Walking through the Tsitsingombe River Valley in Zimbabwe four years ago, Angie Heister had no idea that her life was about to change dramatically. Angie and her husband were 10 days into their trip.
“Our guide was shooting birds to cook for us for lunch,” said Angie. “We’d already finished the dangerous game hunting and were in an area where we believed there weren’t any buffalo. We were going down a dirt road with the grass about eight feet tall around us. With the direction of the wind and the noise we’d been making, that buffalo really should not have been there. He should have gone. Animals will usually run away when they see you but this animal didn’t. He waited for us. You never know what’s in the mind of a wild animal, but I often wonder if maybe he was injured and didn’t want to move, and we got too close and scared him. It was a loud sound, almost like a roar. I yelled ‘lion’ and took off running before I saw the animal.”
The male Cape buffalo emerged from behind a ziziphus bush and came rushing toward Angie and her husband. The bull first hit Angie’s husband, knocking him over. Angie was next.
“It was about four seconds from the time I saw the animal until it gored me. It just happened so fast,” she said. “The horn gored me, and I was thrown. What I didn’t know at the time was that it dislocated my spine. The animal had knocked my husband unconscious. The next thing I know, I’m lying on the ground. I’d heard stories about these animals and how mean they are, so I was trying to cover my head with my arms because I was expecting the animal to come back. That’s the reputation they have. It’s a miracle that the animal did not come back. He kept going.
“I realized I couldn’t move my legs but I wasn’t really processing what that meant,” Angie continued. “I didn’t realize that I was bleeding. The professional hunter came over to assess the situation. He and the guide realized I couldn’t walk, but didn’t realize how much I was bleeding. I knew I was having trouble breathing, and it was all I could do to say, ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe!’ We didn’t know it at the time but my ribs were broken and my lungs had collapsed.”
Angie was losing blood quickly, with a gaping wound on her left side. Their guide attempted to stanch her bleeding before bringing her to the nearest suitable landing area for a helicopter. He called Global Rescue.
A helicopter arrived within an hour and transported Angie to a facility in Victoria Falls. In the emergency room, she was stabilized and her injuries were assessed. She had no sensation in her lower extremities and had lost a life-threatening amount of blood.
Global Rescue physicians consulted with Angie’s attending physician and recommended that Angie be transported immediately to South Africa. Global Rescue performed a medical evacuation, bringing Angie via a medically equipped jet to a world-class trauma center in Johannesburg.
“Luckily it was decided that Global Rescue could take me to Johannesburg, which was a fantastic thing,” noted Angie. “It was a tier one health center — a fantastic hospital with great medical care. Later, I did some research which confirmed it was a really great hospital. But at the time, all you know is that you’re in a country that you didn’t plan to go to, you’re in a hospital, you can’t move your legs, and you can’t feel your legs. You just don’t even have any idea what’s ahead.”
In Johannesburg, Angie was evaluated by neuro and trauma surgeons. In the meantime, Global Rescue dispatched the first of three paramedics to oversee her care. After a thorough review of Angie’s condition with specialists from Johns Hopkins medicine, the physicians determined that she required emergency surgery to fuse the vertebrae in her spine. The buffalo attack left her spinal cord severely bruised and her lower extremities would remain paralyzed for an unknown period of time.
“The trauma surgeon cleaned out the wound and tried to determine the extent of my injuries while trying to keep me alive,” said Angie. “The doctor later told me that the wound was big enough to fit his wrist and forearm through, and that he could see my bowels and the bottom of my lungs. It really is unbelievable that the horn didn’t hit an artery and I didn’t bleed to death. They said my spinal cord was dislocated and they needed to do surgery, but it would probably be two weeks before I was stable enough for that surgery. They put rods in my spine, and the doctors told me the area was very bruised and swollen.
“Global Rescue sent over their first paramedic to assess my situation,” Angie continued. “My husband was still in shock. Family had asked if they should come over but he told them no because he still didn’t know what was going on. He said several times that it was a tremendous help to have Global Rescue’s paramedic there to sit down and explain to him all the different things that were happening to me, and to say ‘we’re checking everything that they’re doing and what they’re doing is the right thing.’ You just can’t imagine the feeling when you’re that far away from home and in shock. You just can’t process what happened. Having Global Rescue there was an incredibly important thing.
“Global Rescue sent a second paramedic who took charge of gathering all of the medical tests and coordinating with the doctors there to validate that I was getting the right treatment. Before the accident, I was a health nut. I worked out four or five days a week, running and lifting weights. I was in reasonably good shape. After the accident, I had trouble even holding a fork.”
As rehab progressed, the Global Rescue team worked closely with Angie on her options for rehabilitation back in Dallas.
“Global Rescue started the conversation about where to take me when I got home,” said Angie. “I didn’t know anything about rehab centers, yet it looked like I would have to go to one. At this point, I didn’t realize that I would be paralyzed for the rest of my life, you know? My thinking was, I had the surgery and the doctor said I’ve got to give it six months. I thought I would start working on learning how to live like that, just in case. I wasn’t going to wait six months before trying anything. But it hadn’t set in mentally that this was going to be the new world.
“We were looking at rehab places in the suburbs of Dallas Metroplex. Now I laugh when I drive around and see all these little places because most of them are guaranteed to get you back on the football field really fast. They’re all geared toward a high school sports injury. I didn’t realize what a specialized rehab it is for spinal cord injury. Global Rescue had been recommending (Baylor) as the best one. As I look back, so much of the advice we received from Global Rescue was so critical because at the time, we just didn’t know anything.
“At the same time, Global Rescue began to discuss how we would be getting back home. There were countless logistics that Global Rescue handled that we would never have considered – what type of aircraft, ideal countries in which to refuel, and on and on. The medical oversight by Global Rescue was fantastic. The Global Rescue paramedic suggested that I do more rehab before I traveled. At the time, I thought he’d lost his mind. Now looking back, I can see that he was 100% right.
“Having the Global Rescue team look at my situation and say, ‘In this many weeks you should be so much stronger and then you should be able to do this’ – well, it was just imperative. I don’t quite have the words to explain how important it was having Global Rescue help us figure out where we were going to be in a day or a week or a few weeks, because we were just lost.
“After I was moved to the rehab unit of the Johannesburg hospital, I was learning how to transfer from the bed into my wheelchair or from the wheelchair into another seat. It’s a very hard thing to learn. A few days before we were scheduled to travel, Global Rescue’s third paramedic arrived. He was wonderful. I can’t even imagine had it been just my husband and me trying to get home. There’s no way physically we could have done it.
“We were back in Dallas on the way to Baylor and the Global Rescue paramedic told the driver to slow down on the turns since I didn’t have good balance. He was watching out for things like that. He took the best care ever, ever, ever.”
After approximately six weeks in rehab, Angie was discharged to go home in August 2011.
“The first six months were pure hell,” said Angie. “You have to learn to take care of your bladder and your bowels, and trying to transfer and not fall, just so much. We had to have our bathroom remodeled because I couldn’t get in the shower. I had hired a caregiver to stay with me. At first I had to have 24- hour support, so it was the caregiver, my daughter, and my husband. Gradually I got stronger and started with two hours all by myself. It was May 2012 before we let the caregiver go and I was truly ok just to be by myself in the house.
“To put it in perspective, I was a software consultant before the accident. I traveled a lot. I was executive platinum and traveled 100,000 flight miles a year. I was at home two weekends a month usually. I went from that lifestyle to a complete shut-in except for weekends. It was a shock. It just turned my life upside down.
Four years after that fateful day, Angie maintains a positive outlook on life, despite remaining paralyzed from the accident. Her determination brought her to where she is today, enjoying traveling and her independence while helping others cope with the transition to life in a wheelchair.
“I took classes so I could drive again in October 2012, and bought a van that is modified with a ramp and hand controls. It was months before I dared to get on the highway. It was like learning to drive again but I was terrified. Now I drive to a lot of places every day by myself, even the highway. It’s no big deal but it really took a long time to get back to that. Now I’m perfectly good: I go places by myself all the time. If my husband is out of town, I’m ok in the house by myself, even during the night.
“I had incredible support early on. There was a lady named Lynn I had worked with and when I was lying in the hospital in Africa, I remembered her coming to work in a wheelchair. There wasn’t anything special about it. To me, she’s superwoman. She has been in a wheelchair for 30 years and is so strong and independent. She won a silver medal on horseback at the Paralympics in Australia. Lynn would come over and show me things. For example, I was having trouble getting up a little one-inch step from the garage into the house. Now it’s no big deal, but at the time I didn’t have the balance or the strength, so she showed me a different way to do it. She told me that there were things like this they’ll never show you in rehab. You’re only going to learn this from other people in chairs. She was so right.
“I’m actually mentoring some ladies now. Statistically, people who end up with spinal cord injuries are usually young males between 15 and 30 years old, basically risk takers. A 50-year-old grandmother is not your usual spinal cord injury patient. So, occasionally when they have ladies who have gone through some car wrecks or other accidents, Baylor has called me. I try to help these ladies and tell them that when I came home from the hospital, I couldn’t do such-and-such either, but I do it all the time now. I try to give them that encouragement and tell them to keep working at it.
“Lynn told me it would take two years to adjust, but I think it’s more like three. Most days now it’s no big deal, but occasionally I have a bad day or something happens that I can’t do and it’s so frustrating. The whole family has adjusted. They say it’s not just the individual who goes through this; it’s your whole family because everybody has to adjust. It took a long time to get there and it took a lot of work and a lot of support from family.
“We’ve started traveling,” continued Angie. “It took about a year but we’ve gone to Los Angeles several times to see family. My husband and I took a vacation and traveled to New England in September. We’ve been to Vegas a few times, and to Florida and North Carolina. We travel a lot so that’s good.
“During one of our trips, we spent an evening with one of the Global Rescue paramedics who deployed to help us. It was wonderful to see him. What does this tell you about the people at Global Rescue when, so many years later, we’re still staying in touch?”
“As I look back, I’m so thankful that we had a Global Rescue membership before we traveled,” said Angie. “My husband had been to Africa twice before and had had such a wonderful time. He loved it and wanted to share that with me. I was going with him on this trip. I’m the non-adventurous type and I insisted that we get it. He had seen Global Rescue at one of the safari conventions and was familiar with it so we bought the memberships. It never occurred to me I would be the one who would need it. I was always thinking, ‘It’s going to be my husband. What if something happens in the middle of the hunt or if he gets hurt by an animal?’ Never in a thousand years did it ever occur to me that I would be the one who needed the help from Global Rescue. I’m guessing it would have cost somewhere between $100,000 and $300,000 to get me home had we not been Global Rescue members.
“Any time my friends are traveling anywhere, I tell them they must get a Global Rescue membership. People don’t understand that travel insurance is so different than having Global Rescue personnel come to you and personally take care of you and bring you home. I can’t imagine my husband being able to get me home alone and having no one else to help me make the flight home. It’s just not the same when you’re in that kind of situation. You really need what Global Rescue provides. You need somebody there who has access to resources and experience and knows what to do, because you’re just lost and in shock and you just don’t know what’s going on. You’re so short sighted, just trying to get through the next day. You think, am I going to be breathing again tomorrow? You’re not in any kind of shape to be making arrangements to fly home.”
Angie’s advice for travelers:
If you’re traveling to an area that’s not very well developed, do some research to get an idea of what hospitals and services are in the area. Is it like the U.S where you get treated and then pay or do have to pay before they admit you?
Check whether your health insurance works in places you are traveling to and determine if you should purchase a special health insurance policy.
Carry a satellite phone and extra batteries.
Have a Global Rescue membership.
“I can’t even imagine what would have happened had we not had Global Rescue,” said Angie. “I would have ended up in Zambia in a less-than-stellar hospital. I might not even have lived had I not gotten to a tier-one trauma center. I would have gotten an infection in that wound. The fact that I never got an infection is a miracle and I know it’s because I got to a good hospital. As you probably know, I think very highly of Global Rescue.”