05 June 2011

The bug that beats up all top 5 pests in Tonga

Gather around for a blood-chilling story, a tale to make your scalp crawl, a mental picture so terrifying it makes babies cry and young children gasp with fright. This is a tale of the without a doubt, number one top pest in Tonga, a pest that puts all other pests to shame. That number one top pest, ladies and gentlemen, is .... skin infection.

For some reason, skin infection in the Pacific is particularly, shall we say, virile.

Pacific staph encountering American staph is like the Rock towering next to a skinny, pimply 13-year-old and booming down to him "WE'RE RELATED," and then glaring out at you in no-necked scary-muscle intensity. "Ouch!" I said to the Rock. "Your bulging muscles scare me!" but he paid me no attention, and kept gnawing on my hand.

It started as a little bump on my forefinger, where a tiny paper cut had healed just days before. Three days later, it had swelled to twice its size and a rapidly expanding white area had appeared on its surface. I could almost watch it spread over the top of my forefinger's first knuckle. 

Jacinta, the Peace Corps nurse, whom I got to know very well indeed in the next two weeks and to whom I owe my sanity, drained it and gave me antibiotics in reserve in case the swelling increased. And increase it did. Before I knew it, my whole finger was an enormous red sausage that no longer looked like part of my hand. Barely 4 days after it had appeared, it was all I could do to keep from passing out because of the pain. I spent the week in bed, alternating strong pain medication and antibiotics and debating with myself about the long-term liver damage of taking more pain pills. I didn't sleep for three days, and it just kept getting worse. 

If you're easily queasy, skip down past the tabbed in part. This is nasty. 
When Jacinta came over twice a day to change the bandage and check on me, I had to steel my stomach just to look at what was waiting underneath. My finger started to look like someone taken out everything under the skin and replaced it with ground meat, which was slowly leaking out one end.  They also don't tell you that when your skin swells up so much, the top layer eventually dies and creates a deformed shell over the new skin below. And so the combined effect was a rigor mortis finger with hamburger bubbling out one end. I was finally one of those textbook medical photos; in fact, I surpassed some of those photos. 

Looking back, I'm still mystified as to how I got it. I don't work with kids, or on a farm, or in any particularly dirty environments, and in the tropical climate, daily showers are mandatory. It's just a nasty, persistent little bug that gets in any way it can. Other volunteers and Tongan friends who've had this can empathize, unfortunately.

Now, over a month later. One of these things is not like the other...
Jacinta, the nurse, said some great things to me throughout the long course of all of this.
The first one I posted on Facebook:
"Your finger hurts so much because the infection is eating down towards the bone" 
"Stop playing with your fingernail [on that finger], I'm afraid it's going to fall off." (it didn't fall off) 
"It's getting better. You don't believe me? It looks so much better. It really will get better.... I know.... It still looks disgusting but it looks so much better. "
"I'm almost as tired of looking at your finger as you are!"
"Yes, it will probably eventually straighten out that bent angle if you keep exercising it. Your alternative to it bent was to lose the whole finger altogether, so let's be glad that didn't happen!" 
"See this scar on my finger? After it got cut, I couldn't feel the side of my finger for a long time after that, but eventually the feeling returned. You'll be like that."
But, the spoonful of sugar in this bitter medicine -- sing with me!-- was that I had some amazing support.

Besides Jacinta's twice-daily visits- even on weekends- my two closest co-workers/friends showed up  halfway through my long two-weeks bedridden with armfuls of fresh veggies and fruits: pak choy, cucumbers, apples, pears, papayas, eggplant, and even a watermelon. "These are to help you feel better," they said, and gave me a card from the staff at work. Later, Mark's co-worker came by; she had heard about my being sick from Mark, and dropped off two huge bags of bananas. Having your insides coming out the end of your finger is somehow much more bearable when eating a pear for the first time in almost two years, given by a friend.

After the excruciatingly long time of two weeks in bed, I finally started getting better and went back to work, somewhat more pale than usual.

Its been over a month, and with some concentration I can straighten the errant finger, and it can almost join the others when making a fist.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present: The number one top pest in Tonga.

Addendum: If you've never been to Tonga and you're now scared out of your mind to visit lest the same thing should happen to you, don't worry. The reason I got slammed so hard was because my immune system was already pretty weak because of a string of other things it's had to fight with. Skin infections can get bad in this region, but it is not super common to get an infection this serious, especially on your finger. It's even less of a worry if you treat every single cut you get with soap and water and antibiotic ointment. So fear not. Come to Tonga. It's worth the risk.

1 comment:

  1. I love the Rock to 13 year-old comparison, when I first read it, I almost ended up rolling on the floor laughing.


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