July 06, 2013 10:11PM
UNDERTAKER Michael Crawford bent down to the body on the road. Caucasian male, he noted. About 30. Severe facial injuries. Already declared dead. Nobody injured in a car smash like that could have survived.
He tied to the man’s wrist a tag handwritten with a number the coroner had given to him on the phone half an hour earlier. It read: “1195/2012”. Daniel Huf had become a statistic.
At first, there was no rush, just helplessness, a broken body, a wrecked car and a mess to clean up. Another solemn job at an ungodly hour — 3am on April 1 last year.
Crawford went to the crash scene at Bacchus Marsh on the Western Highway that night. He’d pulled up in the Charles Crawford & Sons silver wagon, lay a body bag by Daniel’s side and slipped that tag on his wrist.
But there was concern. The ambos had come and gone. They’d found no pulse in his body, still strapped in the driver’s seat of his upturned car. Yet, still the SES and CFA men had spotted movement under the blue tarp. Like he was twitching, his chest moved up and down spasmodically, irregularly.
“Have you ever seen this before?” Crawford was asked.
He looked at them, an eyebrow raised. One of them felt for a wrist pulse. There was a faint bump-bump, bump-bump. The other did the same. Felt the same.
The undertaker was supposed to put the man into that body bag and into his wagon. He was supposed to drive him to the Bacchus Marsh hospital for a doctor to sign the certificate of his death.
Instead, at 3am on April 1, 2012, Crawford uttered exactly what everyone else there had been thinking.
“Look fellas, I think I’m going to have a real hard time having him certified dead,” he said.
The accident scene where Daniel Huf was presumed dead.
“He needs an ambulance, not an undertaker. I can only take dead people.”
DANIEL Huf started working back at his old job at City Peugeot as a car detailer last week. After work he catches the train home to his apartment north of the Melbourne CBD to prepare his dinner. He has never felt more alive.
For a year and three months he has been the object of a major medical reconstruction which is not yet over. A “work in progress” he calls himself.
His face was smashed beyond recognition. (Someone from the crash scene was heard to say they’d seen better-looking corpses.) That he could even have taken in air that night through the mess of shattered facial bones and a face nearly ripped from his head defies belief.
No wonder his parents, Lutheran Pastor Colin and Betty Huf, think it’s a gift from God they still have their eldest son. And his bumped-about brain took some recovering to get back to this place.
At the kitchen table with his parents, he has a laugh about now having a perfect excuse for forgetting things. Joking he’s now more like a little brother to his little brother. Still lamenting the passing of his beloved Porsche. It was a write-off even if Daniel wasn’t.
Wondering for what purpose he was spared. (“I haven’t worked it out yet. I’m feeling the pressure.”)
At full speed his car’s nose clipped the back of a car he was approaching as he tried to pass it on his way back to Melbourne from Ballarat. The impact flipped his car on to its roof and he hurtled along the barriers at the centre of the road. His face connected with the top metal wire of that fence. Or with part of his Porsche. Nobody knows exactly what did the damage.
His brain had suffered damage from both the trauma of the impact and lack of oxygen. When Epworth medical director John Olver first met Daniel he was suffering post-traumatic amnesia. That continued for 93 days after his accident. (Anything longer than a month of amnesia shows severe brain damage.)
Despite that damage, Olver was heartened to see his patient’s personality emerge, to see he could live independently and was able to drive again.
Daniel remembers the moment when he emerged from the fog, on day 93. An Epworth nurse was asking him: “Do you know where you are, Daniel? Do you know why you’re here?”
It is a question nurses caring for brain-damaged patients ask them over and over again, sometimes for months before getting a bite.
Finally the penny dropped.
“No I don’t,” he tells the nurse. “What happened?”
“You were badly injured in a car accident. You nearly died,” he remembers her telling him.
He asked her whether he was in his Porsche when it happened. When she told him yes, he started crying.
SINCE Daniel was a kid he wanted his own Porsche. More than anything else. Everybody told him he’d have to be a doctor when he grew up to afford one of those.
He’d spend his spare time doodling various Porsche models and counting how many he passed on road trips. Once, between Adelaide and their home town of Tarrington near Hamilton, he spotted 16. “That was a good trip,” he laughs.
Daniel didn’t become a doctor. Still, he bought his dream car four years ago — a 1981 turbo-charged Porsche 924. It was first registered in the same year he was born.
It was a beauty. With an engine in the front and its gearbox in the back, it handled superbly. It had everything he needed. Except air bags. At the time he bought it, he didn’t know how handy they’d have been.
They might have made a big difference. They might have saved him from being nearly dead.
Royal Melbourne Hospital oral and maxillofacial surgeon Patrishia Bordbar knows Daniel’s injuries intimately. When she first saw him 24 hours after the crash it looked like he had been blasted in the face with a shotgun.
His bottom jaw was busted in six places, sections were missing, many of his teeth were knocked out, he had broken eye sockets, cheek and nasal bones. Bits of Porsche and debris were embedded in his wound.
Since then, he has been in surgery 10 times for a total of more than 30 hours – initially just keeping him alive, then later reconstructing his face.
Bordbar’s trauma work is often compared with putting a jigsaw puzzle together. With Daniel, many of the pieces were missing. She did the first repair work through the wounds in his neck. She waited 10 months before giving Daniel his major reconstruction.
He still has more bone grafts, dental implants and plastic surgery ahead.
“When I looked at the first scans of Daniel, I thought: “Where do I start?” Bordbar recalls.
“But Daniel is the perfect example of why we should never make a judgment about how well someone can repair, survive, simply by how badly injured they look.”
BETTY Huf works at a school for children with special needs. She and Colin had to wait two days before RMH intensive care doctors could predict Daniel would survive. But nobody knew how much “Daniel” would be left.
He spent two weeks in the ICU and then moved to the ward for four weeks. While he was there, Betty brought in a stress ball for him to roll around in his palm and squeeze. They used them with kids at her work sometimes.
She’d play with it at his ICU bedside and bounce it. Daniel, his head still swollen, fed through a tube straight into his stomach and still unable to speak took the ball from her and threw it against the wall.
Then, before he can even remember, on Anzac Day, Daniel wrote a note to thank an uncle and aunt for visiting him in hospital. “That’s when I really knew he was going to be OK,”‘ Betty recalls. “I knew how much reasoning power was needed to do those things. We’d still have our Daniel.”
Pastor Colin doesn’t believe in grudges. Besides, to him there was no blame to attach to the paramedics who first arrived at the scene and declared his son dead.
In his opinion, they did their best with Daniel.
“If they had been allowed to stay, things might have been different. They conducted eight tests to find signs of life and for each of those tests the result was negative.
“Clearly the thread of life was too fine then for even the medical experts to pick up,” Pastor Colin says.
Looking over the spot of the Western Highway where the accident happened, on the top of a hill, is a cross. It stands now as a sign to his parents: God was looking out for Daniel; he was meant to survive, with or without the help of humans.
When the paramedics returned to the scene, minutes after that faint pulse was found, they were surprised.
Crawford describes how quickly and gently he was loaded into the ambulance. The scene regained its urgency. And Pastor Colin believes from then they helped save his life. A CFA officer drove the vehicle to the hospital so both paramedics could find a way to help Daniel take the breaths his body was fighting for.
“I don’t blame them. I thank them for helping to save his life and bring him back,” he says.
THE weeks after Daniel shed the first tears for his written-off Porsche, were confusing. There were important things to figure out: How come Hirdy is coaching his beloved Bombers? Last thing he remembers, he was playing for them.
Daniel, now 32, lost three years of his life on the night of his crash, which he bluntly calls the night “my Porsche and I died”.
Little bits come back to him of those three years, but mostly he has to trust what people around are telling him.
On Monday, Daniel met his undertaker on the median strip of the Western Highway where the smash happened. The two men stood silently for a moment, one that only a handful like them have surely ever shared. Crawford handed over that wrist tag. Something else for the scrap book.
They shook hands, broken cubes of his windscreen scrunching underfoot where the upturned Porsche came to rest. As Daniel glanced down he noticed a black and silver bracelet in the gravel.
“Hey, that’s mine. Maybe I’ll be able to find some of my teeth, too, for the tooth fairy,” Daniel says.
As photographs were taken, Crawford stood back and watched this man who they never expected would make it.
The undertaker, a smile constantly in his eyes, thought to himself again how glad he was the mission had failed. He felt lucky to have been given that early-morning job to collect this man — the man whose number wasn’t up.
using the number/letter grid:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
A B C D E F G H I
J K L M N O P Q R
S T U V W X Y Z
A = 1 J = 1 S = 1
B = 2 K = 2 T = 2
C = 3 L = 3 U = 3
D = 4 M = 4 V = 4
E = 5 N = 5 W = 5
F = 6 O = 6 X = 6
G = 7 P = 7 Y = 7
H = 8 Q = 8 Z = 8
I = 9 R = 9
how it appears to the world = MF = 46 = His time wasn’t up yet.
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