Death on the Isle: A tragedy in Cuba brings not just sadness, but inspiration

IMG_0331We’re in the middle of nowhere, miles from medical help, when the crisis happens. A heart attack and a fall with a blow to the head — or perhaps the fall comes first, leading to cardiac arrest — and suddenly one of the members of the tour group I am leading is collapsed among the ruins of the old coffee plantation in Cuba’s Sierra del Rosario mountains. Aged 82, our traveler — I’ll call him Doc — is unconscious and in shock. We attempt to revive him and then, with no time to wait for an ambulance to make the 30-minute trip from the nearest hospital, carry him to a car using a tablecloth from the onsite restaurant as a stretcher. Doc’s wife gets in the front passenger seat while a group member with medical knowledge climbs in the back with Doc. The driver takes off down the mountain, but sadly, Doc passes away a few minutes into the journey. When the car arrives at the nearest clinic, there’s nothing the staff there can do.

It’s a nightmare scenario — a tragedy for Doc’s family and friends, and a sad situation for everyone in the group. Cuba’s bureaucratic nature doesn’t help, as we are kept waiting for hours for officials from Havana to come to the clinic and then to the plantation to interview those who witnessed Docâ’s fall. The medical examiner is unable to conclude definitively whether the heart attack or the blow to the head came first. Even the autopsy eventually comes back inconclusive. No one will ever know exactly what happened.

But how much do the details matter? Doc’s wife doesn’t feel a need to know; she’d prefer to avoid the autopsy altogether, but Cuban law requires it in situations of “violent death.” She insists her traveling companions continue with the group — a tour, like a show, must go on — while she remains in Havana waiting for the formalities to be concluded so she can fly home with Doc’s ashes. I do what I can to make things easier for her; once the group moves on the tour company remains in contact to ensure she has the support she needs.

During our remaining days in Cuba the group somehow manages to strike the right balance of respect for the situation and enjoyment of the trip. At our farewell dinner we raise a glass to Doc, whose adventurous spirit inspired us all during the few days we knew him.

“He would never have wanted to end up in a nursing home,” Doc’s wife told me, sadly but with certainty. “This is how he would have wanted to go. He was out there leading the way, exploring new places. He died doing what he loved.”

The oldest member of our group, Doc had more vitality than many people half his age. He had run his first marathon shortly before his 80th birthday and had checked off an impressive list of worldwide adventures, many of them fairly late in life. He had trekked to Himalayan base camps, canoed 400 miles of wild river in the Northwest Territories, and kayaked remote waters in Alaska, Greenland, and Patagonia. I remember Doc enjoying the music of the lunchtime band a few hours before his death. “This is real music,” he told me. “Not like that old-folks-home stuff we had yesterday.”

In the end, although Doc’s sudden death was one of the most difficult situations I’ve ever had to deal with as a tour leader, the way he died isn’t what I’ll remember most about those days in Cuba. It’s the way he lived.


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