Editors' Choice

Helping Italians in Thailand

by Sheryl Zeunert

"What his name?" an emergency room nurse asked, pointing to a man surrounded by a swarm of doctors.

I told her I didn't know.

"You know her name?" she asked, pointing to an unconscious woman lying on a gurney, blood soaking through her jeans.

"No," I answered.

"But you their friends," she said bewildered.

My husband Jeff and I were in a Thai hospital trying to help two complete strangers. We weren't there as friends, volunteers, or relief workers. We were there because we answered a call for help. Sometimes you don't pick a volunteer opportunity. It picks you.

Volunteering was the last thing on our minds as we walked down a busy street in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Our minds were on the beach resort we planned to travel to the next day. Turning a corner, we came upon an accident. Flashing lights swirled as police cars and ambulances arrived at the scene. A smashed car and horribly twisted motorcycle lay in the road. "Help me," came a tortured cry as policemen loaded a woman with long red hair into an ambulance.

"My boyfriend, where is my boyfriend?" she asked in a panic. Another stretcher appeared; this one contained the battered body of a man. He was loaded into a pickup truck, doubling as an ambulance.

"Where is my boyfriend?" The Thai police and onlookers stared helplessly, unable to understand the woman's English. Jeff worked his way through the crowd.

"He's coming," Jeff told the woman. "He's right behind you."

"Please, help me," she begged him.

It seemed like hours before our tuk tuk driver dropped us at Chiang Mai Ram hospital. From the urgency and size of the group working on the man, it was obvious he was in bad shape.

Across the narrow corridor, we found the woman lying on a gurney. A bloody strip of cloth was tied around her right leg. She called out to us, "My boyfriend, my boyfriend, what is happening?"

"It's going to be OK," I told her.

"What is your name?" Jeff asked.

"My boyfriend, where is my boyfriend?" she cried. Looking across the hall to a room where the man lay, we saw a doctor, covered in her boyfriend's blood. The doctor ran across the hall, shouting to a nurse in Thai.

"Where am I?" the woman asked.

"The hospital, you've been in an accident," I told her.

"What is your name?" Jeff asked.

"Laura," she whispered. She closed her eyes.

"Laura," I said, shaking her slightly.

"No, not Laura, Lorrrrra," she said correcting me. "Where is Lorry? What is happening?" Her eyes were wild, like those of an injured animal.

"He's in the other room," I told her. From our vantage point it looked like they were operating on him right there across the hall.

Finally a doctor came in and peeked at the blood-soaked bandage around her leg.

"She need X-ray," he told us as he handed me a stack of forms.

"You fill out," he told me.

"I can't," I told him.

"You friend?" he said. I looked at this poor woman lying there.

"Yes, I'm a friend," I told him.

They moved Laura's gurney down the hall. "Help me," she said, her eyes pleading. We held her hand as they moved her to X-ray.

"We're right here. Don't be scared," Jeff told her.

"Stay with me-always," she cried. Back in the emergency room, the doctor tacked her x-rays onto the light board. Her leg looked like a pencil broken in two.

"Leg very bad. She need operation," the doctor informed us, "vein broken, we need to fix," he said. He handed me a consent form which I signed. What else could I do?

Her leg hung at an unnatural angle as they moved her from the gurney to the hospital bed. A nurse cut off her pants and shirt. Before each piece of clothing was cut she asked for my permission, as if I would say, "No, the sweatshirt must stay on. Sorry, no operation."

Finally they got Laura in a hospital gown and an IV into her arm. They left Jeff and me with her as she screamed in pain. By this time her foot and lower leg were completely blue. We tried to calm her down, but it was impossible. I held her hand. Jeff smoothed back her hair. "Delor, much delor," she told us.

"I know, I know," I said, not knowing at all.

"Don't leave me," she said eyes wide in terror.

"No, we're not leaving," Jeff assured her.

"Stay with me always!" she begged.

"Yes, always," Jeff promised.

Two hours later they took her to the operating room. Jeff walked along side the gurney holding her hand as she screamed. She didn't let go of his hand until they put the mask over her mouth and she lost consciousness.

We stumbled back to our hotel, exhausted, but unable to sleep. At 6:00 the next morning we headed for the hospital. There was no question if we should go or not. For the first time on our long trip, we had a purpose. We were needed.

Laura woke up as we arrived. Groggy and confused, she didn't understand who we were or what had happened the night before. She managed to communicate that her boyfriend's name was Lorenzo, and they were Italian. She desperately wanted to know the condition of her boyfriend. We didn't know. All we knew was it was bad. We gave Laura paper and a pencil and she wrote him a short note. Jeff set off to find where he was, returning a few minuets later.

"He is OK?" Laura asked.

"He is sleeping," Jeff told her as showed me the notepad where he had scrawled "In surgery."

"Did he read my letter?" she asked.

"Yes," Jeff said.

"Did he write me a letter?" she asked.

"No he was too tired," Jeff told her. The nurse came in, gave her pain medication, and she was soon sleeping. Outside her room, Jeff explained that Lorenzo was in intensive care, hooked up to a respirator, with a tube down his throat and tubes in his chest draining his lungs. Jeff showed me what Lorenzo had tried to write. It was a jumble of scribbles. He was in critical condition with a punctured lung, cracked ribs, and an arm broken in three places. Jeff had only a minute to tell him Laura was alive before they took him off to surgery.

We called the Italian embassy. They spoke to Laura on the phone from the hospital, but couldn't offer any help. They refused to contact Laura or Lorenzo's families. It was up to us to try to let someone in Italy know what had happened.

Jeff called Laura's sister while I ran another note from Laura down to Lorenzo. Clutching her letter, I opened the heavy doors to ICU, and was instantly hit with the antiseptic smell. The ICU consisted of small rooms clustered around a central nurse's station. Lorenzo wasn't even in a room. He was in a bed not ten feet away from the station.

Instead of the curly haired good looking man Laura had described, I saw a body dwarfed by the machinery that was keeping him alive. Wires and tubes seemed to be coming out of everywhere. His eyes were open and full of pain and fear. I bent down and tried to talk to him.

"Hi, I'm Sheryl," he looked at me, but said nothing. He couldn't, there was a tube struck into his throat. Alert, and in agony, his eyes looked like those of a wounded deer. I showed him the letter from Laura. I tried to give it to him, but his hands were restrained. I didn't know what to do. "I will come back later," I promised.

Back in Laura's room, Jeff had good news. He had contacted Laura's sister. The sister and Lorenzo's parents would fly to Thailand immediately. Jeff explained to Laura's sister what had happened, but found it harder to explain what our role was. "We're friends of Laura and Lorenzo," he told her. That was already untrue. After a day in the hospital with them, we had already become more than just friends.

We sat with them, held their hands, and passed notes between them. I spent most of my time with Laura. Although she didn't speak much English, and was on heavy pain medication, we managed to talk of her love of Lorenzo, her family, her hometown in Italy, her job-anything to keep her mind off her terrible ordeal. Jeff sat with Lorenzo who spoke very little English. The tube in Lorenzo's throat prevented him from talking, but through notes and pantomime the two of them developed a close bond.

Laura and Lorenzo tried to thank us over and over again for staying with them. We were embarrassed at their gratitude. We hadn't consciously planned on doing a good deed, it had just happened.

Keeping their spirits up while they waited for their families to arrive was difficult. They were both in terrible pain, and didn't have a prognosis on their injuries. After discovering that Lorenzo was an avid sailor, we found pictures of sailboats and pasted them to the walls of his ICU room. I found a framed photo of Laura and Lorenzo in their hotel room and brought it to Laura. When Jeff got her flowers, she cried with gratitude. Medical technology can cure many ailments, but sometimes a little thing like flowers and the knowledge that someone, even a stranger, cares is what your spirit needs. Three days later Laura's sister Roberta and Lorenzo's parents Carla and Lamberto walked into Laura's hospital room. They hugged Laura and then came over and hugged me. I felt as if they were adopting me into their family as we all broke down and cried.

I took Carla and Lamberto down to the ICU where Jeff met us in the hallway.

"You cannot cry when you see him," Jeff instructed. "If you cry, Lorenzo will cry. He can not breathe when he cries. You must be strong." Jeff had given the same lecture to Lorenzo a moment earlier. It didn't seem odd that Jeff, a stranger a few days ago, was now instructing a son and his parents how to act when they saw each other.

We had planned to leave Chiang Mai once the families arrived, but it didn't seem right to leave yet. Roberta, Carla, and Lamberto were so warm and loving that we immediately grew close to them as well. We felt compelled to stay until we were sure Laura and Lorenzo were either healed, or on their way back to Italy.

Neither seemed imminent. Laura's leg developed a blood clot. She had another operation. Lorenzo's recovery was slow and painful. Each breath he took, now unaided by machine, was excruciating and exhausting. Neither of them was stable enough to be flown back to Italy. Their travel insurance didn't cover the huge expense of Medivac, and no regular airlines would take them.

On the sixth day, after leaving the hospital to get lunch, we returned to find Roberta and Carla pacing the halls. While we were gone another doctor had come to look at Laura's leg. While changing her bandages, he found a raging infection, and rushed her to the operating room. After an hour, the doctor came into the waiting room. He was frowning, eyes downcast. "How is her leg?" Roberta asked him.

"It is not good. Very infected," he said.

"How bad is it?" I asked. "Will she loose her leg?" He couldn't look at us.

"I do not know," he said quietly. "You must get her to Italy."

"How much time before the leg must come off?" I asked.

"One day, maybe two," he told me.

"Is there any way she can keep the leg?" I asked.

His eyes filled with tears. "Maybe," he whispered. "Maybe in Italy."

You know it's bad when it makes the doctor cry. Roberta sobbed uncontrollably, her head in Carla's lap.

"Roberta, all we can do is pray," I said. I didn't believe, but it seemed like what people said at times like this.

"You are right. You will pray with me," Roberta said. I panicked. Me? I was going to pray? I wasn't even religious. Was I qualified? Together, Roberta and I went back up to Laura's room. Laura was still in the recovery room, so the room was empty. Roberta pulled a picture of the Virgin Mary out of her luggage. She knelt on the floor and prayed. I prayed with her. The years of Sunday school came back to me instantly as I recited any prayer I could remember.

I replayed the entire week in my mind. If only we had insisted they change those smelly bandages, if only we had known she had a blood clot. If only we had asked the right questions. Why didn't we email doctor friends back home?

It was now Lorenzo that we kept in the dark about Laura's condition. He had the tube in his throat removed and after a week at his bedside, we heard him speak for the first time. "Hello, my angels," he said to Jeff and me. He was finally strong enough to get out of bed and visit Laura in her hospital room. It had been seven days and this was the first time they were seeing each other since the accident.

After much debating, begging, and string pulling, Laura was allowed to fly on a Thai Airlines flight back to Italy. The nurses pulled Laura's IV and catheter out, and gave her an antibiotic shot. They sat her up, and held on to her so she wouldn't faint. Off came the hospital gown and on went a turtle neck and sarong. We piled into the ambulance with Laura, Roberta, and the doctor that would accompany them on the flight back. At the airport a wheelchair was waiting. We helped hold her head upright as she sat in the wheelchair since she was too weak to do it herself. This was the first time she had sat up in eight days.

Laura, Roberta, Jeff, and I cried as we hugged good-bye. They tried to thank us, but we cut them off. After this short week, we had gone from being strangers to being family. We needed no thanks. Jeff and I watched through the glass partition until Laura was wheeled onto the plane. Soon she would be home safe.

Lorenzo, Carla, and Lamberto flew back to Italy later the next day. It was an emotional farewell at the hospital with them as well. In these few short days we had grown to love these people like family. It was hard to say good-bye.

Our entire trip was six months long. That week at the hospital was the worst week of the trip, but also the best. Sight-seeing paled in comparison to actually helping someone. All we were able to do was care for them. Sit with them, hold their hands, talk to them, and love them when they needed it the most.

Their accident wasn't unusual. A car hit their motorcycle while they were stopped at a stoplight. This happens all the time, all over the world. If we had witnessed this at home we never would have rushed to the hospital to be with two strangers. We would have assumed their families would be there to help them. There never would have been a language barrier, never that overwhelming feeling of aloneness that can happen when traveling. As fellow travelers we could identify with that and understood the need to help. I am so thankful that we were able to be there and help them. Did we save their lives, of course not. Were we able to help in their recovery? I hope so. Were they able to help us find a spiritual center for our trip-definitely.

The last year has not been easy for Laura and Lorenzo. The doctors were able to save Laura's leg, but multiple surgeries were needed to reconstruct it. Her leg is currently in a cast, but in one month, the cast will be removed and she will learn to walk again. It has taken months for Lorenzo to fully recover and he has recently undergone additional surgery on his arm. Once healed, he plans to begin sailing again. The close bond we formed with them and their families remains today. Through email and phone calls we stay in close contact with them. By answering that simple cry for help, we have made wonderful lifelong friends.

Sheryl Zeunert—When not traveling, Sheryl lives in Seattle with her husband Jeff. Their next trip will be to Italy to visit their Italian friends.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For an archive of these stories go to the Editors' Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


Read more from Editors' Choice, Sheryl Zeunert

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