DR KARL SAVED MY LIFE
By NERIDA BLOK
SUZE PLENKOVICH thought she would not be alive to share her Alstonville mum's 60th birthday last weekend.
But for the 35-year-old former Trinity and Southern Cross University student, every new day is a miracle, after surviving a life-threatening golden staph infection on a remote Indian mountain.
She credits her survival to Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, the well-known media personality, author, doctor and scientist.
To thank her saviour, she commissioned Ballina surfboard company, Local Motion, to design a Malibu surfboard with Ganesh ? a Hindu God and remover of obstacles ? emblazoned on the front.
Suze and Dr Karl were trekking together 18 months ago with a group of high school students in the mountains of the Khangchendzonda National Park in Sikkim, northern India, when she became ill.
As a teacher at Sydney Boys High, Suze was leading the group who were on a school excursion.
Dr Karl was one of the parents who accompanied the group.
"We went there to do a community project with the Tibetan Youth Group, then to do an expedition into the snow line of the third highest mountain in the world, in the Khangchendzonda National Park," she said.
On the first day of the trek, Suze developed horrific back pain which intensified and worsened overnight.
"In the morning, my body was paralysed," she said.
Faced with having to cancel the trip that had taken her and her students two years of fundraising, Suze was keen to push on.
"I just thought it would go away," she said.
But the infection in her spine worsened to the point where she was in so much pain the group made a decision to evacuate her from the mountain for medical treatment. Dr Karl took over the evacuation.
"I was anxious because Suze's condition just didn't get better and didn't respond to drugs," he said.
"It scared the hell out of me. Quite frankly I was out of my depth. I knew something was wrong I just didn't know what."
They couldn't know at the time that the infection, an epidural abscess, would become so severe that Suze would come to within half-a-day of being either paralysed or dead.
The dramatic rescue began with a three-day journey to Darjeeling, in the back of an old jeep, with bald tyres and no snow chains, through rugged and remote snow-covered mountain country and dangerous mountain passes.
The evacuation was overwhelmed by numerous obstacles.
Being in a sensitive military zone, between Nepal and India, the Indian Government refused Medivac to land, forcing them to continue with the harrowing jeep journey.
The next challenge was in locating an MRI imaging machine for diagnosis.
But on the day they arrived for scans at a hospital near Darjeeling, it had run out of electricity, so they had to return the next day.
By then, the abscess had become life threatening, requiring immediate neurosurgery in Calcutta. The next problem was finding a neurosurgeon.
Dr Karl spent 48 hours on the telephone ringing around Asia and Australia trying to locate a surgeon to operate and getting approval for a helicopter to evacuate Suze from Darjeeling to Calcutta. By now Suze was critically ill.
In Calcutta, Suze was met by her partner, Ben, and her parents, Liz and Bert Plenkovich, who had flown over to support her after a successful eight hour operation to drain the abscess.
"It was just wonderful to have them come over ? they really lifted my spirits incredibly," Suze said.
But her deepest thanks is reserved for Dr Karl, the man she believes saved her life.
"I would not be alive today if not for Dr Karl," Suze said.
"His ability to move and shake the difficult bureaucracy in India and to co-ordinate that whole evacuation, with me still alive at the end of it all, was incredible."
Once she could sit up after a few weeks, Suze was flown back to Australia, where she has had to learn to walk again.
Three months off work and plenty of yoga later, Suze has now recovered positively from her ordeal.
Today, Suze and Dr Karl live near each other in Maroubra and remain close friends.
Suze particularly wants to thank the guys at the Local Motion surfboard shop for the Malibu board they produced for Dr Karl.