One moment I was enjoying a rollicking gallop on my Kazakhstan gelding, chasing the group that was running at full speed up ahead. My horse was a pacer and had no taste for an all -out run. The next I was doing my second tuck and roll of the day, having been unceremoniously launched past his right ear. I landed hard, leapt up, and noticed a shock like electricity firing down my right leg.
My horse stood staring at me, trembling, as though he was expecting punishment. Nope. If the horse doesn’t like you, you’re coming off. That was twice in the same hour. This guy doesn’t like me. We’re done here.
Our guide, Jen, rushed over and ran her hands all over me. I did a series of yoga moves to see if anything had broken. Her second-in-command got me another horse. I climbed on.
And couldn’t move. Turn sideways. The adrenaline had worn off. I was in agony.
While I didn’t know it at the time, I’d broken my back in four places. When I dismounted, I laid on the ground, suddenly wanting nothing but to stay in a fetal position and sleep.
Medical Care in Kazakhstan
Jen called the van that was following us. In half an hour, the group had ridden on and a small contingent of us had driven 25 kilometers to the nearest town. It was a tiny place but the hospital was huge. Russian-era, virtually empty, falling apart. But at least they had medical care. Or, what passed for medical care in the middle of Kazakhstan.
It took hours before the suspicious policeman, who took some sixteen photos of my passport, would allow me to even be seen. Their ancient 1950s x-ray machine (anyone remember thick, heavy, lead blankets?) indicated that I had one piece of vertebrae broken off. Not a big deal. However I was in extreme pain, and had to be medevacced out. That would take five days. In a Russian- era hospital where no one spoke English.
Jen, who had to return to the group, began the search for someone who spoke English to be my interim translator. Meanwhile, I sought out the bathroom. Moments later I stuck my head out the door and called for Jen.
“There’s no toilet paper in here.”
“Welcome to Kazakhstan,” she grinned.
“There’s no hot water.”
“Welcome to Kazakhstan,” she grinned again.
That was just the beginning.
Bring Your Own…Everything
Jen secured a young man named Kai from a small local village. Kai spoke perfect English. He was a mining engineer who had worked in Australia and South Africa. A soft-spoken and extremely kind man, he was grateful for the money and the opportunity to be of service.
The first thing he did was write up a small piece of paper with Russian instructions: may I please have my pain shot? That paper got used a lot. There was a great deal of pain.
Jen had to return to our group, which had moved on to another post in the Altai Mountains. As the only guide with medical experience she couldn’t stay with me. I hugged her goodbye, then was led to my room.
The glassed-in room held two beds. There were no curtains, no privacy. The multicolored sheets were so rough they exfoliated my skin every night. There were no showers. If I wanted to clean myself, I had to use the sink with the ice cold water, no soap, no towels, no nothing.
Before Jen had left, she told me, “Be glad this isn’t Mongolia. There, if you’re in the hospital, you have go out side and use a drop toilet. Injuries or no injuries.” I thanked my lucky stars.
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
Jen had secured my backpack, which had medical supplies, food supplies, a towel, soap, toilet paper and everything I needed for an extended adventure trip. Gratefully I unloaded my gear on my tiny bed and set up my corner of the room.
If I wanted to wash myself, I had to do so over a sink, bent over, using ice cold water, next to the glass windows, which had no curtains.
Soon an older man walked in, unannounced, and started talking to me in Russian. Not a doctor. Another patient. There was no privacy, and I couldn’t lock the door. He insisted on talking to me and wanted to show me his scar.
Which of course was located below the beltline.
I invited him out. He would come back repeatedly until he finally got the message.
Don’t Eat the Hospital Food
My insurance company had begun the process of looking for a safe way to transport me the eight hours to the nearest airport in Ust. Meanwhile, I was stuck in this hospital. Kai would come at nine am and five pm to make sure I was getting what I needed and to translate to my caregivers any instructions. Various nurses and doctors would march into my room and start yakking at me in Russian, or demanding that I do something- and of course I had no clue. Care or information had to wait until Kai’s arrival.
The first morning I received “breakfast,” it was chipped porcelain bowl with a big slab of cold, white gelatinous substance with another cold piece of margarine on top. It was godawful. And it made me wickedly sick. You do not want to be nauseous with a broken back. I had big supply of Kind Bars, and that became my staple. Kai, who was eager to help, made trips to the village to get me fresh fruit. Here in the middle of Kazakhstan, staples such as fresh fruit and vegetables were not only rare, but they were of very poor quality. Still, he brought me yogurt and what small, bruised nectarines there were to be had.
And There’s No Wi-Fi
While a signal did exist in town, the hospital wasn’t exactly a magnet. I had my iPad with me. During the evenings I would wander the vast, empty halls of the hotel and stick my iPad out the window in hopes of getting some kind of signal so that I could communicate with my insurance agency. I would get perhaps ten or fifteen minutes. The signal was very weak, and I most certainly had no consistent connection with the outside world. That was determined by an ancient, old-fashioned phone on the desk all the way down the hall.
As Jen and the rest of my group rode further into the gorgeous mountains, I sat for days. I had a supply of Snickers bars which I gave to the nurses. That ensured that when I needed my shot, I got one. That was the only care I got: pain relief. However even that had its dangers.
One morning I swung my bare feet over the side of the bed, but stopped just short of putting them on the cold tile floor. I was about to impale the ball of my left foot on the syringe a nurse had left on the floor the night before right after my last pain shot.
To say the least, it made me wonder about other sterilization procedures. After that I always checked the floor before I got out of bed. Like I chucked the food into the toilet. The nurses always came back for the chipped bowl. They only had a few, and mine had to be washed right away to be used for someone else. I ate a lot of Kind Bars.
Wanna Send a Passenger Pigeon?
In the meantime, my insurance company was arranging me to be flown to Dubai where an excellent hospital would do a thorough check of my injuries. One night the man on duty came marching into my room (unannounced, of course). He indicated that I was to come down the hall and take a phone call.
The man on the other end was the German doctor in Dubai. He insisted that I email him a copy of my passport and a slew of other information. He kept demanding that he had to have these documents before I arrived.
I chortled. “How do you want them, doctor, by passenger pigeon? There’s no signal here. There’s no computer here. I’m talking to you on a dial phone. What part of we’re in the Fifties here isn’t clear?”
He backed down a bit. I’d have to bring everything with me.
The Ride to Ust
Finally an ambulance was secured for the long overland trip to Ust. They arrived late at night. We would be leaving at 3 am.
When the nurse woke me up, I was ready to go. Typical of the facility, the lights didn’t turn on at night. So Kai, the nurse, and the doctor and I walked in a tight scrum down the black hallway, jammed into an unlit elevator, and made our way to the waiting ambulance by the light of a tiny, cheap flashlight. Accidents waiting to happen.
I was loaded onto a stretcher in the back. A large block-shaped nurse climbed in, and off we went. We had to drive over rough, pot-holed roads for hours on end. If I had to pee, which was regularly, I had to climb out of the van, squat in a ditch and try to hide from oncoming traffic. With a broken back. You can’t make this stuff up.
A Private Jet
When we finally arrived in Ust, I was subjected to hours of red tape before the authorities would allow me to be loaded onto the jet which would take me to Dubai. My backpack was checked for state secrets and I was thoroughly questioned all over again. Finally I met Dr. Choi, a Korean doctor based in Istanbul, whose sole role was to airlift patients like me to hospitals. Choi had trained in the US. It was a huge gift to be able to have a conversation in English.
Finally Dr. Choi and his assistant loaded me onto the jet, and I got comfortable for the long flight to Dubai. Comfortable wasn’t the word. I was in heaven.
Dr. Choi asked if I needed anything and I begged for a salad and some fruit. So when we stopped to refuel, a hand reached into the door with a plastic bag. That bag held a chicken Caesar Salad a big fruit plate. Real food had never tasted so good.
When we arrived in Dubai it was more than a hundred degrees. The hospital had sent an ambulance. Dr. Choi helped me load in and we were off, winding the busy roads through this massive manufactured oasis.
Until the ambulance broke down. Then we had to sit for several hours until a replacement could be found. It got hot. VERY hot.
Eventually I was bundled into another ambo and deliver to the Canadian Hospital. Within minutes I was rushed in for tests. Lots and lots and lots of tests.
Not the Best News
It didn’t take long for us to get the verdict. Far from having just one piece of vertebrae broken, there were many of them. From L1 to L4 of my lumbar spine I’d done considerable damage. The doctor brought the results into my room and told me to pick up nothing heavier than an empty milk carton. Up until then I’d been doing yoga and throwing around my 45-lb backpack, based on the x-ray results in Kazakhstan. Um, not a good idea.
However, now in my own private room in a world-class hospital, I could wait for permission to fly home in relative luxury.
“How Are We Doing?”
From benign neglect in Kazakhstan, suddenly I had someone marching into my room with a clipboard and a survey several times a day demanding to know if I was happy. Happy with the food,the doctors, the service, the cleaning staff.
I’d be trying to go to the bathroom (YES they had toilet paper, YES they had towels, YES they had hot water, hot water isn’t a problem in Dubai) and someone would knock on my door to ask if I was happy.
I’d be happier if I could pee in peace, was my answer. However, given the contrast, I’ll take eager-to-please ANY day.
The care was superb. I had medical staff from every corner of the world: the Philippines, Germany, Saudi Arabia, name your country. People were incredibly kind and generous, and worked hard to a fault to ensure my comfort. It didn’t hurt to have a tall, handsome physical therapist, either.
Finally my docs cleared me to fly. Another hot trip to the airport,and United Arab Emirates put me in the business cabin where they treated me like a queen. Hot packs for cramped legs, food as needed. Then I got to America, where a flight on Alaskan Airlines reminded me of how far we’ve fallen when it comes to so-called first class treatment.
Despite being advised in advance that I had to be able to fully recline, Alaska stuck me in a flight which featured first class chairs that reclined…two inches. I was in the single most uncomfortable position possible for my broken back. They did nothing to remedy the situation. I was in pure agony for the two-plus-hour trip to Denver. I will be avoiding this airline from now on.
The Moral of the Story
My work and passion take me to some of the world’s most remote places. I insist on doing epic sports. The combination of that means that accidents will happen- and they have- with sometimes very severe consequences. However, rather than put me off travel/adventure sports, these experiences have taught me a lot about self-reliance, as well as trusting people in other countries. The potential for injury is one of the prices I pay to explore other cultures and see what few others see. You learn to pack for emergencies. You learn to have a wicked sense of humor. And you learn to cope with whatever happens- be it a broken back or lousy food or syringes on the floor. To say the least, my funniest stories come of such experiences.
I got Kai a translating job with Jen’s outfit. He’s beside himself with excitement. We still write each other. And Jen stays in touch. I’ll be doing this trip again- without question. I’ve never seen such gorgeous country. Nor have I had such an extraordinary experience in places that Westerners typically don’t get to see. The ticket to expanding my world is my willingness to take the river of life wherever it takes me — and deal with whatever comes my way.
The one thing that I have learned, over and over again, in my years of adventure travel is that no matter where you are, you can manage. Period. You can manage. People want to help. Even if the level of care is not first world, the point is that people genuinely care. When you make them laugh, when you do your best to be respectful, people go out of their way. Eventually even a suspicious cop softens a little. What you do is bring those basic supplies you need just in case. The rest is in your heart.
You don’t need much else.