Driver’s racetrack heart attack at Manfeild a ‘perfect storm’

Gerald Watson, second from left, with three of his rescuers, Bob Higginson at left, and at right, Anton Woollams and Donna Whale.

Peter Lampp/Supplied

Gerald Watson, second from left, with three of his rescuers, Bob Higginson at left, and at right, Anton Woollams and Donna Whale.

Peter Lampp is a sports commentator and former sports editor based in Palmerston North.

OPINION: From a medical viewpoint, one of the safest places to suffer a cardiac arrest has to be the Manfeild motor-racing circuit.

Manawatū Car Club driver Gerald Watson testifies to that after he was brought back from death’s door by the medical responders while racing at Manfeild in the Winter Series on July 3.

He had throttled back from 180kmh along the back straight before entering the esses at about 80kmh when he suffered his heart attack.

The yellow Datsun 1200 he and a mate had built, and which he has raced since 1990, took itself across the gravel and into the tyre wall with no sign of braking.

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Watson was quickly swarmed by the first responders who did such a professional job in saving him that he lives to tell the tale with all of his faculties and intends to return to racing.

It was freakish – Watson happened to be in the right place at the right time. Had it happened when working on his farmlet near Feilding or driving leisurely somewhere, he wouldn’t have been at his daughter’s upcoming wedding nor back to work as a commercial bank manager.

”I would have died, I know that,” he said. ”Motorsport literally saved my life.”

This week he found discussing it to be therapeutic when, despite boasting two broken ribs from the cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR), he invited some of his rescuers to explain in detail how they saved him.

He remembered getting to Manfeild at 7.30am, attending the drivers’ briefing and because he was unconscious after the crash that was all until after about 24 hours in Palmerston North Hospital.

When later in Wellington he had a stent inserted in a 20-minute operation, the surgeons told the 56-year-old he was a million-dollar man who should go out and buy a Lotto ticket.

His fate was almost a perfect storm. No other car was involved, the two stacks of tyres provided lots of shock absorption at an estimated 70kmh and a neck harness wife Paula had bought him for Christmas prevented whiplash.

He had also crashed within sight of the rescue crews and the first of them arrived immediately after dashing across the track with the IB Cup race still in progress. The crash was also only 30 metres from where Pro-Med lead paramedic Anton Woollams’ ambulance was parked near pit lane.

Pro-Med isn’t employed at all meetings and that proved crucial. Woollams once resuscitated a motorcycle rider so his strike rate is two for two at Manfeild.

From the time of the crash, more than an hour had elapsed until Watson was taken to hospital, 20 minutes away. When rescue volunteer Bob Higgison arrived, he noticed what is known as the death stare and when Woollams got into the passenger seat, he too witnessed what he felt was last-gasp breathing.

Gerald Watson racing his beloved Datsun 1200 at Manfeild.


Gerald Watson racing his beloved Datsun 1200 at Manfeild.

He immediately ordered that Watson be lifted out on to the ground, about three minutes after the crash, for mask ventilation and immediate CPR.

That was started by young paramedic Charliot Miller and being such physical work with 100 compressions per minute pushing on the heart, everyone among the dozen on site took turns for more than 10 minutes.

Because the heart still remained out of rhythm, Woollams deployed the defibrillator and after three electric shocks, with everyone standing back, plus more CPR and ventilating, he was concerned Watson wasn’t coming back.

When the St John ambulance arrived, he was still not breathing correctly so a fourth shock was delivered.

Track doctor Bruce Stewart arrived. He had been down to race too, but the meeting was called off after the crash. Spectators described feeling the trauma after seeing flag marshals form a privacy barrier.

Wife Paula had been at home riding her horse and when she got to the track she virtually vaulted the tyre wall to see her husband. First-aider Donna Whale helped calm her.

Woollams was at pains to explain the rescue in medical detail because it was such a freakish occurrence at a race meeting and it brought a man back to life when all looked lost. Watson felt the same way, even though unbeknown to him, he was put through the medical mill.

He later discovered his $1000 racing suit had been shredded when cut off.

Because his veins were shutting down, a needle had to be inserted into a knee to direct a drip into the bone marrow and because of shock, he had to be restrained and sedated and a throat tube inserted.

A day later when he awoke in hospital, he asked what he was doing there, hoped they hadn’t called off the meeting and asked after the damage to the car. It was minimal.

Woollams summed it up: ”It wasn’t your time and we were lucky people to bring you back.”

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