“I was in the worst moment of my life” - Surfing Incident Highlights Crucial Role of Surf Lifeguards

Monday, 4 March 2024

For Michael Lefebvre, the ocean is his sanctuary.


“It’s a part of who I am,” he reflects, “and it rejuvenates me”.


A keen surfer for 25 years, the Canadian lived in Hawaii, the birthplace of surfing, before arriving in New Zealand.


“Most of my life has been around the ocean – I’m an experienced surfer and waterman.”


However, on 11 January 2024, what should have been a routine surf to kick start the day almost ended in tragedy.


“It was early in the morning, and my mate Jono and I were surfing at Tay Street Beach in Mount Maunganui, like we do quite often, and I was having a good time on some medium waves.”


When all of a sudden, his life changed.


“It happened in an instant.  I went to dive through a wave, and I went right into a pile of sand.  I immediately felt my neck collapse.  The sound was horrendous, and both my arms went completely numb.  I thought, ‘oh shoot.  I’m in the water, I’ve just broken my neck, and I can’t move my arms’.”


Thankfully, Michael’s legs were still working, so he stood up – the water up to his chest. But he could see more waves were quickly approaching, so he threw himself onto his surfboard, and the next wave took him right up onto the beach.


“When I got to the beach, I remember having this thought ‘oh, I’ll just walk up to the car,’ but I took two steps and just crumbled.  I was in so much pain and I just lay down.”


He managed to get some movement in his right arm, so while he was lying down, he waved it in the air to get the surf lifeguards’ attention, who were setting up patrol for the day.


Along with surf lifeguards from Tay Street and Omanu Beach Surf Life Saving Club, Liam Shanahan from Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service quickly arrived.


Liam remembers seeing Michael lying on the ground, “He was in lots of pain.  You could see it on his face, and his legs were constantly moving because he was so uncomfortable.  It definitely didn’t look good.”


While the surf lifeguards waited for Hato Hone St John to arrive, they assessed Michael, provided him with pain relief, and tried to keep him calm.


“We just kept him informed saying things like, ‘we’re carrying out an assessment, paramedics are on the way’.  We also made sure he was as comfortable as possible.  With a neck injury, you can’t move, so it’s about doing the little things.”


And Michael says it was these little things that made all the difference, “I remember Mac, one of the surf lifeguards, giving his sunglasses to me.  It was the most genuine human moment – that’s something he didn’t have to do, but he did, and that’s what made a difference.”


The surf lifeguards’ reassuring words kept Michael in a good space while they worked on a plan to get him off the beach.


“I’m a big guy.  I’m six foot three and weigh about 105 kilograms.  They knew they had a challenge getting me up off the beach and into the waiting ambulance.  But they all rallied together.  They were all so positive, and their response was immediate… when I was in the worst moment of my life…”


A frightening realisation and one that’s not lost on Michael.


“I’m getting teary now…” He says quietly as he remembers back to that day.  “It’s just that they made a huge difference.  They were there, and they were reassuring.  And thank God they were there.  They had the expertise, and they had the tools.”


After being carefully transported to the ambulance, he was taken to Tauranga Hospital.  Doctors found compression fractures in the C6 and C7 vertebrae, and the disc between them was shattered, putting pressure on his nerve roots.


After surgery at Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital and five days in the hospital, he’s now back home in Tauranga recovering.


“I’m doing really well.  I have lots of function in my legs and feet, I just have a bit of weakness in my left arm.  But man, it could have been a lot worse.”


Three weeks after the accident, Michael found himself back at the beach.


“Because I wasn’t surfing, I thought I’d go up to the club - I just wanted to say, ‘great job, and I appreciate the work you’re doing’.  I saw Liam and it was awesome!”


And it was awesome for Liam as well, “I looked at him and I was like, ‘oh my god – I remember you!’ I was genuinely stoked to see him.  The fact that he walked up as well, was amazing.  It definitely made my day.  It just showed that all of the surf lifeguards that were there that day did an excellent job.  They put in hours of training, and it made a difference.”


Michael says once he’s fit and healthy, he’ll be back out surfing, but he’ll be a bit more cautious, and he’ll make sure he surfs when surf lifeguards are on patrol.


“It gives me confidence knowing that surf lifesaving is set up on most beaches in New Zealand, and surf lifeguards are there to help if trouble arises because it could honestly happen to anyone.”