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Broken – 2: Ambulance

Submitted by on Friday, 29 March 20135 Comments

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I am facing backwards in the ambulance, strapped to a gurney with the rear window framed between my white Sidi Crossfire size-12s. There is enough play in the gurney straps holding me down that I can brace myself, as we slide and screech through the corners of Mexico 1, northbound to a private clinic in Ensenada. Deductively, from the crossing of the double-yellow, in obviously blind corners, followed by the screeching of tires, and cars and trucks filling our recent void, near misses are standard operations. Kevin is following the ambulance tight on his KTM 990 Adventure, and is wide-eyed. That he is close enough I can see this through his sunglasses is not a good sign.

Perhaps you consider yourself jeopardy friendly, a risk taker, an extremist? If so might I suggest a new undertaking, because no matter how hardcore you are, you are squat compared to a volunteer Mexican ambulance driver.

They operated out of San Vicente, 32km from my spill location in Eréndira, the ambulance spartan, to the point of being near devoid of medical equipment — I’ve pillowed my head on my hydration pack for the ride. Instead of equipment this dynamic duo, consisting of a volunteer driver and attendant, apparently relies on speedy delivery of its damaged cargo to medical facilities. While equipment and training may be thin, the driver is making up for it with gusto, squealing tires, slewing corners, and an ambitious disregard for rules of the road and personal safety.

Ambulances aren’t given special treatment in the Baja. The American and Canadian convention of pulling over and letting the speeding red and white thing with blaring sirens pass unhindered doesn’t apply. There are slowdowns, as traffic refuses to let the meat-wagon pass, followed by near suicidal overtakes. All the while Kevin, on the 990 Adventure with 15,000 lumens of LEDs blazing stays in the ambulances wake – the pictures, taken by Kevin while riding, are of the calmer moments.

A neck brace hangs from a rack, like a prop from Saw, and swings violently through the turns. Hanging from a hand strap, the ambulance attendant tries not to do the same. The attendant is resplendent in a mid-80’s tourist t-shirt with slogan referring to his sexiness, which is pulled tight across his copious midriff in a Mexican analog of the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy. It is not a comfortingly professional image.

We are shy on communication. My Spanish is too limited to convey, “Look, I’m only broken now. I’m not critical, but my odds of arriving at the hospital alive would be much better if we slow the fuck down and stopped driving like madmen.” Strangely my English to Spanish translation app doesn’t have this handy phrase, and I’ve turned off data roaming except for true emergencies.

Right turns, placing centrifugal force on my broken left clavicle are traumatic, but I can counterbalance against the straps holding me in place and brace for them as we lunge into the corners. Topes, the speed bumps responsible for slowing traffic in and out of highway straddling small town Baja, are a synesthesia of white and yellow blobs kaleidoscoping outwards across my field of vision, static ringing in my years and my own moans. We work out a ritual, the attendant and I, I groan in pain, he shrugs a little as if to say, “What can you do?”

In a drug-soup, mixed with adrenaline, I’m distracted by small details; like the fact that my intrepid baked goods from the morning have been stashed in a cubby and are making the trip with us.

The ride through Ensenada is everything that has gone before with redoubled ferocity of a rush hour in a large Mexican city. Traffic gives no quarter, risks are taken, misses are near and abundant. After watching Kevin run a few red lights with the ambulance and cars crossing the intersection missing him by inches, I just close my eyes and try figure out how we could make room for two in the back. Somehow we all make it to the clinic.

Service is swift. I’m wheeled into Hospital Velmar’s small emergency room. Met by a professional English speaking doctor. Given pain killer as an interstitial injection in my left buttock by a disinterested orderly who spends a majority of the visit leaning against a counter and texting. Struggle with my pants a bit, then give up on one-handed attempts at Macna Alpine’s top clasp. Kevin locates a set of my shorts and runners, and helps me change out of my riding gear – amazingly I’m not even bruised.

Through the entire ordeal, Kevin has been a quietly heroic presence in the background, making all this somehow work through language barriers, a TelCel SIM equipped Samsung Note II, and negotiation – including providing a donation to the keep the Ambulance service running and cover their gas. Sadly, the driver and attendant refuse the additional offering of our intrepid baked goods.

The clinic process has been professional, but perfunctory and slightly distracted. The only other patient is a 91 year-old who has taken a fall, and requires stitches, a neurologist and brashly loud concerned son and his wife. One expects, the elderly represent a better source of potential income for the clinic. Every test and medical option offered, is accepted without question.

The x-ray tech changes the bed-side manner considerably. I follow the hoodied twenty-something technician with lady-killer or instant man-crush green-brown eyes into the X-ray room. He positions me in the cross hairs, kindly and gently, in a day that has been defined by trauma and thorough jostling the bedside manner is a panacea. I take a couple doses of radiation and two new souvenir of the trip once the plates develop.

Before the tech guides me out, he looks me in the eye, gives a rueful smile and says, “Surgery”.

An orthopedic specialist is called in, and concurs with the tech with an offhanded glance at the x-rays. The problem with the ortho is if someone is going to put you into their surgery, you want a certain degree of “warm fuzzies” from them — or at least a sense of they actually give a crap beyond the bill. Paunchy, mustachioed, and with a chin bilaterally split by a scar, the surgeon is constantly distracted by his cellphone even while describing the damage, the repair (in vague terms) and that they can get me into surgery that night.

Kevin isn’t feeling the surgical x-factor either, back in Eréndira Linda had implied treatment would be better at a public hospital, but more expedient at the private clinic. We consult with our travel insurance provider, they won’t cover the surgery unless its considered critical. Likely the surgery is cheap enough just to pay for it out of pocket here; after all the clinic stay, consultation with the two doctors, the pain killers, and x-rays have come to a mere $235.00 US. The sales pitch for the surgery is weak though, my confidence in the surgeon low and the clinic is only surface clean.

We make a painful decision; I’m heading home for medical care in BC rather than taking the instant surgery option. That means navigating the logistics of getting back to Vancouver from Ensenada, and there are no conveniently routed flights.

In a much less hair-raising ride I taxi to the Hotel Coral & Marina at the north end, with Kevin in tow on the bike. Before I’m in the door, the porter Ruben, has me pegged.

“Collarbone?”, he asks showing me the scar on his clavicle — a fine line of pink flanked by dotted lines of stitches. Ruben is a former Baja 500 and 1000 racer, before his wife made him quit, “Too many injuries. Are you married?”

“Er, no.”

“Good, no one to tell you to stop riding. I have a brace, the figure-8, do you need it? I could get it.”

Looking over Ruben’s diminutive five-foot nothing frame, I suspect there’s no chance of my northern farm-boy build squeezing into his clavicle support. This is what I love about the Baja though, there is a culture of motorsport here burned into the soul of the place. People pull together, offer help, and don’t unleash the standard “see motorcycling is dangerous, you should quit” speech. There is an acceptance of personal risk and responsibility here, the realization that adventure and activity no matter the undertaking occasionally carries a price.

Ruben offers up that hotel has a shuttle service to the San Diego airport; solving a major logistics hurdle of getting me on a plane home. Only two borders, two flights, and a bummed car ride to emergency between me and surgery remain… right?

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5 Comments »

  • Kelsow said:

    It’s not an adventure till something goes wrong.

    Eating popcorn till part 3

  • mikenewm said:

    Oh man, what a night mare. Good luck and i whish you a speedy recovery. All the best from sweden

  • Peter Jowett said:

    Hope you heal up quick, Neil. Nice job despite your agony, I felt like I was right there with you.

  • Neil Johnston (author) said:

    Strangely, at no point did it feel like a nightmare. Throughout the entire ordeal I was surrounded by people doing their level best to help, that made things a lot better.

  • Lee K. said:

    Great story telling as always!

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