Entomology has a small component of risk that comes with the job. You might get stung or bitten by an insect or several insect soldiers defending a colony, you can catch an insect-borne disease, or you can serve as a host for a small parasite. The chemicals used by Entomologists to kill and preserve insects are very often harmful also for humans. In addition, fieldwork can get you into a lot of trouble – you might unintentionally find yourself being accused for trespassing, you can get lost or stranded in an unknown place in a foreign country, or you can accidentally hurt yourself while working.
I hate to say I have some degree of experience in each of the cases mentioned above, but it is the last one that scared (or maybe I should write scarred) me the most.
I have been working alone for two months already in NZ. I decided to survey a well-known hiking area in Canterbury for potential night fieldwork. This is something I always do before night surveys – hiking the area at daytime to make sure it is safe enough for night work and that there are no “surprises” like loose rocks or hidden abysses along the path.
At first the area looked very promising for tracking ground weta activity – I found many occupied burrows. After about 3km of zigzagging between steep slopes and wide riverbeds I decided that this track is far too dangerous to repeat in the dark. And to make things worse it was raining all morning so most of the path was slippery. I turned around and started walking back. I was less than 5 minutes into my return trip, when it suddenly happened.
I lost my step.
At first I thought I stepped on a loose rock but the more I think about it I recall I felt no resistance back when placed my foot, so I believe this must have been a part of the path that was missing, washed down to the river as runoff by the rain. But how it happened is not really important.
The weight of my backpack (lots of heavy photography gear) pulled me down, I fell several meters into a riverbed and felt a strong hit to the right side of my face. Apparently my head was knocked against a large rock. But the funny thing is – it was the simplest stupidest accident ever. A stupid fall. Actually my first fall ever while hiking. I was not taking any photos, I was not running. I did not even reach down to look at something on the ground. Nothing. The pain was unbearable. I did not pass out, but I noticed my nose was bleeding like crazy. “I can’t believe this. How could this happen to ME?” Two thoughts immediately came into my head: first, are my teeth still in place? They were. Thank goodness. Second, what am I going to say to my girlfriend and my family? I promised them that I would be safe and that nothing bad can happen. How will I even let them know?! Only then I realized that I was in the middle of a river, off track, and that it was already afternoon. “I might get stuck here!” However, I was extremely lucky – two kiwi hikers saw me and came down to help. They concluded that I had a broken cheekbone and we tried to walk back together but I could only walk a few hundred meters before losing my balance. I guess I might have had a minor concussion. They decided that it is better to split – one of them took my backpack and went uphill to get cell phone reception, the other one stayed with me. While we were waiting in the river, swarms of sandflies (New Zealand’s version of blackflies, Simulidae) were sucking every single drop of blood I had left in my body. I was so desperate I was ready to walk back at any cost. But deep inside I knew I was just being a pain in the neck to my helpers. I felt the remaining blood draining from my face when the first hiker came back without my backpack. He left it somewhere on the track because it was heavy. My camera gear!!! Aaarrrggghhh!!! Now I was really desperate to walk back.
We waited a couple of hours for a land Search and Rescue team to show up (with my backpack. Thank goodness again). They were very nice and professional, and I was surprised to learn that they were all volunteers. They decided to call a chopper because we were too deep into the steep track, and carrying a stretcher was out of the question. I think the waiting was the worst part. It was already getting dark, the wind was chilly (left my coat in the car) and the sandflies were having their feast on our bodies. Eventually the chopper did arrive and pulled me up on a stretcher. We landed at Christchurch hospital, where the doctor congratulated me on my broken face. The first time I break something, and it had to be my face?? Wow, seems like I am really good at getting into trouble. Surprisingly, my nose has survived the hit, but I had a broken cheekbone and a swollen black right eye. I looked hideous. I could just as well say I got into a street fight. Apart from that all was well, no harm done to my already shaky mental state or to my vision. The car with all my stuff (including my weta) was taken to the local police station, so the following day I had a nice police escort to reunite with my belongings. I drove back to Christchurch in weepy eyes – they were super sensitive but I was also so happy to be alive and well to tell this story.
Fast forward a few days, after resting and stuffing myself with pain killers I had to go through a small surgery to restore my face back to normal. They did a good job. I think. You might not believe it but I actually looked worse before the accident! My right eye socket now features a metal plate. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get one of those.
I had to stay in New Zealand as planned and could not fly to Canada earlier because of potential damage to sinuses. This has also screwed up my research plans for the end of the trip – so I did not have enough weta material collected.
I cannot thank enough to the kind people that helped me through this horrible accident and nursed me back to health. I am indebted to you all and I hope our paths cross again sometime in the future, no accidents involved of course!
One last thing I want to say: if you have a hiking accident, New Zealand is one of the best places in the world to be at. ACC took responsibility for the rescue and treatment expenses. Again my luck – I could have ended paying more than $20000 for the chopper and surgery. Yikes.
Now you realize how important it is for entomologists to have high risk insurance!
Unfortunately for me, the story does not end here. There is a second part to this ordeal, much worse than the accident, and it happened after I returned to Canada. I am still recovering from this mess so I do not feel confident enough to write about it. But things are starting to look up recently, and I do intend to come back and share my experience, because I think many grad students may find themselves in a similar situation.