The only reason I have full use of both of my arms (and am not in debt) today is thanks to New Zealand’s incredible healthcare system.
I’m an avid hiker and have been hiking around the world alone for the past 6 years. However, last winter was the first time I ever scored a major injury.
It was supposed to be a normal hike to the picturesque Lake Marian, about 30 min. drive from Milford Sound. It was a 3-hour return trek through forest and rocky terrain, but definitely not a difficult hike.
Certainly not difficult enough to involve a rescue helicopter and a dislocated shoulder, right? Well, I was wrong.
A bit of a sidenote: I was wearing Sorel snowboots, the type of footwear you only have when you’re making snow angels at a fancy ski resort and taking photos for the ‘Gram. These were definitely not the things I should have worn on a forest trail requiring lots of scrambling over rocks, especially when thin layers of ice made them even more slippery.
And sure enough, I lost my footing and slipped and fell onto a colossal rock about the size of a car. It happened in a blur — my left arm caught my fall, but I also heard a loud snap. The color drained from my face, but my first thought wasn’t even about injury (stupidly). I patted down the chest pocket of my jacket furiously, where my iPhone and my expensive Ray-Bans were resting at the point of contact.
Alas, those replaceable items were unharmed. But when I tried to stand, I felt a searing pain in my left shoulder. Instinctively, I put my hand up to my shoulder to feel it, and I wish I hadn’t — I felt the bone sticking out, like a mushroom trying to pop out of my jacket.
I panicked, trying to dial 111 as fast as I could, even though I knew that an emergency call wouldn’t work without cell service. Anxiety set in for a bit as I tried to stay calm. “Okay, breathe— you won’t be like those stories on TV where the hiker is stuck in a ditch in the middle of nowhere…”
“OR WILL YOU?!”
Now, despite inheriting deep levels of anxiety and worry from my mother, I’ve somehow always had a grace of fortune on my side — and this case was no exception.
By a miracle, I heard voices probably no more than 5 minutes after my fall. It was sheer coincidence, especially since this trail was fairly isolated in regards to hikers. A couple happened to be making their way back to the start of the trail, and they were gracious enough to help me. I’ve never felt like more of a dumb damsel in distress in my life.
The guy (Kyle) was quick on his feet, carried my backpack, and ran back to the trail’s start to call for help. The girl (Gloria) stayed with me, giving me her scarf to use as an arm sling. We hiked back together slowly, and I couldn’t have been more grateful to have been rescued by them.
By the time we got back (over an hour later), Kyle had already successfully summoned for help, via the construction workers who had walkie talkies on the road.
The catch? They were sending a rescue helicopter, since the nearest medical facility (Te Anau) was about 2 hours away by car.
My anxiety shot through the roof again, not only because I had a dislocated shoulder, but because I inconvenienced two complete strangers during their hike, and now wouldn’t be able to foot a huge medical bill that came with a split-second fall. (If any non-Americans are wondering why I was so worried, read this article on the approximate cost of an emergency air lift in America).
We were in an extremely isolated location, possibly the most beautiful place to ever be injured (just picture yourself an area like where Gollum is catching fish in the stream in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). It was a bit humorous to realize that, of all the places I fell, it was in the most gorgeous country of all— one that just so happened to have the best healthcare system in the world, as well.
When the rescue helicopter touched down, a few onlookers took photos since we were sat right near a pullout with a viewpoint. I was mortified.
Within 10 minutes, my shoulder was popped back into place, and all the pain washed away. When I finally found words to speak again, I sheepishly asked how much all this would cost.
“You didn’t know? This is all covered by ACC. You’re not charged a thing.”
New Zealand’s healthcare system, known as ACC, protects temporary travellers, residents, and citizens from paying anything if they’re injured. It’s the most forgiving, incredible system I’ve ever heard of (although Switzerland’s is par with it). If a helicopter had to rescue me in the states, I’d be footing the bill for the rest of my life.
The kindness didn’t stop there, though — the EMTs told me I needed to fly back with them to the Te Anau medical center to ensure I hadn’t done any severe damage to my nerves. Kyle and Gloria, complete strangers I had just met in this unfortunate circumstance, accommodated me — one drove my car back and the other drove their camper van back (and it was a 2 hour drive!).
They were absolutely my guardian angels.
And yes, I ended up getting a free helicopter ride — the most drop-dead gorgeous one I’ve ever gone on in my years of travelling. The snowcapped mountains, never-ending lush green forestry, crystal-clear lakes, and towering waterfalls that looked microscopic from up above — they all made this injury somehow worth it.
While I’m incredibly lucky that this injury wasn’t life-altering, I’ve also learned the importance of taking precautions when hiking alone (register with a local info center beforehand or rent a personal locator beacon). And for crying out loud, don’t wear fancy snowboots on an icy trail — always stick to hiking boots.
It warmed my heart to experience pure goodness of fellow travellers on the road like Kyle and Gloria, as well. In all my years of travelling, I’ve always met the most incredible, generous people — one of the sheer beauties of exploring the world by yourself.
Lastly, I actually was so fortunate that this injury happened in New Zealand, where their healthcare system is absolutely stellar. ‘Ewe’ are the best country in the world.