Eden Swenson should be back home in Houston, Texas, by now, refreshed from a sunny vacation in Costa Rica and anticipating her upcoming two-year wedding anniversary. Instead, she sits next to a Costa Rican hospital bed in the harsh glow of fluorescent lights while her husband, Chad Swenson, fights for his life.
Last month, the couple was enjoying an idyllic day rafting down the Tenorio River in Costa Rica’s northwestern Guanacaste province with a group of other travelers when things suddenly went wrong. Another member of the group grabbed a vine and began climbing it, causing a tree limb to snap. It fell some 30 feet, striking 36-year-old Chad Swenson in the head and knocking him instantly unconscious.
River guides strapped Swenson to the back of a raft with duct tape and carried him through tangled jungle up to the road. The family’s month-long ordeal was just beginning.
Swenson was transported by ambulance to CIMA Hospital in San José. By the time they arrived, 15 hours had lapsed since the accident and Swenson’s brain had swollen to the point that doctors had to remove part of his forehead to allow the swelling to subside.
Since then, Swenson has undergone four emergency operations in 21 days, and while he has shown some signs of improvement, he remains in a coma.
Meanwhile, anxious friends and family back home in Texas are scrambling to raise the thousands of dollars that Eden Swenson, a restaurant manager, needs to transport her husband back to a U.S. hospital. An air ambulance would cost up to $40,000, and the family’s insurance company won’t pay for it.
While waiting for donations to trickle in, Eden Swenson and mother-in-law Sue Marsh spend hospital visiting hours at Chad Swenson’s side.
“Chad is the type of person that is everyone’s best friend,” his wife said from the intensive care unit’s waiting room. “He’s always laughing, always joking. He’s the kind of person that everyone wants to be around.”
While they’ve received an outpouring of support from people they’ve met in the hospital and openly praise the care at CIMA, questions still linger regarding the absence of the country’s emergency response team.
Had a medevac team been granted authorization to fly, Swenson could have arrived in San José hours earlier.
“Every moment counts,” said Dr. Alfio Piva, a neurologist at CIMA. “The brain is very sensitive and if care is delayed, it can cause permanent brain damage.”
According to Marsh, the evacuation team was ready to go, but authorization was never granted.
“It’s perplexing,” she said. “For a country that promotes itself as a tourist destination, why does it take 15 hours to get to a hospital? The country isn’t that big.”
Costa Rica’s Civil Aviation director, Jorge Fernández, who was responsible for making the decision, didn’t respond to requests from The Tico Times for comment.
Transportation Minister Francisco Jiménez did comment, but said he was not familiar with Swenson’s case. In general, he said medevac flights usually depend on the availability of aircraft and personnel.
“Regretfully, Costa Rica only has only one police helicopter and three airplanes operating each day,” Jiménez said. “They are mainly for public safety, but they can also attend to situations in isolated areas, such as this situation.”
The biggest challenge is availability. “Whenever (air support) is available, we always provide it in emergency situations,” he said.
A representative from Ríos Tropicales, the tour operator that Swenson and his wife were traveling with, declined comment.
Despite their ongoing nightmarish experience in Costa Rica, Marsh said she would come back.
“We’ve met so many kind people here. We want Chad to meet them too,” she said.
The family has set up a trust in Chad Swenson’s name, at www.chadstrust.com.