Mark Mathews: “I was one hour from losing my leg.”
Big wave surfing’s unluckiest man reveals how close he came to having his leg amputated.
It was only due to the quick thinking of an ambulance officer, the cold water of the NSW South Coast, and the exceptional work of the country’s top surgeon that professional big wave surfer and perennial Stab fav, Mark Mathews, avoided having his leg amputated following a horrific wipeout at a secret NSW reef recently.
After being towed into a closeout set-wave in the six to eight foot range, Mark was slammed into the reef, dislocating his knee and causing severe internal damage. He snapped both anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments, severely damaged an important nerve and, most seriously, tore an artery.
“I thought it was snapped," he recalls. "I thought that (my shin) was snapped in half like (MMA fighter) Anderson Silva. When I was lying on the beach I was like, this is fucked, but at least it’s just that and they heal pretty quickly."
As the leg ballooned in size, it was clear the injury was worse than Mark had predicted. An artery in his leg had split long ways, haemorrhaging blood inside the limb. Concerned by the swelling, the ambulance officer made the call for a chopper evacuation to the nearest major hospital (opposed to a much cheaper ambulance ride to a local clinic). Mark was flown to Canberra hospital, where one of the best surgeons in the country was on hand to operate. Even then, it was touch and go.
“He was telling my chick – I didn’t really know any of this – but he walked out of the room and was like, I don’t know if I can save it (the leg)," he recalls. "And Brit was like, ‘Nah, you’ve got the wrong person. My boyfriend is Mark Mathews.' I tore the artery and ‘cos it was so long to get to surgery, my leg was just blown out. They got in and I was lucky he fixed the artery. If he didn’t get to it, an hour later I would have lost my leg."
The frigid waters of Australia’s deep south also played a crucial role.
“Because it was cold, for every one degree cooler you get 12 to 15 minutes longer,” Mark's physio explained to me. "If he’d done it now (in Sydney’s climate), he wouldn’t have a leg."
Mark will undergo at least one more serious operation before he can begin proper rehabilitation. The recovery time is expected to take anywhere between one and three years, though the extensive nerve damage means there is a chance the he will not make a full recovery.
“I always remember that when you’re young, you’re so fearless, until you go through those injuries… but I don’t know what will happen, whether I’ll get back from this one or not," he says. "Time will tell."
And just this very morning, Mark told Stab that following an MRI, he got some good news, which thrills us no end: “The surgeon said that he should be able to fix the nerve with a graft. It originally looked like there was too much damage.
“I had a little tear of joy when I got that news.”