The University of Iowa

Handling emergencies abroad

May 22nd, 2017
I’ve loved studying in Chambéry and I can’t wait to return to France.

I’ve loved studying in Chambéry and I can’t wait to return to France. 

Staring blankly up at the ceiling of a French hospital, I distantly understood that I was in trouble, but could find no words to explain how I felt. Speaking in French to explain my situation to the doctor was impossible, as I was no longer sure that I could speak any language. Time moved differently, jumping back and forth between clear memories of before the accident and the fuzzy, confused reality of after. My head felt eerily empty, quieter than I had ever experienced it. I had a vague sense of who I was- I knew my name, at least- but could not understand how I had gotten to be in this state.

I did not know where I was, or what was wrong, or how to fix it. All I could do was stare up at the white ceiling with its ugly fluorescent lights and whisper to myself, "You're okay," over and over again, like a mantra. It's still hard to explain what happened, even now that thoughts flow more normally and my grasp of the English language has returned.

These things happen when you hit your head on a table.

I don't remember the incident, but I do remember the events leading up to it. I had just gotten back from seeing my parents in Paris that afternoon, and I returned to Chambéry just in time to see a school event called Tour du Monde, which celebrated all the countries that were represented in our small town. It was a beautiful, vibrant event, and once we had packed up the booths and displays, the other participants and I headed to Opéra, a popular boîte de nuit, where the event participants got in for free. In France, many school-sponsored events take place in bars or dance clubs; for most French students, it's a place to relax and chat with friends, rather than an excuse to get wild and belligerent.

This parade, like Tour du Monde, was one of the many international events that take place in Chambéry.

This parade, like Tour du Monde, was one of the many international events that take place in Chambéry 

From here on out, it becomes fuzzy. I had just used the bathroom and was walking back to join my friends on the dance floor when I noticed that some strange altercation was taking place at the bar. My good friend Kanita, spotting what was happening, moved us quickly away from the commotion. My memory stops there.

Kanita told me later that one of the men who was involved in the altercation- some sort of fight that was quickly stopped by security- pushed into us, knocking her over and sending me tumbling headfirst into a table. I was immediately rushed to the emergency room, with Kanita helping to explain the situation to the nurses and doctors.  It was 3 AM; the streets were very, very quiet. My brain, too, was very, very quiet.

Though I didn't know it at the time, I was never alone. I learned later that three other Americans went straight back to my apartment to get my passport and insurance documents before sitting for hours in the emergency room, waiting to hear any news. Kanita stayed by my side through the night as I lay in the hospital bed, waiting for the doctor to tell me the results. I  had University of Iowa Study Abroad coordinators waiting around the clock to hear from me in case I needed any support.

The doctor told me that I had a traumatisme crânien, a concussion, but that I would eventually make a full recovery, though it could take several weeks. I spent the first week after the concussion in complete darkness, avoiding screens and anything that would make my headaches worse. In the weeks that followed, I returned for a CAT scan, spending another eight hours in the hospital while the doctors checked to make sure that I was healing normally. Everything looked to be in order, though I was constantly reminded that it would take time and that I had to be patient.

I'm an athlete, so I understand concussions in theory, but experiencing one firsthand was a completely new experience. My memory was terrible, and my French was so bad that I was scared I'd forgotten everything. I was constantly frustrated by the fact that my brain no longer seemed to work. Reading was suddenly too hard, and I relied heavily on phone calls with my parents and with Study Abroad staff to help me understand what was happening. I slept a lot and cried a lot and wondered if my brain would ever work again. Slowly, over the days and weeks that followed, I regained my memory and ability to concentrate.

After a while, I was well enough to travel to Nice to visit my fellow UI Study Abroad friend, Sénead. University of Iowa students stick together, and I can't ever thank Sénead enough for helping to calm me down. She arranged a trip to London for the two of us and handled everything, from our hostel reservations to finding quiet places for me to rest when I got too tired. Speaking English helped, too, and I found myself improving much faster once I no longer had to translate every interaction. By the time I returned to France, I was no longer scared.

Sénead and I spent a lot of time sitting quietly in London gardens

Sénead and I spent a lot of time sitting quietly in London gardens

I can see how a freak accident like this could have completely ruined a study abroad experience, but it didn't. Study Abroad handled everything for me, from managing my insurance paperwork to helping contact my professors in France, and even to arranging special coursework for me when the université in France proved unresponsive. My parents answered all of my phone calls, calming me down when I was tearful and afraid. My American and international friends in France brought me food and kind words nearly every day. I would not have been able to get through this semester without such a good support system.

At first, I was angry that this had happened to me, especially since I thought I was doing everything right. I had followed all the advice that students are given when they choose to study abroad. I had taken care to keep myself out of dangerous situations, I hadn't been intoxicated or reckless or rude, and yet I still got hurt. It took me a long time to accept that a rare accident like this can happen, seemingly without reason. That's no reason for me to avoid going places with friends or to constantly be afraid that another accident will take place. I refuse to let this accident force me to live in fear. All I can do is make the best out of the situations that occur.

I am learning how to be strong and resilient in new ways. I am learning how to take care of myself. I am learning patience and self-love, even while I feel weak. I'm healing. I didn't expect to learn these lessons while studying abroad, but I can't say that I have any regrets. Accidents happen; life happens. I will be stronger for having gone through this.

*Lauren Gentile is a sophomore at the University of Iowa studying French with minors in Arabic and Latin. A native of Ames, IA, she will be spending her semester in Chambéry, France on the ISEP Exchange Program at l’Université Savoie Mont Blanc.

Student blog entries posted to this International Accents page may not reflect the opinions and recommendations of UI Study Abroad and International Programs. The blog is intended to give students a forum for free expression of thoughts and experiences abroad in a respectful space.