Author’s note: Dave and Deb Corbeil started their travel blog back in 2008, cataloging their travels around the world. The Canadian couple has kayaked through the Arctic and cycled the length of Africa, but this past November they faced their biggest challenge yet — while on an adventure trek through the jungles of Amazonian Peru, Dave took a fall that broke his back in two places. I was able to talk with the pair about their experience and how it changed their outlook on life, the future of their fast-paced lifestyle, and a message they’d like the travel community to know.
JK: Many have been keeping up on your blog, The PlanetD, but can you describe how the fall actually happened?
Dave: It came out of nowhere. We were on a cruise through the Amazon with International Expeditions, just taking it easy, birdwatching and photographing wildlife. The group had all gotten off the skiff boat to venture through the forest and get closer to local wildlife — this was around 10 am — and I didn’t have my flash with me. Deb and I discussed it for a while — should I bring it, should I not bring it — and I decided to go back to the boat to get it. My feet were incredibly muddy from that brief time off the boat, and by the second step on the stairs, my feet were flying forward in front of me. I was up in the air with my hands protecting my cameras, landing flat on my back, saving my cameras before I saved myself. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I broke both my L1 and L2 vertebrae. It felt unreal.
Deb: I heard his screams and just dropped everything and ran. I had never heard Dave yell like that before. It was petrifying.
JK: With time stopping dead in its tracks, what was the next step to getting “unstranded?”
Dave: The first thing I did — beside scream, of course — was try and move my toes. I could do that, so I was pretty sure I wasn’t paralyzed and that knowledge gave me a moment of clarity. After that, I just receded into the pain. Luckily, there was a nurse on board and she just took over. “Don’t move him, don’t move him!” I can picture her saying. She was fantastic.
Deb: Without her, I don’t know what we would’ve done — my head was all over the place and the guys on the boat certainly didn’t know how to help. The nurse directed them to help lift Dave onto a makeshift stretcher made of pillows, prepped him to move onto the riverboat, strapped him in, and iced his back. The rest was just waiting. They said it would take another 4 hours before they could get a plane to airlift us to Iquitos, and then once the plane finally arrived, the 30-minute flight turned into a six-hour ordeal, landing on the river, taking back off, landing near a small village, and finally taking a tuk tuk into town. It was 10 hours from the point Dave fell to get to the hospital in Iquitos. That day never ended.
JK: What sort of emotions were you going through while waiting to get to the hospital?
Deb: I was an emotional rollercoaster pretty much the entire time. I was dealing with insurance, and getting him home and talking with doctors — and I don’t speak Spanish, which I was kicking myself for. We did have an interpreter from International Expeditions, but I still didn’t fully know what was wrong with Dave. That first day was awful. We were worried at one point that there was internal bleeding and that he damaged his kidneys, too…there was just all this fear. I started feeling a little better once he got to the hospital and pumped full of painkillers, but even then we had to worry about getting home.
Dave: For me, there were plenty of points during this ordeal where I caught myself reevaluating life. What would my life be like as a paraplegic? If I do get out of this, how am I going to make my life better? All I had during that moment and for the whole next week, really, was time. It made me pretty introspective, seeing life through a brand new lens.
JK: During all this, it seems like you both managed to stay pretty level-headed. Dave, you even told Deb to start taking photos. Did you know it was going to be okay?
Deb: I didn’t even think of taking photos until we got Dave back to the main boat, about 45 minutes after the initial accident. Then we got into the room, got him iced, and that’s when Dave started getting more coherent. ”You better take photos!” he reminded me adamantly. And it was clear he was in a lot, a lot of pain, but it didn’t feel life-threatening at that moment. We had no choice but to wait, so I finally did get on my phone and started making updates and posting on Facebook. I remember adding to the photos: PS — Dave told me to take these!
Dave: Well, yeah, we knew we were gonna be there for hours, me just lying there and both of us waiting until we got to Iquitos. What else could we do? At that point, you just kinda have to accept the situation for what it is. But it wasn’t until we left the hospital in Iquitos a week later and got back to Canada that I was told I would make a full recovery, and it wasn’t until then that I allowed myself to believe that it would be okay.
JK: What was an episode of pain like, before and after getting to the hospital?
Dave: It’s hard to describe. It starts localized and then takes over your entire body. You feel like you’re going to die. That’s the only way to put it. I remember thinking “I don’t know if I’m strong enough to make it through this,” as I was laying there, sucking in gas fumes from the floor of that float plane.
Deb: You were just gray. I remember you kept saying, “I’m not gonna make it, I’m not gonna make it.” It was just this feeling of helplessness for me. All I could do was watch him suffer through the pain, with no painkillers that entire first day.
Dave: And then even during recovery in Iquitos the meds caused so many side effects it was like reliving it all over again. I even got a bleeding ulcer, which was insult to injury, and never once in Peru did they give me any meds to combat the side effects. By the time I had gotten to the hospital in Canada a week later, the pain had completely changed, but was still there. It was just a different kind of pain. But once in Canada, things did quickly start to get better.
JK: It’s been about 2 months now. How is the path to recovery holding up?
Dave: I’m finally off my painkillers now and I’m not perfect, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s sore, for sure, but the pain is not unbearable. Physiotherapy is helping quite a bit. I’m still hyper aware my back — if I lift something, I’m thinking about it. If I’m going up the stairs, I’m thinking about it. I’m not sure that will ever go away, but I’ve made great strides at improvement and I’m almost there. They said 3 months until full recovery, and so far so good.
JK: You guys are quite lucky, really.
Deb: Definitely. Dave was sitting up within a couple days of being in Canada and just a day after that he was taking his first step. We’re really lucky, actually. We couldn’t have asked for it to go any better. We just went out shopping the other day and we were both thinking, “Can you believe where we were two months ago?”
Dave: Yeah, the doctors said that if it had been an inch or so to the left, I would’ve become paraplegic. I would’ve hit the nerve around L1 and L2 and that would’ve been it. But instead, I just broke both of those vertebrae, and one is already completely healed and the other one is almost there. With that knowledge, the mental game is a lot easier.
JK: Has the support come out in droves? Fans sending fruit basket after fruit basket?
Dave: It’s been incredible. Wow, what a powerful community. It took this terrible ordeal to make us realize how great our circle of friends is in the travel industry and how much support we have. It’s really validated why we love the travel world and the people we’re surrounded with. We’ve gotten postcard after postcard from all over — it was really overwhelming in the best way. Even strangers from far and wide — from here in Canada to kindly strangers just dropping a line from Singapore. It was emotional and incredible.
Deb: It really made us realize the amazing friends we’ve made over the past few years. I’ve always thought that travelers are, by nature, just giving. It’s really validated that. We’ll spend hours reading our messages and I’ll cry and Dave will cry, and more flood in daily — it’s really opened our eyes. Things do happen for a reason, huh?
JK: Has this incident changed anything, like your definition of danger, or what you’re willing to do on your adventures?
Deb: This happened on such an easy trip, on a boat where there were fourteen-year-olds and eighty-year-olds. It was just a bird watching cruise! It could’ve happened at home and to anyone. We weren’t climbing a mountain or pulling sleds across the Arctic, you know?
Dave: No, we’re not going to let it. I’m not going to be constantly thinking “Oh, I could slip here” or “I don’t want to do that because of my back.” It wasn’t physically challenging or anything, so no. It’s not going to change how we travel, or at least what we do while we’re traveling. We want to slow down in general, but it hasn’t changed what we’re willing to do or what kind of challenges we’ll take.
JK: Slowing down? Where do you see The PlanetD in the coming months and years?
Deb: We were really focused on work last year. We had tunnel vision before this. It was like, “Wait a minute. Life is short. What are we doing?” This showed us that we need to stop and enjoy it and smell the roses. So from now on, we’re gonna slow down and go back to the way we used to travel, spending a month here, spending a month there. This last year, spending 2 weeks in one place was heavenly. If we go somewhere and we miss a shot because the weather sucks, now we’re gonna sit and wait. We’re gonna enjoy ourselves.
Dave: I think that’s a trap a lot of entrepreneurs fall into – they get so laser-focused on their business and neglect the rest of life. This incident made us stop and sit down and realize, “Hey, you know what? We can lead a life of balance, we can lead a life of fulfillment, and we can have both success in business and success in life. It’s just a matter of prioritizing and finding out what’s important and what you value.
JK: What do you say to those wanting to “be” you, especially now that you’ve seen both sides of this dramatic lifestyle?
Dave: Start out with an idea of balance. It’s easy to let one part of your life consume you. Work balance into your business plan and your goals and you can even be more successful.
Deb: Yeah, I’d say travel for the love of travel first. So many people now say, “I want to be a travel blogger,” and that’s great — but you need to do it for the love of travel, for the love of a destination. Be in the culture. Be in the moment. Fall in love with travel first before you try to make it a career. We traveled for a decade before we tried to make a go of it. Don’t fabricate it — let it come to you. Let your story happen; don’t force it.
Dave: Yeah, we traveled for a decade before we started blogging about it. It brought us together and ours is a story of our life. It’s not fabricated. Travel to us was about coming together and it just kind of happened. So yeah, let your story happen. If you try to make it happen, it’s not going to.
JK: If there was one lesson you learned from all of this, what would it be?
Deb: For me, it’s 100% be present in the moment. For the past year or two, we haven’t been as present as we should be. We’ve been letting business take over and looking at “elsewhere,” not really appreciating where we are. This incident has brought us back and reminded us of why we chose this life in the first place.
Dave: On a more practical note, get travel insurance! If you don’t travel with it, here’s a perfect example of why you should. They almost sent the army to rescue us; would we have been paying for that for the rest of our lives? And we work with AmEx credit cards, not AmEx travel insurance — so we’re not even paid to say that!