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Accident in the Amazon
Surviving a broken back and medical emergency in the Peruvian jungle
It was supposed to be a relaxing cruise on the Amazon River. The year 2014 was coming to a close and we were capping it off by exploring the Peruvian jungle in style, on the luxurious La Estrella Amazonica. Run by International Expeditions, this is the best riverboat on the Amazon and we were ready to check out for a few days. This wouldn’t be one of our usual rugged travel escapades, but little did we know it would turn into one harrowing experience.
Our adventure started during a leisurely hike in the jungle. While waiting for all the passengers to assemble, Dave decided to run back to our skiff boat (these are smaller river crafts used to explore tributaries) to grab a piece of camera equipment. It was just a short walk and I expected him back in a few seconds. As I chatted with my fellow passengers, I heard a gut-wrenching scream.
My worst nightmare had been realized: Something terrible had just happened to my husband. I dropped everything and ran to the boat. When I arrived, I saw Dave lying on the floor of the boat, contorted in the most painful of positions. He had slipped on the steel steps and didn’t have time to brace himself before slamming directly onto his back.
He kept yelling, “My back! My back!” Nobody knew what to do. I was afraid to touch him in case I made matters worse, but I also saw that he was in agony. I never had felt so helpless.
Luckily there was a retired nurse on the ship, and she took control of the situation. After examining Dave she decided that we had to move him. It took five people to lift him onto the narrow cushioned seat of the boat. Everyone was careful not to move his back too much as we didn’t know how serious the damage was.
We were about as far away from anywhere that you could possibly get. It was four days into our cruise and we steadily had been heading deeper into the Amazon every day.
While the expedition leader tried to get a signal on the satellite phone, we waited for 45 minutes under the hot sun, in stifling humidity. There was a storm brewing in the area, and they were having trouble securing a float plane to evacuate Dave. The last word we got was that they might have to call in the Peruvian Army. I didn’t care who they called, so long as we could get Dave to a hospital. Dave couldn’t move and the bruising on his back was getting worse. We started to worry that he may have kidney damage.
Once we got back to the Estrella Amazonica, my fears lessened a bit. Dave was loaded through the balcony into our air-conditioned room. Joyce, the nurse, made sure his back was supported, braced, and well iced.
A float plane finally was booked, but it was going to take four hours to arrive because of the storm. Dave had to sit and suffer without painkillers. He also couldn’t drink water; Joyce said he shouldn’t have anything before he was examined properly.
When the plane finally arrived, crew members loaded Dave onto the skiff boat to meet it in the middle of the river. I was terrified they would drop him in the water; if they had done that, because he was tied to a backboard and couldn’t move, he surely would have drowned. Joyce assured me that he’d be OK. She’d gotten us this far; she wasn’t about to let anything happen to my husband.
Viewfinder Tip: When buying medical insurance, make sure to check all of the details, such as whether your policy includes medical evacuation coverage.
Once we were in the air, I breathed a sigh of relief. The pilot told us we should make it to Iquitos (the closest town around) in about 30 minutes. Unfortunately my feeling of hope was short-lived. Within 10 minutes of taking off, we flew into a huge front of weather and the pilot had to turn around and land on the Amazon River. I had to break the news to Dave that we weren’t at the hospital, but just landing in the middle of nowhere.
We tied up to a tree and waited out the storm before taking off again. The weather looked better this time around, and we flew for about 30 minutes down the river. Unfortunately another storm front appeared ahead and we had to land again. This time, though, the pilot drove along the river until we came to a village. He hopped out of the plane without a word, tied off a rope, and handed it to a young boy that ran down to the river to see us.
Within minutes all the children in the village had come out to look at the plane. By this time, Dave was feeling the pain in his back, and his shoulders and hips were killing him from sitting in one place for nearly eight hours. He was dizzy, nauseous, and hot. He was in severe agony.
We sat in the plane confused. It seemed like forever before the pilot came back, but when we did he was followed by a group of men. They picked Dave up without a word and carried him up through the village, where they placed him on a mototaxi (a three-wheeled motorcycle). Dave felt every bump and move and screamed throughout the ordeal.
All I could think was, “At least he is feeling the pain, I’d be more worried if he felt nothing.” We drove through the narrow streets crouched in the back of the mototaxi holding on for dear life. Luckily the ride only lasted 10 minutes before we arrived at a clinic, where an ambulance was waiting to take us the rest of the way.
This was the only village on the Amazon River that had a road to Iquitos and thankfully because of the quick thinking by our pilot, we made it there safely.
The final phase of our evacuation took us through more jungle on bumpy roads. It was another hour before we finally reached the hospital in Iquitos. International Expeditions had a representative meet us at the Emergency Room and he translated for us.
Finally, Dave received his much-needed pain medication. We found out he had fractured two vertebrae in his back. It was a week before we could secure an air ambulance home. We had to wait for the doctor in Peru to sign off that Dave was good to fly and then had to find an air ambulance that was available. We also had to find a hospital in Canada that was able to admit Dave.
Dave spent most of this time in a drug-induced fog. I sat at his side and worked on the paperwork and insurance with the help of International Expeditions and American Express. We were grateful for being on an organized tour that offered us all the help we needed. We also were grateful for full travel medical insurance. Without it, we never would have been able to fly Dave home. Without it, we would have been paying off this experience for years.
In Canada, Dave spent another eight days in the hospital and two months recovering with home care and physiotherapy. As I write this, in February of 2015, he’s nearly 100 percent good as new. Still, our accident in the Amazon taught us a valuable lesson: Anything can happen, anytime anywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re climbing mountains or trekking across the Arctic Tundra, a stroke of bad luck can happen in the safest of environments. Our advice: Always be prepared.
What is the scariest thing that has happened to you on your travels?
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