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I just had an accident in the Philippines. It taught me one of the most important lessons on the road

Story published on

 April 10 2019

Everybody’s swarming around us, as if they have well established tasks. My husband and I are sitting face to face, on some chairs that appeared from nowhere. Some boys are cleaning the blood on his head. A hand gives me a chunck of ice and a bottle of water. The ambulance comes, but all it has on board are two small children and a driver. The driver hits a pole right after we get in the ambulance. At the hospital, they tell us the doctor is away for a conference and the nurse who can do stitches is not there either. As the sun sets in all the amazing colours that only this country seems to own on its sky, all I can think about are the hands and faces that surrounded us and took care of us, when we sat motionless and just stared at one another. We are OK, the heads hurt, but we are OK. People are OK. And they still know to give you everything, even when they have close to nothing.

One of the benefits of living the life of a nomad is that it can sometimes feel like a long vacation. You hop from country to country, from one island to another and no day looks like the other. There’s always something new, exciting, some wonder to marvel at, something to keep fueling that grin on your face. And, for the most part, at the end of each day, you narrowly avoid mundane problems that you usually have to deal with at home – cleaning the house and other chores, dealing with a broken pipe, being in an office and working your head off, taking the car to have its tyres changed because Spring is here. Going to the doctor in a country with an underdeveloped medical system is another one of these head-on collision with reality. Well, until that nasty day when you’re reminded about “real life” problems. I just had one of those days.

The literal head-on collision with ‘real life’

We had an accident yesterday. I’ll spare you the details – bottom line is that me and my husband both hit our heads pretty bad, him worse than me. We’re perfectly fine now, in case a particular parent Google translates this 🙂 Seriously, all’s well. We’re back into our beach hammocks, books and smiles too. Yesterday’s story is not about our accident, but about everything that happened afterwards. It is a story about the Philippines itself and more broadly about people of the world.

So there we were, having just hit our heads. We were in a daze, I was looking at my husband, petrified. He was looking at me, not yet understanding what had just happened. As soon as people saw us, they just started taking care of everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. 

I don’t know who bought the bottles of water to clean up my husband’s blood. I hope I thanked them, as I hope I thanked that faceless hand who gave me a chunck of ice for my head. I’m pretty sure I thanked the boys who tended to my husband and tied his wound with my green flowered shirt. I don’t know who called the ambulance – all I know was that I was sitting there, remembering that, on our scooter ride that morning, I was thinking that, after Sri Lanka, I didn’t keep the habbit of saving the emergency numbers of each country we went to. Talk about cognitive biases…

The ambulance and the kids

Two kids on the ambulance. We hit a pole

When the ambulance came, I didn’t understand it was an ambulance at first. Not because I hit my head – I was fine by then, except for a Klingon-style bump. It just didn’t look like an ambulance. First, it had no medical staff. None. Only two small children sitting in the front and a driver. Second, it looked like something stolen from a junkyard. And trust me, coming from Romania, I’m not so light hearted when it comes to old ambulances or old vehicles of any sort. 

Now picture this: we got into the ambulance and, 30 seconds later, that the driver crashed it – lightly – into a pole.  He didn’t seem to mind, so we left for the hospital. As the ambulance had no siren, he kept honking the whole way, the general signal for every tricycle, scooter, motorcycle on a Filipino road.

No doctor at the hospital

At the hopsital, a lady in a pink shirt greeted us. ‘The doctor is away for a conference’, she said. As in THE DOCTOR, the only doctor in the hospital. She said my husband needed stiches, that there is a nurse who could do that, but he was off. She suggested we try another hospital on the island. 

But somehow, just when leaving for a different hospital seemed like the only option, a guy in flip-flops and dressed like we came straight from the beach came in. ‘Oh, he’s our nurse’, the lady said. He smiled at us. My prejudices took over me. I was thinking he looked like one of the guys renting scooters on the side of the road. We started talking about what happened. He was really nice, patient and understanding to our reluctancy. Since my husband’s wound wasn’t very deep and we are just about to leave the country for Japan, he decided not to do the stitches, but to apply some sterile strips to hold the wound.

The Romanian in me was on high alert by this time, checking for possible sources of infections. I was looking at everything the nurse did to my husband, every piece of equipment he used. I was petrified when I saw him sticking the strips on a lamp and then putting them on my husband’s open head wound. So much for sterile strips. 

He understood our worries, I assume, because he didn’t seem irritated – he had every right to be – by our constant ‘is that clean?’, ‘are you sure you shaved all the hair?’ and the likes. He just smiled. In the end, he bandaged my husband and, since they had no CT or other equipment of the sort, he couldn’t do anything to me other than ask me some questions about what I was feeling. 

With his back to the camera, the nurse

“Filipino hospitality”

As we sat there, both shirtless, because our clothes had been used on our heads, we realized we were done, that everything worked out and that we were both alright. 

The nurse came back with antibiotics and some painkillers and gave us a prescription for the next batch of bandages, after which he instructed me on how to apply them. 

We stood up to leave and asked how much we owed them. ‘Nothing’, he said smiling, in the good English that all the Filipino doctors are required to speak. ‘Consider it a part of Filipino hospitality’. And he showed us out of the hospital, to the pharmacy (well, mini-market with some medicine) across the street. After that, he hopped on his bike and he was on his way, back to whatever he was doing before he got a call that two Romanians were sitting confused on two plastic chairs in his emergency room. 

The real treatment we got

In that hospital, with no doctor, with a nurse who was off duty, with an emergency room that barely had any medical supplies in it, we were treated with an overdose of human decency. We could have paid for those pills, he knew that, of course. We kept asking ourselves if we should do the Romanian thing and just put some money in his pocket, as a thank you. In the end, we decided against it. I was as unable to do it here as I am in my own country, where I know that that’s what everybody does. I just can’t. My whole body freezes. Plus, he had shorts, there was no medical coat – where does one casually slide money??

Life when the ‘bubble’ is out of reach

Back home, in Romania, where the healthcare system is so understaffed, because of the medical exodus, and so underfinanced, because of decades of incompetent governance, my generation has made good private healthcare an essential part of our bubble, of the small country we each created for ourselves. Here, in the Philippines, only the uber-rich have that luxury. The rest, especially all those outside of the metro Manilla area, just have to survive, literally, on the healthcare they’re given, even though it’s so very, very little, as I have just found out on my own.

We went across the street and bought the bandages, which were not sterile, but that’s all they had. We found a second hand counter in the market and we bought a T-shirt, because my husband’s was still holding my ice.


The true lesson of my months on the road

As we were returning home, on the scooter, my mind was abuzz. I kept thinking of all those people who stepped in and took care of us, while the two of us just looked at one another. 

I had that same feeling of helplesness a couple of years ago, when, on our way back from a ski trip in Serbia, our car caught fire, with us inside. The only reaction we had then was to jump out of the car. As people came from buildings nearby, extinguisher in hand and trying to put out the fire, we just sat motionless in the middle of the street. We didn’t do anything then, we didn’t do anything now. Both times, we were in a very poor, underdeveloped area. Both times, we were overwhelmed by the basic kindness that surfaces right when you need it most.

If it’s one thing these months of traveling have taught me already, it’s that people are always kinder that the cynic in us believes. In the poorest and most difficult of living circumstances, I’ve been shown 10-fold what simple kindness can be and how it can become a seed that plants smile after smile on your disbelieving face. 

I’m on my last month of this mini-retirement ‘installment’, one more month until I go back home for the first time. And as this part of my ‘rediscovering the world’ endeavour draws to the end, I am very much aware of the fact that, when you put aside all the idylic scenery and UNESCO Heritage sites, the greatest discovery I made has been of people, how they can be when you have the luxury of taking the time to notice and know them. This is how I know I’m on the right journey. 

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