'I owe him my life': Unimaginable reason Yvonne survived

HOURS after one of Australia's worst road disasters, Yvonne Bradford woke up in the intensive care unit at Brisbane's Prince Charles Hospital with no memory of how she got there.

A day earlier, Yvonne and husband Alan Bradford had landed at Kingsford Smith Airport, Sydney.

The couple had spent a year taking madcap buses through the Nepali Himalayas and driving a temperamental Kombi van across Europe.

They returned home bursting with wacky and wonderful stories to share with family and friends in Brisbane and both excited to embark on a new adventure - parenthood.

"We'd done all of these things and we got back to Australia and we landed in Sydney and there was an airline strike on and our flight from Sydney to Brisbane was cancelled," she said.

"They seemed to have no end date and so my sister who at the time was working in travel got us onto a bus."

The couple requested their favourite seat, directly behind the driver - the extra leg room made the impending 10-hour trip more comfortable, particularly for Yvonne at 32 weeks pregnant.

They mooched around Sydney for the day before returning to the coach for an evening departure.

"The girl from the desk said, 'Aww no sorry, we are so sorry that seat we promised you was given to someone else'," Yvonne said.

Indifferent to the change the couple gladly sat in the front row on the left side, a fateful move that saved their lives.

"Everyone behind the driver down that whole side of the bus died in the accident."

"That was very shocking to us, just by some quirk..."

In the early hours of Friday morning, October 20, 1989 a semi-trailer suddenly veered onto the wrong side of the Pacific Highway near the village of Cowper. 

The truck collided with the coach carrying 45 passengers, the right side of the bus was ripped open. The truck driver and 18 people were killed instantly. 

The carnage left in its wake was unlike anything emergency services had seen before.

Yvonne Bradford is treated by medical staff at the scene of the Cowper bus crash.
Yvonne Bradford is treated by medical staff at the scene of the Cowper bus crash.

"We didn't do anything good or brave or amazing to have lived through that it was just sheer, sheer luck," Yvonne said.

The severity of her injuries spared Yvonne the traumatic memories so many others will never forget. 

The last thing she remembers before waking up in hospital is taking a pit stop a few hours before the crash.

"It was the middle of the night and we all got off for cups of tea and snacks and things," she said.  

"I have this vivid memory...(A family) were all kicking a soccer ball around. I remember my husband and I commenting to each other,  'what a lovely family, what a great bunch on their exciting adventure'." 

It wasn't until years later, at a memorial for the tragedy that she began to piece together what happened - with one of the doctors who helped save her, Ray Jones.

When emergency services first arrived at the scene, Yvonne was quietly sitting on the side of the road. To anyone passing by she appeared no worse than the rest of the walking wounded.

A junior doctor from Grafton Base Hospital, Maureen Hepburn and Dr Jones soon realised there was far more going on than just a broken leg and bruised and swollen face.

Her uterus had ruptured, and she had sustained a haemothorax which meant blood was filling her chest cavity and would kill her and her baby if left untreated.

Anxious about her unborn child, Dr Hepburn reassured Yvonne as she and medical staff checked her for head and neck injuries. When given the all-clear she was rushed to Grafton Base Hospital for an emergency caesarean section.

Since that day, Yvonne has been reminded of the ambulance trip Dr Jones and Dr Hepburn will never forget.

"I was quite talkative and then every now and again I would just kind of start to fade away and stop talking," she said.

"He just thought 'I've got to keep her talking'.

"That's the only time anyone's ever said that about me, people are usually like, 'Could you shut up now'," she laughed.

"I owe him my life really."

Surgery saved her life, but it was too late for her daughter. While the heartbreak and pain caused by the loss of her little girl at birth will always remain, she counts herself as among the lucky ones.

And that is how she walks through life.

When Yvonne was rushed into emergency surgery, her husband had been taken to Maclean Hospital, 20 minutes north of the crash site.

The smaller hospital was used for patients with less severe injuries. He could do nothing but wait for news of his wife and unborn child.

Video footage captures Dr Maureen Cuffe and Dr Ray Jones (both to the left) provide medical treatment to Yvonne at the Cowper crash site.
Video footage captures Dr Maureen Cuffe and Dr Ray Jones (both to the left) provide medical treatment to Yvonne at the Cowper crash site. Jenna Thompson

Yvonne's family had been notified and rushed to Grafton from Queensland, with no idea what they would discover on arrival.

"They didn't what they were coming down to, they didn't know if I was alive or dead."

They collected Alan and made their way to Grafton Base Hospital, shocked by what they found there.

"My mum is always saying that she couldn't see me, she was looking right at me, but she couldn't recognise me because my face was really swollen."

My sister said to her, 'Yes that's Yvonne because that's her hair!'"

"They couldn't recognise me because I had a very swollen face and black eyes, so it didn't look like me." 
 

Yvonne and the baby were flown to Brisbane, where she and Alan united and had the chance to say goodbye to their daughter.

"I think that was really very lucky that we still had each other and we could grieve together about the baby," Yvonne said.

"My sister was a neo-natal nurse and all my family came to Grafton, and they were going to send the baby to Sydney and my sister knew that the baby needs to come to Brisbane with us and I needed to see her and hold her."

"I held her and said goodbye. Which I think was really important for both Alan and I to share that moment of being parents together."

Every year they look back at a book they made filled with memories of their daughter.

Three decades on, Yvonne's vibrant, warm personality is infectious. Today, she works with indigenous students helping to preserve their language, and despite being told it may never happen again, she is a mother to three children- Peter, Ellie and Michael. 

"Life is precious, and they are lucky to be here because at one stage they said maybe we can't have children. Their own being, everything is so precarious in life," she said.

"We have been left to survive and it's almost honouring those that didn't."

Yvonne Bradford with her children Peter, Ellie and Michael.
Yvonne Bradford with her children Peter, Ellie and Michael. Contributed

"You have to go on and try and live your best life, you won't be perfect, but it would be selfish to be callous of your own caring for others because you never know when your time will be up. You've been lucky, so you have to be positive."

Less than a kilometre from the site of the tragedy is a memorial to the 21 lives lost that day, and the many people deeply affected by the disaster since. Yvonne has returned to the site a handful of times over the years to honour her daughter. 

"My kids were quite touched to go and see it," she said. 

On the 30th anniversary, Yvonne will attend a community memorial alongside the doctors, paramedics and nurses who played a role in her survival. 

"It must be so traumatic for paramedics and people like that and all the emergency services when people die or then people live but they never hear about them again.

"You did an amazing thing, not only did you save me, you're partly responsible for three more young people on this planet."



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