The grim face of the paramedic looking down on Jason Wheeler's limp body, strapped into a vertical rescue stretcher near Juggler Canyon in Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, says it all.
Wheeler, a Mountains physiotherapist, clearly remembers that near fatal 20 metre cliff fall on his final abseil in the challenging canyon on Sunday December 2, 2018.
"It's an absolute miracle I'm here."
Recounting the story he says: "I was canyoning with a friend. Conditions were favourable and we were planning to do the nearby Grand Canyon straight after Juggler.
"Having only done Juggler once before several years earlier, I was curious as to whether we were at the final abseil. I stood at the edge of the track and soon realised it was mainly plant matter which promptly gave way.
"I recall the initial part of the fall and essentially clutching at straws. I was in free-fall and sunlight gave way to the darkness of the canyon. It was the closest I've ever come to an out-of-body experience."
He remembers "feeling winded" and landing in a shallow pool of water.
"My knee looked crooked and as I dragged myself out of the water my knee buckled because the fall had torn the major ligaments that hold the knee together. It seemed that little more than skin was holding my knee together."
I was in free-fall and sunlight gave way to the darkness of the canyon. It was the closest I've ever come to an out-of-body experience
Later Wheeler discovered a litany of injuries - a ruptured patella tendon, ACL, MCL, extensive damage to the menisci and cartilage, a dislocated pelvis, five broken ribs, a partially collapsed lung and relatively minor spinal fractures. He needed a knee reconstruction and his pelvis needed two 15 cm screws to work again.
"Amazingly, I didn't hit my head, injure my neck, or die."
He was helped by a group of canyoners (including a retired GP) and paramedics who took a long walk in and then he was choppered out after some trees were removed.
"The team of 15 rescuers passed me hand-over-hand along 200 metres of undulating single track. After seven hours I was finally able to be winched into the chopper."
It's been a long road back to health.
"We had a running joke about [son] Jett starting to walk before me," he says.
"My knee surgeon told me that my knee injury was the worst that he'd seen. This was a reality check ... I realised that I may not get back to sport, and would possibly struggle to even kick a ball with my son."
Before his accident, he was a passionate ultramarathon runner, completing more than 30 marathons and ultramarathons over a five year period. He was at peak physical fitness - he had run the Bilpin Bush Run that year, and previously the Coast to Kosciuszko ultramarathon, was a regular canyoner and had competed in the Australian National Broomball [ice hockey running] Championships that year in Canberra. He had also just got married three weeks earlier and welcomed his first child.
That long road back included rehabilitation with his physio which helped to avoid further surgery. He diligently did his exercises, and attended regular hydrotherapy.
"Once I could bend my knee to 110 degrees I was able to start cycling. This helped me to regain some strength and fitness."
"Twelve months after the accident I went back to Juggler Canyon with some friends and finished it without any dramas. Getting past that point where I'd fallen 12 months earlier gave me the feeling I was finally able to move forward."
He returned to parkrun, pushing his son along the courses in a pram, and slowly started entering races like Sri Chinmoy and The Great Nosh to keep him focused on his recovery, and to keep him on-track to reach his major goal of returning to marathons and ultramarathons this year. He had plans to compete in the Glenbrook Marathon on August 15, but it was cancelled. Recently he completed a Backyard Ultra - it involved 12 laps of a hilly 6.5 km loop near his home over two days - "a lap every four hours including 10pm, 2am and 6am," he said.
"It was pretty tough and I very nearly called it off at the halfway point but I'm glad that I continued as I eventually notched up 78km," he says.
He has worked through the pain and returned to playing broomball with his team the Sonics who were undefeated, winning their COVID interrupted year in 2020.
Wheeler and his wife Jess will welcome their third child in January. He runs First Choice Spinal & Sports Physiotherapy in Lawson and Warrimoo and has been a physiotherapist since 2007, also working as a physio at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and at the Six Foot Track marathon. As an essential service, he is able to work through COVID.
"I've gained a deeper appreciation of the full experience of recovering from major injuries and surgeries, the physical pain is one thing but the impact on your personal life, ability to work, and mental health are all significant. I'm very aware that some of my injuries have lasting effects and I will be more prone to developing certain conditions in the future.
"I hope my story gives people some hope that with the right treatment and a little bit of luck that you can bounce back from an injury."
He thanked those who rescued him from the fall and those who have been vital for his recovery, his wife, his parents and his running club The Bullants.
"Running ultra-marathons over the years has taught me to enjoy the highs of life, endure the low points, and to keep moving forward one step at a time."
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