Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Monday, January 25, 2010


An esteemed guitar colleague of mine from Chicago uses a saying when he knows he is about to be forced to hang up his axe for a week or two because his day job, being a high-powered Loop lawyer, is about to consume his life to the point where even his passions and vices will have to sit down for a while.

The saying sums it up succinctly: Evil, Shit, Rain – or ESR for short.

While I haven’t had a job consume me since leaving the hallowed corridors of Adidas America, I have had considerable use for the phrase since becoming a paraplegic. Thursday qualified as an ESR day. I thought my burn had been healing but I’ve now learned that burns can change in a matter of hours.

The odd thing about this burn is that it looks nasty and would be incredibly painful if, in fact, I could feel anything. But I can’t, so I haven’t experienced a moment of pain or discomfort ever since it happened. Sounds like one of the few benefits of being a paraplegic, but then again, if I could have felt the heater I never would have gotten burned. Had I normal blood circulation in my legs, I wouldn’t have had the need for a heater in the first place. But had I not broken my back, I would be in my 10th year of some desk job in Portland, and not in the Himalayas needing a heater.

The fact that I couldn’t feel anything however did not make the situation any less dangerous. And on Thursday morning it got a lot more dangerous. One of the benefits or working at the TCV was having access to their local health clinic. The TCV has 2000 students and houses about 1/3 of them on campus. That means they can’t have a simple nurses office, they need an actual hospital. In 1997, they built a fantastic four-story ward complete with a pharmacy and several examination rooms. There are two doctors who rotate their time and a couple dozen nurses who do most of the work.

Ever since I’d been burned I’d been going to the TCV health clinic every day to get my dressing changed. For a week things had been progressing normally, if not a bit slow because of my poor leg circulation. On Thursday morning when the wrap came off, my original thought was positive. Every other day there was nothing under the wrap but raw pink flesh. On Thursday, however, it appeared to start to scab over. I looked up at the doctor and said, “Hey, looks like it’s really starting to heal!”

“No, he said, that cover is light green, you now have an infection.” In three seconds I went from total optimism to dark ESR. “You need to go to the burn specialist at Kangra Hospital,” he said. “This is a dangerous thing.”

I was just hoping to take a pop off this jug in the Kangra ER and wake up with my leg all healed. Hah!

Instead of motoring up to the station to prep the daily news brief, I was off to Kangra Hospital, 20 kilometers down the valley. The crew at the station told me not to worry about anything – just do what it takes to get better.

The last time I’d been down the road to Kangra I was in search of an aluminum welding shop. Even though it was the day after my burn, I was in great spirits because my chair was getting fixed and I was exploring small Indian towns at the base of the Himalayas. My driver, Suresh, and I were laughing at bad drivers and talking about the difference between US and Indian roads (aside from pavement, they’ have NOTHING in common).

This drive, however, was dead silent. I wasn’t prepared for the downgrade to my condition and I didn’t like the look on my doctor’s face. When we got to the Kangra Hospital, I was admitted and within a half an hour I was looking at the same unhappy grin on my new doctor. He shook his head and said, “This thing is all infected. Be happy you didn’t wait another day.”

The doctor turned to three nurses and spoke sternly to them in Hindi. They circled around and listened attentively, then went for their sterile cabinet as if he broke their huddle. The doctor looked back at me and said, “They’re going to debride your wound, and put you on IV antibiotics. You will need to stay here for two days.”

Two days! What the hell was I going to do in an Indian hospital ward for two days? I didn’t even have my book with me – it was sitting on my night stand in Bhagsu. I didn’t know for sure, but I was pretty sure they didn’t get ESPN. Wyfi? Could I be so lucky? Not a chance. The only computers were a couple of hard-wired boxes in the doctors' offices.

Unfortunately that IV bottle was just out of reach. I was stuck.

While the crew was using me has a human pin cushion trying to find a vein (apparently over developed forearms are not advantageous to vein finding), I avoided the pain by wondering how the hell I was going to not die of boredom over the next 48 hours. I was hoping the procedure would take a few hours because once they were done, there was nothing but staring at the walls for two days.

Unfortunately I was debrided and wrapped up in less than a half hour. They rolled me on the gurney from the exam room to a dark empty room with four beds and no windows. The room resembled a cell more than any hospital room I’ve ever stayed in. They flipped on a dull florescent light and instructed me to transfer onto my bed. I looked at the dull green walls and tried to think if I had anything in my back pack that I could use to take up any time at all. The most interesting reading material included a visa application, notes from the first three interviews I’d done and a copy of my birth certificate.

I was afraid to sleep because any time I spent with my eyes shut would mean more staring into the dark at night. It then occurred to me I couldn’t reach the light switch. Even if I wanted to transfer into my chair, I was hooked up to an IV bottle that was attached to a wire strung across the four beds and slightly out of my reach. There wasn’t any phone in the room so if I needed to call a nurse for any reason (like to turn on or off the light) I would just have to scream.

I was less than an hour into my bit when a pair of male nurses came in speaking Hindi (or the local Himachal language, I have no idea) and unhooking my IV bottle. I got from their gestures I was moving somewhere else, which was a great relief to me, because I had to be better than where I was. They wanted to move me in the gurney, but I motioned it would be much easier to move me in my chair. They understood this, but I should have known by the fact they didn’t speak English, that they weren’t the most educated of aids (any educated Indian speaks a great deal of English). When they went to unhook my IV, they pulled the plastic tube out from the needle and my blood squirted all over the floor and bed. Having bled frequently from hitting springboards with my head as a youth, I knew I had plenty to spare, but I was hoping they could put an end to this. The second aid put his finger on the needle and turned a couple turns the plastic valve attached to it. The brighter aid and I were laughing at the incident, while the first guy couldn’t even look us in the face. He’d lost face and that’s something you just don’t do in Asia.

The two aides pushed me up a series of six long ramps that took me up to the fourth floor. I was wheeled into a similar room, except this one was occupied by three Indian families looking after three Indian patients. Nobody in the room spoke much English, but for some reason it took away my solitary-prisoner freak out. Even if I could barely communicate with them, just trying would take up plenty of time. If I needed anything, I could ask one of them to get a nurse. Then it occurred to me that in a room with three adult Indian males, one of them had to have a deck of cards. I relaxed, put my head back and let myself take a nap.

My Kangra Hosital family. No English; excellent vibe.

When I woke, I looked over at one of the mothers who smiled and offered me a cookie. As freaky as living in a foreign country can be there are some experiences that let you know we are all pretty much the same. One of them is being in a hospital room. No matter where you are in the world, a family gathering around a hospital bed will always be the same. Everyone is concerned; everyone is trying to be positive; everyone is looking for a little diversion. A white guy in a wheelchair was plenty of diversion. Before long there were hand signals, chopped up English and lots of laughing. I didn’t feel sick so I was actually looking forward to the next 44 hours.

That is until the doctor came into the room and told me I could go home as soon as I’d drained the 400 cc’s of IV antibiotics. Much as I’d like to stay and chat, I called the TCV and told them I was out of there. Within an hour, the station manager, Kelsang, was there with another driver and I was on my way back to Bhagsu, 3200 rupees, or $72 shorter for my effort. In the states, $72 would not have gotten me past the front desk, but in India 3200 rupees is three-weeks salary. And if you don’t have it – they don’t treat you. Then again, if I were an Indian, I never would have gone to this hospital for this treatment anyway. I would have gone to my local Ayervedic clinic and have them treat it there.

Personally, I’ll take the antibiotics.

I met this TCV worker in the Kangra Hospital parking lot. Neither one of us give a shit about Wisconsin Football.

Update: As of this writing, the antibiotics have once again kicked in and at my daily TCV Health Clinic checkup, the doc said the infection is being held at bay and the wound is healing nicely again. We HOPE!


  1. Great googly moogly!

  2. Yeah neither do I, that's why I gave you the sweatshirt!

  3. Never a dull moment Tom! Hope you heal quickly and don't have any more trips to the hospital.


  4. Yeah, Badgers kinda suck.

    Great post, glad you're alive and still funny, and not surprised at all!