Injured in Zagreb -1982

In 1982 Zagreb was in the former Yugoslavia and I was travelling through from Turkey on my way to Venice. The coast line was beautiful and I remember thinking that I must go back and spend some time at the beach there one day.

I met a Yugoslav woman on a train and she offered me a place to stay in Zagreb so I accepted. At the time this was the old way of couch surfing so much more raw and surprising than the current website with profiles and feedback.

When we got to Zagreb we got into her car, it was a communist car that surprised me because it was tiny, tinny and even more basic than a VW beetle.

We put, putted,  to her apartment complex which was a large dark concrete high rise. I was even more surprised because she lived in a spacious beautifully appointed apartment with all modern equipment including a dishwasher, large balconies on two sides with views to the distance, it was like walking into a New York pad.

She and her husband worked in IT and had worked internationally. He was away in the USA and she was lonely so I had a lovely evening and day with her cooking and shopping.

The next day she dropped me off at the train station in Zagreb so that I could take a train to Venice.

At the train station I decided that I would need some water to drink on the train and bought a bottle. In those days the water was sold in glass bottles. The shopkeeper put it in a plastic bag so that it would be easier to carry.

Going back to the train platform I decided to duck under a waist height railing and as I went under the bottle hit the ground and shattered and a large slither of glass cut through my little finger to the bone.

I looked down at my right hand and saw my extensor digitorium tendon ¾ cut through, it was white and sliced cleanly. I knew that if it snapped I would never play the piano again and this thought was my first.

The meat of my severed muscles was bright red, bloody and lateral muscles were bulging out the side of my hand also sliced cleanly like fresh meat.

Blood was dripping everywhere all down the front of my clothing and then I started to feel that prickling cold lighted headed feeling and the blanching of my face as I started to go into shock.

I immediately and very consciously remember pulling myself together with the thoughts that if I did faint I could lose my passport, all my money and that would be far worse than a cut tendon and a bloody hand.

Keeping very still and taking deep breaths, I put pressure on the cut and just stood there my mind saying “Don’t faint! Don’t faint! Don’t you DARE faint!” to keep me from passing out.

Many people passed me and looked at me in an unkind and insolent way. Yugoslavia at the time was not an open country and people seemed afraid. After a few minutes I was able to ask someone who was walking past to help me. This person took me to the station master who in a curt efficient way called a nurse and she bandaged me. He then put me on a bus to Ljubliana where there was a world class hand hospital. I was given a hand drawn map of how to get to the hospital from the bus station.

I remember sitting on the back seat of the bus covered in dry blood feeling so desperately alone. No one that I knew was aware of where I was in the world—this was a time when letters and very expensive long distance phone calls were the only way to communicate with home.

My last communication was about 3 weeks before when I had called work from Dyrbarker in Eastern Turkey. After a few futile attempts I hired a young Turkish lad to quickly put the coins in the post office phone. It was so expensive that the largest denominator coins were used as soon as they were dropped in and I couldn’t hold the receiver and pump the coins in quickly enough on my own! It was a very quick call.

I found my way to the hospital where I was treated with prejudice and suspicion. It was interesting to be treated in such as way, and I am not sure what they didn’t like about me. Was it the fact I was Western? A single female travelling alone? …or something else all together? I couldn’t work it out and as with all prejudice it is probably better not to know what goes through the minds of people who are afraid.

The hospital staff were rude to the point of insulting however the actual treatment was fine. Being a Physiotherapist I knew what was required. I was x rayed, examined gently—and then stitched.

They stitched me up without any anaesthetic not one single needle—Ništa as they would say in Croatian.

I felt every single entry and exit of the needle, and there were layers of them as they stitched the tendon then the muscle and then finally the skin. I was again feeling that light headed feeling of shock.

It took about 45 excruciating minutes of very careful stitching before they finished and finally covered it all in a bandage. They then made me an extension splint to wear for the next few weeks.

By this time it was about nine o’clock at night and it was dark outside. I had travel insurance and gave them the details however this was not good enough and they wanted an immediate cash payment.

As I was actually leaving the country when I had the injury I only had a few Yugoslav dinars on me.

At that time of night money exchange places were closed. The hospital staff confiscated all of my stuff, including my passport and said they would not give it back until I had paid.

Well, even I could see how stupid that was… How was I going to pay without exchanging money and I needed my passport to do that.

After some time they finally they agreed to give me my passport so that I could exchange some travellers cheques. They told me about a hotel where I could change money at the front desk at any time of the day or night. It had a horrendous exchange rate but I was not concerned. All I wanted was to get away from those hospital staff.

I walked through the dark streets of Ljubliana with another hand drawn map of how to get to the hotel.

It was really spooky as it was that sort of dark where there are shadows everywhere. There were small groups of men heckling me as I walked along with my huge splint on, I didn’t see any other women alone on the streets.

Of course when I got to the hotel I was presented with the next problem— how was I to sign the traveller’s cheques with a splint on?

After showing my passport and having a few practice signatures I signed and was given the money only to skulk back to the hospital though the drunken groups of men.

Once I had paid I was so upset and discombobulated by it all that I again made my way through the streets to the train station to sit and wait with the Vagabonds who used the station at night to sleep in. I wanted to get on the morning train to Venice because I didn’t want to stay in Zagreb a moment longer.

To rub salt into the wound when I got home I presented my insurance company with the receipt and instead of paying me they paid the hospital again.

As the total cost was only $43.00 I let it pass.

On a bright note the treatment was world class and I have continued my habit of playing the piano most days.