Alternate title: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Victoria Falls
I would like to apologize to all of you that have been waiting for our tales of Argentina and Peru because we won’t be going there this year.
As we walked toward Victoria Falls within the National Park, I lost my footing and took a very hard fall on my left upper leg/hip. Sadly, I had a clean break through the top of the femur with a small spiral attitude. As I lay on the ground in terrible pain, all I could think about was how I shouldn’t have turned around to listen to another guide talking about skulls. Or if I had chosen to walk the path in the other direction things would have been very different. But, they weren’t and we had to move on from where we were. Our guide was great at keeping me calm and he helped the staff to get me onto a stretcher. Initially, I tried to shake it off as I normally would but this injury felt really different (read: hurt like an SoB).
The team at the park called the ambulance right away and they came quickly. The park staff directed them around a tree but they didn’t make the turn wide enough and impaled the roof cowling/light bar on a tree branch. The ambulance and park staff tried many ways to extricate the ambulance from the tree, including deflating the tires. Eventually, tying a rope around the branch and pulling while the ambulance tried to slowly move out from under the tree resolved the problem. Most of this I couldn’t see from my prone position on a stretcher under a tree. Unfortunately, our guide asked Mike not to take pictures of the stuck ambulance but I know he thought it was a bit comical. During this time the local director from the tour company showed up and facilitated my care brilliantly. After about a 30 minute delay, the ambulance was free of the tree and available to take me to a clinic.
It turns out that when you are hurt like this you really want a hospital but Victoria Falls is a really small place so I was laying in a clinic that had essentially three rooms. The most private “room” had a curtain separating it from the main hallway, that’s where I was for 8 hours. Just so you can feel how I felt, it was at least 90 degrees, lots of mosquitos and a pitiful excuse for an air conditioner. Then at 3 pm, the power went off, no more pitiful air conditioner. Very uncomfortable is an understatement.
When I first arrived at the clinic I had an X-ray, but not until they rounded up the one technician who could do it. The X-ray was very low quality yet enough that the doctor was shaking his head. The doc gave me some anti-inflammatories for the pain and told me they could do nothing more for me there. I needed surgery somewhere else. We were told I would need to be flown to Harare or Joburg and both Mike and I said Joburg at the same time. We figured there would be better facilities and an easier flight home.
As I’m laying on the table, the tour director asks if we have travel medical evacuation insurance. I was sure I had purchased a policy for our trip from August through December, but I couldn’t find the policy in my email. I started to panic even more than the rest of my current situation warranted. My blood pressure was 190/104.
I knew I had a hard copy of the policy in my backpack at the hotel, so Mike and our wonderful guide left to go get it. The tour director told me he needed to know who to call to get the insurance ball rolling so I didn’t have to spend the night on a gurney in the clinic. While they were gone, I found an email that Mike forwarded to me about renewing the policy. I was very relieved once I knew I had actually purchased the policy. I passed the insurance info to the tour director and the phone calls started.
At the same time the rest of our Africa trip was canceled and we waited to hear back from our travel evacuation insurance company, IMG.
Fast forward a few hours. The tour director had talked to our insurance carrier and they wanted three bids for the MedEvac transport and he provided the only 2 names he had. Then he said if we didn’t get out by 4 pm, we might not get out that day. The entire time, I’m on the main thoroughfare separated by a curtain and my leg was swelling and becoming increasingly painful.
After another hour, the director came back and said the insurance approved and ordered the evacuation. I was so relieved as it was already after 4 pm. He also said that he would let us know when the plane left Harare for Victoria Falls to come pick us up.
Getting Everything Ready
As soon as we heard the plane had left Harare, Mike went to the hotel to pack our things. Then the ambulance EMT guys who had been looking after me on and off all day had to do some stuff to get me ready to fly. Finally, Mike came back with our luggage and had to pay the clinic bill. The plan had changed slightly. The doctor in Vic Falls recommended one hospital in Joburg but the Aces Medical Evacuation team recommended a different place for my type of injury. The hospital in Johannesburg already had our medical insurance approval, so we were good to go.
After 8 hours on that gurney, the EMTs got me into the ambulance. All-day they kept asking me if I had hypertension because my blood pressure was 190/104, go figure. Also, they didn’t let me drink anything all day because no one knew when they were taking me to surgery. You can imagine my discomfort.
We arrived at the airport and the flight doctor met us. He asked all the same questions but at least he gave me drugs on the plane. It was a small Beechcraft that had 2 pilots, a flight doctor, a flight nurse, Mike in an uncomfortable seat, and me on a stretcher next to the bulkhead. After the two hour flight to Johannesburg, I was transferred to another ambulance and taken to the hospital.
I’m sure if someone had told me that I would have a major injury in Zimbabwe, need medical evacuation and have an orthopedic operation in South Africa, I would have been petrified. In hindsight, everything went as smoothly as possible considering all of the people around the world who had to do things to ensure my health and safety that day. I can’t say enough about the Ace air transport and ambulance services, those guys were awesome. And the Wild Horizons tour operator in Zimbabwe certainly went above and beyond. Happily, the surgery went well, but I’ll tell you about that in another article.
To answer everyone’s first question, we never saw the falls. But we will, sometime in the future.