On Friday, February 18th, as we left the enchanting Patagonian town of Sarmiento, we were making up for lost time and celebrating the fact that we now had 10% of the journey behind us. In spite of some daunting challenges we were on schedule and feeling great about the journey ahead. We were looking forward to a full day in Bariloche, a Swiss-style lakeside resort town.
Our celebrating was short-lived as we arrived in Esquel, just 150 miles from Bariloche; where we were planning to spend the night. We’d just finished a lunch break and were heading out to the road north when Brad’s bike stopped dead in its tracks; his drive belt had broken.
We were quickly surrounded by friendly Argentines who offered to help us in any way they could. Since this was a major breakdown, we knew we had to get Brad’s bike to a capable motorcycle shop. And fortunately, we were heading to Bariloche, which had such a shop.
One of our new Argentine friends told us he could get a truck to take the bike to Bariloche. In a matter of minutes he had flagged down a large box truck, negotiated a price, and we were ready to load the bike. Amazingly, in the meantime Doug’s bike had started to have some engine problems, and would not go over 10 mph.
Well, we had a truck, so why not load both bikes and head to Bariloche? We now had six riders and only four bikes that ran. We held a quick team meeting and decided Steve, our only Spanish speaker, and Brad should ride with the truck. Doug would ride Steve’s bike along with myself, Gerald and David. The four of us would go ahead to Bariloche to find the motorcycle shop as well as a place for us to crash for the night.
Crash is probably a poor choice of words because our day, which had started with such celebration, was about to go from bad to worse. We headed north, transitioning from the arid Pantagonian plain to the snow-capped Andes. We were enjoying a beautiful ride, carefully negotiating the steep curves as we ascended the mountain range. Little did we know as we slowed to drive through the quaint village of El Bolson that our trip was about to take a terrible turn.
The setting sun was in our eyes, so none of us saw the unmarked speed bump looming ahead. We were going about 45 mph when the first rider, Gerald, hit the speed bump without any warning. He and his Harley were launched airborne (about 2-3 feet in the air). He landed hard, but upright, and skidded to an abrupt stop.
Doug was right behind Gerald, and seeing Gerald go airborne, instinctively Doug hit his brakes. Both of Doug’s wheels locked up, and he slid sideways, hitting the speed bump broadside. Doug and his bike were also launched, but sideways, flipping over and over again. Doug hit the asphalt very hard and rolled about 10 times. When he came to a stop, he instinctively pulled himself up on his knees and crawled off the highway. It was immediately obvious that he was badly injured.
A large crowd gathered and offered help. I checked Doug out, and was happy to see that he had no head or spine injuries. My guess was that he’d fractured a few ribs. The police arrived, followed by an ambulance with a doctor. They examined Doug and loaded him into the ambulance to head for the local hospital. I followed the ambulance to the hospital, Doug was checked into the Emergency Department, and was soon getting x-rays.
David remained behind along the road at the scene of the accident to flag down our truck carrying our two inoperable bikes along with Brad and Steve. And Gerald rode his bike to the police station in El Bolson (which was ironically next to the Hospital) to fill out a report.
The first film that came out showed four fractured ribs on the left side. Subsequent films showed three more ribs broken on his right side. Broken ribs are not such a big deal, but when they’re broken in the back next to the spine, and on both sides of the spine, it suggests a more serious injury with the possibility of internal injuries. Since they had no CT scan, or trauma specialists, they recommended he transported and hospitalized in Bariloche. “Perfecto!” I said in my best Spanish, since that was where the truck with the broken bikes was already headed.
Another quick team meeting, and we decided to send Gerald and David ahead to Bariloche to find lodging, etc, while I would follow the ambulance to the Bariloche Hospital. As we loaded Doug onto the ambulance, his blood pressure started dropping. This was a serious sign that there might be internal bleeding. Doug needed a more capable hospital. We’d made the right decision to transfer him, and Bariloche was only 75 miles away through the curvy Andes Mountains. We were all praying we could get there in time in case he did have internal bleeding.
The night couldn’t have been any prettier. The moon was full as I followed the ambulance over the winding mountain roads toward Bariloche. A little song I’d learned as a child ran through my head, “This Is My Father’s World,” and I prayed for Doug the whole way. I later learned that Brad was listening to a piano recording from Doug’s wife Margaret and praying the entire way; as was Gerald and David. We were all headed separately in the same direction, and all with one thing on our mind – praying for Doug.
We arrived at the Hospital San Carlos in Bariloche around midnight. Though Doug was in great pain, his vital signs had remained stable throughout the ride. The doctor on duty was Dr. Alexandra Canal. Not only was she well-trained and competent, but she spoke impeccable English. We reviewed Doug’s x-rays, confirming the fractures. Dr. Alexandra was also worried about internal bleeding, and Doug was taken for a stat CT scan, and then placed in their Intensive Care Unit. Dr. Alexandra and I reviewed the CT scan, and our worst fears were confirmed. Doug had two areas of bleeding. Both his spleen and his lungs were injured and were bleeding. Doug would need emergency surgery.
Dr. Gonzalo, a general surgeon, was called in, and took Doug to the operating room about 4 AM. At 6:30 AM Dr. Gonzalo and another surgeon came out of the operating room and announced that they had repaired Doug’s spleen and stopped the internal bleeding. They put in a chest tube to drain the blood from his lungs. Doug was going to be okay!
Fast-forward a day. Doug is still in ICU, but has made a remarkable recovery, and should be out of ICU in a day or two. His vital signs are stable, there is no sign of further bleeding, no sign of infection, and Doug’s humor is back and strong as ever. Since they don’t allow cell phones in the ICU, we brought him a solid-chocolate pretend cell phone. After all, Bariloche is the chocolate capital of Argentina!
Our team has met several times over these past two days, discussing all the options. One thing we do know, Doug has several weeks of recovery ahead of him, and won’t be riding a motorcycle anytime soon. Doug expressed one thing very clear; we would ALL finish the trip!
To tell you the truth, we’ve all been in a state of shock for the last 48 hours. During a few of those hours we thought we might lose Doug. In our very first week of riding; we’ve had two accidents and several mechanical breakdowns. We now realized we couldn’t finish the trip as planned. To say we’re disappointed is an understatement. But we are not discouraged!
In the dark hours of Doug’s first night in the ICU, I was sitting with the ICU docs, and decided to show them the Miles With A Mission website so they might better understand who we are and what kind of person their patient was. I opened the website, and clicked on the link to the riders; playing Doug’s video segment that he’d recorded many months ago. It sounded like Doug had known what we were going to encounter. Doug expresses on the video that it will be difficult and we will encounter difficulties.
You see, in spite of all our difficulties, and two serious accidents, both which could have ended tragically; we are not discouraged! We have seen the presence of God at every turn. In El Bolson, at the little hospital Doug was first taken to, his nurse noticed Doug’s dog-tag with his name stamped in metal, along with the words “Gloria a Dios.” He pointed to Doug’s dog-tag and smiled. I said, “Cristianos, todos”, meaning “Christians, all of us.” “Mi, Cristiano tambien.” I’m a Christian also. Before Doug was loaded onto the ambulance that would transport him to Bariloche, that Argentine nurse held Doug’s hand a said a sincere prayer for him.
Arriving at the Hospital San Carlos in Bariloche we felt that same Holy, transcendent presence. Dr. Alexandra was literally waiting in the ER as the ambulance unloaded. Dr. Alexandra is a kind, competent, top-notch doctor who was aware of every possible complication. Yesterday, she told me that she’d never had a patient like Doug. “He is so positive, so happy, never complaining. “Estamos Cristianos. We are Christians.” “I know,” she said.
Last night, after we’d spent a few hours with a rapidly recovering Doug, several of us decided to go to mass at the large Catholic Cathedral just a few blocks from the hospital. It was Saturday night, and the historic Cathedral was packed with people. Though we understood very little of the Spanish mass, one thing we did understand, and this is more clearer than ever before: though bad things happen to good people, God is present in our darkest hours, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.
Doug will fully recover and is determined to finish the trip! The team will split into two teams and Brad, Steve, and Doug will delay their completion until Doug fully recovers and is capable of riding. They will also use this time to make necessary repairs to the bikes. Gerald, Gary, and Dave will leave tomorrow morning to continue the itinerary as planned.