Nuffield Scholar Rob Cook takes a break during his 24-day trek across the Australian Outback. Cook's journey served as an inspiration to other quadriplegics.
The helicopter just didn't sound right. Rob Cook had used lightweight helicopters his entire life to herd cattle on his family's 1.25-million-acre ranch - Suplejack Downs Station - Australia's most remote ranch.
The helicopters proved invaluable while moving 10,000 head of cattle through the unforgiving terrain.
But on the bright morning of Sept. 30, 2008, the last muster (roundup) of the season, Cook and his pilot, Zebb Leslie, both knew they were in trouble. When the helicopter reached 200 feet, the engine failed. Their only hope was to aim the helicopter at the ground and hope the updraft from the steep descent would engage the rotors. With the helicopter pointed straight at the ground, the men literally stood on the windshield.
"I thought he was going to do it," said Cook, laughing. But the last ditch effort failed. The men crashed into a densely wooded area almost 50 kilometers from the family homestead.
Leslie walked away from the crash with barely a scratch. Cook would never walk again.
Two years later, Cook arrived at the Noble Research Institute as part of the Nuffield Australia Farming Scholars. Founded by Lord Nuffield in England, the program spread to former British colonies and neighboring countries (Ireland, Australia, Canada and France). The program helps farmers and ranchers travel to other regions to study agricultural topics to benefit their operations and their native countries.
As part of the scholarship, Cook, his wife, Sarah, their children, Braxton, 5, and Lawson, 3, and two helpful cousins (Luke and Krystle) have traveled around the world including Brazil, Canada, England, France, Mexico, New Zealand, Scotland and the United States.
The globetrotting has been a journey within a journey. As part of the physical trek, he absorbs as much information about agriculture as possible, looking for techniques and knowledge that he can apply to Suplejack Downs. The other quest is to prove - to himself as much as others - that being a quadriplegic does not mean life is over.
At every stop, with every group of people, he begins by talking about Australian agriculture - "There are two seasons: dry and cold or stinking hot and wet" - the family's operation at Suplejack Downs and ends with the story that altered the former bull rider's life forever.
"This is a story about how I got in this chair," said Cook to a standing-room-only crowd at the Noble Research Institute. "But even more it's a story about family and how they have been by me through everything. I'm here because of the support of my wife and family. I want to thank them all for what they've done to help me."
As the story goes, the force of the crash jammed Cook's C4 vertebrae. He wasn't bleeding or bruised. He was just unable to move. "I was completely conscious, and at first I had no pain," Cook said. "I thought my head was jammed, then it felt like two 40-volt charges running down my neck. I felt like I was on fire."
Another problem presented itself. Gas was dripping from the cracked fuel tank about 6 inches from his face. Leslie took what little water they had, doused his shirt and used it to prevent the battery from sparking, then removed it.
After 25 minutes, the other helicopter on the muster found the wreckage. They could not land because of the dense woods so they dropped an axe down to Leslie to cut trees for a landing spot and radioed for help. Doctors arrived at the family's airstrip at Suplejack within a few hours, but could not get to Cook.
The medical personnel and family, including Sarah, a trained nurse, could not drive to the crash site or walk into the area because of the trees. Helicopters provided the only entry means.
Activity continued through the day at the crash site, as people cleaned up debris and cleared trees, but Cook lay right where he had landed.
Throughout the day, there were numerous smaller stories of sacrifice and compassion. A friend flew 620 miles to pick up a paramedic. Cook's dad arrived and used a pocket knife to cut the roof off the helicopter just so the team could get to Cook. Ants crawled all over him, not that he could feel it until one crawled across his eyeball.
And despite all conventional medical wisdom, he kept breathing. "I shouldn't have been able to breathe because it takes muscles to breathe," Cook said. "They don't know how I was able to breathe."
Cook lay at the crash site until 5 p.m. "It was a seven-hour journey, and I did not move a bit," he said. "You certainly learn a lot about yourself in seven hours."
A slightly larger R44 Robinson helicopter was finally able to land so Cook could be airlifted back to the homestead where the Royal Flying Doctors were waiting. He was then transferred into the medical airplane and flown to Alice Springs (population 26,000, in the Northern Territory and about 450 miles away). Cook was tied to the floor and given medication. It would be the last thing he remembered for three weeks.
Going on Walkabout
Cook spent the next year living in hospitals, first in Alice Springs, then Adelaide, South Australia, a larger city about 2,500 miles away. His family rallied around him, literally moving down to Adelaide to support him.
Spinal traction yielded no significant improvement, so the spinal surgeons were forced to perform surgery. Cook had no sensation or movement from the shoulders down. The doctor said, "This is as good as you will get."
The family returned to Suplejack Downs Station and bought Cook a big screen TV. He watched movies and sports for a week, then shut the TV off and "decided to get on with my life."
Cook designed a special vehicle for the family to use and a wheelchair lift for a boat so that he could take his boys fishing. He hitched the lawn mower to his motorized wheelchair so he could help with the lawn. He was the architect. His father, brothers and friends were his arms and legs.
The family spent one year on the road traveling around to all the family and friends who had supported them during the extensive hospital stay. And then Cook did something he had told a doctor he would do early in the process. When the doctor questioned the logic of living at Alice Springs, much less the remote family ranch, Cook said, "Not only can I live there, I'll walk to town."
So he did. To raise awareness about quadriplegic issues, Cook "walked" from his home to Alice Springs in his chair. It was early May, the start of winter in Australia, when he began. Along the way he experienced frostbite and he tipped over a few times; however, 24 days later, he reached Alice Springs and in the process inspired others struggling with being a quadriplegic.
"I received a lot of letters and emails from other quadriplegics saying how they had not been living life, and now they were going to try again," he said. "That made it all worth it."
Soon after his trek to Alice Springs, Cook and his family began their worldwide tour as part of his Nuffield scholarship.
Two years after being on a ventilator, Rob sat in the Noble Research Institute library with Sarah. He talked about how they met (high school friends) and how her dedication inspires him daily. He discussed learning about a lower stress weaning process for calves and radio frequency tags for cattle management from the Noble Research Institute consultants. And he talked about the future.
"Before this, we were just trying to figure out how to get on with life and pretend to be happy," he said. "Even though I can't move, I still want to be active."
And active he'll be. Cook's journey will come full circle next year when he returns to the activity that ultimately put him on this path. When he returns home, John Deere has donated a diesel powered Gator, and the company agreed to modify the all-terrain vehicle so he can help muster cattle again. Cook also has been researching how to use herding dogs, which he will command using whistles, to help them move cattle. One way or another, he is determined to contribute to the ranch.
It's the way he wants to live and he hopes to help other injured agricultural producers. Cook has become an advocate, speaking at international conferences on the importance of research and technology that can allow injured farmers to continue contributing to their rural communities. The grand mission is just another part of a future Cook approaches with no fear.
"I would rather attempt something great and fail than do nothing at all and succeed," Cook said. "Everyone has a book to write, and it's up to you to fill up the pages."