I’m sure many of you have heard that I was in a surfing accident recently. The swelling in my face has now decreased sufficiently for me to put on my old glasses and type the story out. Hopefully my new glasses will fit on my face soon. The story is longer than I had hoped it would be, but I couldn’t leave anything out. Truth really is stranger than fiction.
I started surfing about a year ago. Nicaragua has some of the best surfing in the world. In fact, I have met surfers from all over the world here in Nicaragua. I’m not a good surfer. I don’t even own my own board. I borrow my neighbor’s board when I want to go. I typically go on weekends when I have free time, which isn’t every weekend.
Last Saturday, two of my friends (Kathi and Nati, who incidentally aren’t surfers) wanted to go to the beach and were willing to split the cost of gas to drive there in my car. The beach we chose is about two and a half hours away from where we live, near the town of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. When I first got out in the water with my board, I couldn’t believe how great the waves were. I caught more waves the first hour that day than in my previous five trips combined.
What normally happens while surfing is that you swim out with your board and wait for the right the wave to come. You have to carefully time the arrival of the wave with your position in the water. As the wave nears, you lie down on the board and begin to paddle towards the shore. If you have timed everything correctly and paddled hard enough, the board will ‘catch’ the wave, and at the proper moment you ‘pop up’ and stand on the board while carefully steering the board in a direction that keeps you in the wave and upright.
As a beginner surfer, I often miss the wave and have to jump off the board or simply roll off the board. If the wave is really big, it can throw you off, so you have to be careful not to let the board hit you. When surfers are unsure of the board’s location, they will commonly put their arms over their heads and faces to protect themselves from getting hit. When the waves aren’t very big and you jump off the board, the board generally floats forward, and then you lean back and let the wave finish passing until you can safely grab the board again.
Right before the accident, I was in a great mood. The waves gently rolled in, crested, and fell evenly left-to-right, creating ideal conditions for my skill level. Even when I missed a wave, I was able to quickly recover the board without problems.
I still can’t say exactly how it happened, but at some point after rolling off my board, I stood up in the chest deep water and my board popped up out of the water sideways and hit me square in the face. I have been hit in the face with my board before. It normally isn’t a big deal. It normally isn’t very hard, either. This time was different. The board had hit me in the nose, which immediately began to bleed.
My first thought was, “I have to get out of the water; I don’t know how bad this is.” I touched my nose and could feel that it was looser than normal. I began to take handfuls of water and throw them on my face. The water that fell from my face was red with blood. I grabbed my board and walked toward the shore. I knew I must be covered in blood. I kept trying to wash the blood off my face, but every time I looked down, I saw more and more blood. I spotted my friends on the beach and headed their way. When I was about ten yards off, they suddenly looked startled, jumped up, and ran towards me
As I explained to them what had happened, I noticed that I was talking differently. I asked questions like, “Am I ok?” or “What are we going to do?” Shock was already beginning to set in. Normally, I would have had enough presence of mind to know that I had to go to the hospital.
“Vamos al hospital, Andy” [We’re going to the hospital], Naty told me. I began to think about the unclean conditions and crowded wards I had seen while visiting hospitals in Nicaragua. The thought of being cared for in one of these places did not make me feel any better. Kathi tried to wash the blood off my face with a bottle of clean water. I held a towel to my face to stop the blood and keep the sand out of my wound.
The Doctor on the Beach
As we neared a restaurant there on the beach, an American noticed how hurt I was and said: “You need a doctor. Where’s the doctor?”
A middle-aged man speaking perfect English quickly came to my aid. He identified himself as a plastic surgeon from the Hospital Metropolitana in Managua. As I later found out, this man is a foreign-trained plastic surgeon from the nicest hospital in Managua//Nicaragua with more than twenty years of experience. I couldn’t have asked for a better doctor. As he began to assess my condition, I almost passed out, so they made me lie down. The doctor shoved paper towels into my nose and put pressure on the ridge between my eyes. I never bled so much in my life. The bone was fractured, cartilage was dislocated, and my right nostril was torn, exposing my sinus when the flap of skin was pulled back.
After we got the bleeding under control, the doctor held paper towels on my face and loaded me into a truck I had never seen. I sat in the middle of the back seat with the doctor on my right side and Kathi on my left. As we drove the rough dirt road from the beach towards town, the doctor held pressure on my wound. Every bump was like getting hit in the face again. The bleeding had slowed, and the doctor’s hand was the only thing that kept it from getting worse. It was painful, but necessary.
Back at the beach, a stranger was tying the surfboard to the roof of my old Nissan Pathfinder. The doctor’s family rode with Naty to the clinic in San Juan in my car, while I rode separately with the doctor. I still don’t know who drove. I found out later that the doctor had been at the beach with his family for a funeral. They had rented a boat and were going to spread his mother-in-law’s ashes in the water.
Upon our arrival at the clinic in San Juan, we were taken immediately into another room where the doctor, who stood there wearing flip-flops and board shorts, began to ask for different medicines. They didn’t have any of them. He asked for a good light so he could look inside my nose to make a better assessment. They didn’t have one. They did have gauze.
He carefully inserted the gauze in my nose. This would stop the bleeding until I could get to a real hospital. He gave us two options. They could either take me to the really nice hospital in Managua (3 hours away) or to the clinic belonging to his friend, Doctor Cerda (2 hours away). This friend also worked at the Hospital Metropolitana. We decided to go to the clinic because it was only fifteen minutes away from where we live—and a whole hour closer. Doctor Lacayo finished giving instructions for my care to Naty and Kathi, then disappeared out the front door.
As we were about to leave, Naty told me that my car was leaking a red fluid. There are only two places on my car that have red fluid: the automatic transmission and power steering. If the transmission was leaking and had caused the large puddle of fluid I saw beneath the car, we wouldn’t make it to the clinic. No one else, besides me, knew enough about cars to properly identify the leak, and we couldn’t risk breaking down in the middle of nowhere after dark.
My only option was to crawl under the car myself and find the leak. As I did so, I kept one hand on the gauze over my nose and felt around the engine compartment with the other. The sun was already setting. I couldn’t see exactly where the fluid was coming from, but I could identify that it was not the transmission. I crawled back out from under the car and tried to get inside, but Kathi made me sit down on the curb so she could wash my hands.
“You can’t get your hands dirty on the car and then touch your face,” she said. I felt like saying “yes ma’am.” I was very grateful that she was thinking more clearly than I. After the hand washing, I lay down in the backseat. Naty rode shotgun and Kathi drove. Two hours later, we made it to the clinic in San Marcos, where I met Doctor Cerda.
Doctor Cerda told me later that when he first saw me, he thought I was going to need extensive facial reconstruction. Apparently the wound was kind of gruesome. He took ‘before’ pictures on his digital camera, shot my face full of pain-killers, and began to stitch me back up. I sat upright in a wooden chair with my head on the top of the chair-back. His nurse/wife held an LED flashlight on my face while the doctor sewed my nose back together. After the stitches were complete, he called the girls back in and showed them his work. Then he showed them the ‘before’ pictures. Kathi looked like she might throw up.
The doctor then scheduled me for more surgery in the morning at a local private hospital. He would have to realign my dislocated cartilage (re-break my nose) and take a closer look at the wound in a real operating room. He also did something to my sinus, but I don’t really understand what that was. We spoke only in Spanish.
We were at the hospital at 6:45 the next morning with cash in hand to pay for the surgery. They don’t offer credit at private hospitals here in Nicaragua. I had hardly slept the night before. I underwent general anesthesia and the doctor spent about an hour operating on me. At this point he discovered that the bone had been fractured; he also found a piece of paper towel that the doctor on the beach had stuffed into my nose. If he hadn’t found this bit of paper towel, I would have had major problems. The surgery went very well.
It’s incredible . . .
I really can’t believe how well this story has turned out. First, as I think about the accident itself, it’s amazing that I didn’t immediately lose consciousness and drown. The board hit me hard enough to tear the right half of my nose loose. I didn’t get cut with a fin on the end of my board: the pressure from being hit so hard in the face is what tore my nose open.
Then the likelihood that I would just happen to meet with a man who I imagine is one of the country’s best plastic surgeons on the beach immediately after my accident is unreal. And not only was he on the beach—he was at the restaurant as I walked up—and he was willing to leave a funeral to take care of me, all without asking to be paid. That’s incredible.
As I write this, (on Sunday) only one week after the accident, it’s hard to believe that I was in a serious accident at all. The swelling has gone down, and the exposed cuts on my face are not very noticeable. I have had no infection. Three hours elapsed from the time of the accident until the doctor started stitching me back together, yet there is no infection. I never had major facial swelling or really bad black eyes either.
The doctor who did my surgery did an excellent job. My friends who were on the beach with me took very good care of me. I don’t know what I would have done if they hadn’t been there. I also have good friends who let me stay at their house while I recovered.
I don’t know what else to do but call my experience providential. I believe God helped coordinate the care I received. I don’t know how that works or why that is. (Beyond knowing that I am loved by God.) Surely I am no more deserving of care than anyone else. I do know that not everyone is as fortunate as I have been in this situation. I am humbled and more grateful than I can communicate.
Thank you, Doctor Lacayo (and your family too).
Thank you, Doctor Cerda.
Thank you, Naty. Thank you, Kathi.
Thank you Don, Barb and Jacob
Thank you, God.