Kayaking through the Arctic one week and cycling the length of Africa the next is just a snippet of everyday life for Dave Bouskill and Deb Corbeil, husband-and-wife founders of the massively successful travel blog, the PlanetD. But it would take a much more leisurely, relaxing trip for the two to experience hell and back, to find out their lives were off-kilter, and to emerge with a message the travel community would be served right to hear. It would take Dave breaking his back in the jungles of Peru.
Last November, the couple was on a week-long riverboat cruise exploring the Amazon, bird watching and photographing wildlife, and, for once, taking it easy – at least as easy as it gets for the rambunctious duo. Around 10 AM on the morning of November 25th, the entire group from International Expeditions stepped onto solid ground, ready to explore deep in the Peruvian forests. Though the sun was shining, very little light could penetrate through the canopy of trees, giving Dave pause when it came to snapping his signature vivid, colorful photos. “We had gotten off the skiff boat, and I didn’t have my flash with me,” Dave begins. “We discussed it for a while – should I bring it, should I not bring it – and I decided to go back to the boat to get it. My feet were incredibly muddy from that brief time off the boat, and by the 2nd step on the stairs, my feet went flying forward in front of me. I was up in the air with my hands protecting my cameras. I landed flat on my back, saving my cameras before I saved myself.”
This sense of potentially-dangerous quick thinking has become quite the recurring theme for Dave and Deb: no matter the challenge, their eyes never leave the prize. This time it was Dave’s turn, but not long before it was Deb who displayed superhero-like resolve and determination. When cycling in Tanzania from Cairo to Capetown, Deb fell and cut her knee. “It seemed like nothing,” she begins. “I rode another 60 km to camp before even thinking much of it. That night a doctor cleaned it out, but by the next morning I couldn’t even move. The infection had spread from my ankle to my hip. The doctor thought I broke something, but I had just ridden 60 km!” Deb explains, baffled.
“You’re just that awesome!” Dave chimes in, causing them both to laugh. “That’s what I was thinking,” says Deb, “I was just that fit! But what I really should’ve done was go home. It turned out I had cellulitis, which is a very serious condition that could’ve caused me to lose my leg. I was down for 10 days, in and out of African hospitals three times.”
“But don’t forget the silver lining,” Dave adds. “You still won the women’s division of the longest race in the world.”
It was hard to see the silver lining this time, however, as Dave lay screaming on those muddy stairs. Deb dropped everything and ran, never having heard her husband emit sounds like that before. “Luckily there was a nurse in our group and she just took over,” Deb explains, the excitement and anxiety of the memory bubbling in her voice. “Without her, I don’t know what we would’ve done – my head was all over the place and the guys on the boat certainly didn’t know how to help. She directed them to help lift Dave onto a makeshift stretcher made of pillows, prepped him to move onto the riverboat, strapped him in, and iced his back. The rest was just waiting.”
At this point in the story, it’s hard to decide who’s mentally in a tougher position, the one with pain searing through his entire body, or the one trying to stay sane, organize an escape route, and be the rock. “About 45 minutes in, when we were finally on the riverboat, I told Deb to start taking photos,” says Dave. Deb laughs a little, adding, “Yeah, and that’s when I knew he was coming out of the initial shock, and that if we could just get through this part, we’d probably be okay.” “Exactly,” agrees Dave. “I tried to wiggle my toes a little, and I could. I knew that was a good sign, and I also knew that we would probably be waiting there for hours, so we might as well try – try – to make the best of it.”
And it would be hours. 10, to be precise, before Dave would get to the hospital in Iquitos. Their story is already almost too movie-like to be believable, but the suspense and anxiety – and in Dave’s case, pain – are nowhere near relenting. Dave describes it very matter-of-factly, concisely saying, “It feels like you’re going to die. That’s the only way I can put it into words.” Once they finally get Dave back onto the riverboat, the slightest jostle sending shooting pain up and down Dave’s body, the on-pins-and-needles couple wait four hours for a plane to arrive. “They even talked about sending in the army!” Deb exclaims. “I was so mad at myself for not speaking Spanish, and even though we were provided an interpreter, I still didn’t fully know what was wrong with Dave or what to expect in the coming hours. Once a plane finally did arrive, the 30-minute flight turned into a 6-hour ordeal. We took off, landed in the river, took off again, landed in a village, and ended up taking a tuk tuk into Iquitos. We had all day to fear that there was internal bleeding, kidney damage, and not to mention the stress of somehow getting back home to Woodstock. Even just the waiting was exhausting.”
“In the plane was the worst,” Dave recalls. “That whole day I had to go without painkillers.” “You were just gray,” Deb interjects. “You kept saying, ‘I’m not gonna make it, I’m not gonna make it.’ I felt so helpless. But it did get much better once we finally got to the hospital. They got him on some pretty heavy narcotics, and it felt like we might be slowly getting out of the woods.”
It was finally then that it would be confirmed (and three times by three different doctors): Dave indeed had broken his back, specifically the L1 and L2 vertebrae. But that’s not even the most terrifying part: if he had landed just an inch or so to the left, he could’ve become paraplegic. Just a twinge of luck seemed to be on Dave’s side that day, and he was told it would be only 3 months to reach full mobility.
“That was hard to believe, especially because the side effects of the narcotics were almost worse,” Dave continues, thinking back to his constant misery. “In Peru, I never got any additional medications to combat the side effects of the painkillers. I was facing some pretty graphic stuff, from bleeding ulcers to intense constipation. We finally got to Woodstock 7 days later, and it was almost like reliving the episode in Peru all over again.” “You could hear your screams all down the hall. Your painkillers hadn’t sunk in yet and it was just expletive after expletive,” Deb adds, chuckling with Dave in the comfort of reminiscence.
Yet just two days later, something miraculous would happen: Dave sat up. A day after that? His first step. The cards, well-wishes, and fruit baskets were pouring in, and it was becoming time to reflect. The travel community was coming out in droves, letting Dave and Deb know how much they mean to the community. “It helped us realize how large our circle of friends really is. We got postcards from all over the world – it was really overwhelming in the best way. Even strangers from far and wide – from here in Canada to kindly strangers just dropping a line from Singapore…it was emotional and incredible.”
However, the outpour of love and the downtime to reflect did more than help them realize how inspirational they are to so many of us. “It made us reevaluate life,” Deb reflects. “Like, ‘Wait a minute. What are we doing? Life is short.’ For the past two years, we haven’t been present in the moment. This whole ordeal, this time we’ve had, it’s really helped me realize why we quit our jobs, what kind of life we envisioned, and why we chose this as our path in the first place.”
“I think that’s a trap that a lot of entrepreneurs fall into,” echoes Dave. “They become so laser-focused on the success of their business that they shut out other elements of their lives. That’s what last year was for us. We were neglecting everything else. This made us stop and sit down, made us realize that we can lead a life of fulfillment and have both success in business and success in life. It’s just a matter of prioritizing and finding out what’s important and what you value.”
“So now, we’re gonna slow down,” Deb explains. “We’re not gonna shy away from certain experiences – this happened on a luxury cruise and really could’ve happened anywhere – we’re just gonna go back to how we used to travel: spending a month here, spending a month there. Because this last year, spending 2 weeks in one place was heavenly. If we go somewhere and we miss a shot because the weather sucks, now we’re gonna sit and wait. We’re gonna enjoy ourselves.”
And it’s a lesson all of us could stand to pay attention to. If even the experts get forced to slow down and find their lives are off-kilter, it can happen to anyone. Experienced pros still have to lose their balance from time to time to be reminded of the value of a life well lived. When asked what message this ordeal has taught them that they can spread to others, Deb puts it quite eloquently: “Travel for the love of a destination. Fall in love with a place and learn about the culture. Travel for the love of travel.”
“Start out with an idea of balance,” Dave adds on confidently, making it quite clear that this is not a new idea. “It’s too easy to let one part of your life consume you. You can be even more successful if you can work the idea of balance into your business plan. Too many people are guilty of traveling to get the perfect shot or get the story – we’re guilty of it, too – but that’s not the way it should be or has to be. Be in the moment. Take time to make new friends. Fall in love with travel first.”
That’s a message Dave and Deb intend upon spreading. In the coming months and years, they’ll be planning more public speaking gigs, giving inspirational talks, and sharing their wealth of knowledge when it comes to life, love, and experiencing the joys and difficulties that come with exploring every corner of the globe. Next month offers a trip to Banff, but they’re taking some time off after that before they jump on the next plane. “I’m finally off my painkillers and am just about ready to go. I’m still conscious of every movement, I’m still hyperaware of my back, but it’s getting better and better. I don’t know if that feeling will ever go away, but I will make a full recovery.”
And their high spirits leave no doubt about that. It may have taken quite the harrowing few months, but they are back on the map and stronger than ever, having found their silver lining this time, too. Their story should serve as a lesson to all of us: when life tells you to slow down, listen. You’ll be all the better for it.
“And, oh! Never travel without travel insurance!” Dave advises, in a jokingly-serious manner. “Ever. And no, no one’s paying us to say that!”
Thanks, Dave and Deb, and best wishes during the final stages of recovery. For more travel inspiration and a vivid reminder to live in the moment, check out The PlanetD.