Grateful patient Jo returns to hospital to thank those who saved her life

Two years after the car crash that changed her life, Joanna Harris has visited Auckland City Hospital to see the people who cared for her.

“I wanted to wait until I could walk through the door,” said Joanna, and that’s exactly what she did, with dad Robert at her side.

One fateful Friday in late 2016, Joanna was travelling home from work, excited for Christmas with her four sons and the arrival of her unborn baby in the New Year. As she was driving through Dome Valley, on SH1 between Warkworth and Wellsford, Joanna’s car was struck by a van travelling in the opposite direction.

“I’m so glad my kids weren’t in the car that day. It blew me away when I saw photos of my car, I just asked, ‘How did I get out of that alive?’”

Due to her life-threatening injuries, Joanna was airlifted straight to Auckland City Hospital, a decision for which she is forever grateful. The specialist doctor on-board the helicopter kept Joanna alive until they landed at the hospital, where she spent 13 weeks being treated and cared for by dedicated surgeons, nurses, anaesthetists, radiologists, physiotherapists and others throughout Auckland DHB.

On arrival at Auckland City Hospital’s Emergency Department, Joanna’s chance of survival was less than 50% and stopping her internal haemorrhaging became the first priority, with a 15-strong team working through the night to save her life.

“I had facial fractures, skull fractures; my right arm was smashed. My liver was shredded. If not for the expertise of all the trauma services, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

Joanna was in and out of consciousness for four weeks, during which time she underwent multiple operations to treat her complex injuries, and she feels immense gratitude to her clinicians. “You feel like you owe them your life. I remember waking up, and I didn’t even know if I had legs,” said Joanna, who has been out of her wheelchair since last Christmas, and walking without a crutch for three months. “It’s amazing how they fix everything. My arm was virtually unsalvageable, and nobody thought I’d be able to keep it, but here it is,” she said, wiggling her fingers.

On Christmas Eve 2016, Joanna moved from Auckland City Hospital’s Critical Care to Ward 76, and formed special bonds with those involved in her recovery and care over the next 10 weeks.

Auckland DHB Occupational Therapist, Ashleigh Green, cared for Joanna on the Reablement Ward and hadn’t seen her for two years. Ashleigh said it was wonderful to see her doing so well: “We don’t often get people coming back to thank us in person, so it’s really special when they do. Joanna has come such a long way since she left hospital and her progress is amazing, which is down to her determination.”

Joanna was 34 weeks pregnant with her fifth son at the time of the crash and, tragically, baby Bo did not survive. Joanna’s other four sons, Connor, Kaelebe, Jacob and Robbie, have helped her through her grief. The boys are grateful to those who saved their mum’s life, and everyone who cared for her at Auckland City Hospital. “I feel really happy that she’s ok,” said 10-year-old Kaelebe. “The doctors gave me my mum back. Without them, she wouldn’t be here.”

Auckland DHB Trauma Service Clinical Director Professor Ian Civil, who oversaw Joanna’s treatment, said it can be beneficial for patients like Joanna to re-visit the hospital as part of their recovery.

“Trauma patients often remember very little of their time with us, so coming back can be very surreal, but it often helps to provide some closure on their experience. While Joanna naturally doesn’t remember many of the people who cared for her, particularly in Critical Care, the team remembers her well and we really appreciate her visit,” said Professor Civil.

Unlike Joanna, her dad Robert has vivid memories of spending summer 2016/17 in hospital, and supporting his daughter at each stage of her recovery. Speaking to the Reablement Ward team, with raw emotion two years on, he said, “Thank you so much for the part you played in bringing our girl back.”

The Auckland Health Foundation joined Joanna and her father for their reunions at Auckland City Hospital. The new charity goes beyond what is currently funded in the healthcare system to focus on promising ideas, innovations and technologies that have the potential to benefit Auckland DHB patients and communities, but could otherwise not be developed without external investment.

Auckland Health Foundation CEO Gwen Green said, “Donations to the Auckland Health Foundation help people like Joanna have the best possible chance of survival, with all funds going towards the foundation’s goal of supporting world-class healthcare for everyone. Whether you donate to one of our priority projects or a specific DHB department, you decide where your money goes, which might be towards developing world-class simulation training or a life-saving piece of equipment.”

“It was a miracle I survived, and now I’m up and about, and enjoying regaining my independence,” said Joanna. “This time two years ago, I was fighting for my life, and today I am so grateful to be alive for my boys. I want to use my experience to help others get the same incredible care I received.”

Through the Auckland Health Foundation, Joanna is sharing her story to say thank you to everyone at Auckland DHB, and inspire others to think about how they can support projects, research and facilities that will help New Zealanders receive the best possible healthcare – now and in the future.

Green continued, “Like Joanna was two years ago, there will always be patients in Critical Care over summer, but together we can bring about healthcare advancements that fast-track recoveries, deliver better health outcomes and save more lives.”

Watch Joanna’s video here, find out about the Auckland Health Foundation’s Grateful Patients Programme and donate now here.