Pilar (former Pilarexpat, of the Hispanic team of Expatclic.com) tells us about her husband’s tragic accident eight months after their relocation to Chile, and reflects on the aspects we must consider in case of medical emergencies when living abroad.
Let me tell you a story that has to do with accidents abroad. 19th March 2007, celebrations for Father’s Day had just ended in my office, and I was making my way home for lunch. While I was driving, my mobile rang; it was Eva, our maid. Her voice was agitated and I could not understand her because she was so nervous she could not explain herself clearly. She was talking about Jean, my husband, about an accident at home; he was losing a lot of blood. At the end of the phone call I knew something very serious had happened, though I did not know what. I thought it would be best to send an ambulance straight away and to contact the head of security at work, at the Embassy of Spain. I was confident he would know how to activate the emergency procedure.
On my way home, I told myself I had to stay calm, using the same self-control I exercised when I had to face emergencies in my consular work. This time, though, it was different; this was about my husband.
At my house gate there were at least four cars from the neighborhood security company, people with worried expressions, moving around and talking on their radios. I felt like time had slowed down. I approached home and saw Jean lying on the ground, extremely pale, covered by many blankets. An old lady held his head and a security guard was trying to stop the hemorrhage by knotting a piece of cloth nervously. I bent down to be closer to Jean. The lady told me: “He cut himself deeply, he lost a lot of blood, he needs an ambulance… you must be strong”.
It was obvious Jean was bleeding to death, and I had to tie the loose ends this tragedy had scattered here and there. From past experiences with accident victims, I was perfectly aware that neglecting details and inefficiently coordinating help could very quickly trigger a change for the worse.
I was desperate and I called the Security Department of my Embassy; they told me the ambulance was on its way, and yet it did not arrive. All around me the neighborhood security company personnel kept telling me to take him to hospital in my car… I had forgotten that there was a clinic 10 minutes away!!! And what if moving him worsened his state? I had not yet really understood how many cuts he had, how much blood he had lost and how much more he could take.
Eventually the ambulance arrived. We travelled at breakneck speed to the Clinica Alemana, thanks to the corridor that the Chili Police made for us through the traffic. The only things I heard on the ambulance were the messages of the medical staff, announcing by radio that a 38-year-old man’s life was in danger. Everything was happening in a combination of horror images and urgency, something you think you’ll only ever see in American movies and never in real life. Still, this was happening to me.
After Jean entered the emergency room, I started waiting, surrounded by wonderful colleagues and friends who had learnt what had happened, and who helped me stay anchored to reality in those strange moments. I tried to reach the department where Jean had been admitted. Everything had seemed quiet a few minutes before: this was no longer the case. I noticed how nervous the head of security was, as he kindly pushed me towards the exit, saying that we had to let them work. After a few seconds I saw a stretcher being carried past, with Jean’s feet covered in blood. Eight white uniforms were rushing him towards the operating theater, while a nurse was shouting to us that we had to find donors of 0-. Jean’s blood type is not exactly the most common one. My husband had lost four liters of blood out of a total of seven. Although he had immediately received a transfusion in Accident and Emergency, the huge loss of blood had caused him to suddenly collapse. Both his brachial artery and radial nerve were cut; he needed to undergo immediate surgery. Doctors wondered how he could still be alive.
Besides the tragedy whose end was still uncertain, we now had the added anguish of having to quickly find blood of the same type as Jean’s. Thanks to the network of contacts of my colleagues at the embassy, and to the solidarity of many, donations started pouring in. Something not common in Chile and different from Europe, where donating blood is common civic sense, as well as being promoted by numerous street campaigns.
Now, after several transfusions, ten days in hospital and two operations, Jean is almost back to normal. It is incredible how in just two months life can present you with such a multitude of facets: from tragedy to the intense love of friends, from the solidarity of strangers to rediscovering the importance of day-to-day life…and many other things I felt in a very special way in the days following the accident.
My aim, however, is not only to list a series of more or less moving facts. I want you to reflect on some aspects of Jean’s accident that I think can be very useful to expatriates.
When we arrive in a new city, and even more so when we do not master the local language, the number of things to do sometimes prevents us from taking into consideration from the very start what I call an “emergency plan”. By that I mean knowing very clearly what to do in case of medical emergency. Below are the factors I consider fundamental to be taken into account every time we relocate to a new country:
EMERGENCY TELEPHONE NUMBERS: prepare a simple list with the telephone numbers of the first aid services of a nearby hospital (try the number, see how long it takes you to get an answer and ask how long it would take for an ambulance to reach your place), the police and, if applicable, the security company of the neighborhood.
This list must be clearly visible; it must be placed for instance on the refrigerator door, and all family members and house staff must learn how to use it. Speed can save a life.
FIRST AID: take a first aid course (many hospitals and institutions organize free first aid courses) and keep a small manual for emergencies at home. The trained family member should explain the basics to the others (for instance, what to do in case of hemorrhage, or if anyone is at risk of suffocating…). It’s not about being heroes, but simply about knowing what to do while you wait for professional help, which must be sought before you do anything else.
GET TO KNOW YOUR BLOOD TYPE. IF IT NOT A COMMON ONE, FIND OUT STRAIGHT AWAY ABOUT WHERE TO FIND A GOOD BLOOD CENTER OR CREATE YOUR OWN NETWORK OF DONORS AMONGST YOUR FRIENDS AND AQUAINTANCES. Only 1% of the world population is 0-, the least common blood type, but also the most important one because it is a universal donator. Also rare are B- (2%), AB+ (3%), A- (6%), AB- (7%) and B+ (9%).
PHARMACY: keep a basic first aid kit at home, and explain to the family members and house staff how to use it. You can ask your pharmacy or first aid trainers what is important to have and how to organize the kit’s content.
KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORS: apart from being good manners, knowing your neighbors can be very useful; one of them might be a doctor or a nurse, maybe they spend the whole day at home and in this case you can always count on them, or they might be local people that know better than you whom to call in case of emergency.
Going through such an extreme experience and realizing how important it is to be helped by many people who do everything possible to solve the problem has made me very much aware of the need to help others prevent a tragic accident in their own homes as best as possible. We always think something like this will never happen to us, and then suddenly while we are going to work we get a phone call and the impossible starts to become reality. Use a little time to plan your emergency plan and one for the organization you work for, it would be terrible to regret not having done it.
19th May 2007
Thanks Paola for proofreading