Mt Ruapehu amputee a modern-day explorer
2 May 2018 – CLIMBING A MOUNTAIN and getting caught in a volcanic explosion might have changed the direction of William Pike’s life but plunging into the depths of the ocean challenges him now, writes Mary Anne Gill of Life Unlimited Charitable Trust.
The 33-year-old amputee continues to astound since those days after he was caught in a lahar on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu at 8.26pm on 25 September 2007.
Less than 15 hours after the eruption, surgeons at Waikato Hospital had amputated his severely damaged right leg below the knee.
In the time since the accident, William has returned several times to the mountain where he nearly lost his life; tramped, cycled, kayaked, climbed Mt Scott in Antarctica, established a nationwide youth development programme called the William Pike Challenge Award and become a sought-after inspirational speaker.
But it was scuba diving, something he had done extensively before his accident, that he craved doing.
“It was the last thing I got back into post-accident and it took nine years,” he says.
Easier said than done.
“Whenever I tried, I’d get squeezed as I went deeper.”
Increasing water pressure would squeeze the air inside the socket, causing him discomfort.
“I tried lots of different ideas to prevent this and finally using a silicone liner has worked.”
That success means the former primary school teacher is now considering taking on more aquatic adventures. He recently went freediving at the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve off the east coast of Northland.
A big trip, like his recent one on the HMNZS Canterbury with the Sir Peter Blake Trust to the Kermadec Islands, and his February 2017 Antarctic expedition, beckons for him.
William, who lives in the North Shore of Auckland, doubts his life would have panned out the way it is now had it not been for the accident.
“I’d probably be teaching in a classroom and impacting on 30 kids a year, and now I’m impacting on a thousand kids a year, or more.”
It was William’s fitness which resulted in his survival.
He was taken by road in an ambulance off the mountain to National Park where the Taupo Lion Foundation Rescue Helicopter picked him up and took him to Taumarunui Hospital. There a team from Waikato Hospital, who had flown down on the Westpac Waikato Air Ambulance, joined with the local hospital staff to stabilise him in the resuscitation room at Taumarunui Hospital. Twenty eight minutes later, he was off to Waikato Hospital where he arrived nearly six hours after the eruption.
William’s heart rate was at 40 beats per minute, his blood pressure 65/29 and alarmingly, his body temperature was 25°C, the lowest doctors at the hospital had ever witnessed in a live person.
“I’ve always been lucky that instilled in me from a young age was outdoor education, sport and hobbies which ensured I was fit.”
After the accident, that has not changed, neither has his positive attitude.
“I got through the devastation (of losing his leg). It was funny, you’d think you would be absolutely devastated. I was glad to be alive because I know I shouldn’t have been.”
Setting himself goals while he recovered in hospital got him through the boredom.
The danger was his impatience about getting back on his feet and being active.
“I tested the boundaries, the standard ACC leg was not what I wanted.
“The reality is the Limb Centre decide what prosthetics you have depending on your ability. To begin with, you get a stock, standard foot without much flex in it. Lamborghini is no good for a farm track, for example.”
So while he wanted to return to his active lifestyle, he had to work towards it and that started with adapting to life as an amputee.
He gave himself purpose and direction, returning to the classroom within three months, in 2009 established the William Pike Challenge Award, a youth development programme for children aged 10-13 and returned to the summit of Mount Ruapehu in 2012.
In August 2014 he married Rebecca, a fellow school teacher and the couple now have a daughter called Harriet.
“I want to explore with Rebecca, run around with Harriet and take her on adventures, run a business, pay the mortgage.”
Things just don’t land in his lap though, he has to go for them.
“We can all be explorers in our own world, whatever we do. If I didn’t have that explorer mind-set, I’m not sure the challenge award would be what it is today.”
Life is not all beer and skittles though.
“Everyone sees the shiny side of people through conversations but there were times it was a nightmare,” he says.
There are also some irritating issues such as a sweaty prosthetic.
“During summer time, it’s a real battle because I sweat a lot in the leg. I always want to be out there doing stuff. So I’m having to stop, take my leg off, dry the sweat off and put it back on. That can happen every 15 minutes. Walking in the sun, the heat, working very hard. It slows you down. At the same time it gives me an opportunity to stop and think – a little like hitting the refresh button.”
William has no need for any further operations on his stump provided he is careful, and he is.
“If it’s not feeling right, I just have to stop. It’s important to inspect it at the end of every day, not be blasé about it. Hygiene is vital so there is a clean interface onto my stump.”
Keeping it clean is crucial. “If there’s any ingrown hair, I whip them out with a pair of tweezers!”
William does not consider himself disabled.
“I’ve just got some challenges that makes things a bit more difficult than other people. But I can do some things that other people could never do.
‘There’s always someone worse off than you.”
For William Pike, every day’s a good day.