When travel goes wrong: Sidelined by injury on the road

by Essays

The day starts like many others on the road: Up to check email, get a little work done, then head out for a quick run before heading over to a conference. I had made my way to Berlin two weeks before a long-planned photo trip to Morocco that I was beyond excited about.

I skip out the door for a run on this drizzly, gray Berlin morning – just time for maybe 40 minutes but better than nothing to fight the last traces of jet lag. Down the road, around a church, onto an urban dirt trail in a park I know so well. Large puddles swamp much of the width of the sandy trail, so I dance back and forth around them.

Offending Bench At Engelbecken

Then comes the last dance, so to speak: I skip to the far left of a puddle to place my left foot in front of a typical wood slat park bench so I can leap across the puddle with my right foot. I feel a sudden pain in my left calf. That’s odd, I think. And a few steps later, I decide I should take a look before moving on. When I place my left foot on the bench I had just skipped past to check out my calf I see a hole ripped in my tights. “Dang,” I think “a hole in my favorite tights!” Then I notice some odd-looking globby bits poking out of the hole…. “Hmmm, that’s not right…is it??”

Maybe I should just finish my run

I roll up that leg of my tights and stare incredulously at my leg: A thick V-shaped flap of skin is hanging from the upper side of my calf. There was not much blood – not yet at least. I have to blink twice to check if I am seeing straight. But the wound is still there. I slam my palm down over it for compression. Thoughts in the next three seconds, in this order:

  1. Just roll down the tights and finish the run, then deal with it: Ummm, maybe not a good idea. I didn’t even have a tissue to put on it.
  2. Run back to where I was staying (about ¾ of a mile), and then deal with it: Ummmm, nobody there but me and then what? Maybe not a good idea.
  3. Maybe I should find help? Just a bandage to hold it together perhaps? OK, best idea, but where?

On this little trail through an urban park and around a little pond, there isn’t much around to speak of. Boy, is my travel going bad. Then I spy a café on the pond I’d run past a number of times. I roll down the tights, hoping the wound wouldn’t start gushing blood all over the trail – just not a good idea in a foreign city to decorate a popular park with blood — and hobble toward the café, feeling a tad light-headed.

Sunday brunchers fill the place, so I slip in a side door near the kitchen, mumble something about being injured and just needing a few napkins to a cook who peeks around a corner. No worries, I add. I figure I’ll just grab them, compress the wound a bit and be on my way. Must have looked a little pale because a manager rushes over, brows furrowed, assesses the situation, and asks me to show him, then he immediately wigs out, drags over a chair, orders me to sit down, and announces he has to call an ambulance.

I protest…yeah, really…wound hanging open, blood likely coming any second, and I protest. But “No” wasn’t an answer he would accept – thank goodness. So I sit and wait for the ambulance. Meanwhile, the manager reaches into his wallet and hands me 30 Euro (about USD $33), noting I will need it for a taxi home. I protest again, but he insists. I can’t believe this is happening in Germany.

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A few minutes later, two tall German EMTs dressed in full bright-orange and yellow garb came strolling in the door. Yup, strolling, looking pretty nonchalant, like they are taking a walk in the park, trying their best to look truly like uber-cool studs to-the-rescue, but that’s a bit difficult when you are wearing baggy, fluorescent work safety wear.

“Are you the injured person?” EMT #1 asks. Me, with a leg up and bandage. Yup, who else?

“Yes,” I say, lifting my palm to show him the wound that had been bandaged and wrapped by a restaurant employee in the meantime. Bright red blood is just starting to seep through the gauze. “Do you want to see it?”

“Nah, why create more work for myself,” he answers. “That looks pretty good…. Can you walk?”

“Yes,” I say, getting up gingerly, saying good-bye to my new friends. I follow the two EMTs out the door down some stairs, along a short path, back up some stairs, and across the street to the ambulance – felt like a marathon. EMT #1 opens the door.

Medical Emergencies While Traveling Ambulance

“I’ve never been in an ambulance before,” I say aloud, but really more to myself than to him.

When travel goes wrong you get an ambulance ride

EMT #2 starts the ambulance moving, and I’m pretty oblivious to it all. Paperwork and questions. No pain really, which I find strange. Brain is numb, really, which isn’t so strange I suppose. I answer his questions, still trying to joke around a bit. Looking for a place to prop up my leg because he hadn’t offered it. California? Really? You’re from California, he says.  Now that things are moving around me and I’m out of control, the journalistic instinct sets in (probably a way to gain some control again, right?), and I start asking a few questions and trying to sneakily snap a few photos.

Arriving at the hospital, EMT#2 is by my side, having overheard our chatter about California. Neither seem to care much in their swagger about helping me, instead EMT#2 is more interested in telling me about his trip to California last year, the Pacific coast, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, it was so great, fun…. The typical German trip, I think, and I try to be friendly but am half-tuned out.

Hospital ER Entrance when travel goes wrong

I’ve never been a hospital patient before, and it all seems very odd.

The hand-off to the hospital and the call home

EMTs disappear and hospital staff takes over. Oh, you’re from California, says Head Intake Dude. Yes, I do speak German, but not this emergency medical lingo that is totally foreign, but I bumble along. More paperwork, and I’m rolled down the hall and around the corner on the gurney to wait. More photos to track and log what the heck is going on. My head is clearing, but I’m trying to remember what our international insurance is. I am struggling to see my phone since I wear readers and OF COURSE didn’t have any on me. I call my husband and business partner on HITravelTales, Michael. Call once on the home line, call again on his cell phone, call again on WhatsApp. It’s about 3 a.m. in California and I figure if I keep calling, he’ll answer. Eventually. He does.

Hi honey, I say, in a slightly trembling voice. I want to start with “don’t worry, but…” and am not sure how to proceed. Michael immediately senses a problem.

“Are you OK?”

“Um, no, not really….” I try to find the right words that won’t leave him freaking out. Then I explain, and we both just leap into action. Best way to deal with the emotions and pain, right? Take action, take photos, take notes, make calls…. We spend the next hour searching in our cloud storage for documents, texting back and forth so I have the phone numbers and such I need to call our insurance, and I just keep taking photos of my leg, the hallway, nurses, and others rushing by. I reach our insurance company, and representatives step in and basically take over, telling me not to worry, they are sending forms guaranteeing payment to the hospital and myself and calling the hospital. I beg for some water from a passing nurse and get a tiny plastic cup.

Hospital How To Be Prepared For Travel Emergencies

From nearly 6,000 miles away, Michael stays up with me, texting and calling for more than an hour. I watch my phone battery dwindling, and I panic a bit. This is my one thin thread to emotional support and home. Don’t die, I stare pleadingly at my phone. Please don’t die….

The nurses and doctors finally come to wheel me into a room and start treatment. I know it will entail stitches. This is what happens when travel goes wrong.

I’ve never had stitches before.

Never Had Stitches Before

Doctors, residents, and stitches

A young chirpy women in pink scrubs takes over, smiling. A very stern looking woman in blue scrubs, with her arms crossed firmly and brow furrowed stands nearby, staring, not smiling. Young Chirpy Woman is in charge. Blue Scowling Woman is overseeing. This is a teaching hospital, and they appear to me like a resident and overseeing doctor.

“How many stitches do you think?” I ask Young Chirpy Woman.

“Oh, five, maybe six,” she says. Blue Scowling Woman doesn’t flinch or interact as Young Chirpy Woman starts washing and prepping my leg and the wound. I’m itching to take out my phone and document this. So I do.

“PUT AWAY YOUR PHONE!” Blue Scowling Woman orders me.

“But I want to show my husband at home please,” I smile in an attempt at charm.

“NO PHOTOS. PUT YOUR PHONE AWAY!” she demands. I slip it meekly into my side pocket and start plotting how to take one on the sneak. Once a journalist, always a journalist, even when travel goes wrong. I keep chatting with Young Chirpy Woman. A few minutes later, Blue Scowling Woman leaves the room.

I wait a second, look around, and then turn on the charm again. “Can I take a photo please? I’d really like to show my husband.”

Her head pops up from my leg, she looks furtively in both directions, twice, and then at the door.

“OK, but do it quick and don’t tell anybody.”

My phone shutter sound is always off, so she doesn’t know I quickly snapped off about six photos.

My travel was going from wrong to worse

All done, and I am told I need to see a doctor in the morning. I don’t have a doctor here and don’t know one, I mumble. And I am told I just better find one.

Travel Goes Bad Doctor Office

I am helped off the gurney and told which way the exit is to the front door where the taxis are. I push through the heavy door. It slams shut behind me. I am now in the lobby, back to the real world, watching people rush about, once again my head is a bit of a blur. It’s been about four hours since I started my little run. I half-limp toward the front door, stand under the awning outside protected from the drizzle, then step out to wave down a taxi. People seem to be moving very fast.

I slip in the back and tell the older man where I’m heading.

The chat turns to my injury, which I explain to him. “Sport ist Mord,” he pontificates in German. Translation, but sans the rhyming cool: “Sports can kill you.” No point in arguing with him.

I reach home, stumble in, and sit down. My day is not done. Now I have to find a doctor to go to in the morning. Try to figure out how I’ll get around. And then there is that much-anticipated trip to Morocco in a week.

Always the optimist, always the “strong woman,” I am completely convinced everything will be fine, and I’ll get on that plane to Casablanca in eight days. Even the doctor I found to see the next day doesn’t see it as a problem, he says: He can take out the stitches the morning of my planned departure, and I can go catch my plane. But after that things go from bad to really really worse: By the end of the week I’m on strong antibiotics. My leg hurts so bad it starts throbbing, and I can hardly walk. Let’s not discuss the infection that was obvious the night before I was to leave. I had even packed my suitcase for my trip to Morocco. Such a cock-eyed l optimist. But really the only way through this was to stay optimistic.

I am rushed off to a third doctor, a general surgeon, the very day I am supposed to leave (a Monday, eight days after the injury). As he works on my wound, I ask if he thinks I can maybe go to Morocco on Wednesday, he looks up at me, pauses a moment, cocks his heads and says:

“THIS Wednesday??”

“Umm,… yes….” My voice trails off a bit meekly. He just shakes his head and looks down again. I guess that is my answer to my travel going bad…to worse.

In the end, the travel gods wanted nothing of a quick return to life. I spent two weeks migrating from doctor to surgeon to ER to doctor, had wounds packed, antibiotics increased twice, and an antibiotic drip on my second ER visit.

Getting Drip In ER Travel Goes Wrong

I’ve never had a drip before.

I hobble slowly around the neighborhood to get food, restock bandages, and my days are filled with calls to the insurance, doctor visits, naps, re-applying bandages, and taking antibiotics and pain meds before I start the cycle all over again. Travel to Morocco? The farthest thing from reality at this point.

When travel goes right again

A week after my Morocco trip was supposed to begin, I made it there – ecstatic is an under-statement. At this point, however, I had missed most of a 10-day photo trip. Perhaps that was for the better after I heard details about how it had gone and the desert sandstorms. I had a five-night add-on with two friends that was perfect. With a lot of leg-babying and a lot of people looking out for me, my injury made a HUGE turn for the better toward the end of the week. I was on the road to recovery from my nightmare travel experience.

Ah, but sadly, the scar is mean, really really mean. It won’t let me ever forget my eye-opening experience when travel goes wrong.

Guess that means I have to give up the leg modeling contract…. You can’t have it all.

HITT Tip: I learned a lot about dealing with travel emergencies because of my own “when travel goes wrong” experience. You can read about those lessons and the tips we want every traveler to heed in another story, “Medical emergencies while traveling – essential travel advice.

when travel goes wrong - Leg And Bench One Month Later

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Therese Iknoian

Co-Conspirator at HI Travel Tales
Little did her parents know that a short trip to Europe in high school would launch a lifetime love of travel, languages and cultures. Trained as a news journalist, Therese Iknoian now focuses her writing and photography talents on travel. Fluent in German, Therese also runs a translation business (ThereseTranslates.com) working primarily with companies in the outdoor/sports/retail industry. She's a French speaker, and loves to learn a bit of the language wherever she goes -- gdje je kupaonica? Мне нужна помощь! -- often embarrassing herself in the quest for cross-cultural communication. Therese is an award-winning member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.
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