This is not one of those stories where a bad thing just happens to a good person. This is a story where my unbridled spontaneity got me into very predictable trouble. Heads up, this post is long and contains ugly scar photos.
So here’s my mediocre cautionary tale:
It was a Friday, and I was so excited to be traveling to Petchaburi with 40 of my friends and coworkers for our HotelQuickly work retreat. We arrived at our remote hotel in the evening and gathered around the pool for dinner. We had barely finished eating when I saw my friend Gin getting thrown in the pool with all of her clothes on.
“Poor Gin!” I thought to myself. “I’ll jump in with her.”
I took off my shoes and trotted down to the pool to join her in solidarity. Without a second thought, I dove into the pool. In America most pools have deep ends. In Thailand, that fact is useless. My point is, this pool was shallow. Very shallow.
I immediately hit the bottom of the pool with my head.
Things went orange with pain for a second, and I was instantly embarrassed for the mistake. “I CAN’T BELIEVE I HIT THE BOTTOM! I HOPE NO ONE SAW ME!” were the first thoughts that entered my mind. As I came up for air, I realized that my neck and back were in extreme, tense agony. I kept my back to the group as I waded around waiting for the pain to go away.
I heard someone behind me ask, “Is that blood?” I was hoping no one had noticed my diving fail, and was really hoping that I wasn’t causing a scene with blood in the pool. I walked over to the edge of the pool and people rushed over to me. Everyone seemed panicked and I wanted everyone to know I was fine. “I’ll just walk it off, I’m totally fine!” They helped get me out of the pool and sat me down away from the group.
Thank God for shock, because I had no idea that my head was cracked wide-open, gushing blood.
My company’s Co-Founder and COO Christian (a former Captain in the Swiss military) and the QA Manager Kat (a first responder) sprung into action immediately. They joined forces to hold my split head together and stop the bleeding. Kat tried to keep me awake by getting my adrenaline going, yelling out things like “NAT, LOOK AT ME!” and “I can see her brain!” On the other side of the spectrum, Christian tried to tone down the situation and downplay the injury. The two balanced each other out perfectly, and I am deeply indebted to them both for their help coming to my rescue.
With the blood loss, I was beginning to drift off. My memory starts to dilute at this point and I can’t remember what exactly happened when the ambulance arrived. What I do know is that Christian, Tomas (the company’s Co-Founder and CEO), and Noi Na (the company’s Executive Assistant) climbed into the ambulance with me, and we left for the nearest hospital.
In the ambulance, everyone continued keeping me awake. We talked about Christian’s idyllic childhood in Switzerland and In-N-Out burgers to casually pass the time. Despite everyone else’s calm demeanor, I was having outbursts of sobbing. I was so embarrassed and horrified by what was happening. Was I fired? Was this going to cost a fortune? Would I ever walk again? Had I ruined the company weekend?
The ambulance came to a stop and I was rolled into the Petchaburi public hospital. I stared at a gecko crawling on the ceiling while the adults took care of business. I don’t know what I would have done if Noi Na (a native Thai speaker), Christian, and Tomas weren’t there to help. They didn’t wait passively for things to happen; they actively made sure I was properly cared for. While I wallowed in despair, they handled everything.
My memory isn’t great recalling what happened at this point, but we were ultimately told that the hospital could not handle my wound (NEWS FLASH FOR ME, THIS WOUND IS REALLY BAD). We had to go to a private hospital some 40 km away where there was a better/more clean operating room. I kept moving my toes and hands to make sure I wasn’t paralyzed yet.
Back in the ambulance, the shock was wearing off and I cringed in pain with every bump in the road. Far from chill, I was a hot mess crying in pain and embarrassment. We finally arrived at the second hospital. I had some x-rays, a CT scan, and it was finally time for the suturing.
Problem: I had to pee, badly. The nurses brought me a bed pan and encouraged me to relieve myself as they stood around waiting. My First World-conditioned body failed me, and I couldn’t do it. I was too shy to go, even though my bladder felt as though it was going to burst. A team of six or so prepared for the procedure. I asked if I could try going to the bathroom again, and again wasted everyone’s time. I gave up and they went back to, you know, saving my life.
The nurses gave me local anaesthesia and waited for my head to go numb. I didn’t like the idea of being awake for the process, but OH WELL, WHO AM I TO MAKE REQUESTS? The team covered my eyes with cloth and strapped my arms and legs to the operating table which was extremely unsettling. I must have been loopy during part two when they lowered a metal cage/shield over my head and torso. Only my scalp and legs peeked out of the mechanism, but I wasn’t aware of what was happening thanks to the drugs and confusion.
After an hour of disgusting flesh-pulling noises, a panic started to boil inside of me.
I became very aware that my limbs were strapped to a table and my eyes were covered and I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t move holy fuck get me out of here what is happening I can’t breathe.
“I NEED AIR, I NEED AIR!” I cried out from under the shield. “I WANT TO MOVE MY LEGS!”
Despite the language barrier, the doctor stopped suturing and the nurses scrambled to unstrap my legs and one arm. They put ice packs on my legs and removed the cloth from my eyes. The machine monitoring my pulse beeped wildly.
Like any good nightmare, they couldn’t fix the major cause of my terror. No matter how panicked I was, they 100% could not lift the cage/shield more than a few inches. The whole point of the contraption was to keep the area sanitized. I pawed at the green padding that covered the cage, and strained to look through the opening. The staff waited for me to get myself together before getting back to the stitching.
To distract myself from the hell, I tried to recall all of the Michelin star restaurants in the Bay Area. It worked for a while, but soon the claustrophobia flared up again. This time was more intense than before, and I wept as I begged for the cage to be lifted. They explained that they could not meet my request, and I sobbed in panic and misery. I was really losing it.
The nurses did their best to help me. They sang, held my hand, and told me that I only had 15 more minutes to go. There was nothing I could do but weep quietly and try to keep things in perspective. Nothing bad was going to happen to me because I was in a small space.
Skull tissue cleaned and 20 centimeters of 6o stitches later, the procedure was finished. I cried tears of joy as the cage was lifted.
Still desperately needing to pee, I was rolled out of the operating room into a lobby. I was surprised to find more of my friends had come to support me after the accident. True to form, I began to cry.
At about 2 am, I was taken to the ER where I would be monitored for at least 24 hours. The doctor needed to watch for signs of serious brain injuries. TOO MUCH INFORMATION ALERT: I was on my period and forbidden to use the restroom alone. What is a hospital staff to do? Swaddle me in an adult diaper of course! Just some icing on the cake.
After the pampering, I could finally go to sleep across from my new Thai roommates. Across the room, a middle aged guy who made no noise and one of the oldest men I’ve ever seen laid peacefully. Unfortunately, the peace would not last long. The old man would vomit loudly throughout the night and into the morning.
At 6 am, I was woken up for a congee-like breakfast that tasted great, but I couldn’t eat it. I was too nauseous to down the shrimpy porridge.
I drifted in and out of sleep as doctors and nurses briefed me on my condition. A neurologist looked at my CT scan and x-rays and determined there wasn’t any major damage to worry about. HALLELUJAH! The doctors wanted more time to decide whether or not I needed t0 stay a second night for observation.
Christian, Noi Na, Chris, Gin and Abhi came back to the hospital that afternoon, and we soon got the good news that I would be released. The doctors were confident that my brain was ok, and I could return to the resort where I had ruined a perfectly good evening the night before.
The sun set over beautiful Petchaburi as we drove back to the resort. The hotel gave me good will gift basket – jars of bird’s nest and essence of chicken for my health. Instead of partaking in the fun company retreat activities, I tucked into bed and slept.
For the best recovery, I was told to return to a hospital daily to get my wound cleaned. On Sunday morning, my friends and I hopped into a hotel truck and went to the Petchaburi public hospital as ordered. The bumpy ride was bad, but not as bad as spending hours getting your head stitched back together.
At the hospital, the other patients were in pretty bad shape. One woman had a motorcycle accident and a hot part of the bike had burned her leg to the BONE. Another woman had been BITTEN BY A SCORPION. I felt lucky to be in little pain (in addition to feeling lucky for being alive, not paralyzed, mentally unscathed, and so on).
We returned to Bangkok as a company, and I stayed the night with Chris and his girlfriend Etty in case I needed to get to a hospital in an emergency. Not to repeat myself, but I am so completely grateful to the people in my life who were here to help me. In the morning, I was even treated to a homemade breakfast by Chris before we headed to Bangkok’s St. Louis hospital for more x-rays and stitch cleaning.
On Monday night, I had another source of help come to my rescue. My family was so worried about me that my mom bought a plane ticket and traveled more than 13,000 kilometers to help me recover. Although my injury was horrible, it reminded me of how much love and support I take for granted.
Hospital visits, countless naps, foot massages, pill swallowing, head wrapping – the week after the accident was leisurely , complete with constant spoiling from my mom. My recovery was moving along quickly, and I would be back to work in no time.
Despite the luxurious care, the time was still rough emotionally. I held back tears at dinner explaining my fears of mental damage to my mother. I was left feeling so weird and confused. I had to fight to stay positive.
“I’m so lucky it wasn’t worse” I constantly thought, and by constantly thought, I mean constantly think – present tense. I’m still afraid that I’ll never be as mentally sharp as before. I’m worried people will think, “Natalie was never the same after the accident.” Did I ruin my chances of achieving my life goals? Will my hair grow back normally? Should I change completely? Should I abandon this authentic self that keeps getting me in trouble? Should I start running marathons and work for a nonprofit?
This New York Times article couldn’t have popped up on my Twitter feed at a better time. The author had suffered a trauma much worse than mine, but I could still relate to her recovery experience. She offered an explanation to make sense of why I felt like I did.
I instantly felt better after reading her conclusion “I’m not a better person. I’m the same person. Which is actually kind of a miracle.” I feel less pressure to reinvent myself. I can appreciate that this stupid, stupid accident left me pretty unscathed, and it’s time to be thankful for the life I still have. I am overwhelmed with the support from my family and friends.
As far as cautionary tales go, this one is mild. I am miraculously walking away from this trauma with just a scar, and I will go on to sweatily explore Bangkok another day.