I lay on the hard stone, breathless. My mind was shocked with the worst pain I’ve ever felt. For the first moments, all I could do was grimace in agony, unable to even see for the blinding white pain.
I looked down at my leg, the center of my disaster. After my crash in Ireland, I was expecting to see torn and bloody cloth, maybe a jagged bone sticking out of my skin. But my pants were intact. My bike was still between my legs, my feet still on the pedals. I pushed the bike away, and cried out involuntarily as I twisted onto my back. Something was terribly wrong. I told my muscles to move, but my left leg was not responding. It lay off to the side, dead, as if it were a waterlogged hunk of driftwood, tenuously attached, caught on my body by a tangle of fishing line. Fear presented itself, a black cloud of immense proportion rising with sudden celerity from behind my initial shock. A deepening sense of dread took hold of my soul.
In desperation I took my bent knee in my hands, and did something I instantly and forever regretted. I moved my leg. A simple lift-and-pivot, from laying off the the left, up into a forward position of symmetry.
I screamed again, equal to the first, a devastating shockwave of anguish that penetrated every corner of ancient Alexandria, a sound of primal pain that surely reached the outskirts of the city and echoed far into the desolate, uninhabited desert. Schools of fish scurried under rocks, and whole flocks of seagulls were disturbed into panicked flight. Eyebrows all across town raised up, and people glanced out their windows without knowing why. Tourists in Giza looked up as one in concern as an enduring moment of shock flushed through the Pyramids. Babies began to cry and taxi drivers rear-ended the cars in front of them. This was the scream I felt tear itself out of my chest.
I sensed a popping crackle inside my hip when I did it, as the taught muscles were forced over jagged ends of broken bone. Perhaps the bone itself was pulverized even further; ligaments and tendons could have severed, bursae scratched and torn. With that one simple motion, I fear I may have compounded the injury to a unrecoverable degree. I’ll never know for sure.
My entire body was once again ignited, like white-hot flaring magnesium. My muscles were wracked as my energy drained out of me. I lay back, exhausted, defeated. The waves of the Mediterranean continued to crash against the rocks, antagonizing me with cold splashes as I lay in the very puddle that caused my tires to slip. Even the Egyptian sun felt cold. Piercingly, painfully bright, but not warm. Not comforting. I covered my face with my arm, and wept.
Slowly I became aware of someone above me, blocking the sun. A swarthy Arab face was silhouetted before me, concerned appeal behind his foreign words. My thoughts went to the Arabic dictionary in my pocket, that surely must be getting soaked by the splashing waves. My camera, phone, and MP3 player were surely being soaked in salt water as well, so when I felt his gentle hands under my armpits, I quelled the sudden feeling of panic and prepared for another burst of agony.
My breath sucked in as he lifted slightly, then squeezed out through my clenched chest as he dragged me out of the puddle, away from the edge of the quay. My body, my mind, my world, my entire life felt punished and exhausted, but I was overwhelmed with gratitude. In my bright world of pain and confusion, I clung to words I knew like a mantra. “Shukran, shukran, shukran.” Thank you, thank you, thank you.
As more onlookers began to crowd around this foreigner and his fallen bike, I began to repeat the words, “Help, hospital.”
“Help. Hospital.” Over and over. “Help. Hospital.” I couldn’t make out anyone’s face, nor tell if there was a police officer or paramedic hovering amongst the crowd of heads circling my view of the pale sky. I just kept repeating those words. “Help. Hospital.” And out of the confusing cacophony of concerned conversation, I realized someone was directing questions at me.
“… sahibi…?” Friends? What friends? Yes… yes, friends! Munshi! I need to call Munshi!
Trying not to move my leg even the slightest bit, for each tiny twist or flex of the muscles sent daggers through my entire body, I painstakingly fished out my phone, the phone Saadi gave me in Algeria. I forced myself to focus on the tiny screen, and placed a call to Munshi. He was across town, but he promised he would be there as soon as he could. I passed the phone off to the first hand that offered, and was dimly aware that whoever it was, he would tell Munshi where exactly I was.
I felt safe. I was being taken care of. Thank the Universe.
For the next forty five minutes I lay on the hard stone, trying not to move, trying not to think, just trying to keep my lungs pumping. Legs and shoes made wide circuits around me as families and fishermen continued their Sunday afternoon. One young voice kept repeating in English, “The ambulance come, okay, five minutes. Five minutes, okay.” A police officer arrived on the scene. I glimpsed his white uniform and black beret between spears of harsh sunlight, and finally surrendered my passport. I sensed some change, some new understanding in the crowd as the information spread: “Amerikani.” Many questions were posed to me, but I didn’t have the energy to attempt to understand. The best I could do was find “mushtasfar” in my dictionary: hospital. The vibe behind the response was comforting: someone was on their way to bring me to a hospital.
Then the crowd parted, and two paramedics entered, like angels in fluorescent green-and-white jumpsuits, carrying some sort of stretcher between them. Concern blanketed their countenances, and their attention was professional and competent from the first moments. They checked me over and secured me for transport, with a neck brace and a harness to hold my hands over my chest so my arms wouldn’t flop off the stretcher. Then came the painful part: moving. I’m sure I screamed again when they lifted me. I was put on a gurney and wheeled down the uneven walkway, every little bump jostling my leg. There was nothing I could do but grit my teeth and endure – this is what I needed.
The crowd of people followed us, helping. What seemed like ten men assisted the paramedics to carry the gurney down a small flight of stone stairs to the bridge that crosses the inlet, everyone eager to lend a hand in any way they could. Even under all the pain, I was touched by the care that was shown.
As we reached the mainland, in the most perfect timing possible, Munshi arrived, just before they put me in the ambulance. He was greeted with a flurry of excited questions in Arabic, and after exchanging a tearful greeting, I lay back and let him do what explaining he needed to do. I lay in the ambulance, supremely comforted to hear his deep voice confidently responding to the police and paramedics with his usual good-natured humor.
He climbed into the ambulance and told me everything was going to be okay. My bike would be taken care of, he had my passport and telephone, which I had forgotten about, and he had directed them to take me to one of the private hospitals of Alexandria. Little did I know how important that was at the time, but in hindsight, I wonder if I would even be alive today if I had gone to a public hospital….
The ambulance ride seemed an eternity of jostling over potholes and the hectic stop-start of Egyptian traffic. More than once we pulled over so unknown officials could demand explanations. I have no idea where we were, or why we were stopped, but each time, Munshi handled it adroitly, and we continued without delay to Louran Hospital.
It seemed more like an apartment building than a hospital from the outside. The ambulance double-parked on the narrow residential street to unload me as the wild Egyptian traffic zoomed past unabated. From my gurney, the single stoop-style entrance seemed impossibly far above street level, and a steep wheelchair ramp next to the stairs connected directly to the public sidewalk. The ER was a tiny room just off the lobby. I was carried up and installed in a bed, and a hefty surgeon in a white coat ministered to me gently. Munshi was there to translate for me, and he held my unfailing trust, but it was truly a relief to hear the doctor speaking English as we prepared for radiology.
I still hadn’t come to grips with the true ramifications of this injury; what it meant for my world bike tour, for my athleticism, for my life. I lay in the hospital bed during a moment of solitude, looking up at the ceiling panels. After these longest two hours I’ve ever had to endure, I was at least and fortunately, finally, able to breathe.
My heartbeat calmed. I drifted off.