Evacuation Day

The medivac team arrive to prepare Craig for his life-saving flight to Florida.

The aim was to bring in a medivac flight to get Craig out of Cuba to Fort Lauderdale Trauma Hospital in Florida.

The first two or three charter operators refused to fly into Cuba because it was too risky.

Finally, they found someone prepared to bring a chartered Lear Jet in.

Richard, Grazia and Caroline had packed and were waiting in the expectation they would be out that day. Caroline would go with Craig, Richard and Grazia were booked on a commercial flight that would take off an hour after Craig had gone. Richard in fact declared they would not leave until they saw Craig’s aircraft in the air. He was worried that something would go wrong.

When the call finally came from First Assist it was early in the morning and they were told to have everything ready because things would be happening fairly fast. Michelle from FA called and said: ‘Richard there’s been a massive cheer go up around our office, the plane has left America.’ “

It was Craig’s 56th birthday, May 7 when the Lear Jet arrived in the afternoon with a doctor, nurse and medic on board and three pilots, one of whom spoke Spanish and English.

Craig was left sitting on the tarmac on a gurney in the boiling sun for 20 minutes while they went through airport security. The fact it was an emergency didn’t appear to matter to the Cubans.

“Finally we saw them go in and take off from Cuba,” said Richard. ”Grazia and I were punching the air with excitement.

“We were happy we’d done our job and got Craig away safely, however, we’d just had news that Grazia’s brother in law in Tauranga had been given three days to live so we planned to stay only one night in Ft Lauderdale.

“I had to tell Craig we were leaving. He didn’t know Caroline had organised for his four children to come from NZ and they arrived later that night. Then we headed back to NZ to face the ordeal of going home to a funeral, leaving my best mate and business partner in hospital not knowing what the outcome would be and how long before he could return to work, how the business would manage without him, how I was going to cope and how I would support my own family in the meantime. It was a very uncertain time.

“However I was very clear about what I had to do. I gathered the Abacus staff around me, asked for their support and we put a plan in place. I made it clear I could not do the impossible and that my health was as important as anybody else’s. I had to look after myself because in one sense I was the last man standing. I was very aware that although new business is the lifeblood of our insurance business, looking after our existing clients and making sure we didn’t lose any ground was paramount and the only way I could do that was to see as many of them as possible to reassure them of Craig’s imminent return to work. Of course, there were other things happening in our lives too but the clients were our primary focus and essentially I had to do the work of two.”

The ambulance backs up to transfer Craig into the Lear Jet.

A much happier Craig Nolly resting at the Ft Lauderdale trauma hospital in Florida, after his Lear Jet medical evacuation.

A rough three weeks

Richard says Craig had a rough three weeks in Ft Lauderdale. “I have to emphasise how amazing Caroline was through all of this. She almost lost her husband, nursed him for more than two weeks and almost lost him again. He was almost a goner that final night. It was amazing he had the kids around him while recovering in Fort Lauderdale.”

Craig still had not eaten and did not eat again for 3-4 weeks. “When I got to Miami I was fighting a superbug so they had to culture antibiotics to deal with that. And I needed further surgery there because I had abcessed from the infections in Cuba. I had lost 15 kgs in weight and my hair and nails stopped growing because I was so malnourished.”

No airline would take him in that condition, unable to walk, with open abdominal wounds, and still fighting infection. The medical team had to convince the airline they could manage him. They did not want the risk of having to turn back mid-flight, or the patient dying.

“Air NZ and First Assist advised Ft Lauderdale Hospital how well I needed to be and what milestones I needed to reach before they would even consider flying a medical team from NZ to assess me. That alone was an $82,000 exercise to bring a doctor from Hamilton and a trauma nurse from Auckland, put them in accommodation, to assess whether I was well enough to fly back home and then monitor me while I recovered my health and strength sufficiently.

‘I just broke down’

“When those two guys arrived at my bedside in Miami I was overcome, that someone thought I was important enough to come from the other side of the world to help me get home and I just broke down. It’s all about people, they are so incredible.

“Without telling me, Caroline arranged for our four children to come over and that was a great surprise and boost for me. We had no confidence I would ever see them again and Caroline needed support because it was clear we could be stuck there for a while. They came to Miami on the evening of May 8. Having the family there was very important for our morale. They stayed for between 2 and 3 weeks and I am certain that was an important factor in my recovery because we are a very close family.

“Caroline and I had the final week on our own and the focus was on getting me walking again. I had to be able to walk onto the plane into a seat and toilet myself.

 “I cannot speak too highly of First Assist. Every day they would phone Caroline to ask how we both were and they would rebook her hotel ahead based on her estimate of how long it would be required.

 “Everything went to plan. Nearly a month after I arrived there, I was deemed well enough. We flew out on June 3. That was a bedside to bedside journey to Taranaki Base.

“Everything was planned in detail by First Assist and it went like clockwork. I was lying in business class upstairs with a doctor and nurse either side of me for the whole flight. They were administering morphine through the flight and I had a big vac-pack across my abdomen to protect my four large open wounds. The infected fluid was being pumped out also.

“On landing customs came out to the aircraft. I was lifted from there into an air ambulance for New Plymouth.

“Arriving home was an emotional time for me, I got my appetite back that day. As we came into land I looked out and saw the Taranaki coast and I never thought I would see that again. I just cried and cried.”

More major surgery in NP

The prognosis at that stage was good, it was supposed to be just wound recovery.

But it turned into terrible bowel leakages from the poor surgery in Cuba, which would need to be completely redone. So that was all redone on March 20 this year and I had to wait that long because I had lost so much weight and was too weak for the corrective surgery.”

He could not even visit the Abacus offices, as he was too weak to climb the two flights of stairs.

“I focused on good protein and as much as walking exercise as I could handle.

“In that surgery in a 4-5 hour operation, they found the leak, reconnected my bowel after removing the diseased section and removed my colostomy bag. I was back to being a whole human again. The general surgeons heading the team were Nigel Henderson and Stephen Kyle, two locals.”

When Craig returned to work at Abacus on June 6 he was apprehensive and anxious after 14 months absence.

“I wondered about my confidence because it’s not something you can slip back into easily. I now appreciate what it must be like for someone who has been made redundant perhaps and faces the challenge of returning to working life. The preparation for my return has been a 4-6 week plan agreed with my insurer.

“Up to that point, all my energy and thoughts had been on survival and recovery. Because I was financially secure I had not had to worry about costs or income during my illness. But suddenly I had to start thinking about returning to work and it was a bit scary and unknown

“I have had guidance from a psychologist, an occupational therapist and my GP. That has been my total focus for a month. On preparing myself mentally to go back to work, to deal confidently with people and do my very best for them.”

As for his life-saving travel insurance, Craig says: “A lot of people take travel cover because they think may have to claim for a lost bag or a missed flight, whereas what I want to stress is that even though our eventual total payout would be in the top few percent of claims made, it wasn’t the money that saved my life, it was the people involved.

“I’m very happy with my condition now, particularly as I am 14 kg lighter than when I left NZ last year. But it’s not a weight loss programme I would recommend to anyone.”