It was a sunny afternoon in late May. Jakub Madej ’20 was taking a stroll in the business district of Johannesburg, South Africa, after an hourlong walk on his first day in the country and in sub-Saharan Africa. At his hostel, a Russian traveler had told him to be careful in Johannesburg because he had been robbed of all his belongings — from his passport to his wallet — on the street just days before. A few locals had also told him stories about being mugged in the city.
Madej never made it back to the hostel that night. Later that day, a pair of Dutch tourists, Lotte Arnold and Malcolm Duregger, found him half-unconscious, bleeding out on a bench from two stab wounds.
But mere days later, Madej posted a photo of himself lying in a hospital bed, along with a cheeky caption.
“Had it not been for [Arnold and Duregger], I’d probably be on the other side now, but I was operated [on] today and will survive,” he wrote. “Shoutout to all hospital staff who take care of me here. Traveling is great! Will appreciate good jokes for this occasion.”
I managed to speak to Madej when he had left Johannesburg and was traveling in Rwanda. He had not been spooked by the stabbing. Instead, he said, the incident taught him far more about “human kindness” than fear or safety. After Rwanda, Madej made rounds to Uganda, India, Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Then it was back to his native Poland. He hopes that his stabbing does not dissuade any Yalies from finding adventures of their own abroad; he does not want this to be a story with him as the victim.
“The truth is that I had a wonderful experience in South Africa despite this, so I want people to see accidents like this as an opportunity, not a disaster,” he explained.
Blood and Adrenaline
In the moment, Madej did not even realize that he had been stabbed.
“The adrenaline works quickly,” he remarked. “So you don’t feel anything — in the moment they cut your wrist, you don’t feel any pain.”
Moments before he was attacked, however, Madej did sense that something was wrong. Dressed in a generic white V-neck T-shirt and blue jeans, he was walking down a street in the city’s business district — close to the Carlton Centre, a 50-story tall, gray shopping center in Johannesburg — while carrying some of his belongings in a black leather bag and listening to a Bloomberg podcast about business in modern Russia through his headphones. At around 4 p.m., he noticed four men, all 10 meters away, trailing him. Nobody else was nearby. The situation suddenly felt familiar to him. After all, he had been mugged six years ago in Poland.
When he looked over his shoulder again, one of the four men was charging at him.
“My instinct was that I should fight or something,” Madej recalled. “He grabbed me by my T-shirt. There were four of them in total, and I was defenseless. So my instinct was to shout for help, try and knock him down and run away.” He didn’t knock his attacker down.
Adrenaline, he said again, kicked in very quickly, and he does not remember much from the blur of altercation with his mugger. Beyond trying to push the mugger off, Madej tried to scream for help. But while struggling with the first attacker as the three other men approached, Madej’s eyes caught something else: He was bleeding profusely from his wrist and abdomen. He had not even seen a knife.
As blood began gushing from his arm, the mugger and the three others who had been trailing Madej all fled the scene. They had only managed to snatch his pair of headphones.
Madej would later find out from a doctor that the muggers had slashed his radial artery, a major artery in the arm that, if seriously cut, could kill someone in a matter of minutes.
“You start losing blood quickly, you realize you need to do something or else you’ll die,” Madej said. “So I started panicking and running through the street.”
Doing his best to stem the bleeding with his shirt, Madej ran up to a dozen people on the streets of Johannesburg, desperately asking for an ambulance.
No one, he said, responded to his pleas for help. One man simply walked away.
“If nobody did anything, I would die. I was kind of mad,” Madej explained. “The one explanation I heard is that people might have been afraid of helping me because they would be accused of causing it in the first place [when help came].”
After several minutes of frantically running and shouting for help, Madej’s vision began to blur due to massive blood loss. He sat down on a bench and slowly faded into unconsciousness.
Next thing he remembers, he told me, was two strangers surrounded by a crowd of people laying him out on the pavement, raising up his legs to send more blood to his brain.
“Malcolm, at that time my three-weeks fresh fiance, and I just went to Maboneng, a growing and hip neighborhood, for lunch,” Lotte Arnold recalled. “Malcolm and I took a cab to drive us back home and maybe three minutes later, we saw someone sitting on the floor with a crowd around him.”
Arnold’s fiance, Malcolm Duregger, nudged her to take a look and maybe offer help. Arnold had just finished her last year of medical school and a hospital internship in Malawi. When she found Madej on the street, his back was leaning against a stone bench and his right wrist wrapped in his shirt. He was pale, covered in blood. A police officer told her that help was on the way.
After offering to help with her medical expertise, Arnold began asking Madej questions while her fiance and other bystanders applied pressure to his wounds. Madej asked her to write down his parents’ phone number in case they needed it later. His mood quickly improved as he regained consciousness and his vision.
“He also started to make jokes [by this point],” Arnold recalled. “While I was repeating the checkups, I kept talking with him, asking him questions, like if he remembered what happened, if he knew where he was, etc. His answer was, ‘No, no, I am fine. You could ask me a difficult mathematic question, and I will resolve it for you.’”
“I asked for a joke and nobody told me a joke,” said Madej with a laugh.
“People often say safety first, but I don’t exactly believe in that.”
Thirty minutes after Arnold began treating Madej, an ambulance finally arrived. Arnold and Duregger accompanied Madej to the hospital, where he underwent surgery. The three stayed together until Madej became healthy enough to check out of the hospital after two days. By that point, Stephanie Barker ’20, who lives in Johannesburg, had heard about his stabbing and offered Madej a place to stay while he recovered.
“I knew Jakub from my time as an [Office of International Scholars] counselor, but it was sort of a ‘you’re friends with them on Facebook,’ but not much more than that,” Barker said. “Immediately I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I just cannot imagine what this person must be going through to have this happen in a foreign country and to be completely by yourself.’”
Barker looked up Madej’s hospital and, on a day when she happened to be in his neighborhood while dropping her younger brother off at school, went to search for him.
When she found him, she said, he mistook her for Arnold and began asking her what had happened to him on the sidewalk. Barker explained who she was and — after hearing that Madej had only a hostel to rest in that week — said he should stay at her home.
“What surprised me most was how optimistic he was coming out of the hospital,” Barker recalled. “I mean, he was talking about [how] friendly and nurturing the nurses and doctors were in the hospital, and even while I was there the nurses and doctors were really wonderful — they said, ‘Thank goodness you showed up, or else we were going to take him and he was going to stay with us. You know we can’t be treating foreigners this way.’”
Madej became fast friends with the nurses at the hospital. So, he was particularly taken aback when some of the local employees apologized to him for being attacked in their country. In Madej’s Facebook post about the stabbing, one of the nurses commented that he was one of their “funniest” and most “free-spirited” patients and even made apologies for “those thugs.”
Ultimately, Madej hopes his experience does not scare anyone, including himself, from traveling the world.
“I don’t have any change to my approach to traveling because of South Africa. People often say safety first, but I don’t exactly believe in that,” Madej said. “Sometimes you have to risk something in life, and I think it’s healthy to [do so].”
Barker said that she wanted to show Madej a different and hopefully more positive side of Johannesburg after she took him in, having originally worried that the incident would sour both him and others in the Yale community on the idea of visiting the city. She was not only warmed by Madej’s extreme optimism, but also surprised.
“He kept on saying how well he had been treated and how he couldn’t wait to come back to South Africa, almost to the point where I thought, ‘Dude, do you realize you’ve been stabbed or do you think that this is a dream?’” she chuckled.
Britton O’Daly| firstname.lastname@example.org