An Incredible Journey Home
When 13-year-old Kelly Ott returned home January 10 from a family vacation in Costa Rica, over 200 well wishers were standing outside her Midland Avenue home — cheering, smiling, trying to hold back tears.
When 13-year-old Kelly Ott returned home January 10 from a family vacation in Costa Rica, over 200 well wishers were standing outside her Midland Avenue home — cheering, smiling, trying to hold back tears. What had promised to be a great 12-day adventure for the family of six, over the Christmas break, turned into a near-tragedy on New Year’s Day when Kelly and her father, Tom, crashed into a boulder while attempting a combined rappel/zip-line, one of the guided activities on an adventure tour.
Michelle Ott wrote and told us that she wanted very much to thank all the people who helped save her husband and daughter — through their actions and prayers. Here is her remarkable story.
Costa Rica, Christmas Break 2013
The first time I pitched the idea of vacationing in Costa Rica to my family, none of them expressed great interest in exploring rain forests. So all of the research I’d done sat in a folder. When I pitched the idea again last year, timing was on my side. My husband and four daughters (Ryan, Kelly, Devon, and Shay) were up for an adventure.
In some circles, I’m considered quite the vacation planner. I think it’s due to the fact that I enjoy the research: finding the perfect balance between sightseeing and adventure, luxury and authenticity, activities and down time. With Costa Rica, however, I had a hard time editing the itinerary into the 12-day school break. Costa Rica may be the size of West Virginia, but it feels so much bigger and there is so much to explore.
The “perfect” itinerary was finalized and we were on our way Christmas Day. Since this story is not meant to be a travelogue, I will focus on the highlights.
We spent Day 1 and 2 at the Peace Lodge in an amazing villa with scenery, waterfalls, and animals to match. The kids caught their own fish in the lake and we ate it for dinner. We fed the hummingbirds and toucans, and watched the monkeys play. We went on a nighttime frog tour that educated and delighted us. Peace Lodge is an ideal place to stay at the beginning or end of your stay because it’s only 45 minutes from the airport.
Day 3 we toured Finca Corsicana, the world’s largest organic pineapple farm. Even though it was a bit out of the way, I wanted the kids to see the full circle of one of our favorite fruits. We’ve never eaten so many pineapples in our lives! Afterwards, we traveled to Arenal, where we spent the next night at the Lost Iguana. The skies were clear so we had a good look at the once very active and still majestic volcano. We swam in the pool and had dinner at our hotel restaurant.
On Day 4, we arranged for a private tour of the adjacent Hanging Bridges. We hiked through primary and secondary rainforest and passed over 15 bridges high above the canopy. Afterwards, we drove five hours to our final stop, Tulemar in Manuel Antonio.
Tulemar was a perfect fit for us from the start. It has four pools and an amazing private beach. Monkeys are all over the place, as well as a few sloths and flocks of birds. The resort is very close to the National Park and animals don’t know the difference between the places. It’s the people there who really make it a special place to stay. They took the word “concierge” to a whole new level. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Costa Rica (and you should), stay at Tulemar.
We spent Day 5 enjoying the resort and settling in. The next day we took a tour of the Santa Juana Mountains with our friends from Rye, Karen and Lewis Meyers and their three children, Owen, Sophia, and Griffin. While we had separate itineraries, we joined up when it worked for both our families.
We had a blast on this tour. The Costa Rican people take great pride in their country and love to share it. We travelled through palm oil plantations as far as the eyes could see up to a mountain community of 40 people. The owner of the Si Como No resort developed this tour to aid this small community and to share its beauty with visitors. It is a little slice of heaven! Oxen turned sugar cane into juice for us; we rode horses; hiked through the forest; and jumped off 15-foot and 25-foot cliffs (I didn’t, but the kids did) into a waterfall-landscaped river. Then we did some tilapia fishing and rode horses back to enjoy an amazing locally-grown lunch, including the coffee. An A++ trip.
Day 7 was New Year’s Eve and we spent the day at Tulemar. Monkeys climbed all over our patio and even took a bath in our hot tub. That night, Tulemar arranged for their private chef, Chef Jose, to make dinner for both families in our villa. It was a picture-perfect end to a great year.
January 1, 2014
This is where the story gets hard.
Both families arranged to go on the Amigos del Rio adventure tour. We were picked up at 8:30 in the morning and promised “an adventure of a lifetime.” I’d watched the video on their website a bunch of times and read countless reviews on Trip Advisor — how fun it was, how safe the tour company made you feel, and the adrenaline rush you got from the different tasks. “The Amazing Race” is one of my most favorite shows, so I was thrilled to know I’d be doing some of the things I’d only watched on TV.
After traveling by van to San Antonio de Damas, we traveled by Hummer (they said it was used in Desert Storm) up a very steep mountain that sometimes was so narrow only the Hummer could fit. (Keep this visual for later.) That alone was enough of an adventure. Then we did a short hike, got our equipment on, which was checked and double-checked, and started to walk along the border of the canyon attached by special ropes drilled into the side. We felt the rush of the Tarzan swing a few times, rappelled down the side of a cliff, zip-lined through the side of a waterfall, and freefell into the cold pond. (I did not like that last part.)
The next task was explained to us as a “combo rappel and zip-line.” Lewis and Owen went, and then Sophia and Griffin. I remember looking down and seeing them sitting by the waterfall waiting for us to go. Karen and I wanted to go together, but the guide said that it would be too heavy so I went down myself. It took me a few minutes to understand what he wanted me to do. His instructions were to “rappel down to that branch and then zip down.” He said I could control the speed by holding on if I wanted. I am a chicken, so I walked down to the branch and held the rope all the way down. I didn’t really get what I was supposed to do and the experience was more weird than thrilling.
Next I saw Karen with Devon. She told me she didn’t get it either. She went very slowly because the guide told her to be careful or the rope will burn Devon. Ryan and Shay went next. Ryan didn’t hold on to the rope at all. Speeds don’t bother her. The guide caught them.
The last to go were Tom and Kelly. We were all at the bottom looking up and cheering them on, when suddenly they crashed loudly right into the boulder the line was tied to. The sound is still ringing in my ear. My heart is beating 1,000 times a minute as I type. My hands are shaking. As I ran to them I said to myself, “I just saw my husband die and I must save my daughter.” The guide at the bottom was crying hysterically and saying all kinds of things in Spanish. I yelled at him to get it together, that this wasn’t helping. My hands were working at a feverish pace. All I can remember is trying to open all the carabiners.
Tom and Kelly were unconscious for what seemed like an eternity. I saw Lewis out of the corner of my eye. I thought five or six guides flew in from nowhere, but I later learned that it was just me and Karen who got Kelly unattached, and Lewis and the weeping guide who got Tom.
Kelly came through first as she lay in my arms. Lewis was yelling Tom’s name over and over. Nothing. Kelly couldn’t move anything and was saying that her neck hurt. I knew what I was facing. You don’t need to be a doctor to know. I tried to keep her as still as possible and said I would take whatever God would give me from here on in. Finally, Tom breathed. He was in excruciating pain. His back. His shoulder. His head was bleeding. He was trying to sit up, breathing fine, moving his legs around to get in a good position, but in a lot of pain. My husband is a big guy, who played lacrosse in college and has run in a half-dozen marathons. He just completed his first triathlon in September. I knew he would be fine. Pretty much never gave it another thought the whole night.
Out of nowhere a man appeared dressed head to toe in neoprene, with a backpack, iPhone in life-proof case attached at his waist, and toe shoes. He started giving orders in Spanish and it seemed as though other guides came to help us. The neoprene man took Kelly’s head from my lap and started pulling it back. I wedged myself between her and Tom on the rocks by the side of the waterfall. The next hour or so is a blur. I could see Karen out of the corner of my eye doing jumping jacks and keeping the kids busy and warm. Then I saw them pass by us, crying, not knowing what to think. My heart ached as my girls all said goodbye to their sister and dad. I later learned that they had to rappel in midair by a huge waterfall and zip-line out of there, all after what they just witnessed.
Every 20 minutes or so, I would help transition Kelly’s head from one guide to another. In between I was trying to make the rock bed they were laying on more comfortable. Soon after, the rains came. We were after all in the middle of the rain forest. It started to come down hard. Lewis told me later that I was crouched on all fours trying to keep Kelly dry. I have no memory of that. I finally got the neoprene man’s name. It was Ramirez. He had the guides assemble a “tarp” over the three of us out of a tent that had stored our equipment. They also brought some sleeping bags and a black plastic bag. They used what few tools they had to construct the tarp and soon enough the rain didn’t bother us. Two guides were crying now; the other was the guide at the top. Although I appreciated their concern, it was not helping the situation at all.
Ramirez called the Red Cross, but it took them hours to reach us. Somebody constructed a splint out of a stick and attached it to Tom’s arm. Kelly didn’t move. She was so brave and hardly made a peep. Once in a while a guide didn’t hold her neck correctly, so Ramirez would come in and take a turn. He was busy constructing a new ropes course to help us cross the rapids from the waterfalls to get out of here. Too much time had passed.
And then help came. They put a brace around Kelly’s neck and fastened her to the one stretcher they’d brought. Four guides (including Ramirez, who turned out to be the owner of the tour company) carried her over the rapids, up steep hills, through the mud. They had to use the carabiners to help them. Every couple of minutes, they would lay her on the jungle floor to switch hands. I was in charge of keeping Kelly alert and sometimes she would “entertain” the rescue team with her Spanish knowledge.
I have no idea how long it took to carry Kelly out, but I knew that time would be doubled for Tom. They left Kelly and me by the side of the mud road next to the Hummer. For a while Ramirez was with me, making phone calls. Then he left us with a guide who barely spoke English to go help Tom. He had no supplies. No water, no blankets. No flashlight. It started to get dark. I remarked to him in my broken Spanish that it looked like it was going to rain again. He said no it wasn’t. Then it became dark and rained.
I was cold, wet, and hungry. Kelly and I said prayers to pass the time. Now I was really praying. I remembered that at the beginning of this adventure the guide had instructed us to stay on the path because there were poisonous snakes. Kelly was lying only a few inches from the vegetation and I was thinking of a strategy if I should see one. The waiting was unbearable. We thought we heard sounds from Tom’s rescue team and then nothing. I am not much of a talker (much better listener) and tried everything in my power to keep her spirits up and prevent her from falling asleep. I encouraged her to use her brain and make it go all the way down her body and down to the other side. I was a brown belt in karate before I had children and had spent a weekend at a Buddhist monastery. I tried to remember everything I could from that experience and shared it with her. I used everything I learned from yoga.
After an eternity, we heard them coming closer. I was able to breathe a little easier. I don’t know many details of how six to eight men carried my husband out of the jungle that day and maybe I don’t ever want to know. Lewis will have the details on that. What I could see is that the men were exhausted and now had to figure out how to strap them both inside the Hummer and get down the mountain. It was pitch dark, and the vehicle had no headlights. I was on the verge of losing it big time when they all pulled out iPhones and used the flashlight app to get us down the mountain. Thank you Apple!
I was sitting in the passenger seat and held out a phone. I was on the edge of a cliff. I couldn’t look out the side of the vehicle on the way up and now I was the one keeping us on the road. I decided to shine the phone over the front hood and that worked better. The driver (God bless his driving skills) instructed two men to stand on the front hood and shine their phones. It was like this all the way down. Hard to tell how much time it took. Finally, we saw the two ambulances. I rode with Kelly, and Lewis rode with Tom. Ramirez said something about Tom going somewhere first because of old insurance issues, but they would take Kelly immediately to the hospital. I barely heard them. It was another 45-minute bumpy ride through the palm oil plantations. “Just get me to the hospital,” I thought.
The Bad Hospital
If memory serves, the accident happened around 1:30 p.m. and we arrived in the Quepos hospital around 8:30 p.m. That means it took us seven hours to get out of the jungle and to this place. I was feeling relieved that people who knew what they were doing would be able to help them. The emergency room was like a big square. It was probably the size of the Starbucks in town, but wider. (Tom had been at an even more “rustic” hospital before this one.) They had Kelly and Tom on beds right in the middle of the action. There were sick people all around the perimeter, coughing and having IVs put in.
They took them in one at a time for X-rays. They seemed concerned about Tom, but the X-rays told them that there was nothing wrong with Kelly. They could see Tom’s broken ribs and scapula. Kelly, they said, just had a torn ligament in her left leg. Crash into a boulder at a pretty fast speed, pass out, complaining of serious neck pain, barely able to move her hands and feet, and just have a torn ligament? It just didn’t sit right. She could wiggle her toes and fingers a bit and everybody seemed confident.
Lewis and Ramirez stayed with me until midnight. Since little to no English was spoken, I was glad Ramirez was there. Kelly was in tremendous pain and we fought to get morphine. I have been in the hospital enough times to realize that everybody gets an IV. I told Ramirez to ask for one for Kelly and Tom. It was well into the night. They hadn’t eaten since breakfast and had had nothing to drink for hours. After some time they both received an IV.
No hospital worker was paying attention to either of them. I asked if their beds could be pushed next to each other. Kelly was in a corner of the room by the entrance and Tom was in the middle of the room. Lewis was my logistical coordinator and he would come and go from the emergency room, working the phones, making things happen with the kids, and finding options for us to get out of here. He had experience with Amex and they were very responsive to our situation and a possible Medivac. He consulted with his good friend from Rye, Jeff Geller, an orthopedic surgeon at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, while he was on a ski vacation out west.
After Ramirez and Lewis left (I insisted), I spent all night going back and forth helping Tom and Kelly. There was nobody who spoke English and it was very difficult communicating my daughter and husband’s needs. All this time Kelly lay in the corner without a neck brace on. Looking back, that was just insane.
I sat up in a white molded plastic chair, sometimes leaning up against the metal IV rack. It was surreal in that space. My husband and my daughter were inches away from all kinds of sick people, accident victims. There were large bugs crawling around the floor. One girl in the midst of serious alcohol poisoning was vomiting about two feet from Tom and right next to me. There was no sink in the women’s bathroom. I had to go to the men’s room to wash my hands, and there was no soap there. I found antibacterial soap where the nurse stood and used that. I am not complaining. I am just painting a picture of what this hospital was like. I am used to Greenwich Hospital, where there is a man in a tuxedo playing the piano in the lobby and they offer full body massages to help you recover from childbirth. (I had this with my last two children and it was amazing). I knew I was in their country and I just thought this is the way things worked there. Go with the flow. It was a very, very long night.
Every hour or so, I would make the nurse take Kelly and Tom’s vitals. Shouldn’t being hooked up to those machines be standard procedure? I wondered. During the night I called Blue Cross/Blue Shield to tell them what happened. I broke down to a total stranger on the phone but somehow managed to get the name and number of a good hospital in San José.
In the early morning, Tom and Kelly were in tremendous pain. I tried to get the nurses to help me. I couldn’t understand what they were telling me: There was no morphine left? They didn’t know how much to give them? They couldn’t give them more? Around 8 or 9 that morning Lewis returned with Ashley, our concierge from Tulemar. (I forgot to mention that the night before, Chris, Lewis’ concierge brought us a bag with a change of clothes and offered any assistance we needed.) Ashley brought me some drinks and Lewis brought a zip-lock bag full of bars. I hadn’t eaten anything in a day. Ashley was very helpful translating what I had been requesting all night.
The emergency room started to get really crowded that morning. Soon Ramirez arrived and gave us an update on our options. I left all the logistics up to Lewis and we decided since Amex and BCBS both suggested CIMA Hospital that we would get Tom and Kelly transferred there and not the public hospital that Ramirez’s insurance would pay for. I will be eternally grateful for that moment of clarity on our part and Lewis’ insistence.
Hours passed. Tom and Kelly just lay there. At one time, a man, bleeding badly, rushed in to the emergency room and walked back and forth near where Kelly was lying. There was a stream of blood on the floor between where Lewis and I sat and where Kelly lay. At first I was okay with it. Nurses had to help this poor man. It became almost comical how people would just side step in the blood like it was no big deal. We just sat there and watched. Nobody made any attempt to clean it up. No one seemed embarrassed or grossed out by this. New people would walk into the room and just walk between it. Even Ashley was affected by it. Finally it was cleaned up and we knew we needed to get the hell out of there. We were just waiting for paperwork to be cleared.
At first the hospital wouldn’t do anything special for Kelly because her injuries didn’t warrant it. Lewis was working the phones like a mad man and I just sat there helpless. I believe Ramirez sensed that Kelly did not just have a torn ligament and often would hold her neck in just the way she liked. He decided that his insurance ways were not working or going too slow, and he called for a private ambulance. Lewis and I were dumbfounded. We didn’t know you could do that. What the heck were we doing all this time here if we could have gotten better care with just a phone call and a credit card? (Remember this fact next time you travel.) The private ambulance was here within minutes and we were on our way to the place that would heal us.
The Good Hospital
Of course we couldn’t just get in the ambulance and simply drive straight for two or three hours to San José. For some reason I didn’t catch, we drove an hour out, stopped at a gas station, and then the other ambulance drove us the rest of the way to CIMA. I said farewell to Lewis, Ashley, and Ramirez. In the second ambulance, Dr. Candy took all her vitals (without me having to beg) and reviewed the X-rays. I finally lay my head down on the seat praying that this experience was going to be better. Unbeknownst to me, she saw the break and alerted the team at CIMA.
I was so relieved when we got there. The hospital was modern and clean and they were immediately wheeling Tom and Kelly in and addressing them. There were at least three doctors there, a bunch of nurses and the two doctors and the ambulance driver. The ER looked bright and bug-free. Tom went one way, Kelly the other. I went with her to get a cat scan and they reviewed the results immediately. Everything was happening so fast.
Dr. Piva, the neurosurgeon, explained to me that Kelly’s neck was broken. His English is perfect and has a very interesting accent. I still didn’t get it. And as quick as he told me that, another physician, Dr. Finezilber, was explaining that Kelly needed an emergency splenectomy because of all the internal bleeding. The insurance people at the hospital were asking for my credit card and insurance information and Lewis was on the phone with an update on Medivac, and shooting me questions to ask the doctors to try to save Kelly’s spleen. It was all very chaotic. I found Tom and just told him what I was about to do. He trusted me and we trusted the doctors. The rest was in their and God’s hand.
I later learned that Dr. Finezilber was also a rabbi. While he was giving me the courtesy of explaining what needed to happen, he was already having the Operating Room prepped for surgery. It was over quickly. I don’t even remember waiting. Afterwards he showed me the picture of Kelly’s spleen and what he referred to as “The Hand of God.” The clot literally looked like someone was cupping the side of her spleen. She would bleed out and then her body would clot it and bleed out and then clot over and over during the 30 hours since the accident. It was as though it held on until we could get to this place. If a damaged spleen was her only injury, he might have been able to save it, but all the blood loss was causing too much pressure on her spinal cord and we wanted that protected at all cost.
As soon as Kelly was wheeled into the ICU post-operation, Dr. Piva surgically inserted metal forceps on the side of her ears. The plan was to attach a 10-pound weight to the forceps and very slowly move her neck back into position. Besides breaking her neck, the top part had slipped over the break to form a 45-degree angle, which was putting her spinal cord at severe risk. Placing her in traction would straighten her neck out so he could then repair the neck. Over the next 24 hours, he made slight adjustments to the angle of the bed, but never increased the weight as he originally thought. She was highly medicated and has no memory of this time.
To all of our surprise and hopes and prayers, the cat scans were showing that it was working. Tom, meanwhile, was suffering through what ended up being eight broken back ribs and a broken scapula all on the left side of his body. He had a 12-inch chest tube inserted into his lungs to remove the blood that was leaking there. Dr. Piva got what he needed from the traction and on January 4 at 3 p.m. Costa Rican time, Kelly had her first of two neck surgeries. What happened next, is the real story.
The Power of Prayer and Social Media
As family and friends learned about the accident, we started to receive texts and emails offering prayers and support. Then they told friends. Then Tom’s industry found out and they told friends. Then our neighbors found out and they told some friends. This began to snowball at a VERY rapid pace. Kelly’s friends were posting loving messages of strength, hope, and support on Instagram. Soon #KELLBELLOTT was created to manage the messages.
Tom posted an update on his Facebook page, and word got out literally around the world. We had people praying for her from every walk of life, spanning many continents. Dr. Finezilber walked to the hospital on his prayer day (Saturday) during her surgery to check on her status. Then he walked back home to his congregation and they all said prayers for her.
Somehow the kids in Rye mobilized to attend the 5 p.m. Resurrection mass. I heard it was standing room only. People were in mass whom haven’t been to church in years. Catholics shared pews with Protestants and Jews.
All this came at a very critical time for Kelly. She was just finishing up her surgery when mass began. Hallelujah! The doctors all praised God when Kelly came through and could lift her arm a little. I did not know it before (thankfully) but when they received her Thursday night, her chances of ever walking again were slim to none. Now they were overjoyed. Their sincerity radiated. She was not out of the woods yet.
The community and family and friends and new friends kept the prayers coming. Tom counted five different religions praying. One friend’s mom made a pilgrimage up to her local monastery in Italy, all the while saying a rosary for Kelly. All around the globe people were lighting candles in her honor. A fifth-grade boy posted a touching message of “strong, stronger and strongest” and had Kelly’s photo under the “strongest.” Everybody wore yellow (her favorite color) to support her on Monday, the first day back at school. Kids wrote “Pray for Kelly” on their arms and updated their status with the same message. Not just Rye kids, but in neighboring communities, Long Island, Philadelphia, and parts of Maryland. Entire CCD classes were dedicated to her.
Kelly’s story is truly inspirational, but so are all of you who worked so tirelessly to spread the word and care. I was never a big fan of Facebook. It still will never be for me. I don’t understand why kids just don’t talk to each other on the phone for hours as I used to. I don’t know why they would care how many new “friend” requests they got (Kelly is up to 300+) or how many “likes” on a post they got. But I will be forever grateful that you do because this was a tremendous source of power and hope and faith that we could feel thousands of miles away.
How do you say thank-you to a community? Words are not enough. I am starting with them to share my story. It was one of adventure and misfortune, miracles and prayer, hope and kindness.
Thank you all — amazing friends and total strangers, doctors, medical workers, and guides — for helping me help my husband and my child heal. A very special thanks to my sister Allison, who took unbelievable care of Ryan, Devon, and Shay once they came home.
Tom Ott is already back at work. Michelle takes Kelly to doctor appointments or physical rehab every day. They haven’t planned their next family vacation just yet, but expect to hear about one soon.