Worst-Case Scenarios

In honor of the one(ish) year anniversary of Eric’s free-diving accident, here is the full(er) story.

I am in a taxi on my way to Hospital Mar Caribe.  It took longer than usual to find a taxi because it’s Good Friday, which appears to be a shut-the-city-down kind of holiday in Colombia.  The beaches have been crammed with tourists from Bogota and Medellin all week, the sound of parties wafting in our windows.  But today the streets are empty, a sign that everyone is somewhere that we weren’t invited.

The driver is unusually silent. There is a standard script in taxis which has varied little over the two months we’ve been here: “Where are you from?  Why are you here? Wow, you speak Spanish so well!  What do you think of Santa Marta?”  This last question always asked proudly, assuming that I will gush my love for this dumpy little town.  I may be the only foreigner they talk to this year, so I typically overstate my enthusiasm which is waning with each passing week.  Then it’s my turn to ask whether he grew up here, about his family and how long he’s been driving a taxi.  Occasionally there is a digression into current events, because I’m only comfortable in the present tense.

But this driver is silent, watching me furtively in the rear-view mirror with a small furrow between his brows.  He has been that way since I asked for the emergency entrance.  It is the longest I’ve seen a Colombian go without smiling and it is disconcerting.  I ease some of his concern.  “Mi esposo esta alla. My husband is there.”  His brow clears immediately — he can stop worrying about having a dead pink gringa in his taxi — but he keeps his serious look.  An emergency room in semi-rural Colombia is no laughing matter, even though Colombians love to laugh.

I look out the window at the empty streets and stores closed for the holiday and feel oddly out of character.  The woman I am playing in this scene should be crying and moaning and wringing her hands in fear and bargaining with God.

But I’m not.  I feel oddly blank.

Carlos, in his phone call, had started with, “He’s okay.”  The next line, though, was, “We’re in an ambulance on the way to the hospital because he came up from his last dive coughing up blood,” and I’m not really sure — even in Colombia — that coughing up blood in an ambulance is within shouting distance of “okay.”

My emotional inventory doesn’t turn up fear, but anger.  That blankness I’m feeling is the cover I’ve clamped down on a tremendous cauldron of rage.  My jackass of a husband has broken Rule #1 of travel: Never require medical care in a developing nation.  To be fair, I was the first one to break Rule #1, years ago in Vietnam, when I ate in a tourist restaurant — it’s always the tourist restaurants, by the way, never the street food — which left me unsure which end of my body to hang over the hole comprising the squat toilets of the Mekong Delta.  But a nice, English-speaking doctor came to our hostel and I was fine after a couple of days of antibiotics.  Now we’re real grown-ups and have children and no one in this town speaks English and there are ambulances and hospitals and I have to handle this all alone, which is not what I signed up for.  The lid on my anger clatters.

Carlos meets me outside the smoked-glass emergency room door, holding a bag with my husband’s wetsuit and mask.  He doesn’t quite meet my eyes, which provokes me because obviously some part of this mess is his fault.  He is my husband’s free-diving partner.  Or instructor.  Or the guy who is using my unsuspecting foreigner husband to offset his own boat and equipment costs.  Carlos’ intentions have always been unclear to me.  He starts to explain that I need to pay at that window over there and that I can visit Eric this evening.  His eyes cut toward the exit.  I stop him with my palm.  

“No, Carlos.  I will see my husband right now.  And you will come with me.”  I am surprised how quickly I morphed into a prima donna extranjera, the kind of imperious, entitled ex-pat who usually makes my skin shiver.

The intensive care unit door is wooden, like the cheapest ones available at Home Depot, with a faux-bronze knob usually found in low-rent apartments.  We knock and a woman in pink scrubs opens the door.  Inside are two rows of bays, like the craft kiosks for tourists by the harbor, except instead of hammocks, Gabriel Garcia Marquez t-shirts and Colombian panama hats in each, there’s a bed, a body and some machinery.  The walls are only waist high, topped with glass panels, so I can look down the row and see my husband a few cubicles down, sitting up, looking anxiously relieved at our appearance.

A good wife — the kind of wife I would like to be — would rush into his bay, fall tearfully on his chest and wail how much she loves him and how terribly afraid she was.  I march in, arms crossed:  “I am never speaking to you again.  Ever.”

Because I feel betrayed.  We are supposed to be a team.  That’s why this traveling thing works.  That’s why this marriage thing works.  In worst-case scenarios — when we’re trapped in a post-apocalyptic Egyptian town after the last ferry left, when the renegade captain proposes outrunning a hurricane on the Great Barrier Reef, when the ultrasound technician says, “Hmmm…” in that certain tone — we stand back-to-back, swords drawn, facing out against whatever dark forces encircle us.  But we can’t stand back-to-back when one of us took stupid risks and entrusted his well-being to this cowboy of a Colombian and is lying in a bed with tubes hooked up to him.  

Carlos speaks briefly to the doctor and comes back, rolling his eyes.  “They still think you were scuba diving.”  He mumbles in Spanish.  Carlos takes this misunderstanding personally; he is the reigning Colombian free-diving champion, able to go to depths of 90 meters without tanks or equipment, just a single breath and self-discipline.  

My husband recounts the barest outline of what happened: he went too deep too fast and experienced lung squeeze, when the cartilage in his lungs couldn’t shrink fast enough under the pressure of 45 meters of water above him.  The cartilage cracked and he came up coughing blood.  I do the math in my head: 45 meters is 150 feet, the height of a 13-story building.  But underwater.  With no tank.  Which is where my careless daredevil of a husband was.  If I were in an old Saturday morning Bugs Bunny cartoon, smoke would spray from my ears.

“I’m fine now,” he tells me, except for this catheter.  “Tell the doctor to take it out,” he pleads, wriggling uncomfortably, because the nurses ignore him and his pidgin Spanish.  

There is the briefest glimmer of a moment when I consider refusing, to punish him for doing reckless things in remote parts of the world that end up with him in a hospital with cracked linoleum and smeared glass.  My better self wins out, but the only sentence I can piece together from the words I remember within this stew of adrenaline and emotion is, “There is pain in his parts of a man.  Please can he have take-out?” Carlos is momentarily useful.

A nurse comes in and informs me that I have to leave.  “You can return at 5pm for a half-hour visit,” she tells me, “and you must bring these.” She presses a list into my hand and closes the wooden ICU door soundly behind us.

I squint at the list in the dark hallway, because the lights are turned off in this place that aspires to the name “hospital.”  These are the items I am to bring:

  • One bar of soap
  • One packet of disposable cups
  • Two hand towels
  • Sheets
  • One packet adult diapers
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant
  • Toilet paper

Suddenly it’s too much.  I’m dizzy and slide down the wall to sit on the grubby floor.  My husband — my life-partner, my co-adventurer, the father of our children — is in a hospital, in a small town in Colombia, where people are sticking needles and catheters into him, and I have to bring adult diapers?  They don’t provide clean sheets?!?  Carlos pats my hand awkwardly and shifts the wetsuit bag from one hand to another.  “I am sorry, but you need to pay now so they will treat him,” he says.

Paying, like everything else in this South American adventure, is not as simple as it sounds.  Crouched down at a window inexplicably at hip height, in a waiting room of crying babies and young men holding blood-soaked bandages to their heads, I learn that I need to pay a $700 deposit.  I try to explain my travel insurance but the girl with impeccable makeup, shellacked hair and inscrutable Spanish just swats at the air.  There is, of course, no credit card machine in the emergency room and I have only $20 in Colombian pesos with me.  We are at an impasse, and the young lady purses her lips and shrugs tiredly.  “Maybe you pay when you come back?”  

In the taxi back to our apartment, where my children wait to hear if their dad is dead or alive, we run the usual script.  This taxi driver is laughing with me: “What is this rabbit of Easter?  And it brings candy to the children?  What does this rabbit have to do with Jesus?  This is the craziest thing I have ever heard!”

At 5pm, I return as instructed, with my bag of adult diapers and toothbrush.  I spent the brain-poaching afternoon hours searching for that unicorn of Santa Marta ATMs — one with both a working power source and available cash — so I now clutch $300 in pesos. The new lady at the dwarf-sized window sighs deeply at my shortfall.  On our scavenger hunt through the hospital to look for a working credit card machine, we pass a ward for children.  I have a fleeting image of my ten-year-old in one of those beds, unable to communicate with the doctors or ask for what he needs.  For a moment, the audacity of our decision to come to Colombia takes my breath away.

Upstairs, in the ICU, my husband has a styrofoam plate of stewed meat and white toast, and a cup of teeth-crackingly sweet coffee.  “Not great ICU food, but whatever, right?”  He laughs now, out of danger.  The television in his cubicle is deafening; Jesus is lying bloody and beaten at the feet of toga-wearing Romans.  “All afternoon,” he says, nodding toward the screen.  “Apparently Colombian TV stations play nothing but Passion of the Christ movies on Good Friday.  So far, he’s been white, Latino and Mel Gibson.” He tells a story about practicing his breath-holds and slowing his heart-rate until his monitors erupt in alarms, but no one came to check on him.  He describes the bathroom, which requires navigating a maze of mops and buckets in the janitor’s closet and, like many in this part of Colombia, lacks a toilet seat; clearly no one in the ICU is expected to be using it.  In his mind, this is already an amusing adventure, an anecdote to tell later about everything turning out just fine.  I am so angry at him that I can’t unclench my teeth.

I return at sunrise the next morning, before it’s too hot to move or think, which when a doctor will update me on my husband’s condition. The armed guard at the hospital entrance is holding a clipboard with every patient’s name.  He knows who I am before I say anything because there is no other name like ‘Karpinski’ on his list of Lopezes and Jaramillos.  

One by one, families are called in through the Home-Depot wooden door, to hear if their loved one made it through the night.  I am sure my husband is fine, but there’s still that moment, when a couple comes out in tears, arms around each other, when I think, “What if…?”  Because in the worst-case scenario, there is no one in this town to put their arm around me.  Not Carlos.  Not the doormen in our building, who are the only people we talk to on a regular basis.  Not the nuns at my children’s school, whose affection for us has diminished each time we break a rule we didn’t know existed.  Not my children, whose combined vocabulary would make these interactions easier, but are too young to bear this burden.  

It’s just me.  

And it’s like those optical illusion posters sold in mall kiosks in the ‘90s, the ones that as you stare and cross your eyes slightly, a 3D image leaps out at you.  My self-image poster had shown an empress of adventure, flinging myself and my family into interesting exploits, trusting the universe to provide, laughing at risks.  But in the Hospital Mar Caribe, my eyes crossed a little and suddenly I could see that I was standing on the shoulders of my husband, that I can do these crazy/brave things only because he is here, holding on to me.  By myself, I’m a tiny, timid mouse.  And it somehow surprises me to figure this out only now, after years of heart-pounding exploits and funny stories of what almost-went-wrong.  I wonder what else I’ve misinterpreted about myself, if there are other core parts of my very existence that, if I stare at long enough, with shift into a new picture.

In the end, of course, my husband leaves healthy.  I am calm and clear as I lay out my expectations for his behavior in foreign countries.  I don’t leave the space for negotiation and compromise that has carried us through twenty-one years together.  Instead, I explain that I cannot hold up the edifice of this adventure by myself, that I didn’t sign up for that.  That when we are home, nestled within our cozy support structure, he can push his limits: he can hold his breath for five minutes and see what 45 meters underwater feels like, he can hike across the Mojave Desert alone, he can take wilderness survival classes and live out his Robinson Crusoe fantasies or whatever mid-life crisis-y idea comes into his head.  But not here, because I can only be crazy/brave as half of an “us.”

Our total bill for an ambulance, multiple x-rays, medication and 24 hours in the ICU was $512, which, if I think about it, is a relatively cheap price to pay for self-insight.

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