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A Sudden Case of Vertigo on Te Araroa Trail

Written by rescued patient Tomáš Černák, 32 years old, visiting New Zealand from Slovakia

Last year, I spent New Year’s Eve at the Rocks Hut with other people on Te Araroa trail. We were right at the start of Richmond Ranges, one of the most difficult parts on TA. The first two days of the year were simply fantastic – a wonderful weather window, perfect views. I felt strong and everything was alright. On my way from Rintoul Hut to Tarn Hut, about an hour before reaching the final destination of the day, I started to feel dizzy. I had no clue what was going on. I thought it was caused by dehydration. I stopped multiple times and I was breathing properly to make sure to arrive safely to the hut. When I reached the hut, I drank a lot of water and all weird feelings disappeared. I talked to other guys, pitched my tent, and we ate dinner together like every evening on the trail. 

In the morning, everything was okay and I was persuaded that the reason for dizziness was dehydration. I packed my stuff and I started to walk. On my way from Mid Wairoa Hut to Top Wairoa Hut, I was dizzy again. This section was a bit sketchy with 8 river crossings in total. During one of the crossings, I felt really bad and I knew I cannot continue in these conditions. I was doing my best to reach the hut safely.

When I arrived, I put down my backpack, I entered the hut which was full of people and told them about my problems. I decided to stay in the hut for the rest of the day. Suddenly, one hour later, I felt really sick. I went out. When I was in the fresh air, I started to vomit. Everything was spinning, I couldn’t keep my eyes open and I was very weak. Nobody knew what was going on. Exhaustion? Dehydration? After a while, I got electrolytes from other people, but my body refused them. I vomited again. Other people in the hut helped me to get to bed to lay down.

I slept for a couple of hours. When I woke up, I was still dizzy. I was barely able to move myself – any movement was causing dizziness. I couldn’t drink properly. I was afraid to eat anything. I talked to everyone who entered the hut to find out what was going on with me. One Dutch girl, Celsie, who I knew for a few hours, had an inReach and she sent a message to the Netherlands with a description of symptoms. We got a message back: “It’s probably an ear infection. If the symptoms won’t disappear till the morning, call for help.” 

In the morning, I felt slightly better, but still dizzy. Celsie and an Aussie guy, Alec, decided to stay with me. I wanted to wait for improvement. I didn’t want to call for help for no reason. A classic hiker’s dignity and pride. Celsie was sitting next to me and she claimed every possible argument to call for help. I started to process everything. The weather forecast for the upcoming days was really bad: “If we stay here, we will reach St. Arnaud in one week. We will possibly run out of food.” 

The key moment arrived when I had to go pee. I wanted to walk by myself, but I was unable to do it. I had to ask for help: “Let’s press a PLB.” The problem was I didn’t carry one which was my stupid mistake. I knew there would be hundreds of people around me on the trail, but I felt guilty and really bad about my approach. Alec suggested climbing to the saddle if he can get a service and call for help. I agreed. Together, we wrote everything into the intention book.

Alec climbed up the hill while Celsie stayed with me during my breakdown moment: “Do you need a hug?“, she asked. I started to cry and I felt a lot of frustration. Approximately after one hour of waiting, the sound of a helicopter was closer and closer. I knew they were coming to pick me up and I couldn’t believe I was being rescued. Two paramedics, Matt and Prue, entered the hut. I explained to them the whole situation and then I got some substances into my veins. Prue took my backpack and I slowly “walked“ to the helicopter.

After 15 minutes of the helicopter ride, I was in the emergency department in Nelson hospital. After the first quick check from doctors, I had another breakdown: “I don’t wanna be here.  I wanna be back on the trail!“ Then I started to cry again and one doctor, Nikola, supported me with words: “We will do everything to get you back on the trail.“

There was a lot of people around me, checking everything and testing my vision, ears and head. I had vertigo which was caused by an ear infection which completely blew out my balance system. I lost my walking confidence and I was unsure if I was able to stay on my feet. The physios were practicing with me, nurses had patience and I was enjoying food after being on the trail. I asked doctors what I had done wrong to avoid the situation in the future. I was told: “Nothing. It might happen to everyone in any situation and the actual cause is a little bit of mystery.“ I was shocked it appeared so suddenly. No warnings. Nothing. It just hit me out of nowhere. 

After 4 days in the hospital, where everybody was simply amazing, I could leave. I got in contact with one local lady, Michelle. She agreed to take me to her house until I recovered. She understood me well, and what I was going through and she was a big support to me during my recovery, and being thousands of kilometers away from home. She took care of me and I was slowly learning to walk again – 300 m, 1 km, 7.5 km. I was doing the exercises I got from the hospital too.

After 11 days I was back on the trail. With a PLB. I felt a bit insecure, but determined to try it. Everything seemed okay and with every day I felt better and more confident.

On March 12, I reached Bluff, the end point of Te Araroa trail. I was incredibly happy and I was thinking about the whole vertigo and doctor’s words: “We will do everything to get you back on the trail.“ It was a happy moment when I cut off the wristband which I had from Nelson Hospital… I know my biggest victory was not reaching Bluff, but coming back onto the trail after having a severe vertigo attack and getting through a lot of frustration and hopelessness. Without any doubts.

I want to say THANK YOU to all members of Nelson Hospital and Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter Crew, Michelle and everyone else on trail who took care of me and helped me during my tough time in New Zealand. You are all legends! 

I hope this case will be another great example of the importance of carrying a PLB while hiking not only in New Zealand, but everywhere in the world.

Tomas Cernak, 32, Slovakia

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