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.

Life in Transit – Lena and Brian

After a roller coaster year that involved losing our jobs, moving four times, and a pandemic – we can finally exhale. Against all odds, we have made it to our new home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. 

Departure

After a flustered farewell to Mexico, we waited in limbo for several months in California. We hunkered down in homes that our family and friends graciously lent us, as sickness, sadness, and uncertainty raged outside. Within our carefully constructed social bubble, we relished reconnecting with Lena’s family and immersing ourselves in nature. By July our new school began speculating about the Uzbek border partially re-opening, so we rounded up all the stuff of our transit life. Camping gear, winter clothes and most toys went into boxes that Brian drove to Phoenix on a sprint to get our shipment sent off. It had been sitting in a storage unit since August after being intercepted in Hamburg on its way to Moscow. Now it would head back to Europe and then south via train from Eastern Europe through Central Asia. Our Kitchen Aid mixer is extremely well traveled. The stories our stuff could tell. Meanwhile, our passports had been sent to the Uzbek Consulate in Washington, DC with extra fees and followed up with phone calls begging to expedite visas in case we were asked to jump on a last minute flight.

The flurry of preparing to leave coincided with preparing to teach remotely on a twelve hour time difference. We were attending Zoom staff meetings that began at 8:00pm and lasted until 3:00am….and then we had to wake up and function as parents of very young kids. We splurged at Target to create virtual learning spaces where we could record lessons and instruct our own children. As soon as we set up our office, we got an email from the school asking us if we could make a charter flight departing from New York in 24 hours. This entailed packing, saying goodbye to family, purchasing last minute flights from San Francisco to New York, and uprooting the kids with minimal notice. Of course we said yes. We just needed to confirm that our permission to be on the flight had made it from Tashkent to New York City. Just as we began to strategize the ultimate departure plan, we got word that the permissions hadn’t arrived. We were off the flight and would likely not have another opportunity until the border opened up to commercial flights in a month or two. 

Until a week later. We were squeezed onto a repatriation flight technically for Uzbeks moving home during the pandemic (which makes sense because Uzbekistan’s COVID response relies on science and social responsibility), and it departed in five days. But we were now emotionally prepared and had anticipated logistics ahead of time. Best of all, we had visas and permission to enter the country. After previous experiences trying to get visas for other countries (and not always succeeding), we were pleasantly surprised at how logical and pleasant our interactions were with Uzbeks. For example, we called the Consulate and spoke to a person….a person who was friendly and helpful. Amazing. 

The flight to Tashkent left from New York City, but New York had just instituted a self-quarantine requirement for people arriving from several states, including California. No one could really tell us more than transiting would probably be ok. So we booked a nonrefundable room at the only hotel actually at JFK. We were questioned by authorities from the NY Health Department when disembarking our flight from San Francisco, but they waved us on when we explained that we were only staying one night and leaving the country in the morning. Getting to the retro TWA Hotel in Terminal 5 was as to be expected when pushing three teetering carts stacked with 16 suitcases in and out of elevators and on and off the AirTrain. There were some harrowing mishaps of tumbling luggage nearly concussing our wayward children. Brian also discovered that he was not what one might call “in shape.” 

The Flight

We got to the check-in counter exhausted from the trek only to find out that we must pay cash for our baggage overage fees. We were expecting the fee part but not the cash part. After several trips to the ATM and unsuccessful calls to the bank to waive withdrawal limits, we were still short. The incredibly helpful Uzbekistan Airways employee went out of his way to try several work arounds, but without the cash we were stuck. We had used up our built in time cushion trying to solve this fiasco. It did not look like we were going to make the flight.  Then Brian pulled out several money orders that the Uzbek Consulate had returned to us because we hadn’t needed to pay expediting fees for our visas. This would be the first but definitely not the last time that we encountered this type of humbling honesty. In the whirlwind of packing, we hadn’t been able to refund the money orders for cash. It was a Hail Mary for the win. The money orders, totaling the exact amount we needed, were accepted as payment and we sprinted for the security gate.

Security was a nightmare. Crowded. Understaffed. Nothing to protect from COVID (ok, the officials wore gloves….the same pair of gloves to protect themselves but no one else). Multiple rescans of luggage for no reason. By the time we were finally through, the flight was boarding. Naturally, our gate was as far away as possible. We raced through the terminal with overstuffed carry-ons, dragging Bug and Noodle on their Trunkis. We arrived panting at an empty gate and looked at each other in panic. Realizing it had just relocated a few gates down, we quickly spotted the well-masked but definitely not physically distanced crowd. We joined the line and caught our breath for the next hour before we were able to board the delayed flight. 

Our introduction to Uzbekistan Airways was the flight attendants greeting us dressed head to toe in full protective gear. The flight was completely full. We hadn’t seen this many people in months and the close proximity with recycled air was beyond stressful. We weren’t the only ones though. Many people, including us, pulled out packets of bleach wipes and scrubbed down every inch of their seating areas. The flight was relatively uneventful, although the unmasked young boy sitting in front of us continuously leaned into our space to try and play with Bug and Noodle sent Lena into a mild panic attack mixed with guilt. In any other situation, she would have encouraged the kids to play. But a potential super spreader breathing in our food was too much. Brian made gestures that the child needed to wear a mask. The family graciously complied and did their best with the cute little wiggler for the rest of the flight. On the other hand, Bug and Noodle did amazing. They kept their masks on for all twelve hours – even while eating and sleeping – and never objected to being doused in sanitizer each time they went to the toilet. However, Lena trying to rub an essential oil concoction in their nostrils was a step too far. Brian’s biggest complaint was his broken movie screen that kept him from watching any of the five Uzbek or Russian movies available. Oh, and the food was terrible.

Arrival

Watching the map was mesmerizing as we passed over the Arctic, through Russia and over numerous “Stans” that were complete unknowns in our mental imaging of the world. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Tashkent. Passport control was slow but undramatic. Luggage collection was another story. The carrousel was packed with not only passengers and airport employees but also drivers and employees from hotels where people would be quarantining. At that time, all passengers arriving into Uzbekistan were required to quarantine for ten days either in a hotel or at a government quarantine facility. As bags began to appear, Brian jockeyed at the non-distanced carousels and Lena corralled the kids in an empty corner of the hall. All the bags must have been sprayed with disinfectant because they were wet even though it was a bright sunny day. Despite Brian’s masterful skill at building suitcase Jenga towers on rickety luggage carts, we did have one small mishap on a crowded ramp. 

We were excited to meet another teacher from our school who had also made our flight, and not only because she helped push a cart. A friendly presence and easy conversation amidst the chaos and uncertainty quickly calmed our nerves. Also, while loading into the hotel van, we caught a glimpse of school staff who came to wave at us from across the parking lot. It was another warm gesture that really made us feel welcomed. 

Our new colleague pointed out landmarks and local bazaars as our police escort darted through the empty streets. Although normally congested with traffic, the government had restricted cars on the road to control movement and curb COVID’s spread. After a short drive through the city, we arrived at the Miran International Hotel, where we would would exist in limbo for nearly two weeks. While checking into the hotel, the school director appeared outside a window, waved enthusiastically, and snapped photographic proof that we were on Uzbek soil. We were so touched to see him. On top of everything our school had done to get us to Tashkent during a pandemic, these small gestures really set the tone for what type of community we were entering. 

Bewildered and exhausted, we were escorted past military guards and down a dim hallway lit with disinfecting UV lights to our surprisingly spacious and bright room. Noticing the megabed that had been made by pushing two double beds together, all four Thomspers quickly changed into comfy jammies and promptly fell asleep.

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Parenting Not Sharenting – Brian

We have had serious discussions about the role our children would play in the evolution of this blog. Their very existence underpins all our decision-making, and this blog is essentially about the decisions we make as an expat family, so clearly they need to be acknowledged. Using pseudonyms was an easy agreement, and if you know our kids, Bug and Noodle are apt names. Yet we did not so easily agree on how to visually represent them. Photographs are integral to a blog, as the images capture readers’ attention and create an immediate stimulus to accompany text. If we are writing about our kids, we need to show them in some way. 

We ultimately decided not to show our children’s faces but were uncertain about exactly how and what impact it would have on the blog. Can mood be created without seeing their faces? How much emotion is lost? What if we blurred them? Would that be distracting? Is blurring enough protection? How about putting shapes over their faces?

But wait. This isn’t only about our amateur blogging aspirations. Our children’s identities will be impacted by having an online presence. Each time a photo is uploaded to the internet it leaves a digital footprint that can never be fully erased. How will this affect our toddlers? Or their future selves? What could happen to a photo once it is downloaded off our blog and we’ve have lost control of it? Consider the Tweet we shared about losing our jobs. It was seen by nearly 12,000 people and almost 1,500 did something with it. Do Bug or Noodle want that many people seeing a photo of them playing in the park? 

As veteran teachers, we have well-resourced “toolkits” to pull from when making parenting decisions. To tackle this challenge, we chose to lean on the International Baccalaureate Enhanced Primary Years Program, which centers learning around an agency framework of voice, choice and ownership.

They deserve ownership of their sense of self. It is important that we allow them to develop this identity outside the confines of a forced online one that they didn’t create. We want them to have the freedom to explore and experiment without worrying about how they appear to others. That is the innocence of childhood, and we don’t want to steal it. We do capture precious moments and occasionally share them on our closely controlled personal social media accounts, but that is not the intention of this blog.

We also want to give our children voice and choice about how they are portrayed to the world. It is unfair for us to make this decision for them, and they are too young to give informed consent, so we are including them in deciding which photos they are comfortable using. Although they may not fully understand the significance of the choice, they are learning that it is a choice that exists and we feel it is important. Hopefully this understanding will stay with them as they grow older.

The term sharenting has been coined to describe this act of posting children’s lives online as they grow up. With so many established parenting blogs and celebrity moms and dads with millions of followers posting constantly about their children, the phenomenon has now come to a head. Now-teens are expressing strong feelings about discovering the photos of themselves that their parents have been posting. To protect these children, France has actually passed laws allowing parents to be fined or jailed for posting pictures of their children online.

The immediate dangers go beyond disrespecting the kids’ ownership of and autonomy over their identities. There is also a very real risk of online role-playing and digital kidnapping, where photos are stolen from social media and used for other purposes, such as advertisements or on explicit websites. The Thomas family experienced this when they found their family photo being used for a local political campaign without their permission, which then led to them discovering its use in ad campaigns in many different countries. They have never consented to or received compensation for the photo’s use, and getting companies to take it down has been a nightmare. Even more concerning, the BBC warns that photos easily linked to an abundance of personal information could make our children vulnerable to future financial fraud

Research for this post made Lena and I realize that we needed to check out our own media footprints to ensure that geotags, contact information, and location-identifiers in photos were removed enough to keep the children safe. We started by self-Googling and were comfortable with the results. Except for one picture. We had originally opted to blur the kids’ faces, but seeing it appear in a Google image search gave us pause, so we decided to re-edit the photo and add shapes over their faces. Perhaps more distracting and detracting but better for our children. As an additional safety measure, we will also watermark the photos.

Not our favorite option for concealing faces

Parents make a million decisions every day in the best interest of their children. We try to be as informed and intentional as possible, but ultimately we go with instinct. Are we perfect parents? No way. Do we make mistakes? Most definitely. Are we comfortable with the level of anonymity that we’ve attempted to maintain for our children? We think so. 

We can’t prevent “right click, save,” but we can take measures to protect our images and the people within them. What decisions have you made regarding your own, your children’s or students’ digital footprints? We’d love to hear your thoughts.