28 February 2011

Pulling together medical care, pun intended

Last night at 7, I found myself lying in the Peace Corps medical office, feeling the particular raspy tug of nylon thread being pulled through my numbed knee. This was the first time I've ever had stitches, and maybe the only time I may ever have them on a Sunday night by a jet lagged (but exceedingly competent) doctor in a simple office with borrowed anesthetic and only one type of thick black nylon thread. It was an adventure.

The ER door, taken with my phone
An hour before, the Peace Corps nurse and I had pulled in to the gravel in front of the emergency room to wait for the only ER doctor on a Sunday night to finish stitching up someone who'd sliced their hand across while opening a corned beef can with a knife, the preferred method of opening cans here. I hopped in with her help to sit with my leg stretched out on the scarred wooden benches, looked up to the ER door, and laughed. Set in a dingy yellow wall with a single fluorescent light above, the double doors looked like the entrance to an abandoned factory, scarred rusted red and slightly ill-fitting. Taped on it were three peeling, handwritten signs on computer paper that had different versions, in English and Tongan, of "Emergency Room - Don't Enter." I felt warm and fuzzy when I saw the sign on the other door: -- "Keep me close," it said, like some bizarre Valentine's day card- until I realized it was indicating that the door should be kept closed.

The Peace Corps nurse knew the doctor on duty, which is the only reason we went to the ER, and really the best way to get any kind of medical care here. It's always useful if you know that the doctor treating you is your cousin's wife's older sister, and graduated first in her year. Equally useful to know might be that the person administering your anesthetic is your friend's cousin's husband, who asked your friend to "do his little essay for him" on administering prescription drugs so that he could pass his class.

The stitches themselves
But, I had to deal with neither of these, because after we'd been waiting for almost an hour, a baby came in to the ER that rightly had to take priority over my busted knee. Fortunately, Peace Corps just got a new regional doctor in, and I was his first patient! He and his wife had flown in the night before, so this was a rough orientation to his first time in the Peace Corps medical office.

What had happened was this: at 5:04PM, I was slowly pedaling along the gravel road approaching some friends' house when the neighborhood's joyous wiggly annoying dog recognizes me and runs alongside, accompanying me to their house. A pig is ambling on the other side of the road, and lo and behold, the dog knows that her destiny is being fulfilled this very second. The world will end if she does not chase this pig, even if there is a bike separating her from it! She makes a mad dash across my front wheel, the wheel goes halfway over her, and I go halfway over my bike, landing hard on the sharp rocks of the road. When I finally can stand up again, I make a halfhearted kick in her direction with my good leg, and limp inside to clean up. It's not until our friends have sat me down in the bathroom with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and some gauze pads that I realize that the gash in my knee is more like a wide, gaping smile that looks like it's eating cottage cheese. I'm grossed out and fascinated, and a little faint when I realize the cut's gone all the way in to the fat of my knee. Good thing for padding.

Getting help was another adventure. Our friends helped me call the nurse, who frantically tried calling taxi after taxi so she could come treat me. Her car had been borrowed by an acquaintance and then had been driven at full speed along the pot-holed roads, popping all her tyres and severely damaging the entire body of the car. The borrower considerately returned it to her house, but never decided to pay for the damage. She couldn't get a taxi right away because on Sundays, half the taxi companies don't work, and even the ones that do only have a skeleton crew. Naturally, there are no busses either. Like the taxis, the ER was only staffed with one doctor, working frantically to take care of the cases coming in.

The moral of this story? Dogs and pigs do not go together, don't get hurt on a Sunday in Tonga, know someone when you go to the hospital, and nice doctors do a good job even when they're jet-lagged.


  1. I am assuming that this leg belongs to Elena. Seems like her writing this blog episode. I am so thankful that you were treated and I hope and pray that you are OK now, and that it heals properly without infection. Ugh!
    love, Auntie Rachael

  2. Hehe, yes. That's me. I'm going in to get it checked today, but it is healing beautifully so far.

    We just set up the blog so that it says right under the title whoever is doing the writing- just look for the "posted by ___" Although it's usually me writing, with Mark giving his two cents in editing afterward. :)

  3. Very sorry for an unhappy ending to what started as a very happy day. Glad all went well with the stitches.

  4. Lenz, When I saw the picture of your stitched wound, I felt sorry for you. I was also afraid. I hate the sight of blood. I even faint when I see fresh blood oozing. But when I read through your story I realized you were not even afraid. I admire your courage. Your "adventure" and the "literary piece" about it is definitely good reading. Take care. Love you. Best regards to Mark. Manang Fely


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