Graphic: In hot water: Louis' story
When a quiet day out on an outback lake went terribly wrong, Louis was left clutching his lifeless leg, calling out to mates for help.
Louis Orr, a young city slicker-turned cattle ringer, was enjoying a day off from his job at a station in the remote Barkly Region in the Northern Territory when it took a life-threatening turn.
The 21-year-old and his mates had set off waterskiing at the station’s local watering hole – a popular spot for workers wanting to cool off from the Territory’s extreme heat.
On his fifth run for the day, Louis came off second best, falling into the water. When he swam back to his mates and tried pulling himself up onto the jet ski, he realised he couldn’t move his left leg.
“I knew something was wrong as soon as I picked my leg up out of the water – it was completely poking out, flopping around and I had no feeling in my ankle,” he said.
“I didn’t know how bad it was, but it wasn’t good.”
Minutes after the accident, the adrenaline evaporated, and the pain kicked in.
Clutching his unresponsive leg, Louis was bundled into the back of a vehicle and raced to the station’s clinic – a small shed with limited medical supplies.
Hundreds of kilometres via dirt road from the nearest hospital, the immediate thought was to call the Flying Doctor.
“Sitting in the clinic, my leg was still very unstable – moving in and out of place,” he said
“As much pain as I was in, I just thought it was broken or dislocated. I never imagined that it was a life-threatening situation.”
After being alerted of Louis’ emergency, an RFDS team with a specialist from the Medical Retrieval Consultation Centre (MRaCC) was dispatched from the RFDS Alice Springs Base.“We headed to the airstrip and were greeted by a smiling flight nurse, doctor and pilot. I was quickly put on a stretcher with a splint that went around both my legs – I’d never seen anything like it. As soon as I was in it, my pain went from an ‘eight’ to a ‘five’,” Louis said.“The RFDS was really reassuring – they were friendly, calming and I never felt I was in any danger.”
RFDS Flight Nurse Chantelle King was part of the aeromedical retrieval team tasked to airlift Louis.
“When we landed, we met Louis in the back of a four-wheel drive being cared for by mates – he was clearly in excruciating pain.
“He had a known injury to the limb, but at that point we didn’t actually know whether there was more going on – so the doctor and I worked quickly to get him out of the vehicle, immobilise his leg and package him up safely to get him to a hospital as soon as we could.”
Louis was airlifted to the nearest major hospital, Alice Springs, where scans confirmed the worst.
With a broken tibia, a severed nerve, three ruptured ligaments in his knee, and no blood flow to his lower leg due to a crushed artery, Louis had only a matter of hours to undergo emergency surgery at the Royal Darwin Hospital for a chance to save his limb.
Louis was again airlifted by the RFDS from Alice Springs to Darwin, where on arrival, he had one of the hardest conversations of his life.
“In the pre-op room my surgeon told me, ‘Look I’ve seen plenty of people your age lose their leg from conditions like this and gone on to live long lives.’
“I’m just lying there thinking, ‘Wait, I’m actually going to lose my leg here?’ That’s when I started to break down a bit.”
More than 2,000 kilometres away, Louis’ parents Mel and Stuart were holidaying in Queensland when they received the late-night call. Mel described it as a “parent’s worst nightmare.”
“You get a phone call in the middle of the night, and you try to visualise life for your son without a limb,” Mel said.
“You can imagine how hard that is – we couldn’t think straight, we didn’t know what to do, or how to react.
“You don’t realise how much shock you go into in a situation like that.”
After a gruelling eight hours in the operating theatre, Louis still couldn’t feel his ankle.
But the remarkable news – his leg had been saved, just in time.
“I’ve grown up in big cities my entire life where everything is at your fingertips. Never in a million years did I think I’d come into contact with the RFDS, and yet suddenly it’s for our son in the most unimaginable situation, where time was so critical,” Mel said.
“We’re so grateful to the RFDS for their assistance.
“Every second, every minute, every hour. We were literally counting on our fingers how long Louis had."
Louis underwent two more operations, spending six weeks in hospital before flying to NSW to be surrounded by family as he prepares for more reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation.
Currently relying on a wheelchair, crutches and a post-op knee brace, the journey ahead is long.
Yet, Louis still considers himself lucky.
“Isolation is obviously one of the hardest things of being on a cattle station – where I’m based we have to drive at least 200 kilometres to get phone service let alone a chicken burger,” Louis said.
“There’s no way I would’ve been driving 11 hours on rough roads to Darwin – the only place in the NT where they could treat me.”
“If it wasn’t for the RFDS and their quick response, I wouldn’t have my leg today, and it possibly could’ve been a more life-threatening situation.”