February 28, 2019
Like breathing, the capacity to bend a knee is often taken for granted. But hold your breath for more than 20 seconds and you quickly appreciate the beauty of inhaling oxygen. Having cracked my right patella, being forced to wear an immobilizer and walk with crutches, I am now acutely aware of the beautifully fluid motion of a good knee. When working properly they provide for amazing feats of maneuverability — pirouettes, stag leaps, jumps for joy.
Nearly three weeks ago, after working out on the gym equipment temporarily placed in the marina parking lot while renovations are underway, I stepped into a hole where some grating was missing. I was feeling rather pleased with myself for completing my morning workout and glanced down at my phone to check the time. That was all it took for one fateful misstep that seemed to have no bottom. As my left foot sought the ground, my ankle twisted in confusion and my right knee slammed into the pavement, the phone went flying and I went sprawling with one high pitched shriek. No one was there to witness my ungainly tumble.
After lying in agony for a minute, I took stock of my situation and started dragging my body with my arms toward my phone. Though I was crippled, my phone was undamaged. I figured I’d call another cruiser with a local phone number and have them fetch Kenny from the boat to come help me. But before I could reach it, two marina employees found me and came to my rescue. Cognizant of my distress, they carefully lifted me to a padded bench in the gym area. I couldn’t put any weight on either leg and felt like I was going to pass out. I put my head between my legs in an attempt to stave off a fainting spell. I needed to lie down. They asked if I wanted water. “Sí.”
One of the workers who was clearly very upset over my situation, frantically sought assistance over the VHF radio. Marlene, the marina owner, soon appeared and had the guys bring me up the steps of the marina office and onto her couch. It took every ounce of concentration for me not to pass out during the transfer. Thank God for the strong, caring workers at Mar Marine. Neither of them were much bigger than I, but endowed with superhuman strength as are so many of the locals. Tiny bent over men and women are often seen walking on the side of the road carrying loads of wood or produce on their backs three times their weight. Having witnessed this, I am no longer amazed by the monumental ruins of giant stone blocks constructed by their ancestors.
Ensconced on the couch in the marina office, Marlene gently cleaned my wounds. Her assistant Marco fetched me some ice for ankle and knee. As I regained my wits, I pondered the best way to inform Kenny of my situation. I decided to write a note to him on my phone and gave it to a woman in the office I’d never met, but whom Marlene said spoke some English. She kindly went off to Mary T in search of Kenny with my phone. Marlene brought me coffee and offered me a breakfast on the house. I chose the fruit plate.
Finally, Kenny arrived with water and ibuprofen as per my request. After explaining my fall and current status, we decided I should wait for a little while and then see if I could stand up. Marlene put the TV on so we could watch CNN in Spanish. We’d had a TV in the apartment she rented us, but it didn’t work. We shared the fruit plate and drank coffee. After having rested for about two hours I figured it was time to try standing. Kenny helped me rise from the couch. I was able to put weight on my left foot, but the right leg was a no go. My knee was only slightly swollen, but it was extremely delicate.
I needed to use the toilet which I was dreading. Fortunately, Marlene informed us that there was a toilet in her office. Kenny maneuvered me into a rolling desk chair and Marlene pushed me to the steps leading to the bathroom. With help from Kenny and my left leg I hopped down three steps and up one to the toilet. For some reason every bathroom here is always one step up from the floor. If you’re wheelchair bound, you better carry your own chamber pot.
I repeated to Marlene, that I should probably go for an x-ray. She said she was going to the town of Morales, about 40 minutes by car, and would give us a ride to the hospital. Kenny wheeled me in the side crabbing desk chair, to the front door of the marina office. I sat there for a few minutes, while a couple of employees standing nearby discussed in Spanish my likely prognosis. I don’t think they realized I understood what they were saying. I chimed in that I thought I would be OK. I really thought it was just trauma, that I hadn’t broken anything.
When Marlene pulled up in the car two super-humans spirited me down the stairs and Kenny returned from the boat with an ice pack and more water for the road. I slid into the backseat with my back to the door behind Marlene and my leg stretched out on the seat. As long as I didn’t move it and kept it extended, I was not in much pain. Kenny rode shotgun. As we headed out of the parking lot, Marlene explained there were two hospitals in the town of Morales, one of which was paid for by the local drug lords. The head of the family had recently been imprisoned.
Marlene’s driving, like everyone’s in Guatemala is reminiscent of NASCAR racing. She sped down the only road heading out of town frequently dodging oncoming traffic to pass slow moving vehicles. En route she recounted horrific stories of car accidents in the area. A trucker had unwittingly decapitated a child on a bicycle in downtown Fronteras, where we do all our shopping. Though there were many witnesses, no one came forward to condemn the trucker, who apparently didn’t even see the child. Just outside of town another truck ran over and killed a couple walking on the side of the road. Occasionally she interrupted her own stories to call attention to the dangerous tactics of the motorists sharing the road with us. Marlene herself was run over in town by a tuc-tuc, one of the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis. When she confronted the driver, he said, “I didn’t hit you. It was the guy behind me, who pushed me into you.” One cheery story was followed by another, until her phone rang, and then she got busy talking to one of her sons. I swore if we arrived in one piece, I would lead a perfectly saintly life for the rest of my days on earth.
Marlene pulled up to the emergency entrance of the hospital and a man with a wheelchair greeted us at the car. Kenny wheeled me into the hospital and Marlene, who speaks fluent Spanish and English, kindly came in and explained I needed an x-ray and a consultation. Then she went off to run errands after which, she would return. I was wheeled into a waiting area and parked so that I was facing all of the other patients. I was grateful there was no one there who looked to be in a dire condition. They studied me with curious eyes as I attempted to look cheery. After about 15 minutes, a technician pushed into the x-ray room. Using my good leg I managed to clamber onto the cold table under the camera suspended above. The young woman captured my knee from two different angles and wheeled me back out to Kenny in the waiting room. It took under three minutes. Five minutes later she handed me the x-ray. I was beginning to really appreciate the efficiency of the drug lord’s hospital. It may have been minimal, but things went quickly and it was cheap! The total cost for x-ray and consultation was $35.
Shortly after I was given the x-rays, an employee wheeled me into a doctor’s office. The doctor explained that he was a soldier doctor and not an orthopedist. Nevertheless, he could read an x-ray, and told me I needed an knee immobilizer, which I should wear for two to three weeks and wrote me a prescription for anti-inflamitories. He told me to just take it easy for a couple of weeks and apply ice for 10 minutes at a time. He repeated the recommendation in slow special Spanish three times to make sure I understood. No advice was given concerning physical therapy or a follow up visit. Gratefully, the whole hospital visit took under an hour and Marlene was there as soon as we came out and drove us to a pharmacy. Thank you, Marlene!
Living on the boat in such a condition would prove difficult, so I didn’t even try boarding Mary T. It was a shame as we’d only moved aboard ten days prior to my accident and were enjoying being back in our floating home. Instead Marlene delivered us straight to a hotel room at the marina. For three days I didn’t even venture outside. Through the generous help of the cruising community we managed to scare up a knee brace and the local fire department loaned me a pair of crutches. They don’t match, but they’re close enough. An American woman who runs an orphanage later ordered an immobilizer for me on-line and had it delivered to Rio Dulce. It runs from my upper thigh to my ankle and provides a great deal of support. I am eternally grateful for all the people here who have helped us with everything from medical supplies and advice to shopping and planning Kenny’s birthday. It takes a village and this is a very supportive and loving one. And of course, Kenny has been invaluable; fetching me things and frequently running between boat and hotel room.
Eventually I started venturing out the pool with Kenny’s help and spent long lazy days lounging about and gazing at the river, distant mountains and sailboats bobbing at anchor. A couple of times I even went swimming. My spirits remained high despite the fact that our departure date had been postponed by two months. I mean, what the hell. Things could be a hell of a lot worse. Right? And they did get worse. One morning, about ten days into my recovery, a vitamin C capsule became lodged in my throat, refusing to go down. I’ve had this problem before, but usually in a number of minutes, the vitamin or piece of food will proceed in its journey down the esophagus. Not this time. For four and a half hours I did battle with this vitamin which refused to go up or down. I could not swallow any water without throwing it back up. Fortunately, breathing was not a problem. The pain of esophageal spasms feels much like a heart attack.
Finally, what was left of the vitamin came back up, but the spasms didn’t stop and I still could not keep water down. Kenny went to fetch our friend Ray off of his catamaran. He’s a retired emergency room doctor and incredibly kind soul. He understood immediately what I was going through. He sent Kenny to find Pepto Bismal on the boat and told me to drink a big gulp of water, even though it sounded counter intuitive. For about 20 minutes I drank water intermittently and ate Pepto tablets and threw them up, but finally something opened up and I felt relief. I was able to sip water again and keep it down.
Ray borrowed the all terrain vehicle from the marina and drove Kenny and I to the local clinic. The doctor listened to my spiel and then my heart which seemed to require lingering in the vicinity of my breasts for longer than necessary. He prescribed four different medications to stave off a future episode and recommended an esophageal x-ray and endoscopy. I took a few of the meds the following days, but I haven’t had any problem swallowing without them. I figure I’ll go for the barium swallow and x-ray back in the States unless I continue to have problems.
The day after that horrific episode I had a migraine headache from hell that lasted two days. Then I was up all night with diarrhea, and the following day woke up with body aches from the waist down. At that point, I just wanted to cry. It was Kenny’s birthday. I pulled myself together enough to go out to lunch with Ray and his wife, Lori, and another cruising couple, Tim and Philippa. It seemed that moving around improved my condition. After lunch we had cake and Kenny opened presents Lori bought for me to give to him. I finally took two Tylenol for my lower body and aches and low and behold, the pain went away! I could hardly believe my good fortune. For the first time in four days, I was free of agony.
So what have I learned from all this? I need to pay more attention to my body. Move more slowly and mindfully through life. Know that no matter how much I suffer, many others are suffering more, like Kenny who has to step and fetch and tend to me in my weakened condition. I have vowed in the future to appreciate every moment that is pain free and in which all my body parts are working.
Is this whole blog just about her infirmities? How depressing.
Onward and upward! Feeling ducky these days and the knee is improving by leaps and bounds. On the advice of my wonderful cousin Allyn, a physical therapist, I’ve begun some simple straight legged exercises and gentle swimming to build up my leg muscles. We moved back aboard Mary T a couple of days ago, and it is such a relief to be back in our comfy little home and out of the confining hotel room with mosquitoes and occasional noisy upstairs lodgers. (What were they doing up there? Bowling?)
Today Kenny took a launcha to the town of Livingston, 20 miles down river, to have our tourist visas renewed for another 90 days. Had it not been for my knee we would already have left the country and be cruising the Honduran Islands just to the east or to the north island hopping through Belize. But here we remain and visas require renewing. Fortunately, I did not have to travel to Livingston, as it may have been difficult for me to find a comfortable position on the launcha.
Before my injury things were moving forward nicely. With great joy we splashed Mary T into the water on January 6. She had to be towed over to the dock at Mar Marine, because we couldn’t start the motor. Our dead batteries and some engine maintenance was required before we could move on our own. Our hearts rose when we made her fast to the dock. Climbing up a ladder in a dusty boat yard everyday quickly loses it’s romance. A boat belongs on the water, and now Mary T was only steps from our apartment, which we decided to keep until we were farther along with the repairs and cleaning. Work on a boat while living aboard is challenging to say the least, and with the cheap rent, it seemed silly to make ourselves suffer.
Each morning, after a leisurely breakfast we’d stroll down the dock to Mary T and continue our routine of fixing and cleaning. We have a to-do list three miles long and every time we cross something out, something new gets added. It’s a list that never stops, but we did manage to pull things together enough to move aboard February 2. That was a glorious feeling. To celebrate, we had friends Julia and Worth over for cocktail hour in the cockpit. Living aboard put us another step closer to leaving the dock and it felt so good.
Before my accident, I took a couple of breaks from boat chores to enjoy outings organized by another boater named Anna. One trip was to a fruit farm, where a former peace corps volunteer was growing all manner of local and exotic plants including cocoa. It was an impressive spread and his mission of encouraging locals to grow their own food and try new things was inspiring. However it was a hot day and standing for hours in the sun listening to a discourse about the intricacies of grafting and caring for fruit trees became an exercise in endurance. Kenny did not attend.
Kenny did join me for a subsequent outing to visit the Mayan ruins of Quirgua, an hour’s drive to the southwest of Rio Dulce. The carvings depicting battles and other historic events in the tall thin stones called stellae were spectacularly well preserved. Hard to believe they were done over 1200 years ago. We hope to visit Tikal, which is one of the biggest and most popular Mayan ruin sites, before we sail away.
Another source of entertainment here is movie night. Friday nights, Tortugal marina shows movies and Saturdays it takes place at Mar. We were able to see many of the movies nominated for academy awards as well as three of my documentaries. Julia, founder of the charity Pass-It-On Guatemala, has become a good friend, and she chooses the movies for Mar Marine. She liked Red Dot on the Ocean, so she went to my website flanneryfilms.com (created by Kenny) to see what else I had done. She requested screening Return to Belaye, and Cruising on the Mary T – Nova Scotia to the Bahamas. I couldn’t have been more tickled. It was fun to show the flicks to an appreciative audience.
Cruisers love buying and selling old boat stuff and other used geegaws, so three Sundays a month there are flea markets where boaters get out all their junk and hawk it to each other. Kenny and I participated a few times and managed to get rid of a bunch of old crap including my old inflatable kayak. Whatever we don’t sell we donate to Pass-It-On and they try to sell it at the next market. They always have the biggest display at the flea market, because everyone donates stuff so they can raise money for their projects.
I wrote an article about Julia and Pass-It-On when we were back here in 2016 for six weeks. The organization is made up entirely of volunteers, most of whom are boaters and a few are locals. They re-purpose old boat batteries and solar panels donated by cruisers, and convert them into lighting systems for villages without electricity. Several villages now have their clinics, schools and meeting places illuminated for the first time. It’s not only great for the villagers, but it makes it easy for boaters to dispose of their old batteries. Pass-It-On also donates little solar lanterns to households with school children so they can study safely after dark. Many kids have been badly burned or killed falling into fires when they fall asleep studying.
Now the charity has moved on to bringing medical supplies and clothes to an old folks home for the indigent and bringing eye glasses to villagers in need. The list goes on… Julia recently organized a water safety/first aid course for marina employees. She requested I videotape the sessions and produce a sort of public service announcement encouraging folks to take a first responder course. You can see it on YouTube. It is impossible to say no to Julia. The other day we were lounging by the pool when she walked by and remarked, “Must be nice.” I said, “You could do this too, if you weren’t so busy saving the goddamned world!”
Julia is so amazing, I’ve started dreaming about creating a do-gooder award. There are all these big splashy award ceremonies like the Oscars and Golden Globes glorifying filmmakers as if they were gods. Being a “filmmaker” of sorts, I’m not knocking the field or anything. Making movies is a hell of a lot of work, but is it really deserving of so much self-congratulatory pomp and circumstance? Why not have a big splashy award ceremony with a cash prize for things that really matter? How about awards to honor people for bettering mankind through spiritual, humanitarian, or ecological efforts. The SHE awards. The award itself would be a golden dove with an olive branch skimming across waves. And it wouldn’t be some quiet snobbish affair like the Nobels, it would be a big, glitzy show that captures kids’ attention and makes them aspire to work toward bettering the human race and the planet in a meaningful way. Anyway, I would nominate Julia for a SHE for outstanding achievements in recycling and improving the quality of lives of the Guatemalan people.
So you see, I have plenty of time to contemplate down here in Rio Dulce, sitting by the pool, sipping on piña coladas, gazing out at the river and mountains in the distance. I watch my step to avoid parking lot crevasses. I am mindful while eating so as not to gobble vitamins or food. Slow is beautiful.