It was a glorious summer’s day as we stepped off the train from Ghent and made our way out of the small town of Tielt on our hire cycles, heading for the Achielle Bicycle Factory near Egem, in Belgium. Jeanette had been planning this part of our trip for weeks, if not months, visiting the factory from where she imports these quality cycles into New Zealand. As we raced downhill on the cycleway out of town, just after 10am, I got my phone out and took her picture.
You can see what an excellent cycleway it is, complete with yellow plastic bollards to mark out a bus stop, one of which you can just see over her shoulder. I was so pleased with this effort, I decided to take a selfie.
I had my new racing cyclist’s hat on and was feeling pretty damn good. Next thing…
…I was airborne, with my finger still pressed on the phone as the above aerial shot indicates. I smashed onto the cycleway, banged my head, saw stars, broke my glasses and ended up on top of my bike, knee bleeding, hand bleeding, cursing my stupidity and swearing that now, I’d *#@**!!-up Jeanette’s big day – all in the same moment, sore, dazed and unable to get up. I’d rammed one of the yellow plastic bollards and canned off.
Next thing I know, a man is leaning over me, taking my pulse and asking if I can stand up? He’s an off-duty nurse it turns out and he’s ringing an ambulance. Jeanette arrives having noticed my absence and spotting me lying down, with my angel attending, cycled back to view the wreckage. Now I’m in an ambulance, on my way staring at the vehicles’s ceiling, to Sint-Andriesziekenhuis, in the hands of the wonderful Belgian hospital service for the next four hours.
I can testify that when this picture was taken, I was feeling pretty groggy and chastened. I’m not sure what was worse: the pains in my body or the dent to my pride. I’d landed in a municipal hospital with a population of around 20,000, with a dedicated, efficient and caring staff who, without demur whizzed me from roadside to outpatient and finally discharge with a kindness and care I can still hardly believe.
I was given a full inspection: brain function checked, X-rayed, a CT scan, a tetanus shot and a referral to the opthalmologist after a fracture was detected on the orbit floor, the skull bone beneath my right eye. He showed us the picture, assured me the crack was minimal and not leaking blood into the sinus cavity. I’d dodged that bullet. I could leave hospital but should keep an eye on things (I did suffer nose bleeds for a few days, but they eventually stopped). I was meant to avoid sniffing and blowing my nose, which I mostly forgot to observe.
After a consultation with the accounts section, charged a set 150 EUR fee and giving our insurance details, I was discharged with the advice to seek medical care if symptoms like vomiting, vertigo and fever recurred. We then walked from the hospital back to our bikes and carried on to the factory, about 10-15kms away.
On retrieving the bikes, I noticed that my blood had dried onto the path; I reflected on just how sweetly Providence had ensured I was not so much more the worse for wear than I actually was. Sure, my body ached in several places and over the next week, my bruised ribs would make sleeping difficult, but I’d escaped with a mild concussion delivering me a regular daily headache. I could claim – rather lamely – to have shed my blood on Flanders fields.
I may not have felt much like going for another bike ride, but I was determined that Jeanette wasn’t going to miss out on her visit to meet her suppliers and tour the factory. Fortunately, the day was so hot that the workers had been sent home early so our late arrival meant the owners were much freer to meet and greet us, receive our gift of manuka honey and give us the guided tour.
The sign at the factory gate has a bit of history: Achielle were originally frame makers who supplied other manufacturers, but when in 1946 they decided to make the whole bicycle themselves, they crushed all the old frames – only to find later there was shortage of the steel tube needed! They survived that and have gone from strength to strength, producing some of the world’s best hand-made commuter bicycles, on site.
There was one willing worker left when we arrived and you can still see how hot it was.
Some of the wonderful works of cycle art that we saw that day.
I’m so glad we made it and my moment of madness didn’t force a cancellation on the day. That would have been very sad, not to say mortifying. The reason I’ve written this is not just to celebrate these marvelous machines, nor to make obvious my own shortcomings – but rather to salute the Belgian hospital system as I experienced it that day.
On reflection, what is it that we owe to each other as human beings that these good people personified that day in their treatment of me, a stranger? It was in my view a duty of care enacted, a Good Samaritan-like culture where everyone from the nurse who saw me lying on the roadside to the nurse who waved us farewell on discharge, treated me as an equal, as one of their own.
This is the fruit of civilization; when I hear of the woes of the NHS in the UK and the madcap schemes of Republicans in the US to undo the minimal gains that Obama was able to make in bringing healthcare within the reach of all American citizens – I have to ask myself, what does it take for the world to act like these Belgian angels did towards me? What is the difference? Why not for all? How can we leave each other on the road?
There was icing on the cake, by the way: I broke my glasses, as you can see in the above image of my shiner. They’re frameless and the arm came off on the right hand lens. A temporary fix by Jeanette got me to an optician in Paris a couple of days later; they were Silhouette dealers and fixed them in fifteen minutes, no charge. Grace abounding.