When a video surfaced of Ben Player being airlifted on a stretcher from Ireland's west coast, it was obvious something fairly serious had taken place.
A ruptured spleen and internal bleeding left Ben fighting for his life on the second day into his trip. Now back at home in Australia, we caught up with him to hear how the bumpy road of recovery is treating him. By his own admission, he hasn't bounced back as quickly as he'd hoped, but he's a couple of coffees down and feeling up to revisiting the trip.
So this was your first trip to Ireland, what did you make of it?
I loved it! I had expectations of what Ireland would be like but it exceeded them by a country mile. I kind of expected it to be more sparse and kind of like Scotland, but it was so much different. I couldn’t believe how warm and generous the people were and how amazing the waves were. Probably one of the best places I’ve ever been in the world. The first day we surfed this massive right at the Cliffs. Incredible. Scary but incredible. Easily the biggest swell I’d surfed in a long time.
The next day the accident happened right? What the hell happened?
So, the next day after that day at the Cliffs we decided to give this little bowling right hander a shot. The swell was a bit smaller and we thought it could be fun.
I did an air 360 and landed on my elbow on flat water, and as any bodyboarder will know, trying to land airs on flat water is bad. My second wave there I did an air 360 and landed on my elbow on flat water. As any bodyboarder will know, trying to land airs on flat water is bad because you have the surface tension of the water making it feel like concrete, and so landing on my elbow on flat water kind of felt like jumping off a roof and landing on my elbow under my stomach. As you could imagine, it winded me like crazy, but then I had this unusual pain that wouldn’t go away. It kind of felt like there was a massive pocket of air in my stomach and every time I breathed it hurt. I figured the pain might go away so we got changed and decided to head to Rileys to get some waves there.
On the way down I slipped and as I went to correct, I felt this sharp pain in my stomach where the pain had been coming from, but it hurt way more.
A few minutes after and I couldn’t even get enough energy to lift my head off the rock or call out to my filmer.At that point I knew that something wasn’t right. Upon arrival I saw the waves were pumping, but I started getting really tired. Like so tired I couldn’t turn my wetsuit inside out so I thought, ok, I’m going to have a little sleep and I’ll wake up in half an hour and head out.Ten minutes passed and my body started freaking out. I started getting nausea and a fever, then started shaking. A few minutes after and I couldn’t even get enough energy to lift my head off the rock or call out to my filmer buddy, Todd Barnes, a few metres away to let him know I was struggling. Luckily Jamie Mitchell and his mate were close by and could see I was struggling and in pain and asked if I was ok. At that stage I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t even answer them as I couldn’t get enough oxygen into my brain to stay conscious. They called out to Todd and he came over to ask if I was ok to which I replied no, I’m not ok. We need to get out of here and to a hospital.
He called all of the boys in and I started to feel a bit better, so I tried to walk out of there with Todd’s assistance. But only made it 20 metres before needing to keel over from being so light headed. A few minutes later I felt ok again and tried walking but could only get 10 metres before stopping. Again, I felt better and tried again but only got 5 metres. By the end I was crawling along the rocks trying to get my way out of there.
I couldn’t get enough oxygen into my brain to stay conscious. Then Todd just put his hand on my shoulder and pushed down and said Ben, you’re not going to walk out of here, you’re going to kill yourself. We’re getting a chopper. Luckily Jack had run to the top of the headland in the mean time and managed to call Pete Conroy (local big wave surfer, fire fighter, paramedic, legend). When Pete arrived on the scene, he determined there was no way I was walking out of there and called the Irish Coast Guard for evacuation assistance.
What was the diagnosis?
It was funny, when Pete arrived I was aware of everything that was going on. Even though I felt my body starting to shut down my brain felt like it was more alert than ever, almost like I had the most clarity I had ever had. I told Pete my symptoms and even told him that I thought it one of three possible injuries, internal bleeding, bruised diaphragm or punctured lung as a result of my symptoms which were: localised pain, lack of oxygen and pain breathing in. Pete told me straight away that he thought it was internal bleeding and requested immediate helicopter evacuation.
How did you get out of there?
I had to wait around 15 minutes from that point to get evacuated off the rock ledge. In that time I started convulsing and it felt like I was dying and to be honest I didn’t really care.
The energy I got was an adrenaline kick to try and save myself and that the peace I felt laying there on the rocks was from an endorphin release as my body was preparing my mind to die. Now, that’s a weird thing to say as I pride myself as being the kind of guy that would fight to live at any costs, but right then I didn’t care. I was totally at peace and for the first time in my life I didn’t care about the future or past, I was just enjoying the present. Enjoying things like the colour of the sky, the touch of a friend's hand and the movement of the clouds. It was amazing. It was incredible. Needless to say they got me out of there and got me to hospital where they diagnosed me with a grade two tear to my spleen and a lot of internal bleeding. I spent the next three days after that in the High Dependency Unit and then an additional three in the ward, but managed to keep my spleen which was good.
Later the doctor who first diagnosed me upon being admitted to hospital told me that I was lucky to be alive. That really hit me, I mean, I knew I felt like I was dying but to hear the doctor say that really struck me. I told him about the ordeal on the rocks and he said he thought the slip on the rocks must have torn my spleen open more, that the nausea I was feeling as a result of my very low blood pressure as a result of losing blood into my abdomen.
It felt like I was dying and to be honest I didn’t really care. The energy I got was an adrenaline kick to try and save myself and that the peace I felt laying there on the rocks was from an endorphin release as my body was preparing my mind to die. I kind of sat there stunned for the rest of the day after that, staring into the sick faces of the other patients of Ward 1D and was in awe of how amazing our bodies are, and how lucky I was to have that experience without dying.
So what's the recovery period looking like?
When I was in hospital, some of the doctors said it would be a three month recovery and other said it would be a six month recovery. It's been really hard to find any solid answers for how long I have to be out of the water because every spleen injury is unique and so is the healing time associated with it.
I want to learn as much as I can from that man so in the future I can use that information to save the lives of others. You can't just have a look at the injury to see how it's doing, the only way to know is by pushing your body physically and feeling it out, or getting another Cat Scan, but seeing as they fill your body with almost as much radiation as a small nuke bomb I'm trying to steer away from that. It's frustrating to say the least because I can't even aim toward a date for recovery, but have decided to start light exercise six weeks after the injury (end of April) and then see how my body copes with it. The important thing is that I don't re-tear my spleen and risk more internal bleeding so I have to go slow. I hope I can do the first events of the tour in July, I'm aiming to compete in them but it's all up to my body to heal my spleen in time.
Did you manage to get much exploration in before the accident?
No, not really. But I did experience enough to know that I am going to get back to Ireland next year. I want to go spend a good few months there to really explore it all and get to know it and the amazing people there. I have also decided that I really want to spend some time with Pete and learn from his knowledge of big wave surfing, jet ski assistance, water safety, risk management, injury assessment, injury management, evacuation procedures, etc. Basically, I want to learn as much as I can from that man so in the future I can use that information to save the lives of others, or even use it to share with someone else to save my life.
I had a realisation of how underprepared I was for that situation and that was pretty irresponsible. I guess after the injury I had a realisation of how underprepared I was for that situation and that was pretty irresponsible as there are risks involved with being a surfer and we need to be prepared to manage the outcome of those risks when they happen and shouldn’t be reliant on others to save us. Most surfers are aware of the risks, but very few are actually prepared to manage the situation if those risks become a reality. I want to take a leaf out of Pete’s book and start being a bit more responsible for my actions and have the skills to save someone else’s life if I need, or even being able to save my life if another accident happens again.
You did a Scotland trip a while back, did that trip spark the idea to head to Ireland?
Yeah, I visited Scotland with Jack (Johns) back in 2012 and loved it. I was completely blown away by the place and ended up staying for three weeks. I always planned on heading back up to spend more time up there.
There’s something so exciting about not only challenging yourself in riding the waves, but also challenging yourself in the elements.Luckily for me, a trip came together and I returned earlier this year and spent five weeks up there chasing waves around. It was incredible, frighteningly cold, but incredible. Jack actually came up to Scotland again with me this year which was rad, he’s a great dude and knows a lot about the region. He was keeping an eye on the charts for Ireland and saw that swell so we decided to head down for it.
So despite being from water climes yourself, you're not afraid of a cold water trip?
To me, the new frontier of surfing is in cold water climates. There’s something so exciting about not only challenging yourself in riding the waves, but also challenging yourself in the elements. After all, that’s what surfing is all about isn’t it: removing yourself from your comfort zone and learning new things about yourself and the world around you by doing it? Guess you could say that reflecting on this past trip that is the perfect way to define its success. I went away to new frontiers and even though I almost died, I learnt new things about myself and the world around me and as a result I feel that I have grown.