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An excerpt from

Ben Again

Ben Clench

I wake and my body isn’t working. As I lie here, I can feel things sticking into me. In my arm. In my throat. In my cock.

I sense it’s not right but I can’t think why. I can’t think at all, in fact. Trying to think is too difficult. Confused snippets of thought slip by. They escape me. My mind isn’t working. There’s a tube in my nose. I try to twitch my nose. It’s uncomfortable. I reach my hand up and tug on the tube. It hurts like hell. I don’t know what it is, what it’s doing there. I fleetingly sense I don’t even know who I am.

Another waking. The confusion is still there. A face looms, close to mine. I try to speak. I want to ask where I am, who I am. I try to say something but produce small sounds without meaning. The face disappears.

My thinking is all jumbled, questions surface and sink without real understanding. I do not feel happy or sad. Emotions and meaning are lost in confusion. Only anxiety comes with the confusion.

Anxiety, I do feel.

Or nothing. Just nothingness.

Then I sleep.

Time passes. I wake often, fleetingly. Each time I feel the confusion and anxiety. Trying to understand is exhausting. It’s better I fall asleep again.

A different time. I can hear voices. They tell me to do things. “Push, Ben. Push against me.” A hand is gripping my foot, bending my leg. I try to push. I am responsible for the actions demanded of Ben. But Ben? Who’s Ben?

Someone is talking to me with familiar sounds. Different sounds. I can follow what is being said to me. Sit up, look at these pictures. Give me a kiss. The person, a woman, seems to know me. I try to speak but my voice isn’t there. She smiles, encouraging me. The anxiety comes back. I don’t know her. I don’t know anyone. I still don’t know who I am or why I am here.


***


Intensive Care Unit, October 2010. Extracts from visitors’ diary:


Monday 11th

11.45 -12.20 – Eyes open for 30 seconds, then back to sleep. Very sleepy today. Nurse said he didn’t get much sleep last night.


Tuesday 12th

6.50 pm – Awake at the start. Pushed his bent legs against us when asked, three times each leg.


Thursday 14th

12.00 – Ben pushed his right leg on request three times in succession. He poked his tongue out (a little bit) on request! He then fell asleep.

3 - 4.30 – Eyes wide open, the best in a while, tracking and turning to the voices in the room. Looking at photographs – seems focused and scanning.

***

My Dad, Hugh, is perhaps the best person to explain what had happened…


Saturday, 18th September, 2010 was a date I’d had in my diary for a long time. It was exactly 40 years since the death of Jimi Hendrix, at the tragically early age of 27, and the Handel Society in London were helping to mark the anniversary by vacating their office in Mayfair for a three-week period, reinstating it as the flat he’d lived in during the 1960s. As a lifelong Hendrix fan, I’d managed to get two tickets to visit the following week and my son, Ben, was going to accompany me. In the meantime he was with his girlfriend, Jazz, in the Dominican Republic, where she was enjoying a week’s rest and recuperation from her job with the UN in Haiti, helping to organise the relief effort after the January earthquake in which more than 220,000 Haitians perished. Ben was due back on Sunday.

Early that Saturday I happened to be in the front garden when our daughter Naomi arrived from London to spend the weekend with us. I could see she was upset as she walked into the drive. As I greeted her, she broke down in tears, saying she’d woken at about seven feeling terribly anxious and distressed for no apparent reason. I consoled her as best I could but she broke down again as soon as she walked through the door to see Jenny, her mother. Once she’d calmed down we talked about the stresses of her life in London as a possible cause for her upset, and the rest of the day passed without incident.

As I lay in bed that night I was woken at one in the morning by a hammering on the front door. It was unusual, but I guessed our youngest son Theo, who was out on the town, had lost his key and been unable to rouse us by the more usual method of using the door knocker.

I opened the door, still barely awake, to be faced by a policeman and a policewoman. What followed was the classic sequence – “Can we come in, sir?”, “May we sit down?” And so on.

“It’s about your son…”

What’s Theo been up to? I wondered.

“You have a son who is travelling, sir?”

By this time Naomi had joined me.

“Your son is in the Dominican Republic, sir?”

“Oh, yes… That’s my son, Ben.”

“I’m afraid there’s been an accident, sir, and Ben is in hospital in a critical condition and is in a coma. He was hit by a car. Unfortunately his companion, a young lady, was killed. We have a number you can ring at the Foreign Office, sir, where you need to speak to this person, sir, who can help you.”

He handed over a piece of paper with the official’s name and phone number.

“I’m afraid there’s not much more we can do, sir, to help.”

By this time we were all in a growing state of partial disbelief. Was this real or a dream? As soon as they left, I rang the number and spoke to someone who was able to confirm Ben was in Dario Contreras Hospital in Santo Domingo. There was a lady called Lourdes, a Spanish speaker working for the British Embassy in Santo Domingo, who could help us.

Within a few minutes I was on the internet looking at flights to Santo Domingo. The first was at 7.30 that morning. In the meantime, Naomi had phoned Theo to tell him the news and he was home within the hour, in a drunken and emotional state. He insisted he must accompany me to the Dominican Republic to find his brother. At three in the morning Jenny was driving us all from our home in Hove to Heathrow and by 7.30 Theo and I were on our way, via Madrid, where there would be a two-hour wait for the connecting flight.

On arrival in Madrid we found there was a further three-hour delay on the second leg. We rang to let Jenny and Naomi know. They had meanwhile been in touch with Lourdes, who would send a driver called Moreno to pick us up at the airport and take us straight to the hospital.

The delay in the Spanish airport made everything feel much worse. What kind of a state was Ben in? A coma surely meant a head injury, which could be life threatening or result in permanent disability. What other injuries did he have? Many was the time I’d admonished him over his sometimes reckless cycling, saying I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life pushing him in a wheelchair and wiping his bottom. Now was it all coming true? Would I be picking up a body? What would I say at his funeral? Would I be capable of saying anything? These thoughts were endlessly recycled as the hours dragged by. Had Ben taken out any travel insurance? He had discussed whether or not he should before he went – he was worried about the spate of kidnappings that had recently been going on in Haiti, his first port of call.

There were other concerns. Did we need a visa to enter the Dominican Republic? Would we be able to get the cash out to pay for one on arrival? Neither of us spoke Spanish, would we have problems explaining our situation?

As things turned out, the immigration staff seemed singularly disinterested in vetting new arrivals and, after withdrawing money, we were rubber stamped without question.

Then began the long wait for Moreno. We’d finally arrived around 6.30 in the evening and were standing in the arrivals hall in stifling heat, amid noise and chaos, surrounded by an unfamiliar language and culture. Repeated phone calls meant our mobile batteries were running low, but we established there’d been a mix-up over our arrival time following the delay in Madrid. Lourdes had thought we wouldn’t get there until the following day. I felt very threatened by the whole situation, which seemed to be unravelling horribly.

Moreno finally appeared at 8.30 but, to add to our frustration, had first to take us to pick up Lourdes from her home before going on to the hospital. He had very little English, and his taxi was a ramshackle affair, but he was clearly sympathetic to our situation and we took to him from the start. Lourdes finally appeared. She was short and stout and exuded an air of efficiency, with her mobile constantly to her ear, translating for us.

At last we arrived at the hospital. Dario Contreras is the local public hospital in Santo Domingo that deals with trauma. By now it was about ten o’clock at night and outside was chaos. Crowds of people blocked the short drop-off and pick-up point and there was an armed guard at the door. Ambulances and cars full of distressed relatives and, often, the badly injured seemed to be continuously arriving. There was the constant noise of people milling around and shouting.

Lourdes knew her way through this and took us straight past an armed guard who seemed to be engaged in a permanent shouting match with everybody else. We walked along green hospital corridors to the first floor and found the intensive care ward. Lourdes went off to find a doctor while we waited outside. After a 45-minute wait we were eventually admitted, walking past cramped rows of trauma victims, some conscious, many unconscious, some looking as though they had little chance of survival.

When we got to Ben we couldn’t have been met by a more shocking sight. The ward was stiflingly hot and Ben had a single bloodstained sheet pulled half over him. The pillow was covered in blood and sputum and several tubes had been fed into his lungs to help him breathe. His own breaths and the machine seemed to be out of sync so he was constantly fighting against it. An old plastic bottle had been used to try and support his head to stop it falling to one side. His whole body seemed to be moving as if he was constantly fitting and he was drenched in sweat. We later learned these movements were typical of someone who is decerebrate – which means most of the brain is disconnected from the body, only the primitive brainstem which controls basic functions such as breathing, digestion and heartbeat is still functioning.

His left eye was badly bruised – he had obviously been hit very hard on the side of his head, and he had some nasty grazes on his chest and cuts across his stomach, as if a knife had been drawn across it. The index finger of his left hand was bandaged and splinted and he had some deep cuts in the base of his palm. Thankfully, no bones were broken.

Lourdes arranged an interview with one of his doctors, who explained to us Ben had a closed head injury and had not needed surgery. However, his X-rays showed significant swelling and a lesion that was the cause of his decerebrate writhing. Ben was just 27.

There was little more we could do that evening, so Moreno picked us up and took us to the hotel where Ben and Jazz had been staying. We thought this would be the best way of finding out what had happened.

The Donna Elvira is a hotel in the old colonial part of Santo Domingo, often used by UN staff in Haiti when on leave. The manager explained Ben and Jazz had been hit by a car at a junction just past the hotel. It was their last night before flying home and, as they were walking back from a restaurant at about 1.30 am (6.30 am British time), two cars collided in front of them, one mounting the pavement and hitting them both. Jazz was killed instantly.

***

Coming to find me, utterly decerebrate in such a chaotic place, in such a random part of the world, is an amazing thing for my Dad and Theo to have done and something I am eternally grateful for.

I am so thankful they sprang into action as quickly as they did and also glad my brother accompanied Dad. I think their going together enabled each of them to better handle the shock of finding me in such an unfamiliar place – and as close as one could come to death without dying. I know my Dad would have travelled out to get me anyway but I am pleased my brother decided to share that burden with him.

I think their determination to help me is something I have internalised to a large extent in doing my utmost to recover as best as I can. It has made me push myself to do things one normally wouldn’t do in an effort to overcome brain injury.

My continuing existence has not been easy in recovering from this injury, but I know my struggles have been matched by the extremes of emotion my family have been through. I feel very lucky to have such a family, able to mobilise in minutes to deal so brilliantly with a life or death situation on the other side of the world.

***

I still have no clear memory of my trip to Haiti and the Dominican Republic with Jazz, or of the night of the accident. This is what I have pieced together from what others have been able to tell me about our plans and movements at that time.

It was September 2010 and I’d been accepted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) to work on the East African Community for the Rwandan Government for two years. At the time, Jazz was coming to the end of her contract in Haiti for the UN. We were planning for her to join me in Rwanda once she’d finished and I was settled. We hadn’t seen each other since June that year, when she came back to the UK for a couple of weeks and we went to the Glastonbury Festival. So before I went off to start my placement, I wanted to spend some time with her, as she had two weeks planned for rest and recuperation. We’d arranged it so I would go and visit her in Haiti first and then we would go to the Dominican Republic for a holiday. Originally she wanted to buy us tickets to Cuba as a treat, but getting flights to Cuba proved extremely expensive so we decided to hop over the border to the Dominican Republic on the other side of the island, which was vastly cheaper.

We spent the first week of our holiday in Haiti. I met Jazz’s friend, Kalinda, who was also working for the UN and was there with her husband, Max. After spending a couple of days with them, we went on to the Dominican Republic for the second week. We hired a car and drove around visiting beaches and enjoying the scenery and everything the country has to offer.

It was the day before we had to fly back to Haiti, where I’d have to go straight on to the UK to finish up some work before leaving for Rwanda. Our last day. We’d had a good relaxing time on the beach before going out for some dinner close by. On finishing the meal, we paid up and left the restaurant to head back to our hotel.

We were walking back along the pavement. The pavements in the Dominican Republic are quite high because for some months of the year it rains really heavily and the water would otherwise swamp the pavement. It was late at night and as we approached a crossroads between the narrow streets an old saloon car came out of one of the roads. A second one, an SUV, came speeding along towards us and tried to get past but it couldn’t, so it just hit the first car really hard, which catapulted the SUV onto the pavement where we were.

As the car came towards us, it knocked me into the street, but it hit Jazz full on, so she was killed instantly. I was hit on the side and the car didn’t actually run me over directly but I was badly injured and needed medical treatment straight away.

Amazingly for me, three doctors happened to be in the car ahead. They heard the impact and stopped to see what had happened. Without their quick actions I probably wouldn’t have got the vital medical attention required. Waiting for an ambulance would have taken too long.

The doctors could see at once that while there was no hope for Jazz, time was critical for saving me, so they drove me straight to hospital in their car. It was the quickest and easiest way to get me the medical attention I needed. These doctors undoubtedly saved my life. One of them, Wirson Correa, even stayed with me through the night to make sure I survived the first few hours after the accident.

***

In case anyone is wondering, this section is called Abasanjo! because when I was in hospital back in England and just beginning to recover, I thought this was a Mexican-Spanish word for ‘head injury’ and often used it to talk about my condition.

Later, when I was back at home, my Dad suggested it might have been a sort of confused wordplay based on the name of the former Nigerian president, Obasanjo. Somehow my injured brain must have struggled to make a bizarre link between my predicament and my interest in African development. I thought it only fitting to immortalise that invented word in this book.