11 hours after hitting the reef – I was getting wheeled into the ER in Adelaide.
“I felt so fucking lonely and helpless.” - Nick Ormerod
One lady yelled for everyone to ‘Shut up’ and declared that I'd fallen over onto some rocks onto my chest. With the little energy and breath I had, I tried to tell them what had actually happened. I was kind of pissed off that they had it so wrong. They then said it didn't matter for now, and I whisper-yelled ‘It fucking does matter!’ but they completely ignored me. Next thing, I was getting knocked out for a procedure to drain my chest of the blood.
I woke up a few hours later and was given the run-down: broken ribs, a chipped hip bone, a chest drain to drain the blood from my lungs and while they'd keep me in there for a week or so there was apparently no reason to think there was spinal damage. I wasn't sure how that was possible, but happily took their word for it. Over the next four days I was in pain, but that was expected. I told them my body felt buckled but they said it was the chest drain. They told me to cough and walk around as much as possible, so I did. Then on Day Four, they took me for an x-ray (I'm not sure if this was due to my pain descriptions or routine for the chest drain).
I struggled as I stood at the x-ray machine, and once the radiographer ran the scan he came out and told me the machine was broken as it was showing him that my spine was pretty much completely broken and in two separate columns, which couldn't be possible if I wasn't paralysed. I felt this cloud of darkness come over me as I knew what the situation really meant. It was like a sickening, scary, depressing feeling as I saw another guy look at the second x-ray, then at me with disbelief, then back at the x-ray with more disbelief.
The rest of that night was a blur of fear, doctors, surgeons, scans, waivers, fear, waiting all night for surgery, and more fear. As it turned out, I'd broken my T8 vertebrae and dislocated my spinal column. The surgeon said the odds of not being paralysed in that situation were absolutely miniscule, but the things on my side were that I have an abnormally wide spinal cavity, and that I'd come this far without being paralysed.
I woke up from surgery with a brand new toy train track bolted into my spine from the T5 to T12 and a hell of a lot of pain. The surgeons were able to line the spine back up and everything went really well. The next couple of nights were full of hallucinations, pain and no sleep. I told the nurses I had crazy pains around my diaphragm, so a day later I went in for keyhole surgery to check out fluid they'd spotted in an x- ray. A day later they came and told me there were three more vertebrae with hairline fractures, but nothing to worry about. There was another few nights of gas buildup in my bowels that was so painful on top of everything else I didn't even think it was possible.
It got to day 12 and I calculated I'd slept a total of about 10 hours since the injury. It felt like true torture. Every night when my family and Deb would leave it was so lonely and scary and dark just thinking of how I was possibly gonna get through the night without the distraction of human interaction to keep me from the pain and hallucinations from the heavy drugs and lack of sleep. I felt so sad and beaten mentally and physically, both for myself and my family and Deb that had to watch me go through the whole ordeal. It still rattles me to think of how desperate and painful the situation felt. Eventually the gas went away, but the nerve pain throughout my torso remained. It was almost unbearable.
Then at day 13, something kind of funny happened. My mum was saying ‘If you’re in so much pain, tell them!’. I was like, ‘I am, I've been telling them I'm at a 7’ – the numbers being based on the scale that 10 is the worst pain you can imagine. I thought 10 must be like being slowly burned alive or something, until the nurse told me after 13 days that a six is about where you'd want a Panadol. Right as I realised that I upped the dosages a bit, but they took me off the morphine drip as they said it'd just do more damage. I stayed on some heavy drugs for a while. I tried to sit, then spewed and shat everywhere.
Bit by bit over the next couple of months, I made my way to walking for a couple of hours per day. It was about three weeks in hospital and another 10 days on a recliner in an AirBnB in Adelaide till I drugged myself up enough to fly home.
It's been six months since it all happened and even though I still get some deep pains through my torso from the nerve damage, it's slowly getting less painful and my flexibility is increasing. I'm back in the water pretty much every day, and rode my bodyboard a few days ago.
As cheesy as it sounds, although I'd hate to go through the ordeal again, I don't think I'd take it back. It's made me realise a few things. I feel I've always had a decent take on what matters in life, but it's confirmed some things and reminded me to appreciate and jump on opportunities we get to live a happy and good life.