Jim Klug recalls his evacuation from the Bolivian jungle after freak eye injury
Jim Klug, AFFTA chairman and founder of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures, recounts his freak eye injury and subsequent evacuation from deep in the Bolivian jungle:
As someone who literally travels the globe for a living, I am more than aware that accidents can happen and problems can occur at any time and in any place. That said, I have always been of the mindset that accidents are things that happen to OTHER people, and that as long as I was careful and stayed “situationally aware” at all times, I could avoid problems and serious accidents. Recently, however, during a trip to jungles of Bolivia to photograph and fish for Golden Dorado, I received a healthy dose of reality that included a scary medical situation, a Global Rescue evac, and two days in the hospital in Miami.
We had made the trip to Tsimane’s Asunta River Lodge on the Secure River, one of the most remote and untouched areas in all of Bolivia. This is an area that is home to spectacular Golden Dorado – one of the largest, meanest and toughest fish found anywhere in the world of freshwater fishing. On day three of the trip on the Secure River, as we headed back to the main lodge after camping some twenty miles upstream, I sustained a serious "blunt force trauma" injury to my right eye, which took out my vision entirely and left me with a serious concussion. When the accident occurred, we were still several miles upstream from the lodge, with the sun beginning to set and darkness coming on fast.
In trying to recreate the events of the accident in my mind, I realize that it was a totally random, freak accident that happened incredibly quickly. We were moving down the river in large, 28’ dugout canoes, with a fishing guide, two anglers, and two local Indians who were “poling” the boats with long, 20’ wooden poles. As we negotiated the canoe though a fast section of whitewater, the front boatman was attempting to push us off of an outcropping of rocks when the long wooden push pole became wedged in the rocks. Not wanting to let go of the pole and lose it, he attempted to hold on and pry it free from the rocks. What happened as the boat continued to move through the water was that the pole bent back like a loaded bow until the boatman could no longer hold on to it. At that point, it slipped from his hands and the pole sprang back and hit me directly in the face. The blow was directly to my right eye, and I literally never saw it coming. It basically sprang back with the same force of someone swinging a heavy wooden baseball bat. Direct hit to my eyeball and instantaneous loss of vision.
What had been a leisurely float back to the lodge quickly became a serious medical situation, and the moment I “came to” after receiving the blow, I knew that I was in trouble. I had completely lost all vision in my right eye and there we were in one of the most remote areas in the entire region. Within minutes of the accident occurring, my fishing partner was on the sat phone calling Global Rescue, who immediately kicked things in to high gear and began to help from several thousand miles away.
Thus began a series of calls, medical consultations, and support procedures that Global Rescue handled from that point on. After stabilizing the injury and making it back to the lodge that night, Global Rescue arranged for an air evacuation early the following morning. It was back in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz that afternoon and was immediately checked in to the hospital. From there, I was flown back to Miami the following day, where I was taken directly to Bascom Palmer Eye Institute to meet with several doctors and eye specialists. As I departed the lodge to begin my journey back to the U.S., I had both eyes bandaged and covered (they tell you to cover both so that neither eye is open and there is no "sympathetic" eye movement from one to the other") making for a pretty unusual journey. That said, every step of the way – from the moment I was flown out of the jungle to the time I arrived home in Montana five days later – Global Rescue was there to assist. With local representatives, medical support staff, interpreters, pilots, doctors, and many others, they simply did not miss a beat.
From years of traveling to exotic areas and remote locales, I have learned that it is always good to avoid taking unnecessary chances. I am someone who believes that you should always fish and travel smart, avoiding situation where you could be injured. What this situation taught me, however, is that no matter how careful you are, there are some situations and accidents that you simply cannot prevent. And when an injury occurs, it can come out of nowhere, and chances are you will never see it coming. Travel smart and be prepared. When it comes to medical evacuation and security insurance, my recommendation is to never leave home without it!