Emergency Helicopter to Martinique

This entry is part of my personal series on grief, called Wish You Were There, that’s unrelated to travel.

When I try to write about my sister, Kim, and her daughter, Katherine, I come up with memories of absurd situations, stories I can hardly believe happened. Those two were very much alike: they both lived fiercely, and when they were together, which was for most of Katherine’s 26 years, this ferocity resulted in what I can only call explosions, a few humorous but most disastrous. This story is a little of both.

Kim’s favorite place was a small island in the Indian Ocean, part of the chain that makes up St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It’s called Bequia.

I could tell you about the local economy (very poor), the tourism (non-existent except for a few yachting people), or the landscape (oh my god), but that would get me off track of my story here, which took place one of the several times I was on Bequia with Kim and Katherine.

(These photos are all from Finn and my trip to spread Kim’s ashes on Bequia; I don’t have photos of my honeymoon with my first husband there or of my Christmas there with Kim and Mom. These represent, though.)

I can’t remember why Kim wanted to be on Bequia that time (this was maybe 30 years ago) but she did, despite the fact that Katherine was undergoing peritoneal dialysis at the time and Kim was the one administering it. Which meant that at least once a day, Kim had to flush a special liquid through Katherine’s abdominal layer, using a tube that came directly out of Katherine’s tummy. Katherine was maybe 10 at the time, I’m guessing.

Kim was exceptionally adept at this kind of thing: she was smart and careful. Like Katherine, though, she was absurdly stubborn and determined to do things on her own. This is why I was suprised she’d asked me to go with her to Bequia, to help with Katherine.

So I flew down with them and shared rooms in the Plantation House, Kim’s favorite place on her favorite island. We ate conch and drank rum and swam in the pool under coconut trees and performed peritoneal dialysis on Katherine.

Until one morning when I heard Kim yell, “Shit!” from Katherine’s bed.

She’d meant to cut something leading into the tube that ran into Katherine’s tummy, but she snipped that very essential tube itself. Which meant there was now an open hole in Katherine’s gut that could get infected in the wink of an eye, and we had no way of closing it, much less replacing it with an in-tact tube for needed dialysis.

There is no supermarket on Bequia, much less hospital. Heck, there’s no airport either.

With help from the Plantation House staff, Kim contacted a hospital on Martinique, which is a couple of islands north of the Grenadines and, under France’s domain, does have a hospital.

They sent a helicopter for us. It may have landed near the pool of the Plantation House; frankly I just can’t imagine where that thing could have landed because there’s not a flat spot on Bequia. But I do remember riding in that helicopter with Kim, Katherine on a stretcher, over the blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

I was in my 20s then and naively surprised at how bare Martinque’s hospital was. Just concrete walls, open windows, no loudspeaker system or elevators and anything I knew of the many hospitals I’d been in with Katherine up until then. There was a small staff who spoke only French. Which Kim was fluent in.

So, the story is, in some ways, unremarkable. A doctor replaced Katherine’s peritoneal tube without drama, put us back on the helicopter, and we were sitting by the pool on Bequia that evening, once again drinking rum.

Could Kim have made the already-dire situation worse with her own drama, as she did so many times? Heck yes. Could Katherine have died? Indeed, as she did later. But this one time, in this one unlikely hospital, we all knew what the emergency was and how to get it fixed, and we did that, without any suicide attempts or police or lawyers or hospital administrators kicking Kim out or me being left with the responsibility of Katherine’s fragile life. Instead, I went snorkeling the next day.

Of all the stories I have in my head about these two wild and independent yet intertwined people, I’m glad this one is in it, too. It gives me a glimpse of what life with them could have looked like.

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