On Very Nearly Dying, and the Value of Good Friends
No, that’s not an exaggeration. This is the story of my near death experience off the coast of Belize.
Time To Read: 15-20 mins | December 11, 2016
“Let’s go snorkeling,” she demanded.
Hannah’s been my buddy for nearly a decade. We taught English in the same middle-of-nowhere country after college and have kept in touch ever since. She’s a very pretty ex-ballerina turned orthopedic surgeon, finishing her residency in one of NYC’s most prestigious hospitals. Apparently teaching didn’t take for either of us.
We’d rendezvoused for dinner a few months earlier. I was in the city and had forgotten to call her until the last minute; after my tongue lashing, we met for beer and cheese (you see why I like her?) and, 5,000 calories later, half-drunkenly agreed that she should totally meet me five thousand miles away in Central America come December. Because that’s what people do — or rather, should do.
Fast forward through three months of ship-shod planning, and the two of us were sitting in a bar on the beach in Belize. We’d had beer and eggs for breakfast, but had no plans for the afternoon. So Hannah ‘suggested’ we take a snorkeling tour, in that decisive and assured tone most affluent only-children are known for.
This wasn’t a simple task — the rest of the island’s tourists planned these things months in advance. Ad hoc questioning beachside dealers with less than an hour’s notice isn’t how expensive dive outings are handled. But finally, the seventh local we asked called up one of his friends, and that guide agreed to attach us to his small afternoon group.
We were picked up at the designated dock at the designated time. Our dive guide was a chipper little dude that couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds, and had a habit of using the word ‘guys’ instead of commas or periods. His first order of business was making sure his cut was secure; he pulled me aside to confirm I’d grabbed the hefty cash total we’d agreed to on the phone. I said I had it, but when I pulled out my wallet the man told me, “Guy don’t worry guy I trust you guy let’s go have fun guys!”
There was a fifteen-minute powerboat ride to our first of four stops. On the way, the tour guide gave a typical tour guide speech, a safety briefing laced with overused but appreciated jokes. “OK guys we took a vote before we picked you up guys and you Malcolm guy you are the shark bait if we get in trouble guys!”
The ‘we’ who never voted on shit was another couple. Both very sweet and quick with a joke, and both quite overweight. I know for a fact they wouldn’t object to this description. After flooring the boat, the driver quipped, “OK guys don’t let the wind blow you out guys!,” to which the other girl replied good-naturedly, “No danger of that!”
If only the rest of the world didn’t take itself so seriously.
We arrived at our landing area, but before the guide could say ‘guy’ one more time, Hannah was already out of the boat and swimming laps around the vessel like a dolphin on HGH. Point of fact: the doctor is a fish in the water with no patience for handholding. I’ve seen her swim circles around pro surfers and deep-water spear fisherman alike. Many a cocky waterbug’s been emasculated by Hannah’s abilities in the ocean. The girl’s more at home off shore than she is on.
But her antics alarmed our guide as he set up the other couple’s equipment — poor dude didn’t know what he was in for. That’s when I finally informed him, “I’m not paying you to show me the reef, I’m paying you to take a turn yelling at her.”
Eventually we were all in the water, and it was a typical vanilla tourist expedition. We were in a calm bit of protected sea, maybe half a mile off the coast. Our group kicked around haphazardly, the guide pointed out semi-interesting coral formations while dragging around an emergency buoy, and at one point we saw a two-foot sea turtle scuttle past us. All was well.
Except for Hannah. You have to understand, when you’re used to bossing around Ph.Ds. and always get your way with the opposite sex, you don’t take kindly to inconvenience. Combine those traits with a lack of siblings and a privileged upbringing and, well, her fury is a hell of a thing to watch. So I wasn’t surprised when she seemingly flew to my spot in the ocean and complained, “My fucking mask fucking sucks God fucking dammit.” Very charming, this one.
It was right about then that our guide, taking advantage of finally having Hannah’s attention via proximity, told us, “OK guys take it easy for a minute here guys coast on the current guys we’re gunna save our energy for the comeback guys.”
I made eye contact with the other male in the group, who echoed my thoughts when he said, “I didn’t sign up for a workout?” But it was Hannah’s line that nearly, legitimately, ended my life.
“Will you switch goggles with me?,” she asked the guide.
As a good host does, but as any decent dive guide would never consider, he agreed. And here’s where the world fell apart.
We were in a channel, a large gap between the underwater reef formations. There are probably a dozen of these spanning as many miles blocking the ocean side of our barrier island. The water in these gaps is naturally turbulent, with massive amounts of seawater exploding in and out every minute. The tide bashes back and forth every five seconds or so and, due to compacted pressure through the narrow but deep gaps, the tidal force is exponentially stronger in those spots than in open ocean.
Now, if you’re defended by a reef that almost reaches the surface of the water (where we were farting around earlier with the turtle), Stephen Hawking can hold his own. Swimming across one of these gaps, even, isn’t all that taxing, supposing you know the area and the calmest bits to cross. But if you allow yourself to get pulled into the suck because, say, you’re exchanging equipment with a guest, people get hurt.
It took the guide a full minute to realize he’d fucked up. Remember, we’d all been told to chill out and ride the current, so none of his tourists, me included, thought getting sucked out through the gap was a problem. And when our leader did see what’d happened, he handled it as bad as anyone responsible for human lives could:
“GUYS GO GET HELP GUYS!” he yelled to me and Hannah.
What seemed to have happened – I never confirmed this, blood loss and what not – was that the overweight couple immediately accepted defeat. The guide was dragging a life buoy; they simply kicked over to him and held on. But the distance we’d been sucked out through the channel was no joke. The nearest boat was now several football fields away, and while two-foot waves may not sound huge, they’re plenty high enough to hide drowning people.
And so the man in charge of keeping us safe ‘asked’ (read: screamed while pissing himself) Hannah and I to find help.
We were close together at the time. She and I made eye contact for a half second, and then started swimming. Predictably, Hannah flew ahead of me. The guide had seen her swim – I’m not crediting his decision with logic, but like I said, she’s better than most salmon against a current. She was calmly cutting through the break, and I remember thinking that no matter what, she’d get close enough in to signal for help.
Then I lost a flipper. I was smack in the middle of the rip current, which means whatever progress I made forward was immediately negated by the forces pushing me back. Imagine trying to drive backwards over a speed boost in Mario Kart. I’d been making minimal progress previously; now I was down to a single flipper.
And, truthfully, I’m only a 6.5/10 in the water to begin with. Quick over short distances, sure, and handier than most with a Hawaiian sling, but endurance is absolutely not my cup of tea. A life of football training made me very effective for short bursts, teaching my body that all physical activity happens in 10-second increments. Steadily fighting millions of gallons of seawater is not what I’m built for.
I am a proud man. I don’t think I’d usually… shit, ever admit to this. But right then I panicked. Which is the worst thing you can possibly do in that situation.
Before losing the the flipper, I’d made it to the middle of the channel. Our stationary guide plus the other couple had now been swept some three hundred yards behind me — though they were safe indefinitely, courtesy of the life buoy. Hannah was, really, only maybe fifty yards ahead, having just cleared the last rough bit of sea. Psychologically though, given the scale of ocean versus how hard I thought I was working, it looked like I was going nowhere. And that lack of confidence quadrupled once my leg cramped.
I hadn’t been consciously compensating for the flipper, but my right leg had decided to work overtime once it realize the left wasn’t pulling its weight, and my thigh locked up in the roughest bit of water for miles in any direction.
The earlier panic was nothing compared to this. This is not a word of a lie: for the first time in my life, I genuinely doubted I’d live to see tomorrow.
And besides the uncontrollable freaking out, I remember having one other clear, disgusted thought about my impending fate: and on a fucking snorkeling tour.
I wasn’t bailed out of the situation by rational, calm logic. Not immediately anyway. I can’t say for certain my completely ape-shit brain would have figured out to swim sideways to the reef, but it didn’t matter, because once I stopped swimming and started treading for literal dear life, I started drifting towards the coral. Our guide – now floating half a kilometer away – had told us to stay off the reef. Our guide could go fuck himself today.
It took a few long moments – I was still in full panic mode, and my unnecessary flailing and uncontrolled gasping were wiping out the little energy I had left — to find a chunk of rock shallow enough to hold my 6-foot-2 body. When I did, the pain of desperately clutching the coral with my bare hands was nothing compared to the accompanying wave of adrenaline and relief.
Humans are land animals; we only visit the sky and sea. The minute I had something solid under my feet, with my head above water, I was back on home court. If I can stay here, I told myself, I won’t die. Just stay here. Here’s hoping you never have to think similar thoughts.
That plan was, however, a tall order. First, I saw a boat coming to save our crew. It couldn’t be going anywhere else. An outboard-motored twenty-foot aluminum bullet flying out to open sea, 100 yards away and heading straight to the still-receding threesome.
Now, I know I’m in the worst shape of our crew. Hannah’s already probably chasing stingrays again in the protected area, and the floating trio have a life preserver. No one’s been near me for many minutes. No one knows my right leg’s contracted rigor mortis, that I’m half-flipperless and unable to move, using the last of my energy to stay glued to a tiny outcropping of coral. So when I saw the rescue boat close by, knowing my situation was the most dire, I started waving for help.
When the driver saw me, hesitated, then completely ignored me, my confidence started coming back.
That sounds backwards, I know, but I understood his decision immediately and, in a self-aware moment, was comforted to know my brain had finally hakuna’d its tatas. It felt good to be rational again.
Of course he wouldn’t stop for me, not yet. From his perspective, I was one guy safely atop the reef. Over half a kilometer out were three people drifting farther away every second. Simple math: save three apparently super-imperiled lives, then come back for the one relatively safe, fit-looking guy with lady hair.
I imagine that boat driver, who I’d later learn was Coast Guard, would have changed his mind had he watched me just 10 seconds longer. He probably thought I was about to easily swim the last 50 yards into safe water. He couldn’t know I was so beat to shit that I’d entered pure survival mode, that I had no intention of leaving my perch and was thus going to sit still and take ten minutes of crushing punishment to my face and legs.
My lifeline outcrop of coral was exactly where the ocean broke over the reef. That means waves, created by subtle forces in the world’s deep and the spin of the planet itself, would slowly build over thousands and thousands of miles of ocean. Those forces would arrive at my exact location off the coast of Belize, build to their climax, and tumble with hundreds of pounds of pressure precisely where I’d decided to make my stand.
I thought the first two waves may be coincidence. Seeing them approach, I weaved my right leg around and under my rock, then ducked my head into the break like a surfer duck diving. Both times – and the next twenty times – I was bent backwards at a ninety-degree angle for a two-one thousand count, only attached to the coral by my leg’s grip on the base. Of course, I soon realized, a surfer loses ground when they try this maneuver; I had no space to give.
But I was alive. If – excuse the video game analogy – I lost 10 hit points every wave, I gained 15 in the thirty-second interims. Even if I could feel my legs taking damage, I was catching my breath, recovering my energy, and the earlier thought stayed in the front of my mind: if I can stay here, I won’t die.
So I took it. For 10 full minutes, anchored by legs hugging coral, absorbing twenty some-odd blasts that knocked me around like I was the last leaf of fall clinging against a winter wind — but with long enough breaks for me to regain stamina and feel confident as a swimmer again.
By this time, Hannah had realized something was wrong. She was now standing on the reef, out of the break only 30 or so yards behind me. And, understandably, she was confused why I was submitting myself to torture. The half-doctor half-fish hollered at me several times to swim to her before I finally obeyed.
I immediately knew I’d fucked up. The minute I left my outcrop, the water was calm, gently pushing me to her location. The break didn’t beat the shit out of me anymore, its aftermath simply drove me to safe territory over shallower and shallower reef. Had I swam just ten extra yards in my initial panic, I’d have coasted to freedom.
Instead, I was now dyeing the water red behind me.
Doctor Hannah’s bedside manner (or coral-side manner, I suppose) left something to be desired. “Oh shit, Malcolm,” she said when I swam up a short minute later. My legs were pouring blood like a Tarantino fight scene. I wildly thought of my high school football camp, where the players would mix the cafeteria’s red and blue Powerade together because the cool kids thought it tasted better. The ocean directly under me looked that shade of purple.
The rescue boat was churning over to us now, though in no great hurry – why would they? How could they know anything was wrong? It was only after I was out of the water, on the boat, and being examined by a Coast Guard, a doctor, two inept swimmers and a soon-to-be-unemployed tour guide that we properly saw the damage.
The worst of it’s in the photo above, though that’s hours after the cleaning and doesn’t show the equally gruesome shins. Initially, each one of those scrapes was leaking blood. Not enough for mortal concern – minus two or three on my right shin and foot (where I’d aggressively hooked into the coral), they were all superficial. But my thighs looked liked a howler monkey’d used me a scratching post. Or, if you prefer, like I gave a lap dance to a cheese grater.
“Guy she wanted to change mask guy I don’t know what happened guy,” was all the guide managed to say before driving the boat full-tilt back to the dock. Interestingly, I was the calmest one onboard. I don’t mean this in a bragadocious way; I think it was likely a side effect from the fear I’d felt earlier. The bloody horror that was my legs was new to everyone else, but I’d just spent ten minutes thinking my life might be over. Again, on a fucking snorkeling trip.
We reached the dock. The other couple stayed on the boat while our guide, who’d been making frantic phone calls to his boss, walked Hannah and I to the local clinic. He didn’t speak, just occasionally turned back to make sure I was keeping up.
Only days later did I realize just how screwed our guide, and possibly the dive company, was after my incident. Remember, we didn’t book this in advance like most tourists; we had a last second phone call made through a local who happened to know the guide. We didn’t sign any paperwork, no waivers or the like, and hell, they didn’t even have our names. It’s probable that the guide was hoping to pocket the full payment for himself – he’d insisted on cash — completely unbeknownst to his boss.
At the time, I thought the guide looked grim out of guilt. It took a few hours to realize he was distraught at having to hit the classifieds tomorrow.
Now then, to the clinic. It really wasn’t that bad. We were in a tourist town near civilization – I’ve been injured on a 3-acre island in Micronesia, with no one for ten miles but a kindergarten teacher to stitch me up. I’ve had worse.
But Hannah, a hotshot surgeon from a major hospital in the world’s largest city, has not had worse. Not since her years of training in first-world operating rooms, anyway. And once we were shown into the examining room, she was having none of their peasantry.
Usually, when I sit in the doctor’s office, I’m too scared to touch anything. Hell, I feel bad messing up that paper they roll over the examination table. Hannah, conversely, started digging through drawers and cabinets like she owned the place, checking drugs and needles and I don’t know what, muttering “What the hell” this and “Absolutely not” that. When the nurses eventually did come in and looked at my friend like she’d committed high treason, I quickly explained, “She’s a doctor.”
The nurses, a sassy Belizian woman and a pissy Asian lady, didn’t think this much of an explanation, and Hannah couldn’t have cared less – which didn’t help. I, naked but for a fitted bed sheet someone brought me as a makeshift cover-up, tried to play peacemaker. I failed.
“You need to rub that harder,” Hannah said as they cleaned my cuts. “What antiseptic are you using?” “Are you sure you shouldn’t use [insert obscure drug here]?” If that little Asian lady had a voodoo doll at home, she attached blonde hairs to it that night and tortured it like… well, like coral raking against a tourist’s legs.
I couldn’t translate their conversation. I blame blood loss and a complete lack of medical knowledge. But let me put it to you this way: I know that the local doctors wanted to give me two different prescriptions, wipe my wounds with disinfectant, and send me on my way. Once Hannah was finished lording over the local docs, I’d been given 4 prescriptions, a scrubbing three times as long as the original plan, two shots in my ass for pain and potential allergic reactions, four foot-long gauze bandages to cover the worst bits of my legs, and three of those ACE bandage wraps that made me look like a flesh-tone mummy from the waist down.
By the time we walked out of the clinic, the pain meds were in full swing. I could barely walk, but was giggling like a 14-year old after her first shot of Bacardi and feeling just as tipsy. So while leaning on her for support, I finally told Hannah what I’d realized an hour earlier:
“This is all your fault.”
She replied, “I know,” laughing because we were alive, the world was good, and she knew I didn’t care. “But if that guy’d just given me a proper mask, none of this would have happened.”
I don’t know what’d have happened if Hannah’d originally been given a mask that met her standards . Maybe nothing changes, and I still end up demolished by a one-two punch of break and reef. But I don’t prescribe to fate. Action creates the world, not some intangible, unknowable destiny. My spoiled friend demanded a different snorkeling mask at the worst possible time, and now my legs looked like Wolverine used them as a whetstone.
I also don’t know what’d have happened if Hannah had not been in that clinic to order up enough pain meds and antibiotics for a small country. Maybe the two prescriptions the nurses wanted to give me would have been plenty. But that’s not what happened, and only a week later — much faster than any of the nurses told me to hope for — my legs were completely healed.
My bossy AF friend demanded seemingly every drug in Belize for her injured buddy, and now, I get to tell this story.
photo: some lovely dog-themed boxers that have since been garbaged. also, my skinny thighs about 4 hours after this story, coated in an inch-thick layer of neosporin. i think it was neosporin, anyway — i was on a lot of pain meds