Hospital Holiday

The doctor has opened the bandage around my left shin and with an iodine solution drenched gauze he is now cleaning out what looks like the brooding crater of an angry little volcano. My leg is propped up on a white taboret and I’m sitting upright on a green plastic chair. From the level of my eyes I can see the fingertips of the white latex gloves the doctor wears on his hands disappear inside the gaping hole for another swipe and a sharp pain of a thousand glowing needles shoots up towards my knee. The left foot and the lower leg are swollen and for three days now I have not been able to put weight on it without excessive pain. A black bean-sized lump resists the repeated wipes of the gauze and the doctor reaches for the tray full of instruments and peels a scalpel blade out of its protective wrapper. Three swift cuts and some more wrenching of my teeth later the junk of dead tissue lands on the heap of discarded gauzes and cotton swabs. Next the able latex gloves place a short stub of gauze, drenched again in ochre iodine and skillfully twisted into a spiral, into the hole, covering up what just looked like a clear view down to the bones underneath the thin layer of skin that covers this fragile area of our bodies. Four folded squares of perfectly white dressing are now stacked on top of the pinkish crater and a new bandage is wrapped tightly around the shin. That’s the end of the torture for today. We’ll have another go at it tomorrow, then after tomorrow and so on for a week, after which the intervals will increase with the dressing left in place for two days.

There’s one more thing to add to the discomfort. The third of four daily batches of a triad cocktail of IV antibiotics needs to be pumped into my bulging veins through a needle strapped with pale orange bandages to my right forearm. The tissue around the forced entry hole stretches and the cooling tickle of the liquid numbs for a minute or two the dull pain before it will return to hover there right underneath the skin and accompany me through the night. This is the second night at Penrhyn Hospital on the Omoka side of the atoll. I’m closing my eyes for a second or two to shut out the glare of the neon light beaming down from the high and white ceilings. Before opening them again I turn my head slowly to the right so now I’m peeking through the half closed lids to check up on my very private nurse I was allowed to take with me to the hospital. Beatriz is starting to doze away on the rusty hospital bed across the room wrapped in her blood red lavalava with black printed leaves flowing over her aging curves. Just an hour ago we were spoilt with a hearty chicken dinner brought to us by the doctor’s wife Elizabeth, a sparkling Fijian, and the couple’s three kids came running behind her, their huge round eyes all over us and their shyness flowing out freely between the white teeth of smiles completely free of hiding slurs of bitterness. I crank myself up on the starched sheets and hop across the hallway on my good leg to the restroom for a leak. Returning relieved I brush my teeth over the little stainless sink with a tiny children’s toothbrush that Elizabeth had found for us in the dentist’s office further down the hall. Returning to patient room one (of two) I switch off the neon light, limp over the tiled floor to my bed and stretch out again to await the soothing unconsciousness of sleep, knowing from the previous night that within half an hour the monotonous rumble of the generator next-door will stop, the lights in hallway will go dark and we should have a full eight hours of sleep, until shortly after sunrise at seven in the morning when the rattle of the motorbike of the local church’s minister will have us jump out of our linens and gaily step our onto the balcony. The minister will give us, like every morning, a dedicated reading of the bible and personal prayer to speed up the recovery of the disorganized tissue on my leg with a healthy dose of divine providence.

I’m unable to fall asleep though and my thoughts wander, first over to the other side of the lagoon to do the share of captain’s duty by worrying about the unattended ship. Aluna must surely be floating peacefully and safely anchored in the quiet waters off Tetautua. But how on earth did it come to all this! My mind retraces the history of the volcano like bruise down there on my leg.  You surely have read the reporting of the Tuna turn, which by now must be a month and a half into the past. That evening coming back, drenched and shivering from the cold, I noticed a little scratch there without being able to connect it to any memory of how it had come about. I do vividly remember its outline. It was a single scratch at the inner end, but at the outer side it tapered into a double line of dots and ever since then I have tried to find reasonable explanations for what could have caused such a thing. Anyway it looked harmless and superficial enough to dismiss it as one of those many irks that had always gone away and healed before, most within a couple of days. After a little more than a week, however, this one started to itch, then to ooze and finally decided to open up and spew a slurry of clear tears of pus from a widening slit of yellow and pinkish flesh. Some topic antibiotic cream in our medical kit and a mysterious white powder brought over by fellow sailor Larry from Tao 8 seemed to keep it in check at first. The latter supposedly being a field medicine for veterinarians to aggressively heal cuts and bruises in all kinds of farm animals. True to Larry’s prediction it did make a nice scab, but the flies still insisted in poking their little trunks in it and soon enough the oozing returned from underneath. Two and a half weeks into this battle one morning waking up with the oozing having expanded into the surrounding skin coincided with the biweekly visit of the local doctor to the village clinic, so we stood in line there with all the elderly folks awaiting their checkup and drug refills under the shade providing canopy of a sturdy rubber tree across the street from the clinic with its tin roof, that had been freshly painted in bright green not so long ago.

The doctor was a young and friendly chap and met my preoccupation with professional coolness. He ordered a white cream named Silvirsulf applied to the festering wound, covered it with dressing and wrapped it with a bandage. The festering continued however and another week later when a months had passed without me being able to cool off in the azure waters around Aluna we jumped on the chance to hitch a ride with the folks from Tetautua crossing the lagoon on their aluminum skiffs to bring bags full of fish to be sent to family and friends down in Rarotonga with the supply boat that was tied to the wharf at Omoka. We were going to spend a couple days there at our friend Alex’s house. I had promised him to repair a cracked side panel of his Optimist sailing dinghy as a small payback for having retrieved our anchor from outside the pass after our nights there in the Heaving Ocean. The doctor swung by there, applied a Penicillin shot to my buttocks and had me take oral antibiotics for five days. This onslaught of Western medicine seemed to bring about a slow turnaround. The wound was slowly shrinking in size. My instincts told me to leave it uncovered over night to let it breath and dry out between the moist applications of cream under the dressing applied to it during the days. My patience was to be tested to the limit though. The wound would improve for a couple days, then all of a sudden deteriorate almost to the previous state. After that it would again promise a slow but steady healing for some time. That rollercoaster ride of composing and destruction of tissue continued until one morning when waking up after a night of sharply increased pain I’m forced to suffer the sad sight of the previously mentioned ugly volcano, no doubt in infant form, but definitely worse than anything we had seen so far. Fortunately this did once more coincide with the doctor’s visit to Tetautua every second Tuesday. Firmly and steady as a rock his prescription was to continue the application of the same cream, but to make sure that the wound remain covered all the time. Two days of that brought no relief whatsoever. The volcano matured considerably, the swelling of the foot and leg made walking difficult and the onset of a low fever during the night with swollen lymph nodes in the groin area indicated that my body was being pushed to its limits by the festering invaders. I was supposed to teach the drama class that morning, but being unable to stand upright for anything more than a couple minutes before my foot begun to feel like a bag filled with a million and one tiny, spiky needles I sent Beatriz to stand in for me and do her dance class instead. She came back with news that she had talked to the doctor by phone who could only help us at the hospital in Omoka and that Veronica and Ben where leaving at this very moment to go there to help their family prepare for the marriage of Ben’s sister set for the upcoming weekend. Once I had crawled out of bed and on deck their skiff was already approaching Aluna. Within five minutes we grabbed what we could, stuffed our backpacks with a change of clothes and off we went on the one-hour ride across the lagoon. Elizabeth, the doctor’s wife, came to pick us up with the three little beautiful monsters accompanying her in the white pickup truck.

It took a full two weeks for the ulcerated wound to slowly heal. Once the onslaught of antibiotics had stopped the infection it was like watching the miraculous life force at work. The tissue that had been eaten away was slowly reconstructing itself, layer by layer it came forth and proudly resisted the iodine saturated swabs that in the doctors able hands cleaned the wound daily and made me cringe with pain. Another miracle of sort was the steady flow of visitors. The notables of town and others a little less so came by in turns, bringing prepared meals for us, sometimes two at the same time. Whenever there was a break in this supply line we had grown to become part of the doctor’s lovely family, where we would have late afternoon meals, go for swimming sessions with the kids just behind the hospital on the beach in a veritable swimming pool made from jagged walls of limestone left behind by the corals out on the reef flats, later stretch out on mats in their living room to watch movies on the little DVD player or the latest edition of American Idol pumped through the airwaves from far away Fiji, and the next day accompany Elizabeth to pick up Shirley, the eldest of their kids, from school. Stepping into this little outer island hospital you stand in front of a glass window closing off the pharmacy with all the little bottles of pills and creams. To your left you see the door to the residency of the doctor’s family, while turning right you walk down the hallway passing first the doctor’s office with a laptop sitting on a desk, the registry of the daily flow of patients, a bookcase with medical books behind it and opposite a wall filled with educational posters, informing you about what to eat and what not, that alcohol is really not that good for you, that by going to college you are less likely to become a thug, etc. Next you can peek into the examination room, where a hospital bed sits with wheel breaks on next to a stainless rolling cart, topped with trays of medical instruments, flasks of different liquids, open boxes of latex gloves and a set of syringes thirsty for any kind of fluids to be pumped into arms and legs. A couple more steps and you might just get a glimpse of us two taking a nap, if we’re not out and about on one of our long daily walks down the fringes of the atoll that we were able to do once my leg was back in usable conditions. Another similar room patients room follows and the two remaining rooms serve gynecology and dentistry respectively, again with instruments ready to spring into action at a moments notice. During working hours of the weekdays a nurse and the local health inspector show up and spend a big portion of their clocked time chatting away happily about this and that but since the conversations are all in Maori I wasn’t let in on the gossip enough to report about it. Apart from that there’s a feel of loneliness meandering through the hallways and I’m guessing that a small part of the diligent attention we received is joy over some company and a change in the solitary routine of the hospital residents.

I’m jotting these notes down back aboard Aluna. After two full weeks of being royal guests in this most hospitable of hospitals the discharge was done with hugs and almost tears in the eyes. We were lucky to fetch a ride back across the lagoon to Tetautua. The supply boat is late once again and supplies on the island are getting tight. Petrol is scarce, flour, sugar, milk are gone from the stores. The arrival of the Kwai from Hawai’i is still over a week away. Life on the island I guess! There’s still a little island of red left of the volcano on my leg. The doctor sternly advised me to take good care of my leg and keep it clean and under wrap for at least another week. Should it become infected again he would no longer be able to assist me with such overwhelming generosity. People had started to talk, some most probably a little jealous of those foreigners receiving such boundless attention!


7 Responses to “Hospital Holiday”

  1. Jacques Says:

    Humanity at it’s best… Not like the profit oriented medecine we all know. Good you did recover.

    • alunaboat Says:

      Yep, certainly not like health care in the US! Didn’t pay a cent for the incredible care. But, psst, it’s not supposed to be public!

  2. Paz Says:

    What an ordeal, so happy to know that you are well on your way to full recovery!
    Lots of love to you 2!

  3. Fabiola Says:

    I like the title “Hospital Holiday”, this story is very interesting and I really enjoy reading your writing, I am glad that you had a wonderful care and that you are getting better, hugs and a lot of blessings Fabi.

  4. Dale Dagger Says:

    I’ve been surfing in tropical waters for 44 years now and I found a simple solution of a cap of Clorox bleach in a liter of water will stop infections from occurring. Too simple but I have seen the magic first hand dozens of times. If you would have wiped your wound the first time you saw it things might have turned out very much better. If an infection does start I use a cloth soaked in said solution and then a dusting of sulfa powder. There is a cream made with sulfa powder and silver which is used for burns than is also very good. I slip out from under the whole antibiotic thing by not needing them for cuts and things. bleach too simple by half

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