What began as a relaxing day at sea quickly turned into an unbelievable nightmare for one family, proving we never truly fathom our own strength until it’s needed
Dr. Mike Hatcher is a specialist in emergency medicine in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, though he’ll proudly tell anyone he runs into that he’s a born and raised Newfoundlander who loves the sea as much as he adores helping people in their time of need.
“I was born in Grand Bank, so I’ve been around boats my entire life and I love the water. I trained to be a physician here, and worked with some of the finest there are, and it was hard to leave, but I stay connected to my roots,” he shares.
Dr. Hatcher is passionate about diving and keeps a boat in this province of his birth, explaining it this way, “Heading out to sea every time I come home is important for the soul.”
Another thing that’s important to him is sharing that love of diving, the sea and home with his two boys, Logan, 17 and Morgan, 16. It was on one such visit home with his lads this past July that everything easily taken for granted – from good health and mobility to even life itself – changed in an instant.
Seize the day
The good doctor and his merry crew, including his eldest son Logan, his brother-in-law Philip Gruchy and Gruchy’s 13 year–old daughter Abagail, set sail from Conception Bay on a sunny Saturday in July to do some cod fishing.
“We do this every year. Come home with the boys for ten days or two weeks, and weekends are your only opportunity to fish, so off you go, like always,” he continues.
The group hadn’t begun to fish, had only stopped to take in the sights, including a picturesque waterfall just north of Portugal Cove, when disaster struck literally out of the blue.
“We were between Portugal Cove and Bauline, it’s a common spot for people to stop and fish. We were just enjoying the sun and the flat calm.”
The boat was just getting up there in terms of throttle, Dr. Hatcher explains, and he was driving. Everyone, as is his rule, had their life-jackets on, securely fastened. And then, they stuck something in the water. Most likely a sleeping minke whale, he figures, seeing as they had seen many breeching as they made their way across the bay.
“The boat is just coming up, the front of the boat, and the speed is starting to build up, and the prop struck something that caused the whole boat to jackknife, and we turned 90 degrees to starboard in the space of about 20 feet at 30 kilometers an hour or so. That’s like taking your car at 30 kilometers an hour and just taking the wheel and turning it as hard as you possibly can.” He pauses.
The memories. So vivid. “I knew I was going in the water,” he continues, raising his bandaged arm.
In the space of half a second, he was off the boat. “I didn’t have any ability to push myself off further away from the boat. There was nothing I could do, you’re in free-fall. And of course you’re going in headfirst. And you’re going in head first of course despite the life-jacket, initially. You’re gonna go down under the water and the life-jacket is gonna pull you back up. And if I hadn’t had my life jacket on and done up, not just wound loose, but zipped up, I would have sank right to the bottom in 500 feet of water and they’d still be looking for me.”
But hitting the water wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened.
Logan takes over the story. At first, he admits, he was prepared to laugh at his father for going in the water, but then he quickly knew something was very wrong.
“Dad, he raised his arms in the air, and one just didn’t look right. And then I saw the blood-filled water around him…”
And then the screaming started. “Not to be graphic, but it looked like a shark attack,” Logan shares quietly as his father lowers his head.
Dived right in
It’s difficult to talk about, not because of the injury itself which was caused from striking the boat’s propeller as he was jolted out of the boat, but because of what happened next.
“I just kind of ran to the front of the boat and jumped off with no thinking except, I have to get Dad.”
The two try to estimate how far Logan had to swim in ice-cold, blood filled water. “My boat is 20 feet long and I’d say easily I was five boat lengths away.”
Logan got his father back to the boat, and with his uncle’s help, up and over the side. It wasn’t easy. “I know it’s horrible to say, but he was literally dead weight and no help,” Logan shares. A life-jacket strap served as a make-shift tourniquet. It’s an emotional retelling for both. The injury to Dr. Hatcher’s right arm is horrific, to say the least. That he didn’t loose it altogether is a miracle, and a testament to the fast action of so many, especially his eldest boy and his brother-in-law.
“I’ll be honest with you, as an emergency room doctor in an agricultural area, I’ve seen some I’ve seen some pretty bad things in my 26 years of emergency medicine. Mine was probably one of the worst soft tissue injuries I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot. That my son had to see that, that he had to treat his own father? He dealt with it like a Navy SEAL. Cool. Calm. Collected. I’m so proud,” he says emotionally.
Other boaters came by and, as Newfoundlanders are known to do, everyone pitched in. From calling ahead to stop the Bell Island ferry, to calling emergency service and calming the seas ahead, so many as yet unnamed individuals helped turn this tragedy into triumph.
“Maybe those who were in the boats that day will reach out because of this story. I would like to thank them personally. At a time when you are the most vulnerable, to know that complete strangers stepped in to help? That’s incredible and needs to be recognized,” he says.
While, as a doctor, he’s usually pretty clinical in his assessments, there’s no other way to say it than like this; he almost died that day in the water.
Dr. Hatcher says his chain of survival started with the life-jacket, but there was so much more.
“My son dove off that boat like a Labrador Retriever. He saved me. No question. I almost bleed to death in the water.” Then, it was up to the professionals.
On their way in, Logan and his uncle took turns at the wheel and checking on their patient lying flat and helpless in the bottom of the boat. Logan had the presence of mind to dock the boat where the ferry unloads, which helped speed up getting his father off the boat and onto the hospital.
Dr. Hatcher can’t say enough about the volunteer firefighters from the town of Portugal Cove – St.Philip’s.
“They were the first ones there and they got down aboard the boat and I remember looking up at this man and he was as calm as anything. It doesn’t get any better. These folks don’t live in Detroit or downtown Toronto where this trauma stuff like this is a common thing. These are humble people who say they just did the best they could. No. They did the best anybody could.”
From the fire fighters to the ambulance team to the doctors – many he’d either trained or worked with – everyone, according to Dr. Hatcher, played a key role in his survival.
“I’ve been gone for 17 years. I’m rolled in on the stretcher and I’m looking up into the face of someone I know. And I think, OK. You’ve got this. You’re going to be OK.”
For someone who is usually the lifesaver, letting go actually came pretty easily, he admits.
“They spent seven and a half hours in the operating room that night putting me back together. And then the care I got after the fact from the nursing staff? Amazing. I was there for three weeks. I can’t go home. I’m still here in physio, and it’s just been a testament to everything that can go right when things have gone so wrong.”
NASA doesn’t look after its satellites as well as he was cared for, he says sincerely. ‘My son. My brother-in-law. They know I’m grateful. The staff at the Health Sciences and Dr. Frank O’Dea and Dr. Shane Seal and Dr. Peter Rogers and Dr. Geoff Zbitnew and the Eastern Health medics, I wouldn’t be alive without these people.
There’s so many to thank. When he was feeling up to it, Dr. Hatcher made a visit to the fire-hall in Portugal Cove – St.Philip’s simply to say thank you. “I’m alive because of what they did and what can you say to someone who saved your life? Thank you is only a start.”
The cold North Atlantic
There’s still so much emotion when he looks at his son, who returned to the province to help his father officially thank the volunteers who helped that day at a ceremony held on Sept. 14th.
“You never think, how many times do you pick them up when their knees are scraped? You keep them from making really shitty decisions all the time. And then he saves your life by putting himself in harm’s way. He went into the cold North Atlantic. There’s a thing called immersion pulmonary edema that you can get when you jump into cold water where basically your lungs fill up with fluid. You go into heart failure … That could’ve happened to him.” There’s tears when he thinks of what could have been – not to himself, but to his boy.
“With the boat unpredictability and sharks. And blood. And trauma. Keeping it together. Wow. So what do you say?”
Logan smiles at his dad. “I did what you would have done. I didn’t think. I just did,” he says.
His father smiles. “The level of response and strength that he has. That takes a special kind of courage. I know many who wouldn’t have been able to do what he did. Never in his wildest nightmares did he think he’d have to deal with a shredded limb in the middle of the North Atlantic in Conception Bay.”
In his job as an ER doctor, he knows bad things, like accidents, happen. “From Logan and my brother-in-law to the volunteers to those two paramedics from Eastern Health to the doctors, everyone. They all did their part perfectly.”
So, how is he doing? He’s recovering, he says. “I’ve got hardware holding my arm together. I’ve got a significant nerve injury in my hand, which may or may not recover, but that’s fine. My arm’s attached. I didn’t bleed to death and I wasn’t decapitated. I’d call that a good day, all things considered.”