Thursday, September 18, 2014

the day i almost died

so i almost died. in a bus crash. in Kenya. it happened around 11am on Sunday, September 7, near a town called Narok outside of Nairobi. that's the picture of the crash scene above. and there's the news videos below:
doctors have diagnosed me with a dislocated left shoulder, a fractured left wrist, a broken right collarbone, and what they describe as "soft tissue damage" all along my back and ribs. i also have a concussion. it's difficult to breathe, and i've been having trouble sleeping. i can't lie flat, meaning i have to prop myself up to sit or sleep. and i can't carry anything. between the injuries, the antibiotics, the pain medication, and the memories, it's been a bit of a struggle in the weeks since then.

but i'm lucky. very lucky. i had no seat belt and survived. the people sitting next to me had seat belts and died. among the people on the bus, there seems to be a spectrum of injuries: the 2 who died, another who was paralyzed from the neck down, another who fractured her pelvis in 3 places, 4 who walked out of the crash without a scratch (and actually continued on to climb Kilimanjaro), and then everyone in between. i'm one of the ones in between. and based on what happened and what others have told me, it's incredible that i'm still alive: i was ejected from the bus and it then rolled over me.

i don't quite remember everything. it's coming to me in bits and pieces and i'm having to reassemble everything in my mind. things happened so fast i couldn't respond, but they also happened so slow that i could literally see and place my thoughts as they happened. it's like i stepped outside of time.

it hasn't really hit me yet, although i did start to get a little emotional when they were putting me under sedation for my 2nd surgery. but here's what i've been able to recollect so far:

just before the crash, i had a conversation with the person next to me about the need to wear safety belts. i then made a joke about "watch me be the idiot who takes off his seat belt" and then stood up to take a picture. that's when the accident happened.

i don't remember the moments after that. my memory starts with me on the ground of an embankment covered in shards of glass. so i know i went through the window. i remember feeling the bus as it rolled over me--which i guess is when i sustained my injuries. that was when i had my first thought: why isn't the bus crushing me? i waited for the bus to crush me, but it never did.

the bus rolled away. my memory has a constant replay of the bus tumbling down the slope. i'll never forget the sight of something that massive spinning and bouncing down the hillside. that's when i had my second thought: i am one lucky son of a bitch.

the bus eventually came to a stop upside down at the bottom of the embankment. i was lucid and tried to make an assessment of what was going on. i couldn't breathe. all i could do was a long constant wheezing. which made me wonder if i had a collapsed lung--or worse, punctured a lung (in which case i would have had to worry about a fluid build-up). i tried to stand, but i couldn't move my arms and every time i stood up i kept blacking out. i knew i was in going into shock, and i knew i had a concussion. but all i could do was sit upright and look at the bus. and that moment i had my third thought: god doesn't want me to die.

it was after that the screams began. i saw other people who'd been thrown from the bus. from what people tell me, there were also others who had also been ejected out the windows but had been thrown on the other side in the field. of the few who were on my side, one looked to be in bad shape. someone came out and asked if i could help. i tried to stand, but blacked out again.

i saw fuel pouring out of the bus, and i suddenly realized that we were at risk of an explosion.  unknown to me, there apparently was a man who came and did what was the smartest thing anybody could have done or did that day: he grabbed the truck battery and threw it as far as he possibly could. in the process, he saved all our lives.

i remember that the locals were immediately on the scene. they seemed to pour out from everywhere. and they all tried to help. people tell me that a bus stopped and the bus driver told everyone they needed to help and that if there was a problem he'd refund them their money. people also tell me that everyone ran down to pull victims from the bus. i know some of them carried me to a van and took me to the field hospital in Narok.

there was also a mysterious man--i've spoken with the other riders, and we still can't figure out who he was or where he came from--a really tall, really lean white man with a South African accent. before he showed up everything was chaos; everyone was trying to help but it was completely disorganized. apparently, he was driving past but then stopped his car, got out, started giving orders, and everyone started listening to him. he organized everything: he set up a triage system, directed some locals to focus on retrieving victims and belongings, directed others to use their cars as ambulances, and accompanied us to the field hospital to tell the doctors about what had happened. i was there when he told the relatives of the 2 dead that their spouses had died (that was tough). i figure he must have been ex-military or experienced in disaster relief, because he seemed to know exactly what to do and how to do it...the funny thing is that just as suddenly he appeared he suddenly just disappeared.

we overwhelmed the field hospital in Narok. from what i was told, we emptied out their entire supply of antibiotics, pain medication, and anaesthetics. i had 2 operations. the 1st was at Narok on Sunday afternoon to reset my dislocated left shoulder. after the operation i was put into an ambulance to a private hospital in Nairobi (the field hospital said there was too high a risk of infection in their operating theatres). that ride was one of the most painful experiences i have ever had in my life. even through the morphine. the 2nd surgery was at the hospital in Nairobi on Tuesday morning to fix my broken right collarbone.

all concept of manliness disappeared during this time. when a doctor in Narok first touched my dislocated left shoulder, i squealed like a pig. i've never blacked out from pain before, but within those 3 days it happened 4 times. i even blacked out while i was standing in front of a toilet urinating. i had to be carried on a stretcher. people had to cut off my clothes to operate on me. i was utterly helpless.

i've tried to rationalize why i survived. it's hard. i still don't know. i still can't figure it out. but i know that were it not for the humanity of the Kenyan people and the dedication of the doctors--especially those working within the limited conditions of the field hospital--i would not be alive. i also think that there were other things that contributed to my survival:
  • when i was ejected from the bus, i was thrown near the bottom of the embankment, which placed me in a hollow in the ground as the bus rolled over me. i think, but i am not sure, that is probably why the bus did not completely crush me. 
  • they say that the first 30 minutes after a trauma determines whether you live or die. when the accident occurred, we were about 20 minutes from the field hospital at Narok and so we were within that 30-minute window. someone told me that if we had been further out (like in the Masai Mara or Serengeti) we would have been hours, possibly days, from anyone finding us, which would have meant BIG trouble.
  • one of the doctors at Narok, when he was feeling my dislocated shoulder, said he could tell i exercised "a lot" and that had helped to limit the injuries, which makes me think that my fitness made me more resilient to damage.
but there were certain things that happened--i guess everything that happened--that have left me at a loss to fully comprehend the events that transpired. i've been told it's not possible, and that i'll drive myself crazy trying to figure it out. but everything just keeps replaying in my mind, and i can't forget any of it.

there were just so many inexplicable things that happened which kept me alive. and there were nightmares that occurred while i was under the 1st sedation that i can't explain. i honestly believe i came face to face with death, and i saw that it was cold, emotionless, and above all, empty. it was nothing. in a way that held power beyond description. my life was, and is, insignificant. but for some reason, it was decided that it was not my time to die.

i'm not particularly religious. and if asked, i have to profess a certain questioning and uncertainty in my faith. i am more spiritual than anything else. but i can say that in the moments after the bus stopped rolling and i was on that hillside struggling to breathe, i was offered a choice to live or die, and i decided to live...or at least try. as long as i could.

i also can, and must, say that the days since then have been a bit of a spiritual journey. the doctors and nurses at the field hospital in Narok and the private hospital in Nairobi were Anglican and Catholic, and talked to me about the nature of my miracle. on the plane from Nairobi to Abu Dhabi i sat next to a Muslim man who shared with me a discussion about the mercy and lessons of the divine. on my return to Sydney, my Buddhist cousins told me they believed that my survival was a result of accumulated good karma from my past, and a sign that i was meant to continue spreading good karma in the future.

i can't say much to that. at least not with any certainty. at least not now. i'm still thinking through everything. but i can say what i have learned:
  • when your number's up, your number's up. you don't get to choose.
  • it was not my time.
  • we live life with a mistaken assumption that we are in control. we are not.
  • life is random.
  • we are ultimately dependent on the kindness of strangers.
  • i am more grateful.
people have told me that these kinds of thoughts fade. that try as we might, and despite what we should, we invariably return to just living as we always do: empty, soulless, mindless, caught in a monotonous daily repetition of the mundane.

but i'd like to think otherwise. i'd like to be otherwise. i don't think i ever was that way before. i certainly wasn't that way during. i'm definitely not that way now. i assuredly don't want to be that way in the future.

i believe. i know. i understand. i respect. i appreciate. i connect. i share. i am.  


and i am aware that i am in possession and in communion with a mystery that is not nothing
which transcends all reason and goes beyond all existence to the core of all eternity
wherein lies the secret that not even death can explain.
a meaning that has no meaning and
a purpose that has no purpose and
a reason that has no reason:
it is that it is.
it is the substance at the center of creation and
it is the power within the human heart
it is what allows me, you, us, to speak that which is the testament of the greatest glory of the highest majesty of the supremely divine:
i am that i am.

and when i see speak feel breathe reflect live these words it makes me think about all the beauty that there is in life

and when i begin to count them, i find that they are many

and they make me want to live even more.

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