– October 2013, BOLIVIA –
A young man enjoys the afternoon sun, riding a flashy motorcycle through the vast and lifeless hills of the Altiplano. The road is newly paved, smooth and wide. On either side there is a large band of flat dirt and then a deep trench for water flow-off during rain season. Beyond that, some houses and dry shrubs.
He turns into a curve, leading him to the left. His speed is too high and he can’t make the turn, so he hits the brakes. The bike is still upright when its wheels hit the dirt. He sways, trying to maintain his balance. It doesn’t matter. The front wheel folds up against the trench’s 50cm ridge as if it were made of clay. Samuel is launched off his seat. Samuel is not wearing his helmet.
His body crashed face first into the concrete ditch bottom. He slides forward a little, then remains there, motionless, with a lumpy bloody mass slowly dribbling from his nose.
In good spirits we had set off on an easy drive from Sucre to Potosí. In the back seat we had two friends. David and I were smiling, enjoying the scenery.
“A motor bike crash,” David suddenly says and pulls over immediately. “Do you want to give first aid?”
I opened my door, pulled out my first aid kit from underneath my seat, and set off toward the scene, eager to put my basic training to use.
Two men stood by, staring down. Showing my first aid kit, I offered to help. They gestured to the ditch, which I couldn’t see into yet. Two legs appeared as I got closer. A torso. Please move, if only a little. Please… be moving!
“When did this happen?”
“Just now. A minute ago.”
“If you could stabilize his head, we will lift him out.”
I stood behind the still body and got a good grip around his chest. Turning myself, his back now rested against my chest. I pushed up from a crouching position and lifted his body out of the gutter. One of the men took his legs, while the other gently held the head so his spine was mostly aligned. His body was almost wholly on top of mine, and I felt his weight and warmth. We let him roll off of me, onto the dirt where I could check him out. No breathing. His eyes were half open, staring into the distance.
David inquired if an ambulance had been called. It was coming from Sucre, 31km away. They would only be ten minutes. I just had to keep the blood circulating until they arrived. The man’s sweater was torn and pulled up onto his chest. That had to be unzipped first. The white T-shirt underneath had many holes in it from the impact. His torso was heavily scratched and a bruised. Bruises meant blood was still circulating after an impact, which gave me hope.
I noticed a large, smudgy patch of blood on my trousers but couldn’t see further injuries from whence it might have came. I held my ear to his face to check breathing.
I had walked over, thinking I might help apply a bandage but here I was, hunched over a man turned onto his back without a pulse. I tilted his head backwards and pushed up his neck to clear the air ways but his swollen tongue filled his mouth. It was blue and had teeth marks pressed into it. I got the mouth-to-mouth piece ready. There was thick blood around the nose and mouth which made it slippery, but it worked fine. I couldn’t get any air in. Putting my hands to his chest I felt concerned but not frightened. Practice on dummies will never give you the experience of how a real body moves. It is heavy and warm and resilient.
More people gathered around while others drove past.
I had been going for more than six minutes and knew that it was likely to no avail. Somehow I couldn’t stop. Your senses tell you it is over, but your heart is not willing to give up! What if I am really close to getting him back? But the people had started shaking their heads… it was over. For one last time I checked for a pulse. Nothing.
Suddenly I saw what he was; a dead man. His name was Samuel and he died for no reason at kilometer 31 on the road from Sucre to Potosí in Bolivia. He was born in 1985 and died on November twelfth, 2013, around three o’clock in the afternoon.
Now I could start sobbing. I drooped off with David and cried while others took a jacket and covered Samuel’s face. We sat down by the side of the road and I realized I’d been pressing on and putting my mouth to, a dead man. One of the men retrieved the kid’s ID card and phone and started calling family and friends.
“Are you acquainted with Samuel (…)? Please, I need to know. Hay un accidente.” There has been an accident.
I would like to change trousers but we had to move on. Washing the blood off my hands next to the body, I began to cry. A half hour had passed since we’d arrived and no ambulance was there yet. There was nothing more we could do. Men in Bolivia of that age usually have a family. His relatives will be very sad tonight and another little road side monument will be erected.
David told me he’d found out the man had been there, laying face-down in the trench, for eight or ten minutes before we’d arrived. I couldn’t tell you how I felt. There was a strong sense of sadness for this man’s passing away. And stress (shock?) from having been so close to death. Dizziness made me sit down and breath deeply and I felt sick to the stomach. Sitting in the car felt constricting; I needed more space to breathe.
But what overwhelmed me was dissatisfaction. I had not been able to help the man. David has seen four dead men so far on his travels through these parts (including today’s) and he recounted that it was the same every single time; people just stand around, and watch. They call the ambulance, yes. The family, yes. But there is no understanding of how they can help and how important first aid can be.
Road from Sucre to Potosí – Km 31
November 12, 2013