Ironically, my first aid journey on the Camino in September last year began with an accident.
David’s First Aid sign in 13 languages
For over a year I had planned to cycle with my friend Mike from ‘Pilgrims in Sydney’ on the Camino, from Pamplona to Finisterre. Mike and I had both invested in new mountain bikes which we planned to bring with us from Australia. I loved my new bike, christening it the ‘Camino Dreambike’. It had more gear combinations than I would ever use on a dozen Caminos, let alone ONE, plus hydraulic disk brakes and a bell that would have been music to the ears of any walking pilgrim!
However, in April last year, several months into training, a cycling accident ended my Camino plans as I broke my scapula and collarbone. Surgery was needed to pin and plate the collarbone. The injury, though not major, was nonetheless painful, both physically and emotionally.
An unexpected offer in June turned the way I was dealing with the injury around completely. My friend David from the UK, knowing that the bike Camino could not happen, offered me the opportunity to help him carry out first aid on the Camino. I accepted his kind and generous offer straight away and quickly whipped into planning mode for the new and very different Camino .
David is a veteran first-aider who has provided first aid, pastoral care and support to pilgrims on the Camino, generally twice a year since 2006 – all on a voluntary basis. His first aid Caminos are funded partly through the profits from his online Camino shop – ebay.com.au/pilgrimsupplies. He uses his own savings to fund the balance of the cost.
I flew to Spain on 1 September, joining up with Mike in Madrid before we both travelled by train to Pamplona where David was waiting for us. On the train we had befriended an American pilgrim, Roni, a PhD student who was starting her Camino in Roncesvalles. On meeting Roni in Pamplona, David offered to give Roni a lift to Roncesvalles so, after dropping Mike’s bike and our gear at our hotel, David drove us all to Roncesvalles. It was at Roncesvalles that David and I began work as a first aid team and where I had a glimpse of the work which would be our focus in the coming weeks.
Two days later we waved goodbye to Mike. I had mixed emotions seeing him cycle away – sadness at the thought that I was unable to join him on our planned bike Camino – but at the same time I was very excited and happy to be undertaking a completely different Camino – a first aid Camino.
The day after Mike’s departure David and I began the first aid work in earnest.
Our first stop was at Puente la Reina at Albergue Santiago Apostol. It is a large albergue – with dormitory accommodation, smaller rooms for those wishing to minimise the sounds of the snorechestra, a restaurant, bar, laundry and a pool. It also has a powered campsite for caravans and motor homes, plus an area for tents.
We had our own albergue on wheels – a two-berth caravan with kitchen and bathroom facilities – which meant we could be self-sufficient wherever we were.
We stayed at Puente la Reina for several days and gradually got into a routine of providing first aid at the albergue from late afternoon and into the evening. We met many injured pilgrims there – it was a great stop for first aid, being around four days’ walk from St Jean Pied-de-Port, the starting point of the Camino for many pilgrims, and people were beginning to experience problems.
The first night at the albergue we worked for over four hours straight, treating blisters and handing out first aid supplies.
1. Foot before treatment; 2. Foot after treatment; 3. Foot 6 weeks later
During the evening we treated an Australian pilgrim who had a ‘trifecta’ of first aid problems. She had blistered feet, sore knees and a bad cold. David treated the blisters, gave her anti-inflammatory gel for the knees and Olbas oil for her blocked airways. We met up with the Australian pilgrim again in Los Arcos two days later and she was to become instrumental in the help we gave to a Swedish pilgrim a couple of weeks later.
During the day we walked into the centre of town and would chat with pilgrims as they passed through. Often David would open the first aid pack and give out supplies such as bandaids etc. We also drove out to various villages on the Camino in the area to help anyone who needed it.
We found a lot of the pilgrims’ problems could have been prevented. We saw dozens of pilgrims with blisters which had formed from wearing the wrong sized boots, badly fitting boots, or simply not treating a hot spot as soon as it formed.
David always treated the blisters by draining them. Blisters become larger if they’re not drained. Firstly, he made sure the foot was clean, after which he used a disposable scalpel to make two tiny V-shaped cuts which allowed the blister to drain completely. He would then spray antiseptic to get into all the crevices and inside the cut sections, and then cover the blister with fabric plasters. These adhered much better than waterproof plasters and also allowed the skin to breathe. The treatment worked really well – almost instant pain relief for most pilgrims he treated. We also gave pilgrims a supply of plasters to keep them going until they could get to a pharmacy.
We saw many pilgrims with knee problems and shin splints. The only sure cure for this problem is to stop walking which obviously was not an acceptable option for most pilgrims. These problems were difficult to treat – all we could do is recommend the RICE method – rest, ice, compression and elevation. We gave out sample-sized quantities of anti-inflammatory gel and showed pilgrims how to massage the ligaments and tendons gently but deeply to help with pain relief and recovery.
We showed pilgrims how to walk with halflength steps, to minimize joint and muscle strain, standing as if they weren’t carrying a backpack–and they felt better instantly. We also stressed the importance of walking at their own pace – not that of their friends, and not to overdo the daily distances – and to use a hiking pole/s or staff for stability.
When we saw the Australian pilgrim at Los Arcos, she had begun walking with a Swedish pilgrim. The Australian had recovered well from her blisters, sore knees and the cold–she was well into her stride with the Camino – loving every minute of every day. The Swedish pilgrim was also going very, very well. When we said goodbye, I told the Australian pilgrim that I felt we would see each other again. She was skeptical as the legend is that, on the Camino, you run into the same people twice, and we had already seen her twice.
However, we DID meet up with the girls again, just outside Rabe, a couple of weeks later. By then we had moved over to the town of Castrojeriz, another spot where pilgrims often sustain injuries.
It was one of those extraordinary Camino coincidences – we were driving out to the main road from the town of Rabe when I thought I saw the girls. I told David, who asked me if I
wanted to turn around and go back to where they were, to make sure. I debated whether or not we should turn back as we were heading to Burgos on another first aid mission involving the purchase of large quantities of cat food for a feline family we had ‘adopted’ at the campsite (which is a story for another time!).
We did turn back – it was just as well we did – the Swedish pilgrim was quite ill. She was feeling dizzy and had put it down to lack of water or the heat. She then said she had a blister problem. The moment David looked at the blister he knew she had to go to hospital. We bundled the girls into the car with us and set off to find a hospital, which we eventually found in a small town about 35 kilometres away.
L to R: David, Jenny, Mike and Roni at Roncesvalles
The pilgrim’s problem began when she put a Compeed patch onto a heel blister. The blister had grown over the days of walking until it burst and forced an edge of the Compeed patch open. Dirt got in and it became infected. When we saw her she had blood poisoning–her ankle had already started to swell. The doctor in the Casualty Department of the hospital cleaned and treated the wound, gave her an antibiotic injection and horse-pill sized antibiotics and told her that her Camino was over–she had to go home. The doctor then took David aside and said we had to keep an eye on her overnight and that if her condition deteriorat- ed we must take her immediately to the Emergency Department in the large regional hospital in Burgos–she was really concerned for her. We did keep a close eye on her and thankfully, her condition improved overnight.
The next afternoon we drove the pilgrim back to Pamplona, a distance of around 250 kms, and put her on a train to Paris, so she could make her way home to Sweden. Due to the fact that we needed to get the pilgrim to Pamplona, we decided to end our time at Castrojeriz and return to Puente la Reina and Al- bergue Santiago Apostol.
We had a few nights back at the albergue carrying out first aid. It was the third week of September–the pilgrim numbers had begun to decline and as a result the need for first aid help was not as great, so we decided it was time for our first aid mission to end.
David and Jenny [photo courtesy of Ce Jacques]
Roni successfully completed her Camino and is currently working on her disserta- tion.
Mike successfully completed his bike Camino and is currently planning his next Camino as a walking pilgrim, starting at St Jean, next year.
The Swedish pilgrim’s foot is now completely healed. It was six weeks before she was able to walk on it normally.
In another one of those Camino coincidences, David and I ran into Ce and Ray, two members of the NSW Blue Mountains Camino Support group, on the path to Maneru! I’ve since caught up with Ce and Ray at one of their terrific meetings and hope to see them again soon.
For me, it was an extraordinary privilege to be able to share the first aid role with David. Every moment, from start to finish, was wonderful.
The first aid Camino was a time of caring for others, of sharing and of laughter, and of nurturing and building upon an already strong friendship. My Camino and first aid knowledge has increased exponentially because of this experience. I am so very grateful that David gave me the opportunity to share in the valuable work he does each year.
David had found on his previous first aid missions that the first aid wasn’t just about treating blisters and putting dressings on – many pilgrims were suffering internally. I found this to be so in helping him–many apparently confident pil- grims burst into tears when we started helping them.
Spending time talking with pilgrims, hearing their stories and providing empathy
and understanding was one of the most rewarding as- pects of the work.
The help, as David says, is “all about love”. For me it WAS “all about love” – for pilgrims, for my dear friend and of course, ultimately for the Camino.
See also Jenny’s article in the previous newsletter about how to tie your boots to prevent blisters.