What I Learned From Experiencing an Emergency Away From Home


Any time I travel, on my last day I always feel like I need to end the trip with a bang, spend the precious few remaining hours being adventurous. That way I can't look back on having wasted the time and ensure I have ample memories to cherish while begrudgingly transitioning to regular life on the plane ride home.

On a recent trip to Central America, my travelling mate and I couldn't decide on what activity to fill our last daylight hours with other than to try our hand at surfing. Our determining factor was that, in our thirties, we weren't getting any younger. Now was the time to do it before we made a fool of ourselves attempting the water sport in later years.

That overcast Saturday afternoon, we headed to a local beach called Playa Maderas. We tackled the basics literally head on in the sand. How not to lean too far forward and to balance and stand appropriately. Soon it was time to hit the waves. It was tough to master my normally unwieldy balance on the slim board and my swim bottoms nearly came off a few times, but I was starting to get the hang of it and was laughing whenever I stood up after being washed up by the tide.

Our surf instructor took turns leading us out into the oncoming waves and counting out the stances we’d practiced on land. Regaining my orientation after a wave and standing in water only about knee deep, I was surprised to feel a sudden stab of pain in my left ankle. I thought I’d stepped on a rock or scraped against a sharp piece of coral. Lifting my leg out of the water, my eyes bulged when I saw a huge dent in my skin gushing bright red blood. I realized then and there that I had been stung by something, assuming most likely by a jellyfish, since I had read they were common in the area.

This was the moment when panic set in. I weaken at the sight of blood, so I screamed for help at my fellow surfers. But the crash of the waves was too loud for them to make out my urgent cries. I proceeded to hobble in circles bleeding profusely on the sand, calculating if clambering over the beach’s sharp rocks to retrieve my first aid kit in my pack stored at the beach restaurant was a good idea or not. Instead, I yelled and waved at my fellow surfers again. They paused, but couldn’t tell what was wrong with me and continued riding the waves. Finally, I got their attention. It didn't take long for them to realize the seriousness of the situation -- I had been stung by a stingray.

The next hour or so was a blur. With the help of a passerby, my injury was dressed and I was helped away from the beach and its jagged rocks to a nearby restaurant. After some time, I was able to call a relative who was able to look up on the net what standard procedure was following a sting. Although not everyone surrounding me was eager to help, my friend, our surf instructor, and a generous bystander from Poland kept me talking coherently and helped to clean out the wound.

About an hour later, our scheduled shuttle transportation arrived and agreed to take me to the local hospital in town. It was the most excruciating 30-minute truck ride over treacherous mud-bogged back roads I'd ever experienced. The driver could only take bumps slowly and inquire if it hurt badly.

Miraculously, I made it to the local hospital and was treated promptly. I was informed I was lucky because the stingray’s stinger had not broken off into my skin. I grimaced in appreciation of that information and accompanying local anesthetic and tetanus shot. I am eternally grateful for the kindness of the stranger who helped me manage the pain and act as a translator to the medical staff in the small town I was visiting.

Having gone through this experience, here are my tips to help you get through an emergency while away from home:

1.    Learn about the environment you will be spending time in. Don't discover in the airport waiting room that the lake you swam in for the past few days is shark infested. Do your homework once you've booked your plane ticket.

2.    Make sure you have access to cell phone coverage. Pay the fee to have it accessible on your phone, not another person's with whom you're travelling. On that note, never leave for the day without a fully charged phone battery.

3.    Know enough of the language of where you are travelling to at least minimally communicate. If not possible, carry a print pocket dictionary.

4.    Don't go anywhere without a first aid kit. Replenish it after each use and keep an eye on expiry dates.

5.    Ensure you have good travel insurance. If you don't have it provided through your employer, most banks or credit card companies offer decent rates on short term coverage.

6.    Have enough money on you or a backup credit card in case you have to pay for health services. Often, insurance providers will reimburse you following a claim submission.

7.    Don't be afraid to ask for help. And, even though you’re in distress, don't forget to ask for contact information of those who do! I regret not having gotten more than the first name of the gentleman who rescued me on that Central American beach. I hope he knows how grateful I am.

8.    Be brave. It's okay to shed a few tears, but know you'll get through this! People genuinely want to help and although it can be a life changing experience, it gives you a story to tell when you get home. Danger must always be heeded when traveling, but don't let it stop you from exploring the world.