[color-box color=”gray”]Join Canadian Expat, Dodie Schadlich, in her weekly column for “Off the Beaten Path”. Read on to hear Dodie’s experience this week about a sensitive, but very real topic, dealing with an expat death. [/color-box]
We have been in Ecuador long enough to know that the only thing that is consistent here is the inconsistency in practically everything a person can experience.
My recent ordeal involved death and dying on the coast of Ecuador. I am sure there are others who have dealt with their own death and dying scenarios while in the country, each with different details, lessons, and outcomes. End results may differ due to where and how the death occurs, whether you are a visitor or resident, who you know, your financial means, the ability to communicate with authorities to name just a few.
I share this story not to say it is the typical experience that one can expect because I have nothing really to compare it with. The details of what happened may help someone in the future, or at the very least, provide a reason to pause and think and prepare for the ‘just in case’.
I choose not to use their real names out of respect for their privacy however the lessons learned from sharing in their anguish is worth telling.
I had a chance meeting with a couple at a local home where this frail man and his wife had been renting a room. He sat at the end of the table in a wheelchair looking, weak, pale. He presented as feeble sitting, unmoving in his wheelchair. His hand was slightly trembling. My first thought was how is this woman managing care for this man? He appears to be better suited to an assisted living home rather than travelling around Ecuador.
Anyone that has been in Ecuador any length of time can attest to the fact that it is not considered wheelchair friendly. I cannot count how many orthopedic injuries I have heard or seen since our arrival to Ecuador. On the coast, it is difficult to find a sidewalk that is level for more than 10 meters. Filled with bumps, steps, gaps, gaping holes and protruding metal bars; it can be a nightmare to maneuver for those of us without mobility issues; add a cane, wheelchair or other impairment and it can spell disaster.
It was a chance meeting on a beautiful and sunny coastal day. A brief introduction to ‘Joan and Joseph’ as I was leaving from a coffee visit with a friend. On a normal day, I would have taken a bit of time to chat with the couple to hear their story. “What brings you to Ecuador?” is a common question I like to ask. This particular morning I was in a hurry, a taxi waiting to take me home.
I quickly greeted them with a brief introduction. Joan assumed I was an American visiting Ecuador and I let her know that I was Canadian and that I live here full time. Our interaction lasted less than 5 minutes total. It did, however, leave me with an uneasy feeling. This man did not look well. I worked in Extended Care homes in Canada for a number of years. This man appeared in need of more care than his wife could manage alone. The simplest outing with him would be full of challenges. I learned later she is in her early 70s and he was in his middle 80s.
I shook off the uneasy feeling, returned home and went on with living my life …….. until a week later.
We had lovely guests from Cuenca renting one of our rooms and we decided as a group to head to the San Vincente mud baths.
I called my taxi driver friend to arrange a pickup time for later that morning. Frank is a driver that many of the gringos use as he speaks fairly good basic English. He then says something that changes the course of my day and the course of the next 3 weeks of our lives.
He says: “Remember the elder couple: the man in the wheelchair? He died.”
My reply was: “I am so very sorry to hear that; when?”
I was not prepared for his answer.
“I don’t know, an hour ago. She called me, crying and asking me for help. They are in Olon. I don’t know what to do I can’t understand her very well, she is crying.”
I had this vision of this lady, no Spanish skills, husband dead, calling the only person she knows, a taxi driver, for help. I simply had to call her and see if there was something I could do.
She is inconsolable, difficult to understand and panicked.
I say: “Joan, do you remember me? We met briefly when you were in Ballenita.”
She replies: “No I don’t”
I reply: “I hear your husband died”
She answers with: “Yes, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know anyone. I don’t know Spanish. I ran to the neighbors, the police are here. I don’t know what they are asking me”
I ask: “Do you want me to come help you?”
She states simply; “Yes,”
I send a message to my friend Stacy in Ballenita; she has a vehicle and a heart as big as the ocean. I tell her the story and she says: I will pick you up in
20 minutes; off we go to Olon.
When we arrive, 2 police officers are standing at the front door of the house and Joan is crying in the chair. They allow us entry and then ask if anyone of us speaks Spanish. I let them know I speak very basic.
One of the most amazing visions I have of this ordeal is of Stacy. She is dressed in a flowing pink dress; she rushes in, arms opened like angel’s wings and enveloped Joan and she didn’t let go of her until many hours later. While she held Joan carefully in her arms, I started managing the scene around me, speaking to police, criminalists, neighbors, gathering numbers and details, being the go-between for the police and Joan in terms of giving them information, forms, documents, and personal items they were seeking. Learning the what, where, when and how plan for the body, the pending autopsy and investigation details, gathering their personal items and groceries from the rental house. Joan agreed to come back to our place; we had a room open she could stay in while she managed the rest of the tasks and readied herself for the trip back to the US.
From here I don’t think it necessary to go into all the daily details that happened over the following 3 weeks, but rather just a simple summary some of the points, lessons, and eyebrow-raising situations that arose.
- Like in Canada, an unwitnessed death is treated as suspicious and requires an investigation. They would not allow anyone in the room near the body until their investigation was complete. In all, 2 police and 4 criminalists attended the scene. They took at least 4 possibly 5 hours before finally transporting the body out of the house.
Joan felt like a criminal during the process. Her frail and elderly husband had taken 2 big falls since their arrival to Ecuador 3 weeks earlier. They asked about the bruising on his body. She presented the medical records from 2 previous hospital visits due to falls he had; one the very day they arrived in Ecuador, the other happened 2 days before his death.
I would describe the police demeanour as kind, but firm and focused.
- During their investigation, the police confiscated certain items as part of their due process.
All the medications and health records of the deceased were taken. After the autopsy was completed and the cause of death deemed not to be a homicide; the items they took were never returned. Eyebrow raising moment. Everyone gave a different answer as to who and where to find these things and in fact a couple weeks later, they sent her back to Manglaralto saying they had what she was looking for; of course they did not and it was an unsuccessful road trip. The US consulate indicated they will not normally return these items if they are part of the investigation nor would the consulate help track them down. It is simply not part of the services they provide.
- The 4 criminalists, while closely guarding the bedroom where the body remained; continued to ensure no one came close to the room. I had tried to speak to them a couple of times as Joan was adamant that she wanted to say good-bye before they removed his body. I wanted to ensure they understood not to put him in a bag for her final goodbye. Later it was discovered that the couples 2 computer tablets that had been placed bedside were missing.
We thought they may have been taken as part of the investigation, however, when asked, they became defensive and said they did not have them nor did they see them. I am not accusing anyone, but I am saying the tablets are gone and no one seems to know what happened to them. Eyebrow raising moment.
Once they were done their tasks, they did allow Joan 10 minutes with him to say her good-byes. It was a heartbreaking scene to witness, Stacy stoic and kind in her angel’s wings standing close and protective of Joan.
- They did not use a hearse to transport the body. They did, however, use a body bag which they placed in the back of a pick-up truck with a pillow under his head. It was a short box truck, the body placed diagonally, to transport from Olon to Santa Elena then on to Guayaquil. We had directed Joan to the side yard to sit in the shade so she would not have to witness this final journey. Eyebrow raising moment.
- I would recommend when travelling, to carry your original marriage certificate. I understand it does not appear to be sound advice, however, it was a requirement to allow her to manage the remains. She wanted to cremate the body for ease of travel back to the US and they held the body until a marriage certificate could be produced. We spoke with Nevada and they agreed to email a copy, however, Ecuador would not accept the copy. The US consulate did finally offer a solution to the dilemma. Joan presented to Guayaquil to swear in the copy and it was accepted. As a side note, the US consulate had sent us a list of documents we needed to manage the process and it did not note a marriage certificate, but it was something that not only was requested but delayed the process by 4 days and took one extra trip to Guayaquil to manage it.
- The US consulate informed us to pay no more than $2000 for cremation. They sent a list of funeral homes to choose from as suggestions. We chose one from the list that indicated English and Spanish spoken.
The initial quote we received was $3500, then down to $2500 and finally down to $2000 after we told them the price the consulate had indicated we should be paying. They asked for 3/4 of the amount for deposit and held the ashes until the final $500 was paid. This price included the cremation, a temporary box, an Ecuadorian death certificate, an American death certificate and the special document needed to transport the remains back home.
- I did not attend the appointment at the consulate with her. She described it as feeling like a prison or fortress with guards and gates. She said many there did not speak English and she felt very frustrated and intimidated trying to find her way around to this appointment. As she described this is me, I could not help but compare that vision to my own experience with the Canadian consulate office. Ours is a non-descript office setting, quiet, quaint. Some magazines on the table. It could have been any doctor’s office waiting room. The lady working spoke English, French, and Spanish and was kind and helpful and my experience was very much in contrast to what I was hearing from Joan.
- On a side note, she let me know that she contacted a prominent Senator to help move things forward with the Certificate and it was my understanding that he had spoken to someone in the consulate office. I have no way of substantiating this but I have no reason to disbelieve Joan. Regardless, she finally got through the process and they accepted the copy.
- It took 3 trips to Guayaquil to finalize and finally get the ashes. Had she had the original marriage certificate; it would have only been 2 trips.
- None of the police, criminalists, or funeral directors spoke English. The funeral director used a friend and then his son as the ‘English’ part of his service and they were very good but not always available. Be prepared to find someone to help translate if something terrible should occur.
- I think it important to make at least one connection while in the country; even better if you can do it prior to arrival; even if just to join the local forums or Emergency Forum to send out a cry for help if a situation arises. This lady knew one person in Guayaquil and otherwise locally reached out to the only person she knew which was a taxi driver that speaks broken English. This driver happens to be my friend which is how it came to my attention. My Spanish is not fluent but passable. The US consulate helped with some details but they are not here to manage all the personal details of a crisis that may occur. You may need someone bilingual to help you through the process.
- The widow received unsolicited calls from funeral directors within hours of the death; we can only assume one of the investigators has friends they refer work to as she had not yet gotten the list from the consulate to choose a funeral home yet. One of the companies that called was out of Ambato and would have shipped the body to Ambato and the ashes back to her for the same price. We decided to stick to the ones that were on the recommended list from the consulate.
- The Consulate indicated that two death certificates are needed; one is Ecuadorian and the other American. They indicated that the US certificate must be issued here in the country to be valid. The second document the US issues confirms the remains to be a US Citizen and allows for passage into the country.
- She was finally able to leave the country with his ashes about 2.5 weeks after death; she delayed it a few more days as she wanted more rest before tackling the next step which is returning to their home, alone, with ashes and far fewer suitcases. She donated his things to a local man in need. She tried once again to get a copy of the autopsy and to have these things returned, but it never happened. She still does not know the official cause of death except to say that she is no longer a suspect. We assume it was a stroke due to the 2 previous falls.
I was guilty of a quick judgment of this situation initially; being that why would someone, in that frail of health travel so far from home, however, I spent time with her and was able to broach the subject for my own understanding.
It seems they understood his health was failing but they simply could not afford home care in the USA. She felt the only way they could stay together, would be to settle into Ecuador, hire someone to help and they could both live out their days together by the ocean. He indicated to her previously he wanted to die in paradise. I would also think she was in a bit of denial as to the level of his decline and when he took the fall on the day he arrived in Ecuador, the downhill slide kicked into high gear.
His decline was far more rapid than she anticipated. He died beside her, quietly and peacefully asleep in their bed, a block from the ocean. He got his wish; he died in paradise.
Joan is now back home safely and the hard part begins for her. Learning to live without him.
Facebook Ecuador Emergency page; https://www.facebook.com/groups/EcuadorEmergency/