A Nightmare Phone Call

Our three girls finished school and Catherine and Abi moved out of the house to enjoy their first taste of independence. Catherine went off to look for herself in England. Abi moved into a flat walking distance away from our family home, and Nikki was taking a gap year working as a waitress and saving in anticipation of travelling.

One night at quarter to twelve, we got the phone call that every parent dreads. ‘Your daughter has been involved in a car accident.’

Michael and I threw our clothes on and raced to the hospital, straight through red traffic lights, hazards flashing, horn beeping. We screeched into the Casualty at the same time as an ambulance was drawing up. We looked, as they wheeled a bloodied apparition on the trolley.

‘That’s not Nikki,’ I said, relieved. Then I noticed the patient was wearing one of my jumpers.

‘It is Nikki,’ I screamed, racing after the paramedics. They tried to move me out of the way, but I managed to find my daughter’s injured hand. She couldn’t speak, but she was moaning, so we knew she was alive. But that was about all. Her face was full of glass and swelling rapidly. Her teeth had gone through her lip, and one ear was badly severed. There was blood everywhere.

‘We’re here, Nix,’ I tried to comfort her. ‘Try to relax while the doctor examines you. We’ll be waiting.’

We waited a long half hour, me in and out of the toilet, and Michael alternately pacing the floor wringing his hands, or sitting hunched over with his head in his hands.

Finally the doctor came out and said they were taking her to X-ray and from there she would go into the ICU.

Our other concern was her boyfriend, who had been driving the car. Apparently he had been unconscious when the ambulances arrived, and had been taken to a different hospital, because they didn’t know if he had Medical Insurance.

The diagnosis on Nikki was initially two fractured vertebrae, a ruptured kidney, a broken right ankle and a mutilated left knee, plus extensive cuts and bruising. While I remained with her, Michael drove through to the other hospital to find out how her boyfriend was doing. He returned later to say he had regained consciousness and had escaped with just a swollen hand. He was being kept in for observation after suffering from concussion.

For the next three days I stayed at Nikki’s bedside, rushing home late at night to sort out food and clean clothing for the family. I was very concerned that she was complaining of pains that did not seem to relate to any of her injuries. After five days with her back in a brace and both legs in plaster, they discovered she had developed a thrombosis in her thigh.

At that t Catherine was staying with my parents, so when I made the call to England to give them all the news, I was relieved that Catherine had family around to reassure her. Nevertheless, she caught the earliest plane back to be with her sister.

The accident affected Michael badly, and he would wait till we were in bed at night and ask questions like ‘What if she dies?’, questions I could not allow myself to even consider. Maybe it was easier for me, because I thoroughly believed in the power of prayer, and I knew Nikki would get better.

When she was moved into High-care, her friends came to visit her. Some stood in the doorway with utter shock and disbelief on their faces. Others burst into tears.

Just before the accident, Nikki had done a stint of modelling, so I had some current photos to show the plastic surgeon.

‘This is what she looked like last week, and this is what she must look like when you’ve finished with her’, I told the specialist. He managed to do an excellent job and as the scars healed, we saw Nikki’s beautiful face re-emerging.

It was the sudden change from being an active girl to almost complete immobility that had brought on the deep vein thrombosis in Nikki’s leg. But with her back in a brace and both legs in plaster, she came home after a couple of weeks, and I reluctantly returned to work.

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An Accident

Our house was situated in a beautiful new suburb in the south of Johannesburg. From the front windows we looked up into a large rocky hill or koppie  on which little grew apart from aloes, veld grass and the odd flat topped thorn tree. Rock rabbits (Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis)), commonly known as dassies sunned themselves on the rocks. They resembled very large guinea pigs.

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Many of the children in the area were of primary school age and roamed the streets in a gang. They played in the veldt, they played in each other’s houses and all summer they swam in our pool. Our children were never short of company.

The more children there are, the more accidents are inclined to happen, and we had many tales of horror. Edward walked in front of a swing and needed stitches in his head. Nikki slipped on rock in a stream and required stitches above her eyebrow. Edward and one of the other boys set the veldt on fire and we had to call the fire brigade, but luckily nobody was hurt. Abigail broke her elbow falling off Edward’s skateboard.

But the most serious accident was Edward’s broken leg. The children were all riding their bikes around the quiet roads. Edward, although one of the youngest, was speeding on ahead, wobbling all over the road, straight into an on-coming car. The unfortunate driver was the mother of one of the other children, so she came straight to fetch me.

I could see at once that Edward’s tibia was broken, so I carried him indoors and phoned the doctor for advice. He directed me to the nearest hospital and said he would meet me there.

By now the poor boy was in a lot of pain, so it was necessary to get him x-rayed as quickly as possible. Once done, for the leg to be set and plastered, I had to take Edward to another hospital in a part of the city to which I had never driven. It was well before the days of mobile phones, so I had to rely on the neighbours at home to look after my girls and inform Michael.

After a couple of days I took him back for follow-up x-rays and was shocked at what I saw. The broken bones did not line up. When I queried this with the surgeon, he pompously told me, ‘With all due respect, Madam, I am the expert.’

Duly subdued, I took Edward home. But I showed the x-rays to a friend who agreed with me. This led me on to get a second opinion. The second doctor was horrified and sent us for another set of x-rays. By this time the healing process was taking effect and calcification had started. Poor Edward had to be admitted to hospital for the leg to be re-broken and set correctly.

He was soon speeding around the house on his crutches, back to his normal busy little life, using a knitting needle to scratch the itchy leg. And when the plaster came off we were amused to see that the tropical jungle climate under the plaster had resulted in one really hairy leg.

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The Accident

…I sat shivering in the chair, semi-dozing, but too much adrenalin prevented me from falling asleep. Eventually the phone rang. It was JG Strydom hospital. A nurse told me that there had been an accident, and Mike Blacow had been critically injured. She asked if I would come in. However, she couldn’t tell me where the other Michael was, as only the one casualty had been admitted. I didn’t know what to do, so I phoned Michael’s boss, who we slightly knew socially. He told me to stay put with the children, and they would come over. While I was waiting for them, the phone rang again. It was a different hospital telling me that my husband was there. He had concussion and bruising, but was otherwise okay.

Semi-relieved, I sat and waited. Suddenly I looked up and there was Mike Blacow standing in the doorway. I opened my mouth to speak, but he gave a wry smile and shrugged his shoulders. Then he was gone.

About ten minutes later, a doctor from the JG Strydom hospital phoned to say Mike had passed away.  I felt that I knew already; he had come to say goodbye. My immediate dread was how to tell his parents in England. How can you phone someone so far away and give them such terrible news? I thought I might put it off for a while in case the hospital had made some dreadful mistake, and actually Mike was alive after all.

At that moment, Michael’s boss arrived with his daughter. She had offered to stay with the children while her father drove me to the hospital. They had also contacted several hospitals and been given the message that my Michael was the fatality, so none of us knew what to expect.

We arrived at the casualty department and went in to see my husband sitting up in bed, looking pale, but very much alive.

Apparently the police had been chasing a large black car believed to have been driven by men who had committed a burglary. In a bid to evade the police, the driver of the black car had switched his lights off and somehow driven straight over the top of Mike’s little blue beetle.

When I got home from the hospital, with terrible trepidation, I phoned Mike’s parents. Bad news travels fast, and another doctor from the hospital at which he worked had already spoken to them. They told me they would come out as soon as they could get on a flight.

For several days I couldn’t bring myself to strip Mike’s bed. I felt as if I were in the middle of a nightmare and would eventually wake up with everything back to normal. Either that or it had all been a terrible mistake and he was lying in some hospital suffering from amnesia and would regain his memory and come back to us any day soon.

Michael was discharged from hospital after a couple of days, which was a comfort, and Mike’s parents came out to take his ashes back to England. Our house was full of grieving friends, but hospitality flowed easily thanks to my earlier baking marathon.

Some days later we read in the paper a brief account of the accident. The driver of the black car had been accused of manslaughter and fined SAR200. On the same page was a much longer story of someone found in possession of banned literature. They were fined SAR500.

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Mike Blacow