Monday, March 07, 2005

The Tale of the Spleenless Wonder

Ok it has been a productive morning. One appellate brief finished, and a reply brief that isn't even due until next week is also crossed off the list. So I figure I have time on my lunch hour today to write the tale of the spleenless wonder. Once upon a time...

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. Our mode of transportation consisted of walking, hitchhiking, riding on decommissioned BlueBird school buses (yes the big yellow school buses made for elementary school students) which were re-painted into "cool colors" and often had a row of seats added in (see here), or riding bikes. On this fateful day, my wife and I decided to ride our bikes. Now, to be fair, these bikes were actually pretty nice. U.S. government issued, perfectly ridable, mountain bikes. But we did live in the highlands, so this wasn't normal bikeriding - it was riding down a huge hill, followed by maybe 300 yards of semi-flat biking, and then biking up a huge hill. And all of this was done on dirt (read mud in the rainy season and 6 inches of dust in the dry season) roads. Moreover, my bike, had been used very frequently by a previous volunteer at our site (including one trip from our site at 10,000 feet all the way down to the coast), so the brake pads were ... well I could clamp both of them down the whole way and the bike would only slow down a bit.

It was a really nice January afternoon (dry season = 6 inches of dust on roads) so there was no rain yet, and we made it to our meeting "sin novedad" (with no problems). In fact, I thought I was getting pretty good at the Flintstones style of braking by dragging my feet on the ground towards the bottom of each hill. It was on the way back that the adventure began.

I had just made it down one large hill using the Flintstones braking method when we made it to the top of the next hill. I actually stopped, looked down, saw a steep hill with a hairpin turn at the bottom and asked my wife if she thought I could make it. Foolish, foolish me. What I wanted her to do was go first, so I could see how fast she got going. But being the man that I am, I clearly did not communicate this well enough, so she responded by simply saying "I dunno." So I proceeded down this hill, with my brakes clamped down the whole way, gaining more and more speed and when I made it to the bottom where the hairpin turn began I began to try to make the turn but skidded a bit and realized that I would wipe out if I tried to fully complete the 180 degree turn. So I remember realizing in that milisecond that I had 2 choices: 1) wipe out, or 2) just go straight and run into those bushes in front of me. I chose option number 2.

Unfortunately "those bushes" was actually one decrepit shrub, followed by a ravine (but there were bushes on the other side of the ravine). Needless to say the shrub did not break my fall as well as I had hoped the bushes would. And dum dum dum, the flying gringo was born. Over the handle bars I went and fell about 20 feet down into a creek (I was actually very lucky it was only 20 feet, if I had flown off of the previous cliff we had just passed it would have been more like a 200 foot drop). My wife who was behind me, says that when she saw my feet disappear over the edge, she thought she would find me dead. Hurt yes, dead no. I don't remember the fall but I do remember landing - basically on my back. After shaking off the daze, I realized I was getting soaked and managed to scoot myself up onto a rock. At that point my wife appeared and when she saw I was actually sitting up, her fear turned to relief but she still was obviously in some sort of shock as well because the first thing she did was retrieve my bike which had landed about half way down the side of the ravine and dragged it back up to the road. Screw the hubby - get the bike!!

Next on the scene were two motorcycle delivery guys from Guatemala's equivalent of UPS. They managed to help me back up to the road and went off to our town to get the ambulance. By the time I made it to the road I was definitely cold, wet, and probably starting to go into shock. Of course this being Guatemala, meant that it probably took the guys about a half-hour to get to our town, and then when they did get there they had to track down someone from our town's Red Cross (probably another half-hour at least), and then of course that person had to find the keys to the ambulance, which was actually just a mini-van with the back seats taken out, (maybe an hour?) and track down someone else to accompnay him since this involved the gringo and he didn't want to do this by himself. So between 3 and 4 hours after I had attempted flight, the ambulance arrived.

In the meantime any person who lived nearby had by this time heard that a gringo had just flown off a cliff and had to come out to see the action. A cute, wizened up old lady was chanting over and over in a sing song fashion "el gringo va a morir" (the gringo is going to die) - she was doing this more as a prayer than a haha the honkey is going to die, but nevertheless they weren't really the words that either me or my wife wanted to hear. And of course I was offered coffee - but for the first time I felt it was not totally impolite to say no to the coffee, my wife on teh other hand still had to drink a cup. My clothes had somehow been removed from me (good thing), a blanket was placed over me (another good thing), but the blanket was generally used as a blanket that was put between a horse and his saddle so it smelled like manure (bad thing) and Guatemalan custom is to totally cover a person who is hurt or sick with blankets which meant that they were trying to put this stinky blanket over my head (another bad thing). The woman who brought the coffee also brought a pair of her husband's pants to put on me as well, but for some reason my wife and I were the only one's who thought it useless to try and put a pair of pants made for a guy who was at most 5'4" was gonna be useless on a guy who is 6'4".

Anyways, the ambulance finally did show up. And a half-hour to 45 minutes later we arrived at our town's medical clinic. My wife then called the Peace Corps nurse, who said we had to get to the hospital in Xela, a 3 hour trip away. So off we went again and eventually we did make it to the hospital in Xela. Of course, the CAT scan machine was only operable between 9 am and 3 pm so we had to wait until the following morning to finally figure out what was really wrong with me. I thought I had done something to my shoulder, my hip, and that something was wrong internally. I was pretty accurate - I had broken (but just a hairline fracture) my pelvis and lacerated my spleen. When the Peace Corps nurse found out my spleen was a mess, she decided I needed to get to the hospital in Guatemala City (where she was located) so that a US board certified surgeon could cut me open. So we had another little adventure trying to get to the mini-airport in Xela where a private plane was awaiting to fly me to the capital (pretty cool huh?). And only 2 days after I had originally attempted to be Supergringo by flying over the cliff, my spleen was finally removed. And that, my friends, is the tale of the spleenless wonder.

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