Break a leg - in Russia!
This year, the same as in the last 8 years, I eagerly anticipated my return to the Kola peninsula of Northern Russia. Every year the excitement builds, tackle is horded, checked and readied, and the departure date red-ringed in my diary. As the day approaches, I can think of little else.
I was fortunate this year to be travelling with a very good friend and excellent fisherman – David – and was due to spend a week in the very pleasant company of Peter Power’s Kharlovka and Eastern Litza Fishing Camp.
The travel to Russia is relatively straightforward and involves a short flight to Stockholm, Sweden; a night in the airport hotel; and an onward flight the next morning direct to Murmansk – the largest city in the Arctic Circle.
We duly arrived in Murmansk on the Saturday morning with plenty of time to meet up with friends from previous year’s expeditions and swap stories of the intervening year. Within an hour or so, the call came to say “let’s go” and we were off in the big MI-8 heading for the camp. The Russian tundra stretched out below, and looked almost welcoming with the exception of the ice still in the lakes we flew over. This was unlikely to be a push over – fishing wise!
The fishing was tough and hard, with most of the fish being taken on the lower river. But the reason we had come still held a magical draw – large fresh Atlantic salmon. Everyday around the bar, in the evening, tales of fish lost and landed were the staple diet. There is never a feeling of despondency, just a belief that one more cast is all that is needed…
By Wednesday, things were not going brilliantly on the fish front. David was off to a good start, but I was still awaiting my first elusive “bar of silver”. But today would surely be brilliant as we had drawn the Lower Litza which had been the most productive beat of the week thus far. Unfortunately, mid-afternoon, our excellent Russian guide – Dima, had a call on the radio to say we would have to cut short as the weather was closing in. Very reluctantly, David, Dima and I packed up our gear and took down the rods to prepare for the walk back to the helicopter landing pad – a 40 minutes walk away.
The river contours involve a certain amount of boulder fields which were successfully negotiated, and we were in sight of the landing pad, walking along a riverside path when it happened. I was following Dima and David, and the path was as difficult as a walk alongside a canal bank – flat and straight. As I walked beside a small bush next to the pathway, my right leg slid from underneath me and I fell on top of it with a resounding crack…..
Sometimes you just know. The sound I had heard – I had never heard before, but I knew what it meant. I looked down and my lower right leg was sitting in the waters edge at an odd angle. After a couple of choice expletives, I shouted to David and Dima that I “think I might have broken my leg”, and within seconds they were at my side. There was no pain, but I knew I couldn’t stand up. Dima’s training kicked in and after calling for help on the radio, he set about making me comfortable.
Within minutes all the guides on the Litza had surrounded me and a plan to get me back was hatched. I was given pain killers and my leg was strapped to a landing net handle – very carefully – and a ladder was brought down from the helicopter to act as a stretcher. The next few minutes are slightly hazy, but I was carried on the stretcher the 300 yards or so to the waiting helicopter. This is an easy sentence to write but to the four guys who carried me up the slope – my heart felt gratitude for both managing it (I weigh 14 stone plus waders etc.) and for not dropping me!
Back in the helicopter, all my friends from the camp offered their warm clothing as I was starting to go into shock – much appreciated! On landing back at Kharlovka camp, there was a flurry of activity. Peter Power’s company: The Northern Rivers Company, has two camps on the Kola, and the on-site doctor was summonsed from Rynda (the other camp). I was carried back to my little chalet and laid out on the bed (wrapped in many layers of blankets). It is amazing what goes through your mind at moments like this…I was fixated by ensuring the book I was reading would accompany me wherever I had to go – I think I asked David four times to check!
When you go on one of these fishing trips, you meet some amazing people from many walks of life, but I had been particularly fortunate to be on this trip with Richard, who I had met over a vodka or two precisely one year previously. In the bar in the evenings you tend to gloss over day to day careers in favour of fishing stories, but I remembered he was a surgeon. Almost as soon as I was laid out in my chalet, Richard came in, and offered to help – gratefully appreciated! After waders and wading boots had been cut away (very slowly and gingerly – thank you!) Richard’s trained eye appraised the situation and he made a number of suggestions. I guess I knew the fishing was probably finished for me, even if Justin (the excellent Kharlovka camp manager) had said they would have me back out in no time!
Richard told me that it was probably a multiple fracture but thankfully it was not a compound fracture. However, there was a high probability that it would require surgery. Given my less than normal state of mind, I persuaded Richard to write down all his advice. If I was to have surgery, I wanted to try and have it done in the UK, and Richard ran me through the whole process – and then wrote it down. He then set about designing a leg brace, based around a wooden support structure containing my leg wrapped in what seemed like cotton wool and gauze to let the oncoming swelling occur – without constriction. The camp machinery then sprang into life and a wooden brace was fashioned in what seemed like no time.
Meanwhile the doctor from Rynda – Andrea – arrived and having administered an IV painkiller (thank-you!) helped Richard wrap my leg and encase it. During this time I chatted away to David and Dima who were with me virtually the whole time, and to Richard, Justin and Volodya. It was apparent very quickly, that I would be helicoptered out to Murmansk, but in my state I was barely aware of the feverish activity going on behind the scenes. David packed me a weekend bag and then set off to pack one for himself – as he was adamant that he would go to Murmansk too…but after a lot of persuasion by me, Justin and the doctor, it became obvious that I was in good hands and that everything I needed in Murmansk would be provided for. I promised him I would call from hospital and let him know how I was faring. It was the right thing to do.
As I lay on my bed trying to assure all concerned that all was well, the MI-2 was started up, and I was carried by many hands down to the landing pad. I was in reasonable spirits, considering, and can remember muttering it was better to fly business class on a lounger. Within a couple of minutes I had been slipped into the helicopter and along with Andrea, we lifted off from Kharlovka camp. I tried to wave at the glum faces of the camp guests and staff, but a combination of immobility and steamed up rear windows conspired against me.
As we set off it was early evening, but the weather was closing in. We were flying low and the sideways visibility was not great – but I was in good hands as I recognised Peter Power’s personal pilot – Sasha - at the controls. After flying low for what seemed like an eternity we climbed up through the clouds, and eventually broke through. As you can tell, I was awake and taking a great interest in our progress, but a combination of excellent carpentry, good padding and an IV pain killer meant that aside from reluctance on my behalf to disturb my leg, all was as well as could be expected!
After about one hour and fifteen minutes, we approached Murmansk airport and duly touched down with no mishaps. Outside the helicopter I could see an ambulance waiting and I could see Viktor from The Northern Rivers Group overseeing proceedings. On touchdown, I was introduced to a very nice young guy – an interpreter arranged by Northern Rivers. He was to be an absolute saviour! Within minutes I was being transferred across to the awaiting ambulance – an FSO estate. The driver and the nurse tried to fit me in but the “loading bay” must have been only six feet long as I was soon attempting to sit up in order to completely fit in. I obviously did not do a good job as when they shut the rear tailgate, it shut on the wooden case surrounding my leg…major expletives delivered.
Thirty minutes later I was at Murmansk regional hospital. The 5 minute horizontal tour (on a trolley) didn’t fill me with much confidence but within five minutes I was introduced to a Russian doctor who through my new best friend – the interpreter – asked me all the questions that seem appropriate at times like this! I answered as best I could , and very soon I was being wheeled into the x-ray room. We were joined by two nurses who, with the doctor, proceeded to scrub up and then set about getting me ready for the x-ray. This involved removing the brace around my leg, and getting it into the correct position to x-ray it. All I will say is that this was not an enjoyable experience despite several local anaesthetic jabs, and the interpreter learned a few new words that had not been in his dictionary – from a safe distance! Thankfully it was all over relatively quickly and the two nurses and the doctor then made a cast for my leg which was solid on three sides but had a small amount of allowance for swelling.
Soon after, we all decamped to a room elsewhere in the hospital which was to be my home for the next couple of days. Through the interpreter I learnt that as Richard had surmised back at Kharlovka, I needed an operation as I had a multiple fracture and I told the doctor that if that was the case, I wanted to get back to the UK to have it done, so as to be near home and friends. This was agreed upon, and given the time, I was left to try and get some sleep.
In Russia in early June, there is no night. I managed to draw the blinds but the best I could manage was twilight. I also had my leg propped up on pillows to aid drainage/circulation, which combined with the light in the room and a dull ache from my leg, conspired to stop me sleeping. At this point I decided it was time to read the small print of my insurance policy…with great trepidation!
Having satisfied myself that I was still in with a chance of help, I decided to wait until 9am Russian time (6am UK) to make the call. At 9am, just as I was about to call on my mobile, the door opened and in walked Peter Power, Victor Koretskiy, Andrea from Rynda and a young lady who introduced herself as Svetlana, Victor’s daughter. Peter set up Northern Rivers and I have had the pleasure of knowing him since 1999 when I first travelled to Russia. Victor is his right hand man and is based in Murmansk. You could have knocked me over with a feather – if I hadn’t already been flat out!
After trying to recount all that had happened and swapping stories of years past, we got on to the practicalities of my situation. As Peter saw it, I had three options: To have the operation in Murmansk – which I had already turned down. To fly out with the fishing crew on the Saturday, Peter having arranged to reconfigure the jet that takes us out to Arlanda in Stockholm and thence onward to London, or to let my insurance company “take the strain”. I agreed to explore the insurance company option straight away and we agreed to reconvene shortly thereafter.
My insurance is a corporate policy with AXA PPP. I phoned the international emergency number and got through. Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I envisaged a short call culminating in a Lear Jet being dispatched immediately with suitable nursing staff, and home in time for tea! The reality is very different. The lady I spoke to started filling out forms and asked me to provide faxed copies of the x-rays and a doctor’s letter in English explaining the medical case. She would then forward it to the main team who came on duty at 9am UK time for appraisal. Again, huge credit to Northern Rivers, they organised photocopies and a translated letter within 3 hours! No mean feat! Duly faxed off I awaited the call to rescue me.
Three hours later I called back to be told that lady had gone off-shift and “how can I help you?” Pushing exasperation aside, I re-explained my predicament and was told the case had gone into the system and would be duly evaluated and they would get back to me. So I waited.
The room I was in was effectively a private one. The room had an en-suite bathroom and a TV and Peter had brought with him juice, fruit and some other goodies. Good job really as the food was not great. Rather oddly, the only liquid provided by the hospital was warm sweet black tea at breakfast, lunch and dinner! At least I could defer any thought of needing to diet after a weeks good food and wine at Kharlovka!
I called AXA later that day as I had given up hope of them taking the initiative. My case had been appraised for severity and they concurred that I needed medical evacuation. Ye Hah! But, they insisted all cases were accompanied by a qualified nurse and Russia requires a visa for anyone entering…so it could take a while to organise….
With a semblance of good news, I reckoned the time was now right to phone home and tell my wife, Vicki, the predicament I had landed myself into. We run a farm at home (breeding alpacas) so Vicki was working flat out with me away, and was not expecting an early call from Russia. Needless to say the news came as a complete shock, but my God, it was good to speak to her. The first thing she asked after I had told her of my situation was “but did you catch anything?” They don’t make them like that any more!! I asked Vicki to try and search out a specialist orthopaedic surgeon – at Richard’s suggestion – and to liase with AXA for when I finally got home, not realising what a thankless task I was asking of her!
That afternoon Victor and Svetlana came back to visit, and I updated them and Peter (by phone) of my situation as far as repatriation was concerned. We agreed to defer a final decision until AXA had come up with some hard facts. At this point I would like to thank Victor and Svetlana. They visited twice on the Thursday and the Friday for in excess of an hour each time. Victor brought me news of Peter and the camps (I spoke to Justin and David in Kharlovka via Justin’s sat phone to reassure them that all was well). Svetlana who was on holiday in Murmansk only till the Sunday morning visiting her family and gave up a huge amount of her free time. Both of them listened to my stories of alpaca farming and previous salmon trips with real interest and I really missed them when they left. They also brought fresh fruit and freshly squeezed orange juice and to be honest kept me sane whilst trying to deal with the insurance company. Thanks again.
By Friday morning, AXA offered me an option. Fly from Murmansk to Moscow at 7am on the Saturday. Then fly from Moscow to London that evening at 7pm. The catch was 9 hours on the ground in Moscow. I asked if they could close the gap in any way, but it proved impossible. I guess the pleading in my voice must have worked though as they relented in the “ground time”. They offered me a hotel room so at least I would not be just sitting in the terminal. I accepted and all was set. I told Victor and Peter of the plan, and once again they offered to help. Andrea, who had flown to Murmansk with me was still in town, and Victor kindly asked him to help me pack at 4am the next morning!
So, I said goodbye to Murmansk Regional Hospital, and in an ambulance, sped off to the airport. My nurse met me at the airport – a very nice Ukrainian gentleman of 50 with one good eye! I was carried aboard the Aeroflot jet by the ground crew and then upgraded to business class. The flight was pretty uneventful at about 2 hours and then we were in Moscow. Given my predicament, I had little to do with customs, baggage reclaim or any of the other facets of modern air travel and I guess if I was looking for a silver lining – this was it!
One hour later I was on a stretcher in the lobby of a hotel 10 minutes from the airport. By now I was starving and asked about food. Apparently they had three restaurants, but in my state, I just made sure they had room service! My Ukrainian friend then informed me he was off to another “situation” and someone would pick me up in time to make the flight to London. It was somewhat warmer in Moscow than Murmansk so I managed to open the window (with my borrowed crutches) only to discover the hotel was undergoing renovation work and the sound of jack hammers had me rapidly shutting it! Oh well, at least there was room service! But not as we know it…I phoned down and asked if I could have something plain and simple like cheeseburger and chips, only to be told “this is not McDonalds. But we could arrange for a club sandwich and French fries to be brought to your room”. Vive la difference!
After an afternoon of snoozing in the comfy chair, there was a knock on the door and my new nurse – Michael – arrived. The trip to the airport was uneventful other than by now I was getting used to ambulances and the Skoda saloon I had to slide into proved somewhat impractical! Anyway, we duly arrived and after minimal fuss we were on the Aeroflot plane looking for our seats. We had three in economy, but with Michael in one, and me being six foot two inches tall, I had to wedge myself at 45 degrees across two seats. The next four and a half hours were not fun especially as there was a large guy in front of me who reclined his seat from the moment we took off! But we landed at Heathrow in the early evening and at last, I was home!
I transferred from Heathrow to East Surrey Hospital that evening. After four hours in A+E, I was transferred to an orthopaedic ward pending surgery that was pencilled in for the Monday morning. The ward was not great as I was next to a “special needs” patient with 24 hour care and the other residents were flaunting colostomy bags. On the Sunday morning I met the specialist who warned me that the London to Brighton bike ride was that Sunday, and my place in theatre was subject to no major traumas on the ride. How I prayed for good weather!
I had my operation on Monday and the specialist was very happy with the result. He had however found that I had a third break at the ankle which he had also had to pin.
After lots of TLC and physio, I was discharged on the Friday night. On the next Wednesday the 31 staples were removed and with the aid of crutches, I was “mobile”. Six weeks on and I am partially weight bearing with crutches but will not be 100% till October (all being well!)…a fishing story to beat all others?
I would not be sitting here now but for the kindness and help of a number of very special people. In no particular order they are: David and Richard from the trip. Dima, Justin and Volodya from Kharlovka. Peter, Victor, Svetlana, and Andrea from Northern Rivers. All the doctors, nurses and physios that have put me on the road to recovery, and lastly to my wife – Vicki – for doing without me for a “week” a year!!