Thoughts on Seeing a Man Die on Vacation

This morning I joined a tour group hiking up Bali’s Mt. Batur. There were five of us — two couples and me. The plan was to hike for two hours to reach the summit in time for sunrise. It’s touristy but everyone says it’s amazing. About 45 minutes into the hike a member of our group, a trim 37-year-old man from Singapore, passed out and never woke up.

I’m having a hard time processing what happened. The memories of individual moments are burned in but they’re not connected with each other. It makes it hard to think about the experience because it doesn’t feel like a discrete subject I can wrap my head around, it’s just a jumble of images, feelings, sounds and smells. I thought it might help me sort through it if I wrote down what stands out:

The bus picked me up at 2:30 am. I’d slept about an hour. I dimly remember the man and his girlfriend talking on the ride to the mountain. We got out and were given flashlights and bottled water. We all accepted the suggestion to use the bathroom but only one stall was open. The man invited his girlfriend to go first and the rest of us talked about where we were from and how long we’d be in Bali. When everyone finished we started up the mountain.

The man was in front of me and I noticed that at the start of the hike he and his girlfriend held hands. I was impressed that they kept it up even when we had to pick our way through a field of small boulders and walking was difficult for one person, much less two people stuck together.

His girlfriend was having trouble keeping up with the rest of the group so the two of them and one guide lagged behind, going at a slower pace. After we hadn’t seen them for a few minutes we went back to check on them. I heard that he sat down while they were taking a rest and then passed out. His girlfriend and the guide spent 5 minutes yelling at him to wake up. Wikipedia says brain damage is likely after 5 minutes without oxygen.

While they were yelling at him a tourist walked by who happened to be a nurse and she started CPR. Actually, the way she phrased it later was “I’d call myself a nurse” and I never heard her explain what she meant by that.

His girlfriend kept saying “Suresh baby, wake up. Come on, baby, wakeup.” Over and over.

It’s exhausting giving someone CPR. Thank goodness another member of our group knew how to do it. It turned out he was a vet. So he was more familiar giving CPR to dogs and cats but for what we needed he seemed great. There were roughly 30 other people standing around, including a dozen guides, and no one else knew CPR.

I didn’t realize how serious it is to be getting CPR. You’re really just hoping to keep the heart beating long enough for paramedics to arrive and start defibrillation. But even if paramedics can get there within 5 minutes the survival rate is 30 percent. In Bali they’re not coming for hours.

The guides had no idea what to do. Everyone was standing around. A few phone calls were made. I tried to find out if they’d called a doctor and if he was coming. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that in Bali it’s not uncommon for people to just say “yes” to any question you ask since it avoids embarrassment. When I asked if they’d called a doctor the guides said “yes,” and when I asked if the doctor was coming here they said “yes” to that as well. I never a saw a doctor.

No one announced that he was dead. We gave him CPR for close to 45 minutes. When the stretcher arrived we hesitated about whether we should stop but ultimately putting him on the stretcher felt like the next thing to do since CPR wasn’t having any effect. In hindsight that’s when we were saying he was dead and when it stopped being about trying to save a life and became about transporting a body. At the time it didn’t feel like we’d made a decision just that we were taking the next available action.

As we were doing CPR there was no sense of anything beyond that in terms of a plan. It was like we were spending all of our energy treading water, everyone hovering around looking at the process and trying to think of how they could be helpful. I have never wanted to be a doctor before today. But standing there, looking at all the people who were just watching a man die I really wished I could have helped.

After we started carrying him down someone asked the nurse if she wanted to follow the body and she said “You know, actually, I kind of would like to go to the top of the mountain.” It was an amazingly heartless thing to say. No one else had any desire to keep going up the mountain. I think she was in shock. It was an odd way for that to come out. During the walk down she was shaking a lot.

Our guide said the same thing happened last year with a Frenchman.

When we got back to basecamp I stood far back from the body, trying to give everyone space. I felt guilty when a woman gave the girlfriend a cell phone and suggested that she call his parents and notify the Singaporean consulate. I should have thought about what the girlfriend needed and appreciated how confusing it was for her to be surrounded by people speaking broken English and not knowing what was going on. By the time we were down the mountain and the police were there I thought there wasn’t anything more I could do to help but I gave up too soon.

After we’d been down at the bottom for a few minutes a girl asked for hand sanitizer. I think because she realized she’d been touching a dead body. I felt good that I had some in my backpack. It was the first time I’d been able to help. She passed it around to her friends. Everyone used a lot of hand sanitizer.

The man’s girlfriend said that both his parents were dead. Later, when the policeman started asking questions we found out the man had been a management assistant at a bank.

When we laid him at the basecamp there were more flies than I’ve ever seen in my life. Even standing 20 feet away from the body in a crowd of other people I had so many flies on me that I had to keep stamping my legs like a horse.

The vet, his girlfriend and I rode back to our hotels together. We talked for awhile about CPR and how weird this whole thing was, then we were silent for a long time. Just before I got dropped off they mentioned that they’d decided to return the motorbike they’d rented. Too risky, too easy to get into an accident.

The vet said that in school they were given a greyhound whose heart had just been stopped. Then eight students worked together to restart its heart using CPR and shots of adrenaline, all while giving the dog pure oxygen. It took them 45 minutes but they finally did it. Their instructor said the animal was braindead though.

I thought a lot about how the man never regained consciousness and never saw all the commotion around him at the end. He just slipped away.

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