More deadly than shark attacks

It’s only a hematoma – it happens all the time in Kerala.

By Sara Stefanini

It knocked me to the ground with the force of a big, ripe coconut falling from a palm tree.

Oh no, wait. It was a massive coconut that fell dozens of meters and smashed into the back of my head.

In that first moment though, I had no idea what it was. The pain cut deep through the top of my skull and spread every which way, until it all went blurry and dark. My legs gave way and I fell to the ground grasping my head, unsure of where the hit had come from and whether it was the first of more.

Then I saw it: A smiling coconut, silently rolling away.

As I started to put pain plus coconut together, two women ran up behind me, their pink and turquoise cotton saris sweeping the dirt road. Their muttering in Malayalam seemed to be miles away, and I continued to grip my head as tears poured down my face and I gasped for breath. I felt someone’s hands tugging at my arms, and opened my eyes to see a couple of men pointing up at the culpable cluster of palm trees and motioning me to move out of the way.

Then a rickshaw driver slammed to a stop in front of me, and one of the women whispered in English: “We take you to the hospital.”

Finally, the blur began to clear. “No, no,” I mumbled, pulling out my iPhone. I dialed Babu and tried to get the words out through sobs. “I, I… I’ve been hit…” I passed the phone to one of the men, trusting him to take it from there. After a frenzied conversation in Malayalam, he handed back the phone and rushed off on his motorbike. I lay my head on the woman’s lap, overcome again by the thumping at the back of my skull.

The next few steps are hazy. The motorcycle returned, this time with Babu’s car behind it. The group of petite Indians practically lifted my 5’9’’ frame into the passenger seat, and we rushed to the hospital. If had had the clarity of mind, I might have feared the prospect of an Indian hospital. But I didn’t and, as I later learned, I didn’t need to.

My memory of the waiting room is of high ceilings and shiny, cream marble floors. But I was led straight past the rows of seats and into the neurologist’s office. He ran his hands along my scalp, smiling and bobbing his head as if calming a child. “Don’t worry! It’s only a hematoma – it happens all the time in Kerala.”

Next thing I knew, I was lying in a CT scanner, my mind racing. The word hematoma frightened the shit out of me, and I questioned the doctor’s calm. Was my brain bleeding? I thought of Natasha Richardson, and began to shake. It was only a few weeks earlier that I had read of the actress’s death – of how she refused medical treatment twice after hitting her head in a skiing accident because she felt fine. I was sure the word hematoma was used when describing how she died just a few hours later. I scrutinized the nurses’ faces for a hint of alarm.

To this day, I have never felt more alone than I did lying in that CT tunnel thinking about Natasha Richardson. Technically, I wasn’t alone. I was on an organized gap year-style programmed in Kerala, living with two Indian coordinators, Babu and Suja, and a cook, another Babu. Kerala, incidentally, is known as “Land of the Palms”, and when you fly into the state, the runway emerges like a waxed strip in a forest of lush green palms. But I was halfway through the fourth week of a five-week stay, and my initial acceptance of mixed translations and curious stares, touches and questions had already morphed into impatience, frustration and – essentially – a longing to simply feel normal and understood.

I had, in fact, woken that day determined to break out from under Suja’s constant watch. I decided to start with a long walk on my own. For most of my stay, Suja had insisted on coming with me wherever I went, worried that I would get lost or robbed or pestered. But this day, I stunted her protests while promising not to stray too far. “I just want to go out for some sun a bit of exercise,” I said, knowing she preferred to stay out of the midday sun and travel by rickshaw or bus. “I’ll be back in a bit!”

Fifteen minutes into the walk, a coconut fell on my head.

After the scan, I was led to a bed. A nurse explained in broken English that she would be giving me a couple of shots – one to keep me from getting nauseous, the other I didn’t understand and didn’t ask about. After the injections, the nurse patted my shoulder – still trembling – and then tapped my thoroughly freckled forearm.

“What happened, m’am?”

I had been through this conversation enough times to know what she meant. “It’s just the color of my skin, I was born with them.” She looked at me dubiously. “It’s not a skin disease,” I added firmly.


Less than an hour after arriving, I was back in the car with Babu, X-rays and painkillers in hand. In total, the visit had cost less than $15.

It was another few hours, and several unanswered calls, before I finally got the news out. My mom was at a lunch; my dad and sister were at work. By the time they called back, I was calm and detached, almost recounting the story as if it had happened to someone else.

My mom called back a second time, sounding more worried. “I was actually sitting next to a doctor at the lunch, and when I went back to the table I told him what happened. You know that really could have killed you?! He said thank God it was at the back of the head, because at the front it could have been really bad.”

A quick Google search suggests that this doctor was right. Coconuts are deadly. Apparently, about 150 people worldwide die every year from a coconut-inflicted injury – more than die from shark attacks. Sure, it comes from questionable sources on Google, so take it with a several proverbial grains of salt. But just imagine – a rock-hard coconut weighing two to six pounds, tumbling some 20 to 30 meters from the sky.

The Indians certainly didn’t take that risk when Barack Obama visited the following year – a presidential trip that happened to coincide with my own return visit. 'Coconuts removed in India ahead of Obama visit', the BBC announced. 'Keeping coconuts off Obama', the Wall Street Journal reported.

But a blogger at put it more bluntly: 'India cuts coconut trees to keep Obama alive'.

Wise move India, I thought.



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