Disaster on Pulau Weh: A Broken Arm and no Travel Insurance

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Final Days in Pulau Weh

I emerged from the water exhilarated by my time soaring over the towering pinnacles and dusk-shrouded boulders of Pulau Weh’s famous ‘Canyon’. 

Intermingled with my feelings of joyous wonder was that of frustration. It was my fourth and final dive in Sumatra’s premier dive location, and once again I’d come up well ahead of my dive partner, Richelle. 

It was strangely emasculating to have to send her a slow motion wave at the end of my dive (and the midpoint of hers), a humbling kind of defeat that left a sour taste in my mouth as the dive master and I clambered back onto the dive boat. 

Despite my disappointment, I was flushed with enthusiasm for the day ahead. We’d return to shore, grab some local food, and then retire to our hammocks at Treetops Inn for our final afternoon on vacation. Bliss. 

pulau_weh_treetops
Relaxing in our beautiful bungalow. Image courtesy of Adventures Around Asia.

Famous Last Words…

“I’m just gonna head up top and get some sun,” I told the crew as I snatched up a bottle of water and made for the ladder.

The seas on the western side of Pulau Weh were a little rougher than they’d been on the sheltered eastern tip, but I had confidence in my sea legs. 

Hell, it’s a running boast that I never fall over. I’ll stumble, I’ll slip, but I’ll always keep my feet. 

I make my way to the highest portion of the boat. It was here that all eight of us perched on our way out, and I’m looking forward to comparing notes as the others return and seek out the sun’s warmth. 

Twisting off the cap of my water bottle, I begin the decidedly unglamorous task of wrestling out of my too tight wetsuit. 

Disaster Strikes

My arms are pinned behind my back when the swell tips the boat violently. 

Pinioned in still damp Lycra, there’s precious little I can do as I start to slide towards the edge of the roof. 

“Fuck,” 

I shout as I skid across the rotting rooftop, half hoping I’ll snag in one of the holes that dot it like acne. 

“Fuck,”

I cry out as my water bottle tumbles over the side of the boat. We’re still tipping. 

“Fu-uck”

I spit it out one final time as I follow my water bottle over the side. As I’m tumbling, the boat is righting itself. 

It’s not the water that’s rushing up to meet me. It’s the deck. 

As with all disasters, minor and major, it happens too quickly for me to remember it in anything but jagged snapshots. 

I couldn’t tell you which part of me struck the unyielding wood first.

I couldn’t tell you if I felt the moment when my ulna snapped like a twig and came perilously close to breaking the skin of my left arm. 

I couldn’t say how my knee bent when it struck the edge of the boat. 

I imagine it might have looked quite funny to the startled crew: a 105 kg man falling from the sky and dashing himself against the chipped paint of their boat. 

It’s an instant of surprise and pain. 

Followed closely by an instant of incongruous relief as the cold water closes in over my head and I realize I’m still alive and still conscious. 

bukit_lawang_trekking_orangutan
Relaxing by the river after orangutan trekking in Bukit Lawang. Obviously pre-broken arm. Photo courtesy of Adventures Around Asia.

Escape

One of the other divers had come up just in time to see my fall, but he’s preoccupied with the violent rise and fall of the ladder as our boat struggles with the rough seas. 

“Grab on! Grab on!” the crew shout, shooing my startled American friend away and trying to help me up the ladder. 

Hands are offered, but I’m stubborn. I hurt, sure, but I’m not an invalid. 

I ignore my left arm’s screams of protests as I haul my sore, bleeding carcass back into the deck with which I’d become so intimately acquainted just moments before. 

I feel nauseous. 

My peripheral vision is a rapidly reducing circle of light rimmed by dancing motes of black.

I know this feeling: I’m about to faint. 

I stagger over to the litter strewn platform on which Richelle and I had left her bag earlier and slump down. 

My arm hurts like a bitch, but aside from an ugly puckered wound at the point of impact, it looks fine. No bruising. No blood. 

My knee is a wreck of blood that has already covered me down to my ankle. It’s aided by half a dozen other superficial scrapes that look worse than they are. 

I suck down water and force a smile onto my face. 

My dive master, Elly and the freshly returned duo hover over me like nervous mothers. They smear iodine on my cuts and assure me that it doesn’t look broken. 

There’s no swelling. I can move my fingers. I’m fine. 

My urge to faint passes, but I lay back and close my eyes anyway. 

rubiah tirta dive boat
The lofty perch from which I fell. Image courtesy of Adventures Around Asia.

The Concerned Girlfriend

I hear the others making their way back. 

Richelle asks me to grab her GoPro from here as she climbs up the ladder, but she sounds miles away. 

While I lie there, our dive master quietly informs her that I’ve had ‘an accident’. 

I can’t speak to how she must have felt hearing that and seeing my lying there, bloody and unmoving. 

I don’t flatter myself to think that I mean enough after a few short months to stop her heart, but I’m able to imagine how I’d feel if she’d hurt herself. 

She rushes over to me with her weight belt still around her waist. There’s a mixture of concern and amusement and fear in her eyes as she catalogues my wounds and I play down the whole affair. 

Some of my fellow divers off their sage wisdom on my situation. 

“If it’s not swollen, it isn’t broken,” offers a Swiss dive instructor on holiday from Thailand. 

“If you can move your fingers, you’re fine” a Canadian offers. 

“It’s probably just a bad sprain,” puts in a well-intentioned Englishman, “You’ll have had worse from rugby, I’d wager”. 

I’m in dire need of a hug, and Richelle obliges. I try not to let anybody else see that my eyes are wet with tears of mingled relief and pain. 

shuicheng great wall
Richelle, henceforth known as “the girlf” atop Shuicheng Great Wall for her birthday recently.

Dry Land

By the time we step back onto dry land, my little tumble has become more amusing than frightening. 

My leg might be bloody and I might have trouble lifting my arm, but I’m alive. 

I slump into a low chair and cradle an Aceh coffee sweetened with condensed milk. 

I can’t fault Richelle for taking her time to fill out her dive log or any of the staff for thinking I was fine. 

I felt mostly fine, and what did still phase me, I made a point of keeping to myself.  

One of the dive masters sees through my chuckles and my apparently carefree attitude, instead spotting the flinches as I walked and the way my left knee seemed reluctant to support my weight. 

He goes to the owner and comes back to us with a set of car keys. 

“I’m taking you to the hospital”. 

iboih beach pulau weh
Iboih Beach in Pulau Weh. Image courtesy of Adventures Around Asia.

Visiting the Hospital on Pulau Weh

Iboih Beach might be the diving hotspot for Pulau Weh, but it’s hardly a bustling hub. 

Even Sabang, the island’s largest city, isn’t much to look at. 

The hospital they’re taking me to is laughably small. There are rural doctor’s clinics Australia better equipped to deal with my situation. 

We make a hurried stop at our hotel so Richelle can grab a scarf for modesty and some cash for medical expenses, and ten bumpy, windy minutes later we’re at the hospital. 

A trio of hijab wearing women tend to me, but beyond words of encouragement and washing my wounds, there isn’t much they can do. 

This isn’t a hospital with an x-ray or even a fully stocked pharmacy, so I leave with six ibuprofen and their recommendation I go to Banda Aceh. 

Over dinner, I feel what I later realise is the bone shifting around in the living meat of my arm. It feels like a fat finger rooting around in uncooked mince. 

My arm is so swollen that my bracelets bite into my arm. My fingers look comically large. 

And all the while I’m thinking, “Christ, I forgot to buy travel insurance“. 

Flying with a Broken Arm

We don’t have time to pay a visit to Banda Aceh’s hospital. 

Our last day on the island is almost over, and the next day sees us tackling a ferry and four flights in our 24-hour journey home. 

I instead make the journey with the aid of one of Richelle’s sarongs repurposed as a sling and some ibuprofen cream a fellow guest was kind enough to lend me. Thanks, Andy. 

The trip back is a nightmare, but I’ll let Adventures Around Asia tell that tale. She’s the hero of that piece.

A Broken Arm in China

Richelle and I are in high spirits as we make our way to the hospital on our first full day back in China. 

I was reluctant to even make the trip. The worrying swelling from the day before is gone. 

“I bet it’s a sprain,” I suggest, “I’ll buy dinner tonight if I’m wrong”. 

“I bet it’s a fracture,” Richelle jokes, “I’ll buy dinner if I’m wrong”. 

It’s a frustrating process navigating the various layers of interdepartmental bureaucracy that rule all things in China, but we’re soon before an English-speaking doctor and he’s showing me a decidedly broken arm. 

Richelle and I both let out amused laughs when we see the first x-ray. Side on, it looks like a tiny crack. 

I cheer for my first broken bone. She cheers because dinner is on me. 

And then he shows us the other image. 

And then he advises us that I’ll need surgery. 

And then he says it’s going to cost 30,000RMB ($6,000 AUD/$4,300 USD). 

And I’m thinking,

“Christ, I forgot to buy travel insurance”. 

broken arm nightstick fracture
The arm in all of its gory glory.

Thank God I’m an Aussie

When I first heard the price, I nearly died. 

I checked and rechecked the conversion in my head. We ask if he misspoke. 

In a fit of supreme generosity, Richelle even offers to loan me the money so I can get the surgery done ASAP. 

I’ve never quite outgrown being that kid who can always rely on the wisdom of his parents. 

I call Mum.

Mum calls John Hunter hospital. 

I can get the surgery done for free at home. I just need to present at A&E with my x-rays and then wait for a surgeon to be available. 

A $700 flight home seems considerably more within the bounds of possibility than a $6000 operation with dubious cleanliness standards and the very real possibility of being prescribed three different teas as part of my healing regimen. 

The possibility of being prescribed three different teas as part of my healing regimen.

We pay the exorbitant fee to get a soft cast put on my arm and start trawling Skyscanner for affordable flights home that don’t have 21-hour layovers in Chongqing or Changsha. 

chinese medicine
A standard prescription in China? Actually, smaller than most I saw.

Nanjing to the Rescue

Beijing might be China’s capital and a major transport hub, but its two airports aren’t offering up a lot in the two-week window the doctors gave me. 

$600 one way flights or $650 round trips with ridiculous layovers in second tier cities. 

I’d rather manually break my good arm than subject myself to any amount of time on China Southern. 

Thankfully, my former stomping grounds in Nanjing come to the rescue. 

I can get a $700 return flight with Cathay Pacific (with no bullshit layovers), have a long overdue reunion with mates I haven’t seen in six months, and get my Nanjing apartment sorted ahead of my move to Beijing. 

I’m going home. 

Flying the Aussie flag with pride is a rare sight.
Flying the Aussie flag with pride is a rare sight.

Nil By Mouth

My time at Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital is an exercise in patience. 

From the six hours in A&E waiting to see first a doctor and then a surgeon, to the two full days of fasting ahead of a surgery that is continually postponed. 

Nil by mouth is the process of cutting out all foods and liquids 8-12 hours ahead of surgery.

You’re hooked up to a drip and forced to wave away the meal cart whenever it comes by. 

I become intimately familiar with nil by mouth as my Saturday surgery is pushed to Sunday and my Sunday surgery is pushed to Monday. 

In both cases, I fast from 10 pm one day to 8 pm the next. 

I watch daytime TV without much relish. 

I stand solemn vigil in the hospital foyer each night so I can use their wi-fi. My IV drip stands at my side like a probation officer. 

I shower with bags taped over my arm. 

My Mum, bless her, subjects herself voluntarily to this purgatory. I feel too guilty to sleep while she sits by my bed leading through a novel or dozing fitfully. 

It’s an exhausting few days, both physically and emotionally. 

Going Under the Knife

I’m shaken awake at dawn on Monday morning and told I’ll be going in for surgery. 

By 8 am, I’m staring up at the roof of the prep room while my anesthesiologist hovers over me and waits for the call. 

I’m nervous but ready to be done with the waiting. As lovely as the staff has been and as supportive as Mum is – I’m ready to not be laying in bed all day.  

Things go blank. 

I wake up in a crowded recovery room which buzzes with life. Nurses cash back and forth between dazed and confused patients. 

I am told to tap the morphine as soon as I see the light saying the timer has reset. 

In a bizarre attempt to show I’m okay, I keep trying to make small talk with the obviously busy staff. 

“Where are you from?” I ask them for no apparent reason. 

I’ve already forgotten the question by the time they’ve finished answering. 

My arm hurts. It fucking hurts.

In fact, it hurts worse than when I broke the damned thing. 

That makes sense. They had to force the two jagged halves of my bone together, scrape away any calcification, and then attach a metal plate to the bone by drilling holes through it. 

Morphine is a good friend. 

Back in my room, I wolf down a bag of candy and guzzle a bottle of coke. 

I then proceed to throw it all up into a bag my Mum holds for me. 

Undeterred, I ask her to buy me a schnitzel and absolutely destroy that. 

I stop just short of licking the plate. 

Recovery

I’m kept under observation for another 24 hours as the morphine and the antibiotics do their job. 

My cousin, Mitchell comes by with Cadbury Favourites and a travel adaptor so I can use my laptop. 

I have long late night chats with Richelle and read and reread the Lonely Planet magazine Mum brought me. 

I pee into a jug and have a nurse come and get it. 

And then, just like that, I’m a delirious passenger in my sister’s car as she drives me out to her home. 

The pain comes and goes over the next few days. 

Sometimes, the Endone makes me so high that I can’t function and have to lock myself in the guest room. 

I get 2-3 hours of sleep a night and I’m barely eating. I’m constipated and I’m not hungry. 

But, despite all of that, I’m healing. 

Exhaustion

It’s been an exhausting week on every level. 

I cry on the train to Sydney because I can’t get comfortable enough to snatch some precious sleep. 

I break down again in front of my friends over dinner as I try to explain to them why I can’t wait to get back to China. 

I have a new apartment. I have my site. I have a business I’m trying to set up. I have a girlfriend I spend more time away from than I’d like. I have my brother, his girlfriend, and my nephew waiting for me. 

It’s the culmination of a sleepless, pain-filled week. I’m emotionally, physically, and mentally drained. 

The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story could be: don’t go up on the roof of boats in rough seas. 

It could be: socialized health care is the benchmark of any civilized country. 

But, let’s be honest, it should be: BUY FUCKING TRAVEL INSURANCE. 

Instead of spending a bunch of money I’d rather be spending on more scuba dives, I’d have already had the surgery and been on the mend. 

Travel insurance wouldn’t have changed my decision to fly home for the surgery, but it would have taken away a lot of the stress. 

Learn from my mistakes, kid. Pay the money and save yourself a lot of heartache. 

Your Say

Have you ever found yourself injured or ill abroad without travel insurance? What was your experience like?

Want to read more on the subject? Adventures Around Asia also wrote about our experience traveling without insurance.

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