We were in the throws of dinner when my cell phone rang- a long distance number showed on the screen. “I’m calling from Tricare International SOS to coordinate your evacuation from Cameroon to a military treatment facility in Germany in the next 24 hours… ” We had no idea that the blood draw I’d done at the Embassy clinic the day before showed anything unusual. I’m leaving? Now? When he saw my face and heard my tone, my husband suddenly went from plodding through a normal evening, to highly attentive and efficient caregiver, putting our four kids to bed, cleaning up dinner, sweeping the crumbs, checking in with me for an update, bringing me water… Meanwhile, I was on and off the phone with the insurance nurses and the case manager working out the details of my movement. I sat on the floor in the oversized tile kitchen, right by the water distiller where I could plug my phone in. It’s always low on battery.
There was something truly wonderful about finding out there’s a problem with my blood, and that the air ambulance was on its way to pick me up. My hemoglobin was so low (5.3 g/dl normal is 12-16 g/dl) that I wouldn’t be able to fly commercially, and had to have my own plane, flying low across Northern Africa. Life in Cameroon had me worn out through and through and I’d been feeling like there was something wrong with me for a long time. “I just feel so old.” “Something is always bugging me… my stomach, my head, nausea… I can’t seem to catch a break.” It was hard to ignore that feeling, but I felt like I couldn’t keep telling people this without weighing them down. The evening of the evacuation phone call was different. I suddenly felt justified. Relieved.
The next day was Sunday. Waiting for the air ambulance, flopped on our queen bed, husband throwing clothes and toiletries in a little roller bag, it all seemed part of a dream. The Embassy nurse stopped by to check my vitals. It was strange to have her in our bedroom… “We knew something was wrong, we just didn’t know what.” She said as she retook my blood pressure.
The kids seemed fine. Dad- “Mom’s going in a small plane to Germany tonight- she might miss Christmas with us, but she’ll get great care at the hospital there.” -Six year old boy “Cool.” -Four year old boy- “Bye mom.” – Me-“I’m not leaving quite yet…” “Oh, ok.”
The Cameroonian ambulance arrived to pick me up around 4pm Sunday afternoon. We’d previously arranged for a playdate that day with two of the kids’ friends from school, and their mom and I had settled on the couch with some tea. There was a lively game of hide and seek going on, our almost two year old was stalking the kitten*, the Embassy nurse had come back to wait for the ambulance with us. The doorbell rang. A team of Cameroonian medics came in to take my vitals and ask me some questions. I’d never before been in a medical situation using my French. We understood each other well enough. They pushed on my belly… took my temperature… I was loaded onto the ambulance. I waited there for what felt like a long time. Later I found out they required 100 CFA cash in order to drive away ($200 ish). We weren’t able to figure out if this was a normal ambulance fee or a bribe. Once the medics were crammed in, we were on our way. “How are you feeling?” (in French) “Not bad…” I said. He rolled his eyes and exchanged a glance with the medic sitting next to him. As we drive, I notice the writing on the walls in the ambulance is all in Chinese and little pictures illustrating directions. Little doors with supplies are taped shut and rattling. There are loud clatters with every ditch in the road, the robust engine revving, beeps from cars, sudden stops. Out of the back window I see Paul Biya after Paul Biya on billboards passing by. “La Force de l’Expérience”.
We get to the airport. My passport is handed over and luggage offloaded. I’m nervous to still be strapped into the ambulance and not able to monitor where my things are going. We drive onto the tarmac. The ambulance staff all gets out and the engine turned off. They leave a sliding door open, and the ambulance starts to heat up a bit. It’s odd to stay put and do nothing. I miss the repetitive comfort of TSA. Thankfully it was not long before the handoff was complete, my passport returned along with the bags. The air ambulance landed right on time and the German doctor and nurse come right over to check on me. They smile and go over my symptoms and the info they got from the insurance company. From there we walk over to a small plane with a pointy nose. My new caregivers seem overly cautious as I climb the steps. Inside the little plane are 8 comfortable looking armchairs on one side, and two ambulance stretchers and equipment all along the other. “We haff blood if you needz eet, but betta if not.” I lie down and the nurse gets me buckled onto the very narrow, slippery stretcher. They put an IV access in my arm. We take off. I try to doze… it’s not every day you get to lie down for a seven hour flight. The pilot who flew the first leg comes back and gets settled for a snooze in the back armchair after introducing himself to me. He’s lighthearted and so tall he has to stoop in the isle to chat for a minute. The doctor and nurse sit close by, somewhat facing me. Every time I shift they look right at me intensely, I can’t help giggling and joking under the pressure of all the attention. They look at the screen showing my vitals. They relax. I sleep.