Travel Hero: I Broke My Leg in Bali

Pamela Tibbs

Pamela Tibbs was no stranger to the island. In fact, she had been visiting Bali for over 10 years. But it wasn't until a young Balinese man named Ketut helped to save her leg, and possibly her life, that it began to feel like home.

Tibbs, a creative type who grew up in Virginia, always knew she wanted to travel the world. After obtaining a degree to teach English as a second language, she set off on a journey that took her around the globe, landing her in the Micronesian Islands. She lived and worked on Guam Island as a photo journalist, magazine writer, and teacher of fabric dyeing.

In 1999, Tibbs took a short vacation to the nearby island of Bali. She marveled at the beautiful temples, verdant vegetation, and vibrant clothes worn by the local people shown to her by a young Balinese man in his early 20s, but was interested in seeing destinations off the beaten path. Her driver, Ketut Sudarsana, took her to a tiny village named Dhausa, near Tiertaganga, a place that looked unlike anything else that she had seen on the lush little island. This village was extremely poor and in desperate need of help.

The visit ignited something in Tibbs, spurring a call to action to friends, family, and colleagues asking for supplies and livestock. She began an organic farm, called Side by Side, which consisted of several rice fields and began with the hopes of fostering a sense of self reliance in the villagers.

Tibbs' focus was on helping disenfranchised women and children. She spent nearly 10 years raising funds to buy more farmland and to send kids to school, but in 2008 Tibbs decided her work was done. "My objective is to walk away. So I've always been really big on its yours, you know how to do this, all you need is some opportunity, you don't need me, and I thought the farm was at that place," says Tibbs.

While on the way to a farewell feast with Ketut, Tibbs stopped to use the bathroom at a service station. She knew the nature of bathrooms in Bali, which were often slippery due to communal bathtubs, called mandis, where people gather water to pour over themselves, the water cascading to the ground and draining through a hole in the corner of the room.

Tibbs precariously navigated the bathroom, and upon exiting the building, firmly placed her foot on what she thought would be solid, dry ground. She did not know that while she was being ever so careful inside the tiny bathroom, outside a young man was busy pouring water on the tiles, part of his morning duties.

Tibbs lost her footing, her ankle twisted, and in a second she was on the ground. "I will never forget that sound of my bone popping as it fractured. I looked down and could see blood everywhere and the bone in my leg sticking out."

Tibbs became frantic, screaming and yelling in a complete state of shock. The young man who was cleaning rushed to her side, soiled rag in hand, to help her stop the blood. Luckily Ketut was too fast. He jumped at the boy, tackling him before he had time to place the filthy rag on the wound. Ketut then calmly took over, ordering the boy to gather bottled water to irrigate the gash, and then organizing a team of men to lift her fragile frame into the back seat of his car.

Ketut rushed Tibbs to the local hospital with complete control and a serene urgency. Once there, Tibbs learned she had compound fractures in both her tibia and fibula and had to be transferred to an international hospital in Singapore. Ketut followed. He packed her passport, clothes, and money, and stayed by her side while she traveled, while she waited for surgery at the hospital, and eventually, while she recovered.

Maybe it's his nature -- both his uncle and grandmother, who raised him, were healers -- but Ketut quickly went from being Tibbs' assistant and driver to being her caretaker. He sat bedside keeping her company and performed traditional Balinese massage on her hands, tempering the pain she felt in her leg.

After surgery, Tibbs made the trip home, unsure of how she would handle the weeks to come. To her surprise, upon arriving in Bali, Ketut's entire family was waiting outside despite the deluge of rain. They helped her from the car, into her wheelchair, and carried her, white-knuckled, through rice fields and over small paths to her bungalow. Once there, Tibbs expressed concern about ascending the steps to her bedroom, a concern Ketut quickly dismissed. "Ketut said 'Not to worry. We carry big pigs through the rice fields all the time!' Even I started to laugh. There I was, risking my life, and being compared to prize pork."

Despite the surging compassion, Tibbs was suffering, and from more than just her leg. It was three weeks after the fall and Tibbs was back home, bound to a walker, and showing signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. "I became afraid of living alone, even though I've lived alone all my life." With her confidence wavering, she was unsure how she would manage with her new limitations -- until, unexpectedly, she received a knock on the door. "One day, Ketut showed up at the front door and said 'I'm moving in upstairs.'"

Ketut stayed for four months, cooking and cleaning, dressing wounds, and caring for Tibbs. "I'd always been the very strong one. I'm quite strong. I'm quite forceful. For me to have a role-reversal was one probably the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life." Tibbs waded in self-pity, but not for long.

"On the day I hurt my leg, I was on my way to say goodbye... I fell and I thought, well, maybe my work out there isn't done after all. The farm is there, it could always use more." Tibbs began reaching out, making the transition from organizing on-site, to organizing from her bed. She arranged for a school from Hong Kong to come learn about and contribute to the farm. She continued the expansion of the farm, and acquired more livestock. "All of a sudden I'm thinking, how many pigs did we get today? How many stones have they carried? It just took my mind away from the pain, and it helped those who were giving up everything to help me."

After four months of immobility, Tibbs was able to start moving her leg. Ketut, always at the ready, built a bamboo railing and held her hand while she once again learned to walk.

The healing process has been arduous, spanning over 2 years, and it's still not over. Tibbs recently returned to Singapore for nerve surgery on her afflicted leg. While she's still able to walk, she expects it to be several months before all discomfort is gone. "What I am really proud of is those steps they used to carry me up -- I walked up them yesterday. And we got to the top, and I did a sort of little dance. I couldn't be happier. This nerve surgery did the trick."

Still, Tibbs is thankful for the experience, which taught her the depths of humanity and compassion -- gifts she often granted to others but was not used to receiving herself.

Tibbs plans to stay in Bali alongside her steadfast companion Ketut -- with whom she's forged an ineffable friendship -- and all the villagers who took it upon themselves to make sure she was on the mend.

"I live in a village, and nothing ever happens to just one person. We all take care of each other," said Tibbs. "I supposed they adopted me as a member of the family without my ever realizing it. I now believe more in kindness than I ever, ever believed before. I had no idea, and I'm normally a person who believes that people are pretty kind."

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