Kerikeri photographer Rachel Jordan recently returned home after suffering extensive injuries during a helicopter crash. She talks to reporter Jenny Ling about rehab, goals, gardens and friendship.
It’s understandable that Rachel Jordan wants to keep her feet firmly on the ground.
The Kerikeri photographer was in a helicopter around 100 metres in the air when the power cut out and it fell from the sky.
She was with newlyweds Fay El Hanafy and Mahdi Zougub near Windwhistle in the Canterbury high country, heading to a picturesque mountain spot for post-nuptial photos.
Jordan, a photographer for 24 years, said it’s fairly common for couples to hire a chopper to fly to remote alpine locations in the Southern Alps for unique wedding pics.
She has been in helicopters several times on similar jobs.
But on that June 12 afternoon, things went horribly wrong.
Shortly after take-off, the Robinson R44 helicopter’s engine lost power and plunged into a golf course fairway at Terrace Downs Resort where the bride and groom had earlier exchanged their wedding vows.
All people four on board – Jordan, El Hanafy, Zougub and pilot Lynda Harrap – sustained serious injuries.
Jordan’s were extensive.
She fractured her spine, along with seven of her ribs and her sternum.
One lung was half lacerated by her ribs, and she broke her right wrist and fractured bones in her feet and ankles.
She underwent multiple surgeries and feared she may never walk again.
But after three months in Christchurch and Middlemore hospitals, the gutsy 41-year-old walked right out of Auckland’s spinal unit with the aid of a walking frame.
“I told everyone I was walking out of there, I refused to not be walking,” she said.
“It was my goal. I didn’t know if it was going to happen or not but I told everyone it was my goal.
“I don’t plan to be in a wheelchair very long.”
Jordan arrived home in September.
It was “bittersweet” being back simply because rehab is such hard work, she said.
In hospital she underwent daily physical therapy to improve her back strength, helping her to learn to sit up on her own.
This is continuing at home, with regular visits from the physio and nurse.
“I’m not walking per se, I’m walking with a walker. I practice every day and try and get better.
“It’s not like you just get up and start walking easily, it’s really hard work.
“It feels like you’ve got weights tied to your legs. It’s going to take time.
“My goal by December is to walk to the mailbox and back without holding onto the walker.”
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and helicopter owners Wyndon Aviation are both investigating the cause of the crash.
Both have confirmed the engine lost power shortly after take-off, but the reason for that is yet to be established.
The bride, groom and pilot also suffered injuries to their spines and legs, and like Jordan are on the long road to recovery.
After she was transferred from Christchurch hospital to Middlemore and got to the rehab facility Jordan realised the back of her legs were still paralysed.
Doctors couldn’t tell her how long it would take before movement would come back.
Having a partial spinal injury was “a guessing game”, she said.
Jordan realised her whole life had been put on hold.
Despite this, she considers herself lucky.
“I saw a lot worse in hospital in many ways.
“I saw people who had a spinal cord injury from falling over.
“I consider myself lucky because it wasn’t worse. I’m hopeful it will heal more. It could have been worse, even though it was really bad.”
Along with physio sessions, Jordan’s rehab consists of daily strengthening exercises, practising walking, and time on the exercycle.
She has “a really good diet” which centres around raw foods, salads and fish.
She refuses to dwell on the crash.
“Every day I try and get stronger,” she said.
“You have to learn how to do everything again.
“Everything is baby steps. You learn how to sit up, then hold that for longer, then sit in a chair, and transfer from seat to seat and from bed to chair.
“Everything that’s hard at first becomes easier.
“At first standing up was really hard, I felt like I had sandbags strapped to my legs.
“Two weeks later I’m standing and it was like ‘oh, this is easy’.
“It’s just a process, it’s what your body gets used to.”
They say hard times will always reveal true friends.
For hers, Jordan counts her lucky stars.
Along with the support and love of her husband Eric and their 10-year-old son Evan, having good friends helped immensely, she said.
“I didn’t get too depressed because of all my friends that were always visiting.
“What they did for me was beyond beautiful, it was amazing and kept me pretty good the whole time while I was in hospital.”
When she was feeling depressed, a friend flew from Dunedin to visit for the day to make her feel better.
Three other friends from Auckland joined in, bringing with them desserts for a “mini hang-out party in the spinal unit”.
“Another friend visited me almost daily,” Jordan said.
“I had friends make me art, paintings, and print out pictures they created.
“The photography industry all signed a get-well album from Queensberry.
“New Zealand Weddings did a shout out to me in their magazine and strangers sent me cards.
“It was endless what people have done for me, it was really, really sweet.
“It helped a lot; it kept my sanity.”
Another generous gesture saw 501 people donate nearly $30,000 via Givealittle to support Jordan and her family during her recovery.
The funds will “help with everything” she said, while she isn’t able to work.
She is hoping to get back to work next year, though it’ll be portrait photography she will focus on because they’re “easier on the body” than weddings.
Jordan said she appreciated having close connections to family and friends.
“The connections you have in life are the most important.
“You don’t really know who your closest friends are till something like this happens. You realise a lot.”
Jordan’s love of photography started in high school.
The US-born photographer would take pictures of friends and began to learn the craft of portrait photography.
While in her 20s she travelled the world with her camera, venturing to more than 70 countries.
“I would travel overland to India, Nepal and Tibet and just photograph people. I thought I’d be a travel photographer. That was my passion.”
After each trip, Jordan would return to her home in California.
It was after visiting Sri Lanka, where all her gear was stolen, that she and Eric decided to get married.
That’s when she “fell into wedding photography”.
The couple moved to New Zealand in 2011 and started a wedding photography business named Two Little Starfish, which was the logo of their beach wedding back home.
“It was an accidental experiment getting into weddings.
“I shot a friend’s wedding and it was fun, and it went from there. I’ve always done portraits on the side.”
During her career, she has clocked up dozens of awards and was named Best Portrait Photographer in the 2020 Looks Like Film awards.
In 2019 the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography named her Regional Photographer of the Year and she won Best Wedding Photographer in the Looks Like Film awards the same year.
“I’ve been doing photography for 24 years,” she said.
“It’s my love. I never thought it would get me into an accident.”
Along with photography, Jordan’s other great love is her garden.
Getting back on her feet so that she can tend her fruit trees and vegetable patch “would mean everything”, she said.
“I’m not a person to be sitting indoors and not working.
“I’m a workaholic, essentially, and really high energy, so I’m usually always doing something.
“Sitting is not ideal, I want to be outside in the sun shovelling and getting dirty.
“When I’m doing weddings, it’s hard work as well, but I love it.”
The incident has been life-changing, and Jordan is learning to appreciate “the little things like being on the beach and putting my feet in the sand”.
“Simple activities like getting in and out of the bathtub, getting independent and doing yard work – doing these things we all take for granted.”
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