On top of the world with a broken foot
He came to Lofoten for the Halibut fishing but stayed for the top-notch medical care
Eric R. Williams
I was clipped into a harness, hanging from a long rope, looking up at the helicopter as it dragged me from the rocks up into the sky. As I slowly spun there like a spider in the wind, the rescue worker attached to me reached over and covered my ears against the roar of the approaching propeller blades. I gazed down over the impossible coastline of west Lofoten: jagged snow-tipped peaks thrusting up from a dark sea, chunky wooden trawlers leaving white trails as they made their way in from the “saltstrøm,” and little sandy beaches at the emerald coves of countless tiny islands.
I thought: “God this is a beautiful place. I have to come back here some day.”
Then my broken leg bounced against the side of the helicopter and I didn’t think of anything else for a while. They pulled me into the safety of the chopper and set me up with earmuffs, and I remember being glad that the sound of the helicopter blades was louder than my groaning. You don’t want to look like a wimp in front of men like these, but I just couldn’t help it. One of them nodded to me and came over with a tiny syringe of morphine. I remember the rest of that ride to Lofoten hospital as quite enjoyable; hopefully the propeller blades drowned out the sound of my singing.
So how does a cowboy-hat-wearing Yankee end up in a situation like this?
The visit to Lofoten began in spectacular fashion, as my buddy and writing partner David and I were invited up to watch the filming of our TV show, Alt for Norge, which we had created a year earlier. Alt for Norge is about ten Norwegian Americans who come to Norway to compete in extreme cultural challenges. The winner gets a family reunion. We were there for the best part of the show, in my opinion, the fishing competition. Lofoten was the obvious choice. We flew from Oslo to Bodø. Then a Widerøe plane skipped us over to Leknes, where we rented a car. We must have stopped a dozen times to take pictures as the GPS led us to the tiny village of Å and a “rorbu” (fishing house) right out of a postcard. David was surprised to find that I had packed only one change of clothes. The rest of my suitcase was filled with fishing equipment.
“You really think we’re gonna use all of this?” he asked, holding up a purple rubber triple-hooked imitation fish the size of his hand.
“We may have to buy more,” I said. I collect fishing lures like Paris Hilton collects shoes; it’s a sickness. That night we feasted on cod tongue, “flounder” fillet, and heavy dark bread, all washed down with a beer served out of a polar bear beer tap. Manly food.
From the day I came to Norway, I have had one goal: to catch a giant halibut. Like captain Ahab and his white whale. Hanging from a rope outside the cafe was a 25-kilo halibut. We listened to stories from the locals about “Breiflabb” the size of seals and finger-stealing “Steinbitt” until we were bouncing around like a couple of 12-year-olds the night before Christmas.
At six the next morning we were on the dock and ready for our adventure. Neither of us had been able to really sleep as the sun bore down on Å the whole night. The weather for filming could not have been better; a thin smear of cloud on the horizon showed the last tinges of pink. Seagulls taunted us as they wheeled around the boat in anticipation of our catch. We were on a large fishing boat.
Our only job was to fish and stay out of the camera shot in the back of the boat. The captain told us we were going out to a heavy current where the fish were schooling and as the boat rode the light swells out from the little harbor, his three-year-old son wandered the deck with a stick of candy in each hand on the sea legs of an aged sailor. After about 15 minutes someone shouted, “whale,” and the captain eased us to a stop. A pod of perhaps fifteen killer whales surrounded us. Their exhales of breath misted into the air as they seemed to show off for us, arching their massive bodies out of the water and slapping their tails. We were close enough to smell the sweet shrimpy seaweed of their breath. After a few minutes, they went on their way and the captain told us to drop line. The rest of that day is a blur of fish and fun; the big “sei” were hitting, and with our light tackle we were just able to handle them.
The next day we decided to take a little road trip.
It was the damn fish heads, that’s what broke my leg. They were hanging in clumps from strings across wooden beams and we had to stop and see what they were doing there. We went into the little clip-fisk kiosk to buy slabs and chunks of dried cod with visions of baccalao and potatoes. They told us that the fish heads would be ground up into protein powder and sent to third-world countries. We walked over to take a closer look and then followed the path down towards the ocean. We wandered across giant boulders and when we came to a gap in the rocks, I jumped across to the other side. My right foot landed wrong and I felt the snap as my leg gave way. I rolled to a stop. “You all right buddy?” David shouted.
“No… I broke my leg.”
David paused. “You serious?”
“Yeah, it’s broken.”
I stared sadly at the foot that had carried me for over 40 years, now limp like a boot full of omelet.
David got on his phone and within four minutes two paramedics came running with bags of ice and a medical kit. “Are you kidding?” I said. “How did they do that?”
Apparently there was an ambulance passing by. I could have broken my foot in front of Ullevål Hospital in Oslo and not received treatment this quickly.
They looked around and realized that carrying me over the rocks and gaps simply wasn’t an option. “Helicopter,” they said.
I sat there, leg up, waiting and soon a helicopter came pounding overhead, dropping a line, rescue worker attached, down to the rocks. He landed, looking just like an orange-suited action figure, walked over, and smiled down at my leg.
“Shit happens,” he said. Then he wrapped my leg into a puffy temporary cast and used a little bicycle pump to suck the air out of it. The cast became solid without squeezing the leg (nice invention). He strapped me in to a harness and with a signal we were both airborne.
The Nordlandssykehuset Lofoten was like a mix between the The English patient and E.R.—all the high-tech equipment inside a quaint small town hospital. The x-rays showed a broken fibula in need of a steel plate. “There happens to be an excellent orthopedic surgeon nearby and he can do the surgery today,” the doctor told me.
And so it happened that three hours after I broke my leg on a rock in a remote series of islands in northern Norway, I was coming out of anesthesia with three doctors watching me. That week, nurses tested my feeble Norwegian vocabulary and fed me sour milk and fish cakes until I was able to hobble to a taxi. I took the little plane back to the big plane back to Oslo.
David’s father, who works in an American hospital, estimated the cost of a rescue operation and week in hospital at over $30,000. That would have hurt worse than smacking a broken leg against a helicopter.
The Norwegians don’t really use the word “hero,” and I respect that. They would just say that it’s all in a day’s work. But I’m a Yankee and anyone who rappels out of a helicopter to save a fisherman with a broken leg is a hero to me. So skål to the iron men of the Bodø Luftambulanse, the swift Lofoten paramedics, the surgeons, doctors, and very patient nurses of Nordlandssykehuset Lofoten.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
I’m coming up for that 50-kilo halibut next year, and when I get him you are all invited to the grill party!
Eric R. Williams is an American freelance writer currently living in Oslo, Norway. He is one of the creators of the award-winning TV show Alt for Norge.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 26, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.