The Vacation Nightmare That Changed My Life

Christine Pakkala, this year's LHJ Personal Essay Contest winner, used to hate being anywhere near an airplane. Then a family emergency made her realize that flying was the least of her fears.
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It was going to be the perfect vacation. Christmas in Costa Rica. Our kids, Simon, 13, and Lulu, 10, were old enough to appreciate not only the white-sand beaches and turquoise ocean but also the country's culture, history, and what I hoped would be an "educational" tour of its rainforests.

It was going to be perfect if I could just get on the damn plane.

I was terrified of flying. Eight years earlier my family was on a cross-country flight when we hit a patch of turbulence -- the kind that makes people gasp and grip their armrests. Clutching baby Lulu as the plane hammered up and down, I began to shake and sweat and cry. I was sure I was going to drop her. The turbulence subsided, but not my dry-mouthed fear. A year later, 9/11 only cemented my certainty that being in the air was unsafe. After that I avoided flying at all costs. And sometimes those costs were high. I missed both my grandmothers' funerals. My high school reunion. The chance to help my best friend through her divorce. I missed a lot but told myself it was okay.

It hadn't always been this way. While growing up in Idaho's panhandle I lived a few blocks from our tiny airport and loved lying in the backyard, watching the planes zoom overhead. I dreamed of jetting off to Paris or New York City or Disneyland. I asked my dad if I could take flying lessons and he said sure -- but not until I could back the Maverick out of the driveway and clear the mailbox.

The flying lessons never did materialize, but Dad paid for college and graduate school, including flights home for Christmas. Eventually my childhood excitement about flying morphed into nonchalance -- until that day when terror took over. So I indulged in some magical thinking: If I stayed on the ground I could keep my family safe.

But they wanted to travel. If I didn't want to go, they reasoned, I could stay home. But I didn't want to be left behind. And I was sick and tired of grounding myself out of fear. So, in the words of a good friend, I pulled up my big-girl pants and decided to get on that plane.

On the morning of our flight I nearly ran away. I sobbed through security and threw up in the airport bathroom, but I managed to board. My calm and capable husband, Cam, doled out snacks to the kids while I cowered in another row. On takeoff I held hands with a nice Costa Rican woman (thank you). Someone brought me a beer (thank you). I downed it and fell asleep.

Costa Rica was everything we'd imagined. Our hotel was gorgeous, the food delicious. There was swimming, windsailing, surfing. For Cam, an avid runner, the warm weather and flat roads were an invitation to go those long distances he loved. He'd had some shortness of breath back home, but we both thought it was just exercise-induced asthma triggered by pollution. It would vanish in Costa Rica. It certainly wasn't serious enough to prevent him from setting out on a long run the third night of our vacation. We agreed to meet back in the hotel room an hour later to get ready for dinner.

I went to the hotel gym for a jog on the treadmill, leaving the kids to watch TV in the room. After 30 minutes, Lulu appeared. "Mom, there's a guy who wants to talk to you," she said.

Annoyed, I jumped off the treadmill to follow her. A man stopped us at the door. "Are you Cam Stracher's wife?"

I nodded, confused, as I heard the man say, "I saw him fall" and "ambulance" and "front of the hotel."

I grabbed Lulu's hand, and we sprinted through the terra-cotta-colored lobby. "Can you please tell my son to meet us out front?" I called to the man.

Simon caught up with us -- he's fast like his dad -- and the three of us squeezed into the ambulance. Cam, dressed in a red tank top and blue running shorts, was lying on a stretcher. An oozing cut sliced through a bruise swelling his forehead. But his eyes were open and as soon as he saw me, he asked, "What happened?"

"He fell and hit his head," the hotel's concierge said through the open ambulance door.

"I think you tripped," I improvised, scrambling for a reason why my husband would have fallen. "Or you fainted. You hit your head."

The medical technician spoke to the concierge. "Why are they speaking Spanish?" Cam asked.

"We're in Costa Rica," I said. "On vacation." I smiled at the kids. Silly Dad. He forgot where we were. But to myself, I thought, what the hell is wrong with Cam?

The concierge told me that the ambulance would take us to the nearest hospital. "I don't want to go to the hospital," Cam said.

"Is it really necessary?" I asked. "Can't he simply rest in the hotel?"

A flurry of Spanish followed. "Why are they speaking Spanish?" Cam asked.

I looked at the concierge and the white faces of our kids. "We're in Costa Rica," I said carefully. "On vacation."

He nodded. Then he said, "Can you just tell me what happened?"

"Okay," I said, "let's go to the hospital."

Continued on page 2:  Getting to the Hospital

 

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