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It was like being in a scene from M*A*S*H. Lying on a gurney in the hall of the hospital, my arm aching in fresh plaster, I tried to relax, but helicopters kept coming close, hovering,whirleygig rumbling, taking off, their sound growing fainter, only to return like thunder echoing around the mountains, booming and bouncing from peak to peak. Their engines never cut. Within three minutes of the loudest noise announcing their arrival, reverberating through the walls, a trolley would swish down the hall, followed by the soft flap of bare feet in flip flops. That would be the doctor.
Yesterday dawned another glorious morn. On radio at breakfast we heard a report on Team Rwanda – the cycling team I follow – whose expertise is tough mountainous terrain. A rider fell in training and the coach berated him …”what were you doing lying on the road?…did you think an ambulance would come and collect you?…. you fell off your bike, so you get up again and ride. You will fall off again, and you will get up again and ride.”
Later, I went to Chamonix, Mont Blanc to exercise my passion for Extreme Sportsgearshopping at the sale in Patagonia. It was 28C at 1,000m., lat 45.9189° N, 6.8653° E and the Alpine town was thronged with knotty-kneed people in impressive boots and Asian ladies in cotton sun bonnets. Aprés shopping I headed back to the car, changed into shorts and peaked cap, unfolded my little foldy bike from the trunk, clipped its nifty bag on the front and set off obeying the town’s oneway street system. The residential roads are often narrowed still by parked cars and as I happily – exultantly – tootled along on my two wheels, four wheels came up behind, impatient, aggressive, so deeming the footpath safer I tried to hop it but the little wheels didn’t make the step and I fell, spreadeagled on the ground. The red car, cause of my grief, didn’t stop.
Two women did, and a man and a dog. I knew the wrist was gone, so I wouln’t be able to drive the 90kms home. They asked if I wanted an ambulance. Thinking of Team Rwanda, I was shocked…no, no, I’ll just….just… get some advice, maybe an elastic bandage….The young woman took the bike, I took the dog and we walked to a doctor’s rooms….then to two pharmacies (depositing the bike back in the car en route) but it was lunchtime, it was France, and nobody would be stirring from their meal and siesta to open their shutters for another two hours. The dog, a tiny, fluffy grey thing, was bemused. The young woman, from Grenoble, was on her day off from her job in the Snell Sports shop. If she hadn’t been so fit and pretty, the low slung dog so softly coiffed, we would have made a sorry trio, walking through the town. By the time we reached the third shuttered pharmacy, I told her to go on her way, about her day, I would go to the Tourist Office and get a taxi to the hospital.
In the Tourist Office, much to my chagrin, they called the Pompiers (fire brigade ambulance.) My predeliction for Pompiers is well known, how sad then – as the Tourist Office staff pointed out, that with an Oompapa band in the square outside – for the féte des Guides Alpine – I could not dance with the three handsome men now dancing attention on me. Stretchers and neenawing ambulances embarrass me, but they insisted. The Tourist Office staff phoned my husband, I lay there and looked up at the glacier melting as the band played Waltzing Matilda, and then off we went.
When the Pompiers delivered me, they kissed the two nurses on duty (3x2x2 = 12 kisses) and then began my assessment. I had a photocopy of my passport so I existed. The Pompiers had taken off my wedding ring. I assured them I was a strong peasant, my vitals were fine. The nurses talked over me in a blur of fast paced, good humoured French. My phone kept bleating “you have a tiny text message, a very tiny one, please read it” making them laugh. When my daughter called, tears swam. A young doctor with long hair and the most sunburned nose I have ever seen, padded in in his Havaianas, and asked me to join my thumb and index finger. Ever anxious to please, I did so….by using my other hand to make the circle. Doc said that was cheating; my arm was broken. They put the x-ray image up on a light box, Doc took a picture of it with his phone and flapped off to call the surgeon in Sallanches, a bigger hospital down the mountain….the break might require an operation there. Otherwise, I’d be plastered in situ.
The peaks of the Pays de Mont Blanc, overlooking three countries, France, Switzerland and Italy, towered outside the window, the tallest the Aiguille du Midi. I can take pain, but not needles, and I feared they were going to put an aiguille in my midi. I was plastered in situ. I love Plaster of Paris, wished I could embed some cotton lace in the upper layer. The nurses said they thought I was ten years younger than my passport and enquired my secret (poverty and hardship, wine.)
I was wheeled out to await collection in the hall. Beside me was another gurney, onto which, after every admission, the Pompiers’ red plastic inflatible limb slings (sounds like a cocktail; ‘I’ll have a red limb sling please, and water for the dog’) were flang, presumably for bulk collection later- with more kisses. As I lay there, the mound grew ever bigger. In Chamonix they get mountaineers, hikers, skiiers, bikers, BASE jumpers, paragliders, kayakers, ramblers, rovers, runners, riders, rock climbers, boarders, skaters, mushers, dog teams and party animals. The mayor (and the hospital ER) have seen it all, and are not easily alarmed, but this week, he banned wingsuit fliers. “For us, adventure doesn’t mean extreme risk,” said Chamonix mayor Eric Fournier. “We have to ask questions of responsibility and respect for other sports.”
First in was a young man, whose mobile companion (scowling, not impressed) clanked and clattered up and down the hall in a chastity belt; she was still in an absailing harness. His leg was plastered, he left in a wheelchair, all the time chatting as casually as if he were in for a haircut. Then came a young woman with a ponytail, sleek and golden as a Ralph Lauren ad. A student, she had sprained her ankle. With three companions, she was on a road trip from Minnesota, via Guatamala and Austria to Morocco. “It’s not expensive really” she said “we sleep in the open, the only real expense is gas.” I pictured them cooking up a Camping Gas storm, but of course, she meant petrol. The night before, they had spread their sleeping bags and tarps on the ground, but a thunderstorm erupted with torrential rain. They were the highest thing above the tree line on a high mountain, so had to squidge together under a rock outcrop for fear of lightening. That morning they had hiked for an hour to the nearest Refuge to spread their stuff to dry….then, still optimistic “it could have been worse” they were heading down the mountain, when she slipped. She didn’t cry either, was quite chuffed about the helicopter ride, but, being American, and without insurance, worried about the cost. I kept telling her “you’ll be grand” (she probably thought I meant she’d marry a European aristocrat.)
When Himself came to collect me, he walked in an unattended door, into an unattended hall, turned this way and that, followed an ‘Urgences’ sign into a maze of deserted hallways. He called it Hospital Marie Celeste. I had asked Doc the hospital’s address for my husband, but the doc had shrugged…. He didn’t know the address… “just follow the ‘hospital’ signs” he said (the Bermuda Triangle doesn’t have an address either.) The bill was paid – we have good insurance, so 70% was covered – but in toto, it would still have been under €100….and not a word about about my TLC ambulance trip. I think some French resort locations take on the responsibility and cost of emergency evacuation, so I hope Ms Minnesota won’t be charged.
Came home to discover that life had changed. Couldn’t undo my bra, couldn’t get the toothpaste out of the tube, couldn’t jam a croissant. This morning, there was a card in the post from friend Kathryn: ‘Feck it, Sure it’s Grand.’ And it is, and it will be. You just get back up on your bike and ride.
Thank you M. Hollande. Thank you kind young Grenoble lady from Snell Sports. Thank you little dog, for walking the mile with me. Thank you ladies of the Chamonix Tourist Office, thank you my darling darling Pompiers. Thank you Marie Celeste nurses and doc….thank you Sue for the lend of a car. Thank you husband; literally, my better half. Feck it, sure it’s grand.
Montani semper liberi