When The Inevitable Struck
It was just another Saturday night. After a few hours at work, I had been relaxing at the Kiwi Café – a cappuccino, club sandwich and a couple of beers with a friend over a period of at least two hours – so there was no chance I was “under the influence”. But I was tired. And eager to get home. Noy had joined us for the last 30 minutes or so and then we were off home – she on the Suzuki 125 scooter, via her sister’s house and me the direct route on my Kawasaki Ninja 250cc.
Maybe I was pushing just a little on the way out of town. I certainly wasn’t breaking any speed records and I wasn’t zigzagging in and out of traffic like the Thai scooter riders do, but maybe I could have been riding just a little more defensively than I was. I had learned my lesson almost two years ago about cars opposite turning right in front of you at intersections when the lights change to green. Having usually ridden in the back of soong teeos I had never actually noticed this before, but a few days after I bought the Suzuki scooter, I went at the green light only to find a pickup determined to beat me in a right hand turn across my bows, hit the brakes too hard, tried to turn at the same time and went down. Nothing injured but my pride, the bike only a little scratched. No chance I would be caught like that again! But in Thailand there are always more surprises!
Somehow there was an air of inevitability about it. On the 35 km ride between home and school, almost every day there was a reminder of how many Thai drivers have no apparent ability to judge speed or distance and how they consider might (or size) to be right. Now I had turned onto the main road heading out of town and in a few kilometres would be clear of traffic lights and free to open the bike up to a comfortable cruising speed. I was in the left hand lane heading east and suddenly a right turning car coming from the opposite side of the road was right in front of me, I was braking hard, realized I was going to hit, and next thing I was getting groggily to my feet only to fall down again from the pain in my nuts as they had raked across the bike’s fuel tank.
With hindsight I should have been able to stop more quickly. Was my reaction time a little off from the tiredness and perhaps the two beers I had drunk earlier? I don’t know. But what I do recollect is that I only used the front brake. The curse of changing from a scooter to a real bike is the change in braking setup. The scooter and the bike both have front brake levers on the right. But where the scooter has the rear brake lever on the left side of the handlebars, real bikes have a foot lever on the right. The first week I had the bike I had found myself needing to stop quickly and using the clutch lever as if it was the rear brake. A bad scooter habit, and one I had quickly put to death. But I still had to think to remember to use the foot operated rear brake. After all, most of the braking efficiency IS on the front wheel. What I should have done is taken the bike out when I got it and practiced and practiced fast stops with both brakes until it was a new habit. Because when that new habit might have saved me it wasn’t there.
I hit the car right on the rear bumper panel, the force of the collision almost completely separating it from the rear of the car. I don’t know exactly what happened to me and the bike, I just remember knowing I was going to hit, then getting up off the road, but I think I must have gone over the top of the bike. I caught my nuts on the tank – that was the source of initial and only temporary pain, then landed on the road on my right shoulder and the right side of my helmet. I’m not sure which struck first but thank God I was wearing a properly fitted full face helmet. I got up, turned and saw the bike lying behind me, then the pain in my nuts dropped me to the ground again. I forced myself up. My first thought was to move the bike out of the middle of the road, but when I went to do it, for some reason there was no power in my right arm. I was aware of a deep ache in my shoulder. I must have bruised it, I thought. By this stage, some local Thais had come across and a couple of them picked up the bike and moved it into the petrol station courtyard where the lady who caused the accident had driven her car. She didn’t even look at me, just stared at the damage to her car. I didn’t exist, the damage to me or my bike was of no concern to her at all.
My next reaction then was fear. I recalled all the horror stories I had heard and read about farangs being stitched up for traffic accidents regardless of fault. Was there a hint of alcohol left in my blood? I had no doubt that in any western country even if there was a trace, it would not be remotely near any limit – two beers in two or more hours consumed with a large club sandwich, the last well over an hour ago…but this is Thailand… “Do you want to go to hospital?” someone asked. We were only a few hundred metres from the main Khon Kaen hospital – at that stage I wasn’t aware I needed hospital treatment and even if I had been, no way was I going there!
I called Noy. I urged her to come quickly. I needed an ally, an advocate before the police arrived and the imagined accusations began. But Noy, as loyal and lovely as she is, rides her scooter like a doddery old grandmother and she was still the other side of Khon Kaen. The sweat was pouring off me, it was a hot night and the adrenalin….I still had my thin motorbike jacket on, and then as I removed it I felt the first real stab of excruciating pain in my shoulder. I felt along from my neck with my left hand and there was this huge protrusion. “Oh, shit, I’ve broken my collarbone” I thought.
I sank to the ground again, or rather to the service station courtyard kerb. I called Noy again, “please hurry, I think I have to go to hospital”. I observed a tidily dressed Thai man with glasses had arrived and was talking to the woman driver. Then he approached me. My heart sank further, “her husband” I assumed, steeling myself for the demands that would follow.
“I am from the insurance company, do you need to go to hospital?”
“No”, I replied. “I have no money. I will wait for my wife to come here”.
“Don’t worry”, he said with a smile. “The insurance will cover your hospital fees and fix your motorbike”. Could endorphin really be this good?
Just then Noy arrived. By now the pain was almost unbearable. I had thought to go to hospital on the back of her scooter but was in no shape to endure that, and in any case Noy has always expressed an inability to ride with a pillion passenger much heavier than her 39 kg soaking wet. “Can you call Nu”, I asked her.
“I have already”.
Nu, her younger brother is a policeman in our small village. But it was going to be a long wait. I decided I didn’t want to wait for the police, I just wanted to get to hospital. Then I remembered the school medical insurance. I asked Noy to get the card out of my wallet and call the emergency number. Yes, I was covered but it wasn’t going to be total. I called one of the teachers at school who had a car and didn’t live too far away. “I need help, I’ve had a bike crash in KK and I need someone to take me to hospital. Can you come?” He arrived in 15 minutes and soon we had arrived at Khon Kaen Ram. On the way he reassured me about how good the hospital was – he had had a serious operation there several months earlier which had been very well-done.
The nurses at the emergency department were gorgeous – as indeed most of the nurses were in every department. I explained what had happened and gave them my AIA insurance card. They confirmed after a further phone call I was covered. One of the nurses took my blood pressure – if in doubt take the blood pressure seems to be the standard response…not sure why it was so important. I joked with the nurses to try to take my mind off the pain. A doctor came and took a look at my shoulder after those same gorgeous nurses removed my polo shirt – an action that nearly sent me through the ceiling with pain but I managed to suppress it and show a brave face. Then, to x-ray. Then back for the news. Not a broken collarbone – a severe dislocation. Later when I looked in the mirror I was shocked to see how my right shoulder was hanging seemingly three or four inches lower than its normal position. The orthopaedic surgeon arrived. He was a friendly man with an air of competence and excellent English. He explained carefully that I would need an operation to repair the shoulder and insert a screw to hold it all together while things healed, a process that would take a good 3 months before I would be writing on the whiteboard again. The nurses gave me some pain medication, I don’t know what it was but by this stage I needed more than they had given me. They inserted a drip.
The hospital admissions staff now advised me they needed a 20,000 THB deposit to admit me. If I hadn’t been in so much pain I would have protested, but in the state I was in they could have had the crown jewels! The only credit card I had with that kind of credit available was my NZ American Express – so I handed that over. They returned with what seems like at least a dozen forms for me to sign, but I was no longer even capable of holding a pen in my right hand so it was ink stamp and left thumb. At last a trolley bed arrived to take me to my room. I just wanted to rest but first I had to be undressed and put in the hospital pajamas…why did they need five nurses for that…all of them lovely…but I wouldn’t say gentle. Then away they went and the orthopaedic surgeon came and advised he would operate next morning, and I should be in hospital a few days after that. I sank back on the bed relieved that I was in good hands. I wanted to rest but Noy still hadn’t come. In her last call she explained that the insurance man had suggested they just agree things between them, and not involve the police and I would be taken care of. But then Nu had arrived and told her that if the police report wasn’t filed the insurance company could and very well might deny everything. So she was still waiting for the police. When they finally did arrive they agreed the accident was 100% the woman’s fault. You can’t imagine the relief I felt when I got that news!
Two more hospital administration staff arrived with yet another form for me, which this time I managed to provide a shaky signature for. “Does this mean we are married now?” I joked feebly with one of them. My teacher friend stayed with me until Noy finally arrived. I slept surprisingly well, albeit in short bursts as the nurses came every two hours to check my blood pressure again, which at one stage fell very low – I suppose a little bit of shock? After Noy arrived it seemed that I didn’t see quite so many nurses and when they came they weren’t quite as friendly as before although they were always pleasant and professional. Noy left for home about 6 AM as she had to get things for me…I had hoped she would be back before the operation but she didn’t make it. At 8.00 AM they wheeled me out to the operating room where I was transferred to a very narrow and not overly comfortable operating table under some very bright lights. The anaesthetist came and explained what she (or he? I can’t remember) wanted me to do when (s)he woke me up – but I have no idea whether I did it or not. I was out and then just over three hours later was waking up in the recovery room, with Noy and another teacher friend present. I wouldn’t have liked to wake up alone…My shoulder hurt like hell and I felt quite dazed. Eventually the hospital staff decided I had recovered sufficiently to be returned to my room. When I arrived I suddenly felt famished. It was Sunday so I suggested to Noy she should go and buy some gai yang and som tam thai, our regular Sunday lunch. While she was away, the AIA medical insurance representative arrived with a fruit basket. I asked Noy’s daughter to peel me an orange and then as I took the first segment in my mouth a wave of post-anaesthesia nausea hit me. Gone was the appetite. I sipped some water, collapsed on the bed and slept another hour or two.
I got up about mid-afternoon to pee and found sitting for a while a pleasant change from lying in one position on my back. I managed some gai yang, som tam thai and sticky rice and then back into bed for more sleep. Later that afternoon the drip was removed and I was left with some strong pain tablets to take every six hours. By then the pain was a dull ache and I didn’t take them. Various friends dropped by with fruit and well-wishes including a guy I had only met in person two days earlier after exchanging emails about our respective Stickman submissions. I doubt I was great company with a mix of just manageable pain and a lagging post-op grogginess but it was sure a lot better to be in hospital with friends near than to be there alone. After the last friends had departed Noy settled down to sleep on the sofa bed, and I drifted off until I woke again at 1 AM with considerable neck pain. I am not sure if this was related to the operation or strain to the neck muscles when my helmeted head struck the road but it was now painkiller time for sure.
The next day in hospital was for the most part a mix of uncomfortable pain, boredom and real frustration about the workload I needed to attend to but couldn’t and the students I needed to prepare for imminent exams. The doctor wanted to keep me in a bit longer but I made it clear that I wanted to be out of there on Tuesday morning. The highlight of the day was a visit from about 30 of my M4 students who came to wish me well – they didn’t stay long but it really put a smile on my face. And also a visit from Wee, the school accountant / office manager and generally indispensable person who has been a good friend to me during my first year in a difficult job. I was ready to return to work but realized the one hour soong teeo trip on a rough road each way between Khon Kaen and my home was well beyond me and I needed temporary accommodation near the school. Wee, never short of good ideas, told me about a teacher’s room available at the school, made the necessary arrangements and that became my home with Noy for the next three weeks.
On Tuesday I was up at 6 AM, packed and ready to go home. The doctor arrived just after 8 AM and was clearly surprised to see me up and ready but he agreed I could go.
I walked out to the ward office and informed them I was leaving. I had just been advised by my assistant that several local teachers and various local officials wanted to see our English program on Wednesday so I needed to get to work on a presentation. I signed a piece of paper and went downstairs where my friend had brought his car to take me to school. The phone went … Noy answered … I couldn’t go … there was more paperwork. I was not in the mood for “just a moment please”. I said to Noy, “they have known I was leaving this morning since the day before, I am busy and I am leaving”.
“You can’t” she protested, “they have to give you your medicine!”
Damn, I had forgotten I would need to stay on antibiotics for a while. “You stay and take care of it, I need to get on with my work”, I said, got in the car and off we went.
I think Noy got a hard time, at first they wouldn’t give her my meds, but in the end she did, on the proviso that I would return to sign the remaining paperwork soon. I went back on Wednesday evening to do so.
Part 2 to come, all about the medical expenses, the insurance companies, and the police.
Great story but such a shame it was you who was the victim!
What I find really quite perturbing is the behaviour of the woman who caused the accident and the way that she was more concerned about the damage to her car than the victim of the accident. Sadly, I have observed this same behaviour a number of times.
Very much looking forward to part 2.