I start to write this from my hospital bed in the village of San Francisco in the Dominican Republic. We buy some of our cocoa beans from this area. Yesterday, I was in a big car accident. What happened? We were run off the road by a bus.
Driving in the Dominican Republic is always an adventure. People talk about the crazy drivers of Italy, or some European cities, but in my travels, the Dominican Republic has them all beat. I have never seen drivers like those of the Dominican Republic—anywhere!
What is it like when driving in the Dominican Republic? Crazy. At least from an American perspective.
When a car passes another car, it is not uncommon when pulling back into the lane to pull in front of the other car, leaving only two to three feet in between. This is even the case when traveling at full speed (80-100kph) on the highway.
I’ve watched people drive through intersections in Santo Domingo, interweaving traffic from different directions, missing each other by a few feet. This is the norm in many areas, and many people take this as a matter of course.
Scooters are everywhere, and it is common to see scooters with anywhere from two to four people loaded on the back, carrying groceries or even their laundry fresh pressed from the dry cleaners, flying high and holding the cleaning like a sail.
On one trip, I watched two people on a scooter driving at least 30mph. The amazing thing was that the guy on the back was holding a five foot long tank of compressed acetylene, such as that used by oxyacetylene welders, balanced across the seat. Not only would it be dangerous if the tank were to tip but, if the valve were to be knocked off, the tank would take off like a rocket. In fact, there are plenty of stories of welders who have accidentally knocked off the valve off one of their tanks, only to have it shoot through one or more cinderblock walls. Traveling on scooters with crazy objects precariously balanced is all taken in stride in the Dominican Republic.
So what happened in my case? A driver was taking me to the village of San Francisco after I had visited the airport to try to get my luggage. (My luggage had been stuck in New York’s JFK airport and had been for several days.) It is a several hour drive from Santo Domingo to San Francisco. The drive was generally uneventful—that is, other than the usual scary things you see when you drive in the Dominican Republic.
As we pulled into the outskirts of San Francisco, a bus pulled around our truck to pass. Unfortunately, it pulled back into our lane sooner than it should have.
I watched as we pulled over toward the side of the road. Not a problem. After all, the drivers in the Dominican Republic often have to compensate for other drivers. I watched as the side of the road got closer. Not a problem. After all, once the road was clear, we’d pull back over. But then the side of the road got closer, and quite frankly, I still didn’t think much of it. I did start thinking a lot of it when we popped up onto the sidewalk, though I half expected that we would pull back into the street any moment. I was wrong. Both the edge of the road and a street sign loomed before me.
They loomed large. Very large!
The street sign stopped us about the time that my side of the vehicle went off the road and through a bunch of brush. We came to a crashing halt that left me amazed at how fast we stopped. No skidding, nothing dramatic that signaled the end of our wild ride, just an immediate and abrupt, crashing halt.
I looked down, and there was my right arm, which had been resting on the window sill, all covered with blood. It was like a dream, and I felt faint—really, really faint. As my head spun and I swooned, I looked down at amazement at my arm. I closed my hand into a fist and waited for the pain to shoot up my arm, signaling a broken bone. Nada. I slowly rotated my wrist. Nada. This only took just a few seconds, and quite frankly, it all seemed like a dream. I was amazed that while bloody, my arm was still in one piece, and everything seemed to be working just fine.
The window that had been next to my arm lay shattered. Those little glass squares that come from broken car windows lay everywhere. I looked out and saw all the brush that my side of the car had gone through, and only about one foot away was a barbed wire fence.
Later, I would realize my good fortune. If the accident had happened only a few minutes earlier, I had had my window down and was enjoying having my arm out the window in the fresh breeze. If my arm had been out when we went off the road and through the brush and next to the fence, there is no telling what the outcome would have been.
All this had all happened virtually in an instant. At least it felt that way. At the same time, it also felt like an eternity. While I was in my time warp, the rest of the world continued at normal speed, or perhaps just a bit faster. Within only about twenty seconds or so, at least fifteen people had rushed to our truck to help. It was amazing how fast the truck was surrounded by a swarm of people.
My driver climbed out, and as it turned out was relatively unscathed. Only a few seconds later it seemed like five people reached in through the driver’s side door to pull me out. Of course, it was probably only one or two, but it felt like five. They did it with amazing ease too. I was feeling very faint. The world spun. So I am glad they helped pull me out of the truck. Had they not, I probably would have stayed—at least for a while.
The truck was surrounded by people, and I made my way through the crowd until I reached the edge of the sidewalk. Feeling faint, I sat down and thought to myself how I really ought to put my head down between my knees. Then I thought, “I’ll be okay in just a second.” The next thing I knew I was flat on my back looking up at everyone. They reached down, grabbed me, and threw me into a truck. We sped toward town. I don’t speak Spanish, so all I could think of was: “I don’t speak Spanish, I have no idea where we are going or in whose truck I’m in, but, I’m bleeding, so I guess we are going to the hospital.”
We arrived at the clinic, and I was quickly rushed in. The doctors (and nurses) set to work immediately, and in short order, they had pulled lots of glass out of my arm and were busy stitching me back up. The doctor handled it very professionally, and he and I chatted while he did his job. (He had attended medical school in the Dominican Republic btw.) Each jab of the doctor’s needle shot my arm with a new sense of pain, but in comparison to how my arm already felt, it was a small thing to consider, and as the anesthetic took hold, the pain slowly subsided.
When they were done, I asked them to count the number of stitches that I had. They counted 18.
Then they did something very unexpected. They took me in for an ultrasound. (Was I expecting?)
My ultrasound was followed up by an X-ray of my arm. When they were done, they said they wanted me to stay overnight for observation, so they took me up the elevator to the floor I would be staying on—which turned out to be a storage room as well as an elevator. My room was off a waiting room off the hallway. (Yea, it was just a bit out of the way.) They fumbled through all the doors and wheeled me into my room. The TV was blaring, some sort of reality TV show. I settled in and waited… And waited and waited…
Video of going to my hospital room.
My friend from the cocoa plantations I was working with brought over my laptop, my phone, and a few things I needed. While he was away, I spent some time giving thought to how to tell my wife. After all, I had been through a serious accident in a foreign country, one she had never been to. If I worried her too much, it could be difficult to go on my various adventures again. Once I got my phone, I called home, and my wife handled the news surprisingly well, all things considered. I was amazed.
I settled in and watched “Game of Thrones,” which I had preloaded on my laptop before I left. Nothing like binge-watching—episode after episode of whatever television show is available.
It was a long night. Nurses were pumping me full of fluids through an IV. The amazing thing was that they didn’t have me on an electronic monitor. Well, that isn’t exactly amazing; those cost lots of money. The amazing thing was that they wanted me to stay overnight for observation, but there was not much going on to observe.
With car accidents, it is quite common for people to get traumatic head injuries that appear superficial at first but turn out to be quite dangerous and deadly in the long haul. My brother and I were first upon an accident in which the driver had fallen asleep. The driver appeared just fine immediately after the accident, but by the time the ambulance arrived, the driver was dazed and confused, unable to follow simple instructions. My brother Chris said that he likely had a hematoma, and if not treated quickly, he would likely pass away. (He should know; he was the head safety engineer for the West Coast for the ambulance conglomerate American Medical Response.)
So having a bit of a personal experience with these sorts of things—if only in passing–I spent the night watching Game of Thrones until it was very late, and I became convinced I was tired—because I was was tired, but not because of any sort of injury that had gone undiagnosed.
The whole night, they only checked on me only three or four times. Each time, they checked my IV but didn’t check my vitals. I was nervous that they weren’t observing. After all, that was the whole point of my staying in the clinic overnight. I could be dead and cold by the time they found me if something gone terribly wrong. If they wanted to observe, I would have felt a lot more comfortable if I would have been left in the hall.
In the morning, I awoke, and I believe I woke alive. To this day, nobody has told me different. So I’m alive as far as I know.
The doctor wasn’t happy that I planned on going back to the cocoa plantations. She was very concerned that I would get dirt and bacteria in the wounds, and they would become infected. The Dominican Republic is a tropical country, after all; all the added humidity and heat are a great growing environment for all sorts of nasty bacteria that could make me sick. (I received a similar set of worries from one of my friends in the chocolate industry who urged me in no uncertain terms to catch the next flight out.)
I spent a day resting in my room where I had been staying and being loaded up with 600mg of Ibuprofen, as well as a handful of antibiotics. The Ibuprofen was less for the pain and more for the inflammation (which in itself causes pain), and the antibiotics helped me prevent any infections.
The next day, I was back out on the plantations and able to work with the farmers I have come to know and hold dear. It was a beautiful day, and the blue sky and cool breeze testified to me that I was in the right place doing the right thing.
Each day my arm got better and better, and each day for the rest of my trip I was able to spend time on the cocoa plantations. I found that hot showers helped bring flexibility back into my arm, and after about three weeks (which is when I finished writing this up—from my room in Tokyo), my arm was significantly better, with the exception of some bright red marks that spiderweb the backside of my arm and elbow and will no doubt turn into scars to testify of my adventures in the Dominican Republic.
A friend of mine in the DR once told me a story about her friend who moved to New York.
She went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to apply for a driver’s license. She sat down in the car with the instructor to take her driving test.
As they began their test, the instructor looked at her and said, “It looks like you have driven before.”
“Yes,” she said.
The instructor looked at her and asked, “Where did you drive?”
“The Dominican Republic.”
“You had a driver’s license in the Dominican Republic?!”
Then her instructor continued, “I’m tired and I want to go home. If you can drive in the Dominican Republic, you can drive anywhere.”
And with that, the instructor signed her driver’s license test and left for home.
So she passed her test without ever taking it simply because she can drive in the Dominican Republic and arrive alive.
Before I sign off, I’d like to say a public “Thank You!” to my friends and hosts in the Dominican Republic who cared for me and watched after me in this way way too adventurous trip.