“Mum, nothing to worry about. I’m in an ambulance, but I’m fine, I promise… Just hurt my ankle a bit” Jesus, I wasn’t kidding either of us. My put-on, cheery voice wasn’t going to fool her when she got that answerphone message. Truth was, after 7 weeks, 12 countries and 6500 miles, my trip was over. I’d had my first motorcycle crash about as far from home as I could be.
Bone on Bone
The first moments after a crash are the strangest. You don’t really feel the pain, that comes later. And you don’t think about the possible damage you’ve done to yourself. Every biker I’ve spoken to says this; as the adrenaline rushes through your veins your first thoughts are to the bike. How was it?! And would I be able to keep riding it?
I’d hit the ground hard, really hard, and the wind had been knocked out of me. Gasping my breath back I got to my feet straight away, eyes firmly set on the bike. I took two steps, ripping off my helmet as I went, before my left leg buckled beneath me and I hit the ground for the second time in a few seconds. Strange, why did that happen… I tested putting a bit of weight on my left leg and felt it.
A nauseating feeling; entirely new for me but one that was unmistakeable. The grinding of bone on bone. Shit. I’ve broken something.
The bike had slid on a load of loose, deep gravel that had been dumped by highway maintenance ready for spreading later that day. I’d been chucked off, but I thought I was okay. My gear had protected me as I hit the ground. The problem wasn’t how I fell though. It was how the bike fell.
As it low-sided and slid the bike rotated 180 degrees, coming to rest with the saddle facing in the direction I was travelling in. Unfortunately for me, my leg was trapped under it as it spun. With no wriggle room my ankle and knee joint turned in opposite directions as I came off. Ouch.
Instantly my mind went back to first aid classes I’d done. Do I take the boot off or leave it on?! I opted for the latter, the feeling was sickening but I felt calm and clear headed, like a survival mode had kicked in. If I took the boot off and a bone was sticking out… I just didn’t want to test my reaction to seeing something like that. Now wasn’t the time to freak out or panic.
So there I was, one clearly broken leg/ankle. One heavy bike on it’s side. Middle of nowhere. This was adventure motorcycling wasn’t it… what a dream…
My phone was still on the bike, attached to the handlebars, and wouldn’t have been damaged. I hopped over to it, stumbling and crawling the last few feet with my left leg dragging behind me. Unclipping it from the mount I checked for the precious few bars. Get in, I’d taken the great service all over Europe for granted up until now and it was there when I needed it the most.
I dialled 1-1-2. The phone started ringing and then the operator answered, hallelujah. I told them I needed an ambulance after crashing my motorbike, and I thought my leg was broken. But I was met with silence. Maybe I’d spoken too quickly? I repeated it again, slowing down a bit this time and emphasising ‘ambulance’.
“Yes, yes, you speak English…?” I replied hopefully.
“No, no, no…” And then I was put on hold.
It then started to dawn on me that I didn’t really know where I was. The wilderness hut I was aiming for was about 45 minutes away, and that was in Estonia. But I was in back country Latvia, I hadn’t seen any towns or signs for miles. I’d been down for 10 or 15 minutes by now and hadn’t seen anyone.
The size of the problem became evident when an English speaker was tracked down at the end of the line. While she got the gist of what I was saying, neither of us really knew where I was. The nearest town was Ape but I was still pretty far from that. After 5 minutes of trying in vain to explain where I was I felt myself starting to panic a bit. I told the operator I was going to press on my horn to try and see if there was anyone in the local area.
Three short beeps, three long ones. That was SOS wasn’t it? I don’t know how long I beeped away for, but eventually I heard the rumble of a truck and saw it slowly come round the corner. It was one of the highway maintenance guys. Brilliant.
I handed him my phone and he went to his cab to fetch a map. He was there for a while, and came back after hanging up, handing me the phone without a word.
“Ambulance?” I asked, he gave a thumbs up. Cool…
“Speak English?” Nope, he gave me a shake of the head and a shrug, and walked back to his cab to fetch a radio. (I learned later that the second language here was Russian, a throwback to the Soviet era that the older generation had lived through. The younger generation spoke English, but most of them moved away)
Right, well it was time to call my dad. We’d spoken before I left about what to do in an emergency, he had all my policies and documents. After a quick chat with him I left him to get the ball rolling with my travel insurance.
While he did that, more of the maintenance guys arrived. Still no English speakers though. They stood around looking at me, then pointing at the gravel and shrugging. I shrugged back, then pointed to my ankle and mimed a stick breaking. They shrugged a bit more. Cool, good chat.
These guys actually ended up being my heroes… but I’ll go into that bit later. For now, the language barrier was becoming a bit of an issue, shrugging and pointing wasn’t quite cutting it. The adrenaline was starting to wear off too, with that the pain was getting worse. And on top of all of that, my bike was still on it’s side. I wanted to get her up out of the dirt!
Crawling back over I mimed picking the bike up, and pointed at two of the bags. The guys understood it and unstrapped them, bringing them to the side of the road while picking the bike off and wheeling it to the side too. Well at least it wasn’t pissing oil or anything, I could still ride it home… right?!
I went into my tank-bag and grabbed my documents, I had a feeling I’d be needing them. After about 20 minutes an ambulance pulled up… but still no English speakers. Right, this could get tricky. Their first move was to try and yank the boot off my ankle without even unlacing it. Jesus it hurt, possibly the worst pain it had given me so far. I ended up in a tug of war with the paramedics, them trying to pull the boot off and me holding onto the top, begging them to stop.
Eventually they relented, and I unlaced the whole thing and gingerly slid it over my ankle. Right, I didn’t remember stuffing half a tennis ball down my sock when I got ready this morning, it definitely shouldn’t look like that… I laughed weakly, “It shouldn’t look like that, should it?” That was met with silence. Ah right yeah, no English, got it….
As they started to splint it up the police showed up. I was breathalysed (0%, obviously!) and my documents were checked. In the meantime one of the workers had got a mate on the phone who spoke some English. Using my new translator I turned down the pain relief that the paramedics were preparing; I didn’t know what it was and I wanted to keep a clear head until I knew everything was sorted.
A stretcher soon appeared, and I was picked up and pushed into the back of the ambulance with the bags that had been brought off the bike.
“Wait, wait, the bike, the bike?!” I was panicking now, what was going to happen to it. The policeman smiled, mimed starting the ignition with one hand and picked up my helmet with the other. I handed the keys over, and watched him walk over to it as the ambulance doors swung shut. At that point it started to get a bit too real; the trip was over and now it was time to find out what damage I’d done to myself.
“Not so good, not so bad”
The pain wasn’t too bad, but I felt every bump of the ambulance (of which there were loads, the roads really weren’t too great). I needed to call my mum first before I took them up on the offer of pain meds though. I got the answerphone. Putting on my best cheery voice I told her briefly what had happened, emphasising a) how okay I really was and b) how little she had to worry.
Then I pointed at the syringe that the paramedic was holding and gave her the thumbs up. They were pretty strong, I was quite glad I’d asked them to hold off, and by the time my mum called back I was pretty giddy.
The ambulance ride was about 30 minutes, like I said I’d really crashed in the middle of nowhere, and by the time we arrived the giddiness was fading slightly.
I was wheeled into the hospital and thanked the paramedics for their help. They were really sweet, and despite the language barrier the medic who stayed in the back with me had been lovely, even managing to explain her own son liked motorbikes and was living in Ireland.
Now I was in the hand of the nurses, of whom none could speak English (again). Someone mimed taking a photo of my leg and I gave them a thumbs up; X-ray time. After cutting off my sock I was wheeled into the X-ray room, leg put on a board and a lead vest laid on me to protect my future kids.
After a couple of clicks the nurse walked back into the room and did the same mime I’d done earlier that day… as if she was snapping a stick. So there we go, my first broken bone, in Latvia of all places.
With that, I was wheeled out into a ward and left in a room on my own. The final nurse to leave stood at the door, started to speak but then shrugged, gave me a pained smile and left me sat there alone. The language barrier was starting to get to me; I couldn’t speak with anyone, and no one could reassure me that everything was going to be okay (sounds childish I know, but it’s what I love so much about the nursing staff of the NHS, always cheer you up.)
After a while pitying myself I noticed my leg was left uncovered and I took a first look at my ankle. Yeah that wasn’t right, I snapped a couple of photos (which I won’t post!) of the outside bone clearly sticking out a lot further than it’s meant to.
Then a surgeon walked in who could speak English. He explained that I’d broken the outside bone (Fibula) which was what I’d seen pushing out, and possibly fractured the Tibia. He said the break was “Not so good, not so bad;” it would need surgery, but in his own words, “I don’t need to do it, get it done at home.” Right. I started to ask some questions but he raised a hand to cut me off, shrugged and left the room. FFS.
The next hour was a bit of a blur, I spoke with my travel insurance company and let my brother and sister know about the accident. I think they were pretty worried, so to show how fine I was I sent them the photo of my leg. That went down well…
Suddenly it was hustle and bustle again, and I was pushed into the next room where my word-shy Doctor and two nurses put my leg in a heavy cast. I asked him a few more questions; I didn’t really know what the deal was with travelling with a broken bone and his ‘not-my-problem’ attitude was starting to wind me up, since he was the first person I’d been able to speak to face to face since crashing.
While this was happening a familiar face showed up. One of the older highway maintenance guys, sporting an impressive ‘stache (put mine to shame), had driven all the way over to the hospital. On his way he’d picked up a mate who could speak some English. They told me that the bike was okay, it was at their depot and I could come and pick it up whenever. They gave me their number, and we found and pinpointed the bike’s location on a map. With that he shrugged again, gave me a pat on the shoulder and headed off. Like I said, heroes. Took time out of their day to come and see me (when the police could have just told me where the bike was) and looked after the bike for a week and a half for me after the accident.
With my new, shiny cast on I was moved up to a ward and a new bed with a few elderly roommates. My cast was propped up on what looked like an old, rusty ironing board and I was handed a large bottle to piss in. Sorry roomies! Then I was left alone again. It was quite late now, and I realised I hadn’t eaten since lunch that day. I was starving.
As if to answer my prayers in bopped one of the surgeons, he could speak English! He asked if I liked chicken and 30 minutes later returned with a chicken kebab, chips, bottle of coke and bunch of chocolate bars. I tried to pay him but he was having none of it, what a guy. Feeling a bit better after my feed I opened my phone again. While having a whale of a time on the painkillers I’d put a photo of the back of the ambulance on my instagram story, and now my phone was buzzing with messages from friends and family. Oops.
But it was bed time. I was exhausted and the room mates had turned the lights off bang on 10pm. Being two hours ahead, I was still getting loads of messages. Replying to them, I properly realised that my trip was now over. Ah man.
The nude Englishman
The next morning I was woken up with a lovely bowl of… something? I guess it was meant to be porridge, but it had the consistency of Mac and cheese with a far worse taste. It made NHS hospital food (gonna stick my neck out here and say it’s actually not that bad…) seem like the Ritz. I was going to be discharged today, so I really needed to make sure the hospital had provided my travel insurance with medical reports.
But first, there was something else I needed to do. I, ahem, needed the toilet… After much more miming (I’m a master of charades now) I got the message through to a nurse that the bottle wasn’t going to cut it this time, who left and returned with a wheelchair. Leaving me in the disabled toilet she gave me a thumbs up, pointed outside and closed the door.
I pulled my shorts and boxers off and started to lower myself down onto the seat using the handles when bang, the door was flung open. My nurse and another were stood at the door, staring in. Unfortunately for all involved, with both hands on the disabled handles and the toilet facing the door there was nothing I could really do to cover myself up. I gave a grim smile and they backed out, closing the door quickly behind them. I sat down, but about a minute later it was flung open again. This time there were 3 nurses. WTF?! This carried on for some time, me gesturing for them to close the door, then new faces appearing beside the nurse who’d taken me there when it opened a minute later. Finally, as I stood up to pull my shorts back on the door flung open for the last time, my largest crowd yet, all catching a glimpse of the nude Englishman. Fantastic.
Back in the safety of my bed (and boxers), I pestered the nurses using Google Translate until my Doctor relented and turned up, agreeing to speak with the travel insurance company and hand over my ‘Safe to Fly’ certificate. My dad turned up shortly after, he’d flown out the night before when it became clear that I was going to be turfed out. My travel insurance company were going to need to hire someone to take me back to Riga anyway in a car, and stay with me there, so we all figured it would be best for him to be that person.
And with that, after a typical Latvian hospital lunch, I was unceremoniously turfed out of the public hospital, without even a set of crutches. So long, and thanks for all of the borscht…
The next few days were hectic. Figuring out how to fly me home for my operation was a challenge in itself, despite the help of my travel insurance. And then there was the bike. But I’ll write about that another time.
It’s a shame that I can’t thank everyone who helped me properly, although I tried to at the time. The maintenance guys who found me were amazing, and their help with the bike was beyond what I would ever have expected (another story for another post). The surgeon who bought me food and acted as a translator. The paramedics who comforted me despite not being able to speak. All of the people who offered help, or put me in touch with someone who could help. And even the messages of support. When you’re sat in a hospital bed, alone with a snapped bone, having a mate or someone you haven’t spoken to in a while message you is nice.
So yeah, thanks to everyone. My first foray into adventure motorcycling has left me with a big scar, a better story and a scrapyard in my ankle. Let’s hope the next trip is a bit more… boring?