October 25, 2004
Die Another Day
DAY 367: "You seem really calm about all this," Dr. Mike told me the morning after my near-fatal incident on the Everest trail.
"I'm pretty calm about a lot of things," I said. I was casually eating a bowl of rara noodle soup.
"You know you could have died yesterday from the pulmonary edema."
Hmmm, there's that "D" word again. I guess when you're dying slowly, the situation doesn't seem so grim until someone puts it bluntly to you like that.
I had escaped the "D" word (and all its derivatives), all thanks to the efforts of the Sherpas, Eddie, Kenny and Julie, Beth and Stewart, the yak, the horse, volunteer Doctors Mike and Linda, and that tank of oxygen. And some drugs. I was already showing great progress; my blood oxygen level was back up to a healthy 87. Tilak on the other hand wasn't as improving as much as I was. With his cough, his average blood oxygen level was in the low to mid 70s -- with every cough he lost about 15% of his oxygen -- and he wasn't really stabilizing.
Figuring out the "cost of living" was a big mess that morning, trying to figure who paid off who, etc. The night before Tilak shelled out some extra cash to pay off one of the horse porters, who might have been paid twice -- I think a couple of the Sherpas took advantage of the confusion and cashed in. No matter, the important thing was that I was alive. In the end, everything worked out, and ultimately it was just money.
"Here's the bad news," Canadian Dr. Linda said to me as I was still under the mask. It was the bill, with the itemization of the consultation, the oxygen, the drugs and the miscellaneous horse/yak/porter fees. So far getting my life back only cost me $785.00 USD, about the price of a big TV. My life is worth as much as a nice TV, I thought as I charged it (my life that is) on my MasterCard. (How's that for "mastering the moment?" However, if they took Visa exclusively like in some places I'd been, I would have been dead for sure.)
The day was getting warm, and if not for the circumstances, a nice day to go out and be in the sun. I had enough energy to walk around a bit and take a photo of the staff, but doing so didn't really help my condition. In fact, when Dr. Linda conducted a test, my blood oxygen level sunk down to the low 70s after a simple walk to the wall and back. I was ordered to stay under the mask until we could figure a way for Tilak and me to descend.
Descending altitude was the only proven method to really help our conditions, but going down to the next town required hiking up onto another annoying undulating ridge -- something neither of us had the blood oxygen level for. We contemplated getting two horses, but why bother when you could send in a chopper? It eventually boiled down to pushing the proverbial panic button and calling out the emergency rescue helicopter.
"This will be one of the most beautiful flights in the world," Dr. Linda told me. She told me that it despite it being a rescue mission, it'd probably be a great opportunity to take some photos. Kick ass. She gave me my patient report to give to the doctor at the clinic in Kathmandu once I landed.
The words "rescue service" on my included costs list from the agency didn't exactly cover steep helicopter fees, but I hoped my travel insurance would. My insurance card said that the company must be notified before any emergency evacuation and so I had to wait for hours to clear the red tape via satellite phone to the agency in Kathmandu, who called overseas to the phones in the USA. I spent most of this waiting time taking a nap under the oxygen mask.
"The heli is one thousand dollars per hour," Tilak informed me. "It will be over three thousand dollars."
"Hopefully my insurance will cover it. They're trying to find out."
"Can I come with you [on the helicopter]?" he shyly asked. In his mind he was probably wondering if I was just going to leave him there.
"Yeah, of course! You're my guide," I said. I figured that was the loophole, him being "my guide" to escort me back to Kathmandu. The insurance company didn't have to know he was sicker than I was. I suppose that really didn't matter though because the cost for the helicopter was per hour, regardless of the amount of passengers.
"I have to ask you anyway."
"Three thousand dollars is too much for a Nepali," he said. "I would just die here."
Okay, enough of the "D" word, I thought. No one here is going to die today; enough of the morbidity. Soon, Tilak soon got a visitor of his own; a Polish woman who was his guardian angel on his descent to Pheriche. Without enough money to afford a horse or a yak to carry him down, he was simply taken down by two porters and whatever energy he had left in him for the entire five mile undulating hike. Luckily the Polish woman showed up, who was a doctor that just so happened to have some medication on her during her trek and had given him a shot so that he might survive the rest of the trek to Pheriche.
"They won't pay for the helicopter now," he told me. "They say you have to wait until you go back to the States and then complain."
"But the insurance company will pay for it, right?"
We went back and forth like this, and there was no direct answer, but I figured it was just a matter of a claim and paperwork later on. The important thing at hand was to simply get the chopper over for the well-being of Tilak and me.
"Okay, send it over."
It wasn't that instantaneous though; the helicopter was delayed a couple of hours while waiting I took another nap and stared at the wall. Around 2:30 the doctors finally heard the whirring sounds of our salvation and it was time to go. Tilak and I got our bags together and took off the life-saving oxygen masks and head out the door.
"Hey!" said a familiar face.
"Excuse me, [we're busy at the moment]," Dr. Mike said to the trekkers coming in.
"This is Kenny," I told him. "The English guy that helped me before."
"Looks like we made it just in time," Kenny said. He and Julie had come to see how I was doing, but it turned out they came for a final goodbye. I had him write his e-mail address for me as we walked towards the chopper, the winds of the blades blowing our hair back.
"Bet you never thought you'd hear that nagging voice again, asking you all those questions!" he said, smiling.
Tilak and I got on the helicopter and strapped in. The pilot pushed a few buttons and grabbed onto the joystick and soon we were floating in mid-air. I waved back to Dr. Mike, Dr. Linda, Khagendra, Kenny, Julie and the small crowd of villagers excited to see the helicopter land in their town. Soon, we were up in the air traveling southbound to safety -- and at Dr. Linda's suggestion, I even got in a couple of snapshots of the breathtaking views (other picture above).
Soon we were back in the air and stopped in Lukla airport to refuel. Then it was back up in the air for the hour or so flight back to Kathmandu. None of us really said anything on the way; there was a lot of just staring out the window, looking at the mountains, valleys, river and villages that we had encountered on the way up. Man, it seemed like such a long time ago.
"So, are you Nepali by origin?" she asked.
Even in extreme circumstances, some things never change.
Naba and Tilak took me to the Hotel Florid, a nice hotel in the lively Thamel district where he got they in a big room with a desk and two comfortable beds -- a very welcome change from the big shared bunk beds I had in the mountain lodges.
"Excuse me, [I need some air,]" Tilak said. He walked out the door while I was whisked away upstairs. Going up the three flights was hard, but that would change with time.
Naba and I sat at the table in my hotel room under the dim lights and chat over hot lemon teas. He assured me that a guy from the agency would stay in the hotel nearby in case I needed anything, and that he himself was just a mobile phone call away. I could even order room service if I wanted. The bottom line of the conversation though could be summed up in three words: "You need rest."
"Yes, I know." In the back of my mind, I knew how big the arduous task of writing about all this was going to be.
He left me to go attend to his phone calls and business, leaving me alone in the room to finally recuperate after the crazy week I'd had. I sat there in the silence of the dim room and finally took that big breather I wanted so badly the previous day.
"I don't know what this means," I told him. "But you got medicine right?"
"Yes," he answered. There was an awkward pause. "So, how was my behavior?" he asked. I think he was worried that I'd slam him in a guide evaluation form that would sure keep him unemployed.
"It was fine, don't worry."
The two of us just stood there in the spacious room with not much else to say; we had already been through enough. There was another long, awkward pause.
"With your permission," he finally said, "May I go home?"
"Of course! Go home! Feel better! Take your medicine."
He closed the door behind him and I was alone again, safe and sound away from the beautiful, but potentially fatal Himalayan mountains. I slept like a baby that night in a comfortable bed under a comfortable blanket.
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