Part 2: The Evacuation

Being lowered down to the water off the Kapitan Klebnikov

The expedition team acted quickly to grab me off the bottom of that slope and return me to the ship.  Seven or eight staff members (including my fine wife) splinted my leg, tobogganed me to the waters edge, hoisted me into a zodiac and craned me onto the stern deck of the Kapitan Klebnikov. As the zodiac was hoisted up the roughly fifty feet to the deck, hanging in midair, my trusty companion Tim turned to me and said, “this is a TEN ticket ride at the fair, my friend!” Indeed it was. The doctor and I then sliced my rain pants and expensive silk long underwear off the leg to reveal what was quickly diagnosed as a quadriceps tendon rupture, which basically means that the quad muscle is no longer attached to the knee and the leg hangs with no ability to lift or move forward. Yup, that seemed right. Dana immediately got on our satellite phone to call our orthopedic surgeon friend, Min, for advice. Because he told us that it was very important to have surgery within 7 to 10 days after the injury, an evacuation plan was formulated.

Photo taken from the destination ship, Dana and the kids are in the yellow parkas wishing me "Merry Christmas"

As luck would have it, Quark Expeditions had another ship in the near vicinity and they were heading back north soon.  Plans were made and I was to be transferred to this other ship, the Sergei Vavalov, later that evening. The rest of that day was quite difficult for the six of us.  We had already decided that the only practical solution was for me to leave and have the other five carry on until I could rejoin them at some unspecified time and place. After six intense months of togetherness, the prospect of separation loomed over us like some terrible dark cloud.  We cried through the afternoon and cried a lot at dinner.  At 11:30 PM the transfer was to be made.  We went back to that stern deck and hugged and cried some more.  As I was lowered into the water on the zodiac, four faces peered over the ship’s rail beseeching me in broken voices to “have a good Christmas, Daddy….we’ll see you soon, I know we will.  Merry Christmas….happy new year….” I held up the penguin ornament that Andrew had purchased in the ship’s store earlier that day. He insisted I take it “so we could be together at Christmas.” I held it up, smiled, waved and turned away, unable to take anymore.

The Akademik Sergei Vavalov, my second home

My life aboard the Vavalov was pretty good.  I was led to the ship’s infirmary where I put my backpack on one bed and slept in the other. The pain wasn’t really that bad, I could get around with crutches, climb stairs slowly and was generally happy about the chance to spend more time in Antarctica, albeit under very different circumstances. But the weather was beautiful, the people friendly and the accommodations comfortable.  That is, until the second day, when my backpack had been neatly removed from the far infirmary bed and replaced by a pitifully pain-wracked member of the ship’s Russian crew.  He appeared to have dry gangrene in his foot, brought on by diabetes.  He could do nothing but rock, hold his foot and moan as his toes turned blacker and blacker before they would inevitably fall off.  An uncomfortable scenario. He also liked to sneak an illegal Russian cigarette from time-to-time.  A nice fellow but a tough roommate.  The fine ship’s doctor took pity on both of us and invited me to sleep in one of the spare berths in his cabin.  I would return to the infirmary 4 or 5 times a day to grab something or brush my teeth and every time my poor roommate would be in the same position, rocking and moaning. I hope he is better now.

Four days after I boarded the Vavalov we arrived at King George Island and the airstrip on the Chilean Research Station where my evacuation flight would pick me up.  En route we stopped at Neko harbor, the scene of the crime, and I watched my new shipmates frolic down the now tame little slope, pushing their way through the soft, deep snow. It was 4:30PM. That made all the difference in the world.

About to be airlifted, Alejo has the beard

At King George I said my goodbyes to Laurie, the expedition leader and Dr. Paul, both of whom had treated me so well aboard the Vavalov. I was loaded onto a twin engine King Air with pilot, co-pilot, doctor, nurse and Alejo, the heavily-bearded Chilean mountaineer and adventurer, a 30 year Antarctic veteran who had skied from the Weddell Sea to the south pole in 90 days and climbed Mt. Vinson, Antarctica’s highest peak, 16 times and once with my childhood climbing hero, Reinhold Messner.  I am not sure exactly why Alejo was on board, but I was happy to have him.  He kept me glued to stories of Antarctic adventure for the 3 hours it took to fly over the Drake Passage, Cape Horn and Tierra del Fuego until we bounced onto the runway in 50 knot headwinds beside the banks of the Magellan Strait in Patagonia, Chile.

From there I was whisked onto a gurney and into a Chilean ambulance to be transferred to the clinic in Punta Arenas.  The technicians had neglected to strap the gurney down in the back of the ambulance, so every turn taken at unnecessarily high speed resulted in my wheeled gurney bonking hard against the side of the ambulance wall.  It was funny because my leg didn’t hurt too much.  It might have been different otherwise.  In the clinic I met an orthopedist who looked at the leg, confirmed the diagnosis and informed me that I was in for a long haul. I conveniently disregarded his prognosis.

The next morning I was joined by the hot Canadian nurse whom Medjet had sent down to accompany me home. His name was Dennis. When I told Dana that my nurse’s name was Dennis she promptly re-told that story to an assemblage at dinner on board the ship that evening. A very proper English lady at her table, after a well-timed pause, said “Dennis? Well…that is disappointing.”  Truer words were never spoken.

But Dennis and I made our way from Punta Arenas to Santiago with only 7 hours of delay in the Punta Arenas airport. Then we had just a 5 hour layover in Santiago before we boarded our plane to Miami.  This gave me the first chance in the 5 days since the injury to use wifi and research Quadricep Tendon Rupture on the web. I sat in the Admirals Club looking at my iphone examining graphic photos and reading blogs by patients about the road to rehabilitation. Six weeks in a straight brace. Two more weeks with a walker. At month 3, gentle walking with a cane, stairs at month six, after a year pretty much 100%. Really Bad Moment #1. I openly wept in the Admirals Club with Latino businessmen giving me the macho he-must-be-an-American-quiche-eater brush off.  Devastated, I wrote Dana an email telling her to get ready for a bad ride. As I hobbled down the airport corridor toward the plane to Miami, Dana called me from the satellite phone. She reminded me that we could change anything about the trip to make it work and that they would happily accommodate anything necessary to get me back and have the 6explorers reunited. That was one of the most powerful phone calls of my life and reminded me why I am lucky to be married to my wife.

Dennis and I were in the skies over Boston ahead of schedule on December 14th. Six days, 8,500 miles and, for the first time in my life, a palpable dread of coming home. How was it possible that I was coming home in December? How was it possible that I was coming home in December, alone? The six of us had talked a lot about our re-entry into normal life in June of 2011. It would be exciting, frightening, boring, weird, different, the same. Now this wasn’t the plan. I couldn’t look out the window on the ride from the airport. I didn’t want to know if things looked different or the same. I wasn’t supposed to be here, so I didn’t want to know. DL met me at the house. He had kindly come to open it up, turn the heat to 68, open the shades. We spoke for a while then, inevitably, I was left alone in the house. Really Bad Moment # 2. A house is not a home. A family is a home and mine was 8,000 miles away. I felt as if I was in a time warp…until more friends started coming by and dropping food and asking for the story. Now, I really must say, I see that home is primarily the nuclear family but the support and love of other family and friends is a damned good second best. Thanks to all of you for showing me Silver Lining #3.

A day later the melancholy had past and I became much more contemplative about the miracle of my last 6 days.  I wrote to Dana and the kids:

The fact that I can return to safety at 41 degrees north from 64 degrees south in so little time, then speak to you via satellite phone upon my return is really extraordinary. Being down there made me feel like an explorer; seeing the vistas as they must have seen them, feeling just a touch of the cold that plagued and penetrated them so thoroughly. Yet, when trouble strikes, modern magic kicks in and poof! I am here ready to be sliced and rehabilitated to mend an injury that would have left those guys for dead nearly a century ago. All of us have much to be thankful for. You for being there to experience that vastness, and me for being here to experience…whatever it is that I need to do to rejoin you.

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8 Responses to “Part 2: The Evacuation”

  1. Greg,
    Wow! We are very glad to hear you are returning to Dana and the kids. Take it easy on that leg.

  2. C. Gus Katsigris 31. Dec, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    Greg,
    Just read the whole tale…up to now.
    Wish you fast recoup and hope you are able to join the other 5 real soon.
    From Dallas…Happy New Year 2011.
    Evelyn and Gus Katsigris

  3. YO andrew, reis ,emma, alex, And Mrs.White I saw your dad the other day and told him to say I MISS YOU ALLLL!!!!! Oliver was good and open fields has their noisiest crowd yet but we are pulling through with 2 weeks till showtime. A bunch of people at open fields miss you guys. (Annie in paticular.) Any way just wanted to say again I MISS YOU and HOPE YOUR DAD FEELS BETTER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! BYE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Gregory,

    A truly incredible story. I am so glad that you took the time to share it with us as what really hits home is the importance of family and friends above all else. You can never be reminded of this fact enough…silver lining #4!!! God speed my friend.

  5. Greg,
    I read your telling story about the accident and what you went through and it was very powerful. There truly isn’t anything more important than family and I hope that your recovery is fast so that you can see your family again soon. Sorry about my previous post I hit enter by mistake. Take care and good luch!
    Jimmy G

  6. Greg, incredibly powerful. Unbelievable.
    Have to get to next post….

  7. Wow!
    Thanks for the update and access to the 6explorers. I am VERY pleased to be proven wrong and that you are back on the hoof so quickly. Enjoy the rest of you trip. I hope Australia lives up to expectations. You are doing what more of us need to do – Carpe diem!
    I have just left the Vavilov en route home to my good wife after an incredible time in the Antarctic – what a experience!
    All the best to you and your family
    Travel safely

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