Goodbye Bolivia (for now) Three Flights Back To Los Angeles.

When I woke up from the anesthesia I was back in my hospital room with my roommates. A crowd of visitors had gathered by the elderly man in the corner diagonally from me. Last night my moans of pain didn’t bother him as he muttered and spoke in his sleep. But he didn’t speak Spanish. Must have been Quechua, the native language of the Incas and other Andes people. A frail frame with boney limbs, every time he had to go to the bathroom he went about a laboriously and seemingly painful process of getting out of bed, then bracing himself with one hand on the side table and the other holding his bedpan. I thought he’d collapse and fall on the floor. His visitors elevated his spirits for before he was just a lump on the bed. Combing his hair and cleansing his face, his visitors brought small gifts and surrounded his bed. His eyes glowed.

The other patients received visitors too. For me, slightly out of it from the anesthesia, I was comforted by the fact that my leg seemed to feel better and instead of a heavy cast, i was splinted very professionally and not too tightly wrapped in gauze. No more cardboard box and ace bandage. Once again, the water splash lady paid a visit to our room and mopped it clean. Later she returned with a plate of food for me — soup of some sort with chicken, noodles and vegetables — I ate every drop.

I longed for visitors, a call from MedJetAssist or some sort of sign that I will be making progress to heal and get out of here. Later, two men appeared at the foot of my bed. They inspected my splinted leg, mumbled a bit and then approached me. “En la manana a la seis y media vamos al aeropuerto.” Tomorrow at 6:30am we are going to the airport. I was hoping to get out of there today or tonight. But my wish would remain unfulfilled. I’d spend one more night in the Daniel Bracamonte Hospital here in Potosi — the highest city in the world.

The plan was I’d fly to Santa Cruz from Potosi where I’d catch an American Airlines flight to Miami. From Miami I’d be transferred to a flight to Los Angeles and from there an ambulance would take me to a hospital of my choice in Southern California. I provided MedJetAssist with my doctor’s information, hospital, insurance and instructed them to communicate and field calls from my girlfriend Angelique who’d coordinate with them and handle the logistics of insurance and doctors from California and help get me home. Together Angie and MedJet would arrange for me to be admitted and alert my doctor (broken bones were not new to me, and I insisted on an excellent orthopedist who operated on me before). According to plan I’d be in the Hospital in the States by late Tuesday night — tomorrow.

The hours ticked by slowly as I fielded questions about airplanes and flying to the United States from my roommates. I was the talk of patients and hospital staff. They’d mutter “he’s going to fly to the United States”. None of my roommates had ever been in a plane. My attention switched to Doc. I tried to contact a noted Honda dealer in La Paz who i hoped would be able to retrieve my motorcycle and store it while I mended stateside. My efforts were futile as I couldn’t connect with any of his phone numbers. Oh well. Time for sleep.

The morning didn’t come soon enough. But at dawn a police officer and the ambulance driver showed up at my bed. The two of them tried to move me to a rolling stretcher that sat only a few inches off the floor. I pleaded that they get more help — someone to hold my leg while the others heaved me over. Getting into the ambulance was more of a challenge. Without a gurney the two struggled to lift the stretcher into the back of the ambulance, pushing me into the back at a 45 degree angle. With no straps on the stretcher I started to slide but they somehow managed. Securing just one corner of the wheeled stretcher to the floor of the ambulance, the ride was a challenge as I tried to grab the window frame to keep the other three wheels from sliding and rolling the stretcher in the back.

Ambulance Cop
First ambulance riding cop pulls me through Bracamonte Hospital in Potosi.

Loading Ambulance Bracamont
Getting ready to be loaded into my Bolivian ambulance

After a quick stop at the emergency room to pick up all of my bags, which included everything i’d been carrying on my bike since July 2005 including the Jesse Bags, BMW top box, tank panniers, dry bags and an extra duffel which contained my riding gear. The streets of Potosi were fairly quiet as we made the 20 minute trip to the airport on the outskirts of the city. When we arrived the gates to the airport were closed and locked. The terminal building sat dormant and vacant a quarter mile past the gate. There wasn’t a car or airplane in sight. The cop and the driver hovered outside the gate, periodically blowing their hands to keep warm in the chilling mountain air. Then they joined me back in the ambulance. They said there was no one there and asked if I knew anything. I was in the dark too. So they started honking the horn. Then blasted the siren.

Just as they were about to give up a man on a bicycle heading our way appeared in the distance. Soon he was unlocked the gate and the ambulance sped toward the terminal where my bags and my stretcher were unloaded and moved inside the cavernous terminal building. I laid there just inches above the tiled floor. The building had all the usual hints of an airport with signs pointing to departure gates, arrivals, baggage claim, ticketing. But the building was void of life. Not a light on, no signs of airplanes, passengers or employees. Just an ambulance rider, cop and a bicycle riding airport caretaker. A huge mural of flight related imagery towered above me. Then echoing through the empty building was the sound of a telephone ringing — a traditional analog ring that’s virtually extinct in any office, home or public building in the States. Bicycle man jets up a set of stairs running after the phone.

Airport Gate Foot Ambulance Reflection Airpor-1
(L) Caretaker locking the airport gates after granting ambulance entry.
(R) Reflection of Bolivian ambulance through windows of Potosi Airport.

When i asked about the airport, the ambulance driver told me that only one flight a week lands or takes off from here. I asked why such a big and fancy airport for a town of barely 25,000 people. He shook his head in disgust and mumbled something about the government. The airport was built about 10 years ago and my driver was disgusted with how much money the government spent on this project. He lamented that people in Potosi just don’t have the money to travel by air. I wondered if drug money was involved in its construction. Plus, if Potosi was the highest city in the Andes, chances are this airport ranked as one of the highest in South America. As such, it was one of the most difficult to fly in and out of due to climate changes.

Something was wrong. Within minutes they were loading me and my bags back in the ambulance. Turns out the airplane coming from La Paz couldn’t make a landing because the clouds were hanging too low. Soon I was back at Daniel Bracamonte Hospital with my roommates and the pail splashing squatty lady. So there I waited. And waited. Water lady brought me another bowl of soup and a banana. Several hours passed. Then at 12:30 another cop and elderly ambulance driver appeared at the foot of the bed.

Once again I was wheeled along the ground to the ambulance parked outside the hospital. This crew had an even rougher time getting me into the back of the ambulance. At one point I feared they’d drop me. Before I knew it we were whisked past the hospital gate and on city streets heading toward the airport. None of my bags were in the ambulance. I panicked and screamed, “Donde esta mis cosas?” Confused and showing signs of panic that we were short on time they flipped a u-turn and retrieved my bags.

When we returned to the airport the gates were open, but the airport was void and vacant as before. The bicycle-riding caretaker was no where to be found. There was no plane and the doors to the terminal were locked. I could hear an airplane. Or at least that’s what I thought I heard. The clouds were still low. Looking the same as the morning. I feared another night in Potosi. Craning my neck from the back of the ambulance trying to get a view through the windows. I didn’t see a plane. But I heard one. Then in the distance I saw a truck heaving itself up a steep incline just outside the airport. Was it the truck? Then from the direction of the airport control tower I saw a bicycle riding our way. It was the caretaker. I guess he serves as the air traffic controller too. They drove the ambulance around to the runway where an orange tiny 6-seater Cessna 337 was parked.

Looking at the small and aging plane I wondered if I could sit in it with my leg extended and slightly elevated with all my bags. But I kept my spirits up and remained confident that we’d be out of there soon. However, due to the weather delay early this morning I missed my connecting flight bound for Miami from Santa Cruz, Bolivia. MedJetAssist was scrambling to find another flight where they could get a first class ticket to get me, my splinted leg and earthly belongings back to the States.

Potosi Airport Inside2
My view from the floor Inside the vacant and eerie Potosi airport terminal building.

Medivac Plane Runway Potosi
My MediVac plane sitting on the Potosi runway while the clouds hang low and rain pelts the runway.

Loading Into Plane Loading Plane3 Loading Into-Plane2
Getting loaded into the tiny Cessna 337. (click photos for bigger images)

Bicycle Airport Caretaker
Bicycle riding airport caretaker rides to control tower to give my plane clearance for take-off.

The cop asked for my passport while the pilot and caretaker exchanged paper work. With his documentation demands satisfied the caretaker hopped back on his bike and rode back to the airport control tower. Minutes later the Cessna was fired up and we prepared for take-off. The pilot told me he took his chances landing here this afternoon. Per the book, he shouldn’t have landed. But he knew I needed to get to Santa Cruz, so he went for it. I dreaded a turbulence ridden bouncy flight. But I was gratified that the hour long flight to Santa Cruz hovering above the Andes was magnificently scenic and incredibly smooth.

Potosi Airport
Vacant and bizarre Potosi airport from the air. (big parking lot, no cars; no people)

Andes From Air
Glorious Andes from my MediVac plane on way to Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

When I landed in Santa Cruz I was met on the runway by a stretcher, an ambulance and Shane West, an Atlanta-area native, firemen and EMT medic sent by MedJetAssist. With a bag full of painkillers and medicine and instructions to get me back to the States safely and comfortably he calmly coordinated getting all my baggage cleared through customs and checked on a flight that would depart Santa Cruz for Sao Paulo, Brazil on Varig Airlines. We would connect in Sao Paulo for another Varig flight bound for Los Angeles. But there was one slight problem. Even thought MedJet Assist had purchased first-class tickets, this afternoon flight to Sao Paulo was not equipped with first or business class seating. It would be impossible for me to sit in a standard coach class seat. My leg was splinted in an extended position, and to keep swelling and pain controlled I had to keep it slightly elevated.

But Shane and the Varig managers worked wonders and eventually accommodated my challenging predicament by securing three seats in the bulkhead in the front of the plane. My medic Shane with his bag of tricks would sit behind me. All during the flight he monitored my vital signs, and did his best staving my pain with Toridol injections. While not perfect, I managed to remain somewhat comfortable by spreading out across the three coach seats. In Sao Paulo we were met with a wheel chair and ushered quickly to the first class VIP lounge while we waited a couple hours for our connecting flight.

Landed Santa Cruz Bolivia
Landed in Santa Cruz, Bolivia being transported to the terminal.

Coach Flight Bulkhead
Missed my first connection and first class seats. Bulkhead gets me to
Sao Paulo where I get comfort of first class seats to Los Angeles.

In Sao Paulo I learned that while that my chosen orthopedic, Dr. Belleti had gone through the motions of admitting me and arranging for a bed at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, it was cancelled because I didn’t show up last night. Even worse, Dr. Belleti was hit by his own medical emergency and all his patient appointments for the next week or two were cancelled or referred to another doctor. Angie and I exchanged numerous text messages keeping me abreast of her challenges trying to get me admitted into the hospital with a new doctor referred by Belleti. But I had to board my flight and simply had to cross my fingers and hope that Angie, MedJet and the hospital were all in sync by the time I landed.

Thanks to the first class seats and my growing weariness, I slept most the entire 11 hour flight from Sao Paulo to Los Angeles where my only real challenge was figuring out how to go to the bathroom. Since leaving Santa Cruz I’ve been whisked around airports on wheel chairs. Sans crutches it takes two or three people to lift me and my leg to get me in and out of the airline seat or wheelchair. My medic handed me an empty water bottle which failed to work after I attempted to discreetly do my business under the big airline blanket. The flight attendant took the bottle and cut off the top. This worked.

Once in Los Angeles Shane retrieved my bags and we were through customs, immigration and into a stretch limousine heading down the freeway to the hospital. Getting in and out of this monster car proved challenging, I think an ambulance would’ve made an easier journey. Plus it seemed apropos to be riding down the 12 lane freeway in this oversized vehicle while passing masses of SUVs, luxury cars and all the other trappings of excessive consumerism — big box stores, massive retail centers, malls — quite the contrast to where I’ve been over the last 4 months. Am I ready for this? I guess my leg is.

In less than an hour at 9am on Wednesday I was admitted into the hospital and my things checked in with hospital security.

Home. But a long road ahead.