Training Saved Two Whole Hands

Mel O'Sullivan - August 17, 2020

There are two occasions in my life when I have sworn at my father and gotten away with it. Both incidents involved tall trees and chainsaws.

Native to our area is a tree called a Kurrajong tree. A member of the baobab family, kurrajongs have very long tap roots and are highly drought resilient. They can grow up to three storeys high, and grow straight and tall. Kurrajong foliage is sweet, succulent stock fodder. Cattle go for it like Coronavirus shoppers at a bulk toilet paper sale.

I spent a good part of my childhood assisting my parents lopping the trees for stock fodder during one of the worst droughts in living history. That is before the most recent round of drought that has been touted as one of the worst in 100 years.

I've always had a really good head for heights - still do. A confirmed tomboy, I loved the tree climbing part and would frequently get up the smaller trees with a handsaw while Dad did the big ones with a chainsaw. Eventually as I grew older I graduated to the small Arborist chainsaw with a safety cutout for the bigger jobs. I rarely tied on and never fell.

The first time I got away with swearing at my father I was three storeys up in the top of a tree. I think I was still in high school. The tree was tall and straight and had a lower level and a top crown - the trunk would have been 60-70cm thick at the top. I'd lopped out the lower part and was moving up to the top crown when the wind came up. Dad was spotting on the ground where there was no breeze. I tell you sitting at the top of that sucker felt like I was at the top of one of those blow up wavy men you see in used car yards. I called down to Dad and told him I was going to cut the whole top out of the tree down lower - the wind was giving me the heebie jeebies. Dad  said "no - go up into the top and trim, you might kill the tree". My response? "I'm not going any f*****g higher and I'm doing it my way". The tree survived and so did I.

I can guess at this point you are thinking "what has this yarn got to do with veteran wellbeing?"

The second time I swore at my father was a little more serious.

I discharged on mental health grounds and it was messy. I moved home to the farm with Mum & Dad and yet another bloody drought. I was burned out and exhausted, sleeping all the time, but never feeling rested. You learn to mistrust your ability to make sound decisions. It's very hard to actually care about anything you do - even doing your hair in the mornings becomes too much of an effort. You are definitely not "in the moment" or really actually focused on what you are doing. I think veterans become a danger to ourselves simply because it is hard for us to see just how bad we are.

We were working on about the sixth or seventh tree of the day. I was nearly finished and the light was fading. When you are lopping trees you work on the principle of one hand for yourself and one for the saw - so you are often cutting with the saw held in one hand. I was positioned facing the trunk with my legs and left arm wrapped around the trunk. A very secure seat. I had the saw in my right hand and was cutting a branch at foot level. It wasn't a difficult cut and I had inspected and planned it carefully.

I started the cut and the small chip of dead wood I hadn't seen caused the saw to fly up and hit my left arm on the outer wrist. The saw hit bone and cut out as it was designed to do. Many older chain saws do not have this safety feature. I was lucky that it was the outer arm and not the inner wrist. I swore.

Dad called up and said "why have you stopped?".

I looked at the damage - surprisingly little blood and almost no pain. Training kicked in and probably saved my hand - if not my life. My immediate thought was "if I show Dad what has really happened he's going to panic and I'll be screwed". Cool as a cucumber.

Quite calm, I said "Dad, I need you to pass my jumper up - I've cut myself".

Dad: "Let me see"

Me: "No - I'm going to lower the saw. Just set up the ladder and pass me the jumper".

Dad passed me the jumper. I wrapped the arm to stop the bleeding and stepped down the ladder one handed. At this point Dad was a white as a sheet and he was starting to panic. I got to the ground and quietly said "I think you'd better take me to hospital (a 40km drive)". Country people think this way because Ambulances still frequently get lost on country roads.

Dad packed up the ute and tied the dogs up in the back while I got settled in the cab. As we drove to the main road Dad stopped driving and went to call my mother at work. I quietly got him to pass me the phone and keep driving while I called Mum and told her what was going on. Mum had her turn at panicking. Then Dad went to pull in to the house.

I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was going to drop off the dogs.

I quietly said "f**k the bloody dogs - keep driving and get me to the hospital".

My focus shifted to the necessity to keep Dad focused on calmly and safely driving the ute.

I didn't start to shake and tear up until we were about half way to town and I realised that the feeling was coming back into my fingertips. When I felt sick I realised I was probably going into shock so I called the ambulance.

I called 000 and gave a quick SITREP - location, direction of travel, summary of injury, vehicle description and Rego, arrange an RV on the road - you know the drill.

Don't know what the despatcher thought when she asked who the patient was and I responded "I am".

I wake up every day thankful that I still have the full use of my left hand (I am left handed). I've only just realised while writing this article that it was the training that probably saved my hand. I've said for a long time that I am good in emergencies - it's everyday life that gets lost in the interpretation.

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