Kiwi teen makes miracle recovery from spinal injury sustained while swimming, calls for improved water safety

When Alex Ashby leapt into the Whangamata surf in January last year with his friends, he had no idea that the swim would nearly cost him his life. 

The Hamilton local was 15 at the time and confident in the water but when he struck a concealed sandbar head on while diving beneath the waves, he quickly realised he'd done serious damage to his neck. 

"I was conscious the whole way through but I couldn't feel anything. I couldn't move anything," he told Newshub. 

Alex lay half in the water while his friends contacted emergency services, asking them not to move him and risk more damage. Luckily, the cold kept him hypothermic, which reduced swelling and kept his injury from becoming even worse while waiting for help to arrive. 

Instead of risking a long and bumpy ride by ambulance, the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter was scrambled and delivered Alex to Middlemore. The speed was crucial to improving his chances. 

"It really made a massive difference on how the whole thing went. Everyone makes split second decisions and just knows what to do in that situation. It's just insane how quick it happened," Alex said. 

But despite the best possible care delivered in the fastest possible time, the prognosis was bleak. Alex had a C4 spinal fracture, meaning he would likely never walk again and have limited mobility below the neck. The news hit him hard. 

"That first month was probably the hardest. The first two weeks, I barely slept at all," he said. 

"I was up all night and I was up all day. And then I kept trying to up my meds and everything to help me sleep. It was just that psychological part of it which took such a toll on everything."

But after a challenging period both mentally and physically, Alex started to turn things around. With some feeling beginning to return in his limbs, he dedicated himself to making incremental progress each day until eventually, against all odds, he stood back up on his own two feet. 

"Almost like from that point, I kind of felt like there's nothing that could stop me anymore. I just started thinking that it was possible to kind of get back to some sort of normality."

The extent and speed of his recovery surprised even his doctors, with some healthcare specialists not even recognising their patient. 

Kiwi teen makes miracle recovery from spinal injury sustained while swimming, calls for improved water safety
Photo credit: Supplied

"Every doctor I show up to, they're expecting me to come in a wheelchair, but no one's expecting me walking. Like I had a careworker show up one morning who asked me 'Where's Alex', they didn't recognise I was the one they were there to see," Alex laughed. 

Now Alex isn't only walking but back at the gym, playing sport and even passing his manual drivers licence - meaning he can finally drive the car he received from his parents as a present just before his accident. 

But despite a remarkable recovery, he knows there is still a long road ahead.

"I'm working on getting my legs strong enough to be able to walk long distances and just try to run one day…I know there's a high likelihood I'm not going to get back to playing rep basketball and stuff like that. But at least getting to a point where I'm able to just function like I was before." 

While thanks to the Westpac Rescue Helicopter, quick thinking by his friends and the skill of his doctors, Alex's life was saved, not everyone is so lucky. 

Provisional statistics from Water Safety NZ show 2022 was the worst year for drownings in over a decade, with 93 Kiwis losing their lives. Meanwhile, this summer has already seen a tragic spate of water safety incidents, with five drownings at Auckland beaches within 48 hours in the past week.

In many cases, the quick application of CPR can be the difference between life and death for those in trouble on the water - for every minute it is delayed, the chance of survival drops by 10 percent or more.

However, people are sometimes scared to perform CPR, worried they'll do it wrong or that someone else will do it. Too often, nobody does. 

That's why in addition to its ongoing partnership with the Rescue Helicopter, Westpac is giving away 1,000 Rescue Rashies this summer. The rashies both protect from the sun, and unzip to reveal clear instructions on delivering CPR. Westpac Rescue Rashies are particularly aimed at keeping rangatahi safe, designed to fit children aged two to eight.  

While CPR can make all the difference once someone gets into trouble, education can keep Kiwis out of danger in the first place. Alex says New Zealand needs to shake up the way we teach water safety. 

"Something major shouldn't have to happen for someone to realise that they have to be safe. There's so many people I know that go out in the surf recklessly and they don't think it's going to happen to them."

Nearly three in 10 Kiwis can't swim or float in the ocean for more than a few minutes, contributing to New Zealand having one of the worst rates of drowning per head of population in the OECD - 1.76 deaths per 100,000 people. Australia's rate is 1.1.

Alex hopes his story highlights the importance of everyone, even people who feel confident in the water, to take safety seriously and never take unnecessary risks. 

"I've been swimming since I was four months old and I still managed to almost lose my life in the surf. I'd just hate to see what happened to me happen to anyone else. It's just horrible. For anyone to experience what I had to experience, it was just dreadful."

If you want to learn more about Westpac Rescue Rashies or to support your local rescue helicopter trust head on over to their website.

Article created in partnership with Westpac NZ.