“I was crying out for help, but the sound of the birds drowned out my screams. I could hear a helicopter circling overhead, but I was powerless to attract attention.”
These are the words of 42-year-old Natasha Wong, who suffered hypothermia and frostbite after she went missing in Johannesburg’s Delta Park, a popular dog-walking park and amblers’ paradise, earlier this year.
“It was a cold and misty morning on Friday, 31 July, and I hadn’t intended to go for a walk, but I had promised to take the security guard some groceries. We live close to the park and so I did not expect that this errand would take very long,” Natasha explained.
Natasha could never have imagined that the next time she would see her husband was when they were reunited at Netcare Milpark Hospital on Sunday, 2 August, after a traumatic ordeal in which she suffered frostbite and hypothermia. Thanks to the expert care she received at Netcare Milpark Hospital’s Level 1 accredited trauma centre, Natasha narrowly avoided having her feet amputated.
Natasha was walking near the stream that runs through Delta Park, when she noticed her shoelace had come loose. “I bent down to tie the lace and my phone fell out of my pocket and into the stream. I tried to balance on little rocks to reach my phone in the water,” she relates.
“I just remember slipping, that feeling of falling backwards, then I must have knocked my head and the next thing I remember was waking up with the sun going down and the birds singing loudly, as they do at sunset. I worked out it must have been about 10 hours later.”
Natasha realised that she had been swept downstream, to an inaccessible wetland area hidden in tall reeds. “The more I screamed for help, the more the birds drowned out my cries. I could taste blood in my mouth and I couldn’t move my right hand. I tried to get up but my head was so painful and I couldn’t feel my legs or my feet. I was mostly submerged in the stream and there was a muddy bank behind me.”
She managed to drag herself half onto the bank, but from her hips down Natasha remained in the icy water. “I was shivering and shaking, but I honestly don’t remember much of the Friday night.”
Natasha says she remembers the feeling of slipping in and out of consciousness during Saturday, and fighting to keep her eyes open as she feared for her life if she passed out in the stream.
Natasha, who survived kidney cancer five years previously, said she was also concerned that her predicament might have implications for the functioning of her remaining kidney.
“I knew that my husband and son would be looking for me but I was still anxious, as the part of the park I was is not accessible on foot. That Saturday was surreal, I could hear voices in the distance, people having a good time on the weekend, and I could smell a braai somewhere, but I was trapped – it was like a horror movie.
I can’t even explain the things that went through my mind that day, although I do remember thinking this area could have snakes and what I would be able to do if I saw one coming towards me.”
“By Saturday I knew my husband would have been searching for me. So when saw a helicopter, I had a strong feeling that he had reported me missing and that it was looking for me, but I was helpless to attract attention.”
“That night there was an almost-full moon. I was. shaking uncontrollably, my teeth were chattering, and I was staring at the moon, seeing patterns on its surface, trying to concentrate on something so that I would not lose consciousness.”
“The Sunday morning, I felt that I was struggling to breathe, I was so weak. I prayed and prayed to God to send me a good Samaritan because I knew I could not get out of there myself.”
Natasha also began to worry that her one remaining kidney was taking strain from her ordeal. “During the day I managed to get my legs up on a tree trunk, My feet were very swollen, and my first thought was that this was something to do with my kidney. I’m not sure how I did it, but I managed to get my feet up onto a tree trunk to keep them elevated.”
“During that day, I eventually resigned myself to the fact that I was probably going to die. Late on Sunday, I heard children’s voices closer that before. I don’t know how I found the strength, but I started screaming: ‘Help me! Help me!’”
“I heard a man’s voice calling: ‘Where are you?’ and I shouted back: ‘I’m in the reeds, I’m in the reeds’, and I don’t remember much else until I regained consciousness in Netcare Milpark Hospital.”
The man phoned Netcare 911, and when the paramedics arrived they had to cut a fence and use a 4x4 to get near to where Natasha was. “They had to carry me through the reeds on a stretcher for about 300m, to get me to the 4x4.”
Frostbite and hypothermia
Natasha was then rushed to Netcare Milpark Hospital, with trauma surgeon, Dr Vicky Jennings, ready to receive her as soon as she arrived at the world-class trauma unit.
“When Natasha was brought in she was suffering from hypothermia and frostbite, both conditions which we see very seldom. She had no feeling in her lower legs and there was initially concern that the frostbite was so bad that her feet might need to be amputated. Natasha also had less severe frostbite on her one hand and wrist,” Dr Jennings explains.
Hypothermia is a condition where the core temperature of the body falls below 35 degrees Celsius, relative to normal body temperature of between 36.5°C and 37.5°C. Paramedics initially recorded Natasha’s body temperature as only 30°C. The symptoms vary according to severity, but can include shivering and mental confusion. In extreme cases of hypothermia there is a risk of cardiac arrest, Dr Jennings says.
“Frostbite occurs when parts of the body are exposed to extreme cold and the tissues begin to freeze. In Natasha’s case we were especially concerned due to the length of time she had been in the icy cold water, as body warmth is lost much more quickly in water than it is in cold air.”
In severe cases of frostbite, particularly if medical treatment is delayed, gangrene may set in and this can result in the need for amputation.
“We immediately began the process of restoring Natasha’s body warmth, but this has to be done gradually as doing it too quickly could result in complications,” Dr Jennings recalls.
Following emergency treatment, Natasha was transferred to the high care unit where her condition was closely monitored. She remained in high care for 12 days, and after 15 days she was discharged from Netcare Milpark Hospital and transferred to Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital, where she remained for 33 days for rehabilitation.
While the need for amputation was fortunately avoided, there was some nerve and ligament damage in Natasha’s feet and lower legs. Initially she was in a wheelchair, but has made good progress and is now walking with the aid of crutches and a moonboot. Her condition is expected to improve further over time. Fortunately, her kidney function was not negatively impacted and was, in fact, better when she left Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital than it had been in five years due to the fact that her body was flushed with fluids as part of the treatment she received.
Natasha is astonishingly positive following her experience. “The lesson I have taken from all of this, is that I have so much to be grateful for. This new perspective has made me realise the importance of making the most of each day and spending time with the people who count. This is the miracle of what happened to me.”
“When you have an experience like this it makes you appreciate life – it is a real wake up call. If I can give one person hope, or make just one person conscious of the value of the everyday things that we tend to take for granted, that is a priceless gift.”
“I want to thank the Netcare 911 paramedics who rescued me, and the doctors and staff of both Netcare Milpark and Netcare Rehabilitation hospitals, who were amazing.”
“I also am very grateful to the counselling psychologist, whom I am still consulting. The sound of hadedas and helicopters still give me the shivers. The hadedas remind me of how the birds’ singing drowned out my cries for help, and helicopters remind me of how powerless I felt to attract attention when I was lying in that stream. I have been advised not to return to Delta Park, as I am not ready yet. However, gradually I am making progress and I have taken so many positives away from this experience.”
Seeking the good Samaritan
“Above all, I have so much gratitude for the man and the children who heard me calling for help. I still do not know who the good Samaritan is and I would love to be able to find him so that I can personally thank him for getting me out of that situation.
The kindness of a stranger saved my life and I am very eager to express my gratitude to him. If anyone has any information that could help me track him down, please get in touch,” Natasha concluded.
Issued by: Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare Milpark Hospital
Contact: Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Meggan Saville, or Devereaux Morkel
Telephone: (011) 469 3016
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