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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Jamie Tobias Neely: Tragedy in Bahrain a reminder of perils

Anita Koch boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Spokane on Tuesday afternoon and flew halfway around the world to her son’s bedside in an intensive care unit in Bahrain.

Koch slipped into an alternate reality shortly after the beginning of the new year. She received a call that her 36-year-old son, Jay R. Olsen, had been hit by a car in Bahrain. Since then, she’s flown back and forth between the U.S. and the Middle East, and searched relentlessly for a way to evacuate her son to an American hospital.

For middle-class Americans who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, it seemed that most of the world’s perils could be mitigated with a good insurance policy and a U.S. passport. Today, in this era of globalization, it’s the adventures of our children that force us to drop our delusion of American invincibility. Now it’s clear we not only share the riches, but also the risks, of the entire globe.

Koch, a managing executive for personal lines at Payne Financial Group Inc., tucked her emotions away to support her son with calmness and focus. Her own family physician, Dr. Jim Bingham, says she’s so steady that if his plane were going down over the Hudson River, he’d want Sully Sullenberger at the controls and Anita Koch next to him in the exit row.

She has long been proud of her bright, gregarious son, a 1990 Shadle Park High School graduate who received two congressional nominations to the U.S. Military Academy. After he graduated from West Point, he served in the Army for two years in Germany. In 1996 President Bill Clinton downsized the military, and Olsen and many of his classmates were released early from their Army commitments.

Olsen traveled to Korea to teach English. Last summer he moved to Saudi Arabia to teach business classes at Dammam Community College in Dhahran. His Korean-born wife, Woo Young, and their 8-year-old son, Joshua, planned to move to Saudi Arabia in late January to join him.

But on New Year’s Day, Olsen was visiting Bahrain, which is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia. That evening, as he crossed a busy arterial, a car struck him. His injuries were so severe that his mother flew to join him on Jan. 7. She was there when surgeons amputated his right leg above the knee.

Olsen received free medical care from Bahrain’s government-funded health care system. His mother found support from a large, compassionate Bahrainian family she met in the hospital waiting room.

This winter Olsen remained in Bahrain, sedated on a ventilator and fighting a serious infection caused by a strain of bacteria called acinetobacter. In December the Infectious Diseases Society of America released a report warning that drug-resistant acinetobacter baumannii is becoming as severe a threat as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. Wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, the report said, are bringing these bacteria home with them.

Doctors in both countries urged Koch to fly her son back to the U.S. for treatment that might not be available in Bahrain. But his Saudi health insurance did not cover a medical evacuation to the States.

Koch and her family contacted the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, politicians’ offices, and the U.S. Department of Defense. They checked with every organization they could think of, from the Red Cross to West Point alumni. But over and over they were told that because Koch was a veteran, not an active-duty military member, he wasn’t eligible for military transport. He was on a ventilator, and he needed to fly on a medical plane with specialized equipment and a critical-care air-transport team. The cost, ranging anywhere from $125,000 to $300,000, would fall to Olsen’s family.

“We’ve done as a family everything we can for Jay,” his mother said. “It’s in God’s hands now.”

When Koch called Bingham to talk over her son’s condition, she heard her doctor’s voice dissolve with tears. “It just struck me how horrible this situation is,” Bingham said. “It just breaks your heart.”

Last week, as Koch arrived in Bahrain, she found her son’s temperature had climbed to 104 degrees, and Bahrainian surgeons were preparing to operate on his leg once more. Koch’s colleagues gathered donations, and Sen. Patty Murray’s office offered to look into the situation.

But on Saturday afternoon, the word came back to Spokane: Jay Olsen died late that morning. His body will likely be flown back to the United States in the next few days.

Koch sent an e-mail from Bahrain. “He loves to take journeys,” she wrote. “He is taking this one before all of us, but we will be with him again one day.”

The rest of us are left to contemplate how Americans in this era are no longer immune to the dangers of the rest of the world. Perhaps, of course, we never really were.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, is now an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. She may be reached at jamietobiasneely@comcast.net.
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