Never Off Duty

Story and photos by Sally Moir

As a nurse, I have grown to dread the call for medical assistance on my travels but fortunately, before this event, I had only ever had to deal with minor injuries. I was therefore unprepared for the disaster that lay ahead.

Alarm bells had rung the first day I met Alice on a day trip from Quito, Ecuador. She was an elderly lady with a huge open gash on her leg. Over lunch in an old mill she told me how she had fallen in Peru. I confessed to being a nurse, (something I rarely do on holiday) and suggested she get the leg checked as it looked infected. Her response was a familiar one ‘Oh no, it’s so much better to let the air get to it’ but I hoped she might think about seeing someone before we set off to cruise round the Galapagos islands, the next day. 

I was not surprised to see that she had not heeded my advice as we embarked the following day, but I was heartened to hear the guide telling her that she could not swim with an open wound on her leg. Alice indignantly replied ‘How ridiculous’ and walked away with a frown that travelled down her darkening face.

Our first stop was Plaza du Sur, one of many islands on our demanding schedule. Alice wobbled and fell on top of me as she climbed into the dinghy but she managed a good walk around the island’s cacti strewn undergrowth. We enjoyed watching the land iguanas standing proudly on the rocks and stepping over blue footed boobies nesting on the pathways. Although my daughter calls me ‘the worrying warrior’, I began to relax and stop worrying about Alice’s unsteadiness.

Our next visit that day was to Santa Fe Island. We were greeted on the beach by smiling sea lions and their pups basking in the sun. We felt like we were in a David Attenborough documentary as we walked between these lumbering creatures, marvelling at how tame they were. 

It was hard to leave that beach, not least because it was difficult to avoid stepping on the Sally Lightfoot crabs that were scuttling across the sand but we were promised amazing views from the hill above. We set off in single file, walking up a rocky gully, and I chatted to Alice who was immediately in front of me. We fell silent as the walking became slightly more challenging and I dropped back as I didn’t want to crowd her. Suddenly, Alice tripped and fell, hitting her head against a rock as she went down. I rushed to her, grabbing her floppy hat from her head and holding it against the enormous cut on her forehead which was bleeding profusely. Everyone behind us scrambled to find tissues and hankies to help stem the bleeding.

One of the younger members of our party had turned whiter than Alice. I suggested that he go ahead and find the guide who seemed to be quite a long way in front. Meanwhile, I was fortunate to have help from a retired nurse who was also in our group.

The guide arrived, opened his bag and produced a thin muslin bandage from his bag and some antibiotic cream. We applied the cream and a pad of tissues to her cut holding the latter in place with the very inadequate bandage. She sat forlornly amongst the rocks looking very pale and shocked. Surreally, while the guide was radioing the boat for assistance, Alice’s partner decided he should take some photos of his poor injured friend. 

The crew arrived with a stretcher and Alice was taken back to the boat and laid on the dining room floor. My helper and I tried to make her as comfortable as possible with pillows and blankets. We realised that it was going to be up to us to care for her on the three hour journey back to Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz.

Alice was drowsy and it was hard work keeping her conscious. She seemed too weak to talk, so we had to provide most of the conversation. We described the view and all the wildlife we could see from the back of the boat. Flying fish were jumping out of the water and pelicans were diving and catching them in their wobbling pouches. Frigate birds hovered darkly above and a couple of shark fins followed ominously in the boat’s wake. 

The remaining passengers had returned to their own cabins except for two men who went to Alice’s cabin to help her very shocked partner to pack their belongings. He was insistent that they would be back on board the next day. The guide managed to persuade him that we might be able to pick them up in a couple of days’ time.

It was late when we finally made it back to port. Alice was taken to the small hospital and we heard that her blood pressure was in her boots. The next day we were told she had been flown to Quito hospital where she had thirty seven stitches in her head. Miraculously, there was no permanent damage but she wasn’t well enough to return to the boat and so she spent the rest of the week recovering in a hotel room. She sent me pictures of her poor bruised and battered face when she returned to England.

I admired Alice’s tenacious spirit but it seemed she had booked a holiday that was a bit too demanding for someone in her eighties who was not too steady on her feet. Her and her partner’s holiday was ruined and everyone travelling with her was also affected by her accident. We spent the rest of the week very carefully assisting each other over rocks and I also spent some time ruminating on whether I could have done more for this indomitable lady. Thank goodness we had only been three hours from the hospital! The next time you book an adventure, please spare a thought for the poor off duty nurse or doctor!

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