Catherine Bird today after undergoing several operations to her face.
April 3, 2012 - Reported in adelaidenow.com.au It more than a dozen operations to repair the horrific injuries that nearly ended Catherine Bird's life. Her scalp, her right eyelid and her forehead were torn off when her hair became caught in an augur while she was fencing with her sister on their farm near Keith. Her story, and that of seven other rural women from across Australia, is told in a new book, Women of the Land, by Adelaide Hills author Liz Harfull. Here is an extract.
It was a Tuesday in 1997 and the New Year was not quite 21 days old when Catherine headed out into the paddock with her two children and her younger sister Melanie. After three days of incredibly hot weather, a cool change was blowing in and Catherine was keen to get started on replacing a short strip of fence on the other side of the farm.
Out in the paddock Melanie sat on the tractor and operated the post-hole digger mounted to the left of its engine, while Catherine worked alongside, measuring distances between posts and making sure the auger was in the right place. Five-year-old Brett stood behind her, determined to help place the new posts despite his small stature.
Renee was perched beside her aunty Melanie singing a favourite song: "Daddy's taking us to the zoo tomorrow, the zoo tomorrow, the zoo tomorrow. Daddy's taking us to the zoo tomorrow. We can stay all day . . ."
They had only completed a couple of holes when Catherine noticed some timber was coming up out of the ground and was caught in the auger. Her hands protected by thick work gloves, she took a step closer to the machinery and bent down to grab the timber and pull it out of the way. In bending down she slipped a little and her baseball cap came off, releasing the ponytail always worn out on the farm to keep her hair out of the way. "I have never been able to work out how the cap came off but it could have been because I had really long and such thick hair that my caps would never sit down properly, or it could have been because it was a really windy day," she says with a quiet calm that belies the horror to come.
Catherine remembers with absolute clarity every detail of what happened next. AS the cap came off, her ponytail blew forward and the ends of her long, blonde hair stuck to the black grease on the auger. "Oh sh-, this isn't going to be good," she thought, scrabbling desperately through the clumsiness of the gloves to free her hair, while she yelled to get Melanie's attention. In hindsight she wonders if she managed to make any noise at all in her terror, or whether the screams were trapped silently in her throat.
As the auger continued to turn slowly, tunnelling into the soil below, her hair became inextricably tangled, pulling her face closer and closer to the sharp, curved blades. "So I hang on to my face and start pulling back, and that is when I felt my scalp coming off. It felt like a Chinese burn, or a serrated knife going across your skin, and it burnt like sh-. And then I could actually feel the warm blood coming down. My heart was going a thousand miles an hour and the blood was pouring down my chest," describes Catherine. Although in reality it must only have been seconds since her hair first caught, at the time Catherine had the sensation everything was unfolding in slow motion.
She remembers with film-like quality every single turn of the auger just centimetres from her face.
She remembers wondering why Melanie wasn't listening to her and switching off the machinery. She remembers very clearly thinking, "Oh my God, the kids are seeing this." And just as she could feel the blade start to cut into the side of her face, she remembers realising that if the auger didn't stop now, she was going to die.
With that thought everything seemed to stop.
Instead of the noise of the engine, there was total silence. The smell of the warm earth coming up through the auger disappeared. The wind no longer blew. She even stopped seeing the ugly blades in front of her. Instead she was looking at the faces of her mother, Melanie and (her ex-husband) Les. In what she later came to realise was a near-death experience, she started saying goodbye to the important people in her life, but not her children; books she has since read about the subject reveal that for some reason people rarely say goodbye to loved ones who still need them. A sense of perfect, comforting nothingness enveloped Catherine. "I can feel the sensation now as I'm talking about it," she says, struggling to find the words that will accurately convey her experience.
"It's the hardest thing to explain to someone who hasn't been there.
"If I was to say I had a thumping headache, people would know what I was talking about ... Try to imagine a sensation that covers your whole body, and you can feel nothing else apart from knowing that you are 100 per cent fine, at peace and secure ... Like a baby wrapped up in a bunny rug - that sensation of being so secure and totally safe.
"There is also this physical sensation covering your whole body surface that sort of feels like energy, a fuzzy type of warm." At the same time, Catherine felt the welcoming presence of her father. Fred had died without an opportunity to say their final goodbyes. As she looked up towards where she sensed her father was waiting, Catherine saw a bright light. It was blue, not white - the intense vibrating blue of light bouncing off a diamond or a crystal.
"I could feel him picking me up," she says. Then bang! Without warning, Catherine was yanked back to the real world. Thoughts of Renee and Brett flashed through her mind, and she felt a slamming jolt as if someone had hit her body.
Melanie had realised what was going on and managed to stop the auger. Catherine was alive but the danger was far from over.