That Time I Almost Died – Brian and Lena

Facebook is great at reminding its users of past events through its creation of Memories. In my case, the memories are mostly random photos from non-interesting events. Lena seems to get the special shareworthy ones – kids’ births, first date, amazing holidays. However, she recently shared the memory of the worst day of my life. 

When living in Vietnam, we decided to sign up for a race on Phu Quoc and make a fun weekend of it. I often do things on a whim simply for the experience. Lena usually finds this charming. Except for the (two) times I have seen The Backstreet Boys in concert (Dubai and Saigon), which she claims was almost a deal-breaker early in our relationship due to my “terrible taste in music.” I don’t know, it was a pretty good concert… the first time.

Only a quick flight from our former home in Saigon, Phu Quoc is a beautiful tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand that belongs to Vietnam but is located south of Cambodia. Naturally I agreed to the race because I will do anything for a free t-shirt.  She would run the 5K, and I the 10K, and then we would meet up and head to a beach bar. The week previous we both were vacillating about whether we wanted to actually run or simply have a romantic weekend. In the end we decided to run, but because of our indecision, neither of us had trained much. I figured it would be fine since I had run cross country and track in high school with exceptional mediocrity.

Apparently we weren’t the only ones ill-prepared for the race. For some reason, the race was scheduled to start at 3:00pm in the afternoon. In May. In southern Vietnam. So like 100 degrees Fahrenheit and 9,000 percent humidity. I was feeling good as the race began and figured I would be able to complete the distance easily. However, I did find it odd that there was only one water stop early in the race, which consisted of a pile of sealed cases of plastic water bottles dropped haphazardly on the side of the road. I had to stop to rip open the plastic wrapping off one of the cases as no volunteers were staffing the station. That is when I learned how difficult it is to drink from a bottle as you run. I got maybe 37% in my mouth and rest down my shirt. It kept me cool at least. Indicator number two of poor race planning.

When I got to the turnaround point, I counted five people ahead and realized I was toward the front. I had never placed in any race during my entire “career” and was spurred on. I had just passed one guy when I started to not feel so well. I could see the hotel ahead that was the start/finish line, so I figured I could make it. I was definitely feeling the lack of training but wanted to finish. I was maybe 200 meters from the hotel.

Suddenly there was a sharp pain in my leg. Half conscious, I could tell someone was leaning over me. Why was he jabbing a syringe in my leg? Once revived, said person propped me against the side of the hotel and rushed off. My vision was blurry and my mind cloudy. I felt glued to the ground, unable to move as other runners ambled by sipping their after-race beers. I was so thirsty. I scanned the ground for discarded bottles and found a half empty hydration drink that was mostly someone’s backwash. I was past the point of caring about sanitary choices and chugged it. My vision and my mind cleared for about 30 seconds before returning to the land of haze. 

I noticed Lena approaching in slow motion. Hair flowing as she jogged toward me. Face flushed from just completing her 5K. But wait. Who was that ridiculously handsome guy running alongside her? I didn’t have to have perfect vision to notice his tanned skin and partially unbuttoned shirt showing off his glistening chest. I thought this was our romantic weekend.

It turned out he was the Italian doctor who had injected me with vitamin B in the “vintage” ambulance. He was the doctor on call for the race. I couldn’t make out their conversation, but when they reached me, Lena began asking questions. She asked what my name was, which I thought was silly. Of course I know my name. I am not sure what I answered, but it probably wasn’t the answer she needed because she then asked if I knew who she was. Easy. I confidently answered, “Lena Johnson.” Her last name is Thomson. As soon as it came out, I knew it wasn’t right but couldn’t figure out how to correct myself. The attractive duo decided that I needed to go to the hospital. Vietnam is chock full of idle taxis, so I was helped into the nearest taxi, and we sped off to the provincial government hospital. The ambulance had to stay because so many other runners were also having difficulty for the same reason – lack of water plus high temperature equals heat stroke.

As we drove, my vision narrowed to a tiny spot. I told Lena that we needed to call my mom so she could meet us in the hospital. I explained that she could drive from her home in Georgia to Ohio, where I grew up but hadn’t lived for 15 years. It might be the next day but it would be okay. This plan all sounded great in my head. Of course I trusted Lena to take care of me, but my mom would also want to be there. Lena just promised she would call soon.

We arrived to the hospital and I couldn’t control my legs anymore, so the taxi driver and Lena draped me over their shoulders and dragged me from room to room as nurses kept waving us elsewhere. My memories from this point are spotty, so Lena has reorganized and clarified a lot of this part of the story. 

I was finally given a bed in a waiting area, and we were left for over an hour unattended. I vaguely remember nurses walking by and perhaps peaking at me, but nothing happened. No taking vital signs or asking why I was there. Obviously we had a language gap, and a kind Vietnamese guy helping his friend in the next bed over approached us to translate. But even he wasn’t able to get anyone to help us. Then a carton of orange juice appeared. Obviously I chugged it. And I promptly vomited all over myself, the bed and the floor. The helpful nurses gave Lena some napkins and walked away.

My fingers and lips were turning blue and my conscious self was no longer in control. My biological system took over and was pushing all the blood it could to my heart. I was in full on fight or flight, and flight was not an option. I was fighting internally, and Lena was fighting externally with everyone to give me a f*%king IV, which was all I really needed. No one would listen. She was also yelling in my face to stay awake. I could hear her but I couldn’t do anything about it. In my mind, I was answering her by telling her to stop yelling at me. She says I just stared at her blankly. I was so angry with the whole situation. The clearest and most profound thought that sticks with me was the realization that I might die, and if I did, I would die angry. I wondered if that is how people feel at the end when their bodies are fighting to live. I didn’t want my last feeling to be anger. I didn’t want to die angry…or at all.

Everyone in our little waiting room was shouting as I fell unconscious in a pool of vomit, and finally the nurses sprung into action. They grabbed my bed and raced me to the emergency hall where the sickest patients were all being treated together. I was unable to open my eyes, but I do remember thinking that whoever was driving thought it was bumper cars as they rammed the bed into every wall and corner along the way. That also made me angry because now I just wanted to go to sleep.

Lena says someone then injected me with something but wouldn’t show her or anyone who was helping us what it was (we had Vietnamese speakers on call to help translate). Sometime during this hours-long situation, the doctor who attended me at the race called Lena to check in. At that point, I was unconscious with an unstable pulse (checked by Lena, not a nurse). He assumed that the injection had been something to stabilize my heart but told Lena to start making preparations to MedEvac me to either Bangkok or Singapore if I didn’t make a turn for the better very soon. She knew I was really sick, but this discussion took it to another level of seriousness.

I believe I was very close to dying when I was finally given an IV. It had taken so long to get treatment because the doctor had not seen me or authorized anything; therefore, despite Lena and friends’ best efforts, the nurses were not allowed to administer anything. Although I was unconscious when the saline and other medicines entered my veins, Lena saw my color return and my body relax. Finally, she was able to figure out how to call my mom in the US from her Vietnamese flip phone, and she promised to call again when I woke. 

At one point, our friends, Kevin and Krystal, who also had run the race, came to the hospital to offer support. Since I was stabilized and it had been hours since the race, Krystal stayed with me and Kevin rushed Lena back to our hotel on his motorbike. In Vietnamese hospitals, the patients are expected to bring their own bedding, clothing and food. We had nothing.

Her memory of that surreal experience was the sea air blasting her face, and all she could think on a loop was, “This isn’t real. I don’t know this story. Focus.” At the hotel, she launched off the bike and raced across the sand to our romantic beachfront room. Our suitcase wouldn’t fit on the motorbike, so she grabbed a pillow, stuffed a bedsheet inside, and tossed in a change of clothes for me. We didn’t have any food.

I regained consciousness about an hour later and was relieved that my vision had cleared, my anger dissipated, and control of my body returned. I had no idea where I was, but Lena was there brushing my forehead and crying on my face. A nighttime hush filled the room, though the ubiquitous motorbike engines and horn honking from the street below floated in through the open window. The lights had been turned off, and I noticed fires flickering all around. 

After VERY SLOWLY sipping two coconuts that Kevin and Krystal had brought, I miraculously needed to use the toilet. This was complicated since Lena needed to support me, carry the IV, and dodge people crouched on woven seagrass mats laid all over the floor and hallway. We realized the fires came from small coal burners that family members used to cook food for themselves and their sick loved ones. No cafeteria in this hospital. 

Once in the tiny toilet, she braced me against the wall and gently laced the IV through my armhole to change me out of my sweat and vomit stained race clothes. Then she steadied me to pee. We crossed quite a few comfort zones that night. The bathroom was far from ideal, but we made it back to the bed and feasted from the styrofoam takeout box filled with the standard rice, veggie and meat combo our friends had picked up from a food cart around the corner.

The fires went out and people laid down on the mats. Having seen several cockroaches on our restroom trip, Lena decided to cause a stir and join me on my hospital bed for the night. When I say bed, I mean a thin mattress over a wooden board. It was many decades old and could be adjusted with a hand crank, which she promptly broke when trying to flatten it out. It was such a hilarious moment that marked the end of the worse part of the ordeal. Not to say that we slept extraordinarily well crammed together on the ancient bed sharing one pillow and a single sheet. The humid air was sticky with smells of cooking and dying. And snores around the room were punctuated by moans, frantic family members, and nurses rushing to attend someone who was not lucky enough to make a turn for the better.

Whenever I opened my eyes, the old lady tending to her husband in the next bed would catch my eye and smile. Lena mentioned that several times in the night, the woman gently woke her, signaling to untwist my IV. It was tender to see the old woman’s devotion to her dying husband. No words were spoken between us, but we deeply felt her love and care as two foreigners in a scary situation without family. In Vietnam, family is everything. We didn’t have family, but we did have friends. We can’t even imagine how much harder the night would have been without Kevin and Krystal’s support – from translation to transportation to food to emotional support – we are forever grateful.

The next morning I was released after getting an ECG (ecocardiogram) from an ancient machine and paying our bill, which came to a grand total of $78. Interestingly, before leaving the hospital, some race organizers finally stopped by. Aside from being like eighteen years old, they apologized for the lack of water with the excuse that half the order wasn’t delivered. Then they offered me a free race entry for next year. We didn’t make it. However, this wasn’t the last romantic weekend that I’ve managed to ruin.  Also, I’ve talked about running in another race, but for some reason Lena is not very keen on that idea.

Lena revealed to me years later that she made a deal with God that night. If I lived, she would marry me. While I had planned on proposing, apparently I needed some divine intervention.

One thought on “That Time I Almost Died – Brian and Lena

  1. Great story, well written. Charming moral. Glad for the outcome all these years later ❤️


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