Read part 1 here.
The nurse in the ambulance ripped back my jersey and began rubbing ice up and down my chest. “Slow breathe. One. Two. Three. Four.” she said over and over. It became a mantra that she would repeat to me for the next few hours.
The trip to the hospital was surprisingly short and I was wheeled into the ER room, hooked to an IV, attached to a heart rate and blood pressure monitor, and rubbed down with cold compresses. It took a moment for me to notice a pair of cycling shoes that were not mine to my left. I glanced right and saw a rider.
He was in much worse condition. His eyes were wild, scanning the room but not seeing anything and there was sweat on his forehead even though he was being rubbed down vigorously with ice. Then he would shiver and the nurses would cover him with warm towels and the cycle would repeat. His director was there, talking to him, repeating his rider’s name over and over to the nurses.
Marc. Marc Janssen. Family name Janssen. I dont know his weight.
At one point Marc Janssen sat straight up and vomited horrible yellow liquid all over his bed and director and nurses. I turned my head back to his shoes and shut my eyes because I did not want to watch him die. The thing I couldn’t shut out was the sound of his heart monitor going beeep…beeep…beep, beep, beep….beeep….beeep at irregular intervals.
Marc Janssen didn’t die and the two of us were transported again to another hospital at the finish town. I kept asking my nurse if my team knows where I am and she kept replying “Slow breathe. One. Two. Three. Four.” On the way there we stopped briefly at the finish line and I spotted some teammates through a window in the back door of the ambulance. “Can you just let me out?” I asked. “Thats my team right there. They can take care of me.” She smiled and said “Yes, yes. Thats your team. They do very well today. 5th.” But we didn’t stop until we arrived at hospital number 2.
I was wheeled into a room labeled ‘Mass Casualties B’. The irony was not lost on me when I saw a third rider lying on a gurney with Marc Janssen already to his right. Mass Casualties B was clean, white, everything labeled, like most hospitals. It had two doors and two desks around which five or six nurses came and went. I was feeling much better, expecting to be released at any moment. After all, I had been on my back for easily two hours and my saline bag was almost empty.
The doctor approached the bed. She was short, wore big round glasses, and looked young. Mind you, most Asians look younger than they are, but she looked like she had stepped straight out of school. High school.
“How are you?” she asked in clear but heavily Thai accented English.
“I’ve been better.” I replied.
“Ahhh”, was the reply. “Do you have any pain?”
“No. Im fine.”
“Then why are you here?” She was trying to be funny but it was a bit lost on me. I just stared at her. She continued unphased, “I think you ride too hard.”
No shit Sherlock, I thought. My expression must have given me away because then she said, “I think we will keep you here tonight.” My face must have changed again to a look of utter incredulousness because she said “I kid, I kid.” and began laughing with the other nurses. I laughed too. Ridiculous. Staying overnight. Marc Janssen sprung up from under his warm towels and began vomiting again.
A nurse tested the movement in my legs but they refused to cooperate and cramped immediately. She calmly walked away and came back with a new saline bag and a syringe. “We will give you something for the cramps” she said as she added the liquid to my IV line. I’ve got no idea what it was but I felt the veins in my arm go cold and my jaw drop to my chest. Everything was so heavy and moving in slow motion and all I could do was grin at the absurdity of it all. Two nurses rolled me over, pulled down my bibs to expose the top of my butt and jabbed me with another needle. “Its ok to rest now.” my nurse explained so I did.
When I awoke I was still high as a kite, my ass was numb from where it had been stuck with the needle, there was no sign of Tomaz, my team director, and the race doctor and his assistant were there. When I looked over at Marc Janssen we made real eye contact for the first time and I felt relieved for him. The doctor proclaimed he would be ready to leave by 9 that night.
When the doctor got to me he said “I very sorry. I no speak good English.”
For whatever reason I felt this was perfect time for a joke so I said “My Thai is no good.” which was somehow misconstrued to mean I do speak Thai, just not very well. Timing has never been a strong suit. He launched into his native tongue with excitement and I just sat there and grinned at him. At some point he realized that I had no clue what was being said and switched back to English. “You leave here very soon. maybe 4 or 5. Ready to go?”
“Hell yeah I’m ready!” I said and sat up, which prompted my nurse to quickly ask me to lie back down.
All three of us were moved to another room onto rock hard hospital beds with even firmer pillows. Every now and then a nurse would come in and check our vitals. I fell back asleep. This time when I opened my eyes, the race doctor was back and with Tomaz. Finally I would be getting out of my salt covered bibs when the doctor hit me with some news. “Your doctor and I think it is best if you stay until 9 tonight. We think it is best for you.” I looked to Tomaz in protest. Surely he wouldn’t stand for such blasphemy but the tall Slovenian nodded slowly in agreement and instead of answering, told his story of how the day unfolded. Classic misdirection tactic and it worked.
Ben had finished 5th in a breakaway of 6 with Cam just over 2 minutes behind in what was left of the main peloton. Then came Frank, in a group 7 minutes down and a Lu a further 10 minutes behind him. Tomaz asked Lu where I was and Lu said I was behind him so Tomaz decided to wait some more. After 15 minutes he decided that I was smart enough to find my way to the race hotel and that he would wait for me there.
An hour passed with no sign of me and Tomaz began to worry. There had been nothing mentioned over race radio and the commissars had no record of me crossing the finish line or quitting the race. I had vanished. One girl even told him ‘Good luck’ when he said one of his riders was lost. The race doctor eventually found Tomaz and informed him where I was.
Marc and I were given long green hospital shirts that tie in the front, no pants so the bibs remained on. I watched with envy as the third rider walked out of the room. A nurse brought out a blood bag for another patient in the room, no relation to the race, and Marc and I propped ourselves up in fascination, both of our minds in the same place. So thats what blood doping looks like. Marc made the first joke.
We talked for a while. It made the big clock on the wall move quicker. He told me that he has no memory of what happened. He was racing and then the next thing he knew, he woke up in the second hospital. He knew he had crashed but only because there was some skin missing on his knee. “You mean you don’t remember the first hospital at all?” I asked. “You dont remember throwing up on your manager?” He grinned and said no. I refrained from telling him that I was glad he didn’t die. It didn’t seem like the right thing to say to someone who had no memory of the experience. Instead I just said I was happy he’s ok now.
Around 830, the doctor returned with his assistant and Marc Jensen’s director. “Are you hungry?” the assistant asked us. We shook our heads no. Regardless, she walked to my bed and placed two plastic bags on it. One contained dried banana strips, cut lengthwise instead of the round banana chips I’m used to eating back home. The second bag contained two more, one filled with what looked like chopped up bits of old fish and the other with a brown liquid.
“Very traditional Thai food. You eat now. very good. Banana creole.” I sniffed the top of the bag. It didn’t smell like fish but I was still wary. The assistant looked so eager for me to try a piece so I slowly took the provided stick and skewered a piece. It sure didn’t look like any banana I’ve seen but at least it also had no fish smell whatsoever. I took a small bite and chewed cautiously much to her delight. It wasn’t bad because I had another piece, this time dipping it in the brown sauce that looked like caramel but definitely wasn’t.
The race doctor walked over, repeated his poor English apology and said “Your doctor and nurses think its best for you to stay now until 5 in the morning so they can monitor you overnight.”
I froze, banana creole in hand. I felt like an animal being led to slaughter. Here, have some delicious banana creole and while you’re at it we’re about to drop an overnight hospital stay on you. My first thought was that he was joking. The second was that they had mixed up myself and Marc Janssen, who was getting his IV removed from his arm. “This is bullshit.” I said. I pointed an accusatory finger at Marc. “He was throwing up and had no memory of the first hospital and I have to spend the night?!”
Tomaz walked in and I pled my case before him. He listened carefully and said “I think it is best you stay here. It would make me feel better and you do not look so good right now.”
The last comment caught me by surprise. Was Tomaz being serious? Was he trying to mess with my head so I would comply with spending the night? What kind of game was everyone playing with me? I felt betrayed, not to mention strong enough to walk out on my own two feet. Tomaz continued “What is there for you at the hotel? Nothing. You will recover better here.”
A nurse swapped my pillow for a more comfortable one and my fate was sealed. I sighed but nodded at the same time. I couldn’t argue with Tomaz’s European logic. I nodded goodbye to Marc. Bastard. And to think I thought he was about to die a few hours ago!
Tomaz stayed for a while longer and we talked about the race, tactics for the coming stages, how cold Europe would be, his love for the Ronde Van Vlaanderan, and how great Italian food tastes. He gave me my phone and said that Pete had asked me to write a blog post. Then he said he would see me in the morning and left.
The wifi was protected and the night nurse wouldn’t give me the password. So I lay there and reflected on what had happened and began to write. I felt shame. Shame that I was a DNF, shame that I was in a hospital, shame that I was spending the night in one and not even with an injury! Marc Janssen had pushed himself so hard that he lost memory and threw up. It seemed a much more honorable exit to the race than cramping.
I thought about what I could have done differently in the race. Perhaps not try to match my teammates move for move, but be smarter about which wheels I followed. Maybe instead of just drinking water I could have cooled my body more by dumping water over my head. If only that doctor’s car and his magic spray…
I moved on to thinking about how I ended up spending the night. It felt so over the top for dehydration. I’ve been taken to a hospital before for heat exhaustion in the US but I was released soon after. In my limited experience, hospitals in 3rd world countries can sometimes act overly cautious. When I crashed in Iran, it took 10 minutes to persuade the medics not to take me to a hospital for X-rays. Maybe this was a similar situation.
Or maybe I was worse off than I thought. Why would I be kept longer than Marc Janssen? Why was I stripped from my bike without question and so quickly that it wasn’t even mentioned on race radio? I was told over and over I would be released in a couple hours but did they ever mean it? The mind is stronger than the body, yes, but perhaps my mind was too detached to grasp how burnt my body had become. Marc Jensen’s mind had simply turned off.
Whether you think the reason to all this is heat exhaustion or that I forgot to add some HTFU to my morning breakfast is not for me to decide. I’m still trying to process it all. The shame of spending 5 days watching my teammates race will sting but to appreciate the highs, one must experience the lows.
Onwards and forwards.
For the record, I was not told at 5 am the next morning that I would be kept longer. Instead, the race doctor woke me at 330 in the morning and brought me to the race hotel, much to Tomaz’s surprise when I knocked on his door to ask if I could have a shower.