Expect the unexpected

So this is my first posting.

It isn’t really what I was expecting to be talking about, but I’m learning quickly that in India, you really should expect the unexpected! I just never for one minute expected it to be this.

What started out as a pretty normal day here quickly transcended into what became one of the most unique weeks of my life, never mind my time in India. I don’t tell this story to feed people’s fears of travelling to India. In fact it is the complete opposite. To explain that whilst challenges might arise, bad things might happen, it isn’t India that causes it, these things are just as likely to happen anywhere in the world. The exception for me is that being based here you are sure to be well looked after and with sincere generosity and kindness.

I’ve had the unfortunate experience of falling victim to infected mosquito bites before. It’s grim for sure, they take a long time to fix and you end up with scaring. But since then I’ve tried to be super careful about not getting bitten, if I do get bitten using copious amounts of coconut oil, trying not to scratch them etc etc. So when I noticed a small wound on my leg that was a bit sore and weeping, together with the fact my foot had started to get puffy I knew I needed medical assistance.

Monday morning and it’s a trip to the local doctor. Quick examination, yes it’s infected (oh great) but here’s some stuff to take which should solve it. Go on my merry way thinking ah I’m glad I went now and feel pretty confident that it will be ok tomorrow. Tuesday comes and the swelling seems to have reduced but it’s still quite sore so following yesterday’s advice to revisit the doctors I do just that. I literally sit down, roll up my trouser leg and then I’m out the door being told to get to hospital! Ok…..

It’s a weird system here, you either turn up and wait which could be hours or book an appointment. So appointment is made for 5pm. Now it’s just a case of waiting, I feel perfectly ok, my brain is still working so just get on with work. However, as the day gets on my lower right leg and foot are just getting bigger and bigger to the point where it was getting really uncomfortable to do anything.  By 4pm it was really bad and the only slight relief weirdly was walking on it. So I stood outside the office and shops with a few of the staff discussing the pros and cons of taking a rickshaw or taxi to the hospital.

This was my leg around midday.


All of a sudden, it was instantaneous I was overcome with nausea. Light headed I decided to sit down but by this stage my head is spinning. I don’t recall much of what happened during the next 5 minutes. The nausea was intense, I felt incredibly hot, my hearing went, things were kind of spinning and I couldn’t move.  I vaguely remember being given some water but as much as I tried I couldn’t lift the bottle up to get any in my mouth. The guys tried to carry me inside and the next thing I know I’m sitting on the floor with no recollection of how I got there. At this point I’m scared, tired with the pain but most of all frustrated that it all came on so quick and by a cause I still don’t know! It was probably a combination of all this and not knowing how it was going to be fixed that made me cry. I just didn’t know what to do, what was causing it all and what would happen.

Just getting to the hospital was some relief in itself; at least I was now in the right place! The hospital in question, a modern private hospital in Tirunelveli, Rosemary Mission Hospital. Hospital waiting rooms are not much fun at the best of times but when you’re the only white person in a non touristy town it’s even less fun!! My patience levels are usually good, I don’t mind the same questions a million times from curious bystanders but at this point I just wanted to be invisible. An hour passes and I eventually get taken to casualty. I’m now lying on a bed with various staff looking at me, in a lot of pain and just wanting to be told what was going on. I’m sure if it wasn’t for the persistence of the people I was with they would of just let me lie there but I was in a lot of pain by this point so Swathi and Johnson pushed the staff to give me painkillers. What followed then was a series of injections. I’m not sure what half of them were but I think we counted 4, plus a blood test. The pain subsides considerably but I know whatever they’ve given me isn’t going to fix the problem.

Eventually the doctor comes and examines my leg properly. It’s pretty obvious its severe, big infection, lots of swelling, it’s going to take some medicine to shift this. He says “the only thing we can try is an old medicine which has been used for centuries. It will bring down the swelling and draw the infection out. We’ll do this for 48hrs, if the swelling is reduced sufficiently we’ll make a small incision to drain it”. So two things I pick up, one, I have to spend at least 2 nights here, two, he’s already talking surgery, how, how, why, why, why? It’s then a flurry of activity, coating my leg in this magic medicine, bandaging it up, Swathi and Johnson heading off to buy some provisions for me, Intravenous (IV) lines put in and more injections before eventually being shipped to a private room. Once inside the room, I’m given 3 further injections by IV, two tablets to take and told to sleep with my leg elevated. By this stage I was so overcome by all that had happened I just went to sleep.

At the time I didn’t really think about it but when Swathi came in saying I’ll be outside and will come and sleep later I seriously hadn’t considered for one second that she or someone would have to be with me the whole time.

7am next morning, Swathi asks if I want tea, yes please! It was at this point I realised that not only will I be here for the next 48 hrs but so will she! And not just here but having to collect all my medicines 3 times a day, get my food, get drinking water, translate to the nurses, basically do everything as I lay there praying (to who or what I don’t know) that it gets better quick.

Much of Wednesday was spent in apprehension of whether the medicine had worked. In between the wait it was 3 injections 3 times a day, 2 tablets 3 times a day, numerous temperature and blood pressure checks. A thousand questions about what I’d eaten, drunk and toilet habits. There’s little privacy in India at the best of times, even less so when it comes to medical things!!!

This is some of the medication that was used.


And of course providing entertainment to the student nurses who just thought it was brilliant that there was a white person to talk to. When I saw talk to it was the usual list of questions you get here followed by a lot of giggling. One of the girls paid me compliments about my eyes and smile which, if that wasn’t strange enough, she continued to come in and just look at me with a big smile on her face!!! I seriously wonder if she needs to go to the opticians. I wasn’t smiling much and if I was it was a polite smile, I’m not sure there was much meaning behind it and my eyes, really? Not bloodshot, puffy and dull? As I’m pretty that’s what everyone else is seeing. Thankfully they all departed at 230pm.

This was my leg after 24 hours.

Thursday morning, 36 hrs on and the doctor whistles in.  He says, “so we got your blood test results back.  This measure here indicates infection levels. It should be 5 or less, your’s is 50, so the infection is huge”.  But he’s also looking mighty pleased that the swelling has reduced enough for him to do the incision, fine. “Oh and you’ll be asleep the whole time!”  What?????  Small incision, full anaesthetic, is it me or is there a bit of mismatch there?

Whatever anaesthetic I was going to have I would not be allowed to eat or drink after 2! So happily sat there at 12.30pm getting through my 3rd litre of water strategically planning when to eat and opt for 1.30pm. 12.32pm nurse comes in, “do not eat or drink anything now!” “What? No lunch? But I was told 2?” “No no nothing now”. From that point it was a series of people coming in giving me drugs, taking blood tests, doing an ECG and asking a further million questions. 6pm and a different doctor comes around to talk me about the operation. After much discussion I opt for local anaesthetic which will mean numbness from the hips down. 7pm and we’re going in.
I feel I should point out at this stage that I’ve never been admitted to hospital before and never had an operation, so yes I was totally apprehensive.

First procedure, anaesthetic injected into my spine, which hurt quite a bit. Then lay down on my back with both arms out to the side, so I’m kind of laying like a cross shape. New IV line put into my right arm and left arm connected to blood pressure machine. I don’t know whether it was that cold in there but they had to hold my arms in place because I was shivering that much. They were literally jumping. It said 28 on the AC machine but I find that impossible to believe. I really hate the cold at the best times but lying there shivering, not being able to see (they covered my eyes with cloth) did little to reduce my fear.
Can feel the anaesthetic working, first legs got warm, then pins and needles, then nothing. “Jo, can you try lift your legs up?” My brain is saying yep but nothing happens. I know it’s supposed to be like that but it really freaked me out. The only way I can describe it (for those that have been to cold countries) is when you’ve been outside in the snow and your feet go numb. You get home and you know they just need to get warm but for a while you have this weird feeling of will I ever get the feeling back in my toes? Because you can see them but they’re not much use to you!!

I don’t know why I decided to stay awake but I did. Probably curiosity and wanting to see what they did, which was completely pointless as I couldn’t see anything anyway!!! I’m not sure it was a good idea and I think the doctor knew that as he kept trying to reassure me, don’t worry, relax, it’s a simple procedure. I don’t know how long it took but 50ml of puss later and my leg is re-bandaged and I’m on my way to recovery.

In recovery I spent most of my time trying to move my legs but the anaesthetic is strong I had no chance. It made me giggle trying to do it though, the stubbornness of me trying to prove I can do something!!! The funniest thing was when I did start to get feeling back. Oh I can move my leg! Hmm but I tried to move it right but it’s gone left and now it’s at some weird angle. Ok so my foot is moving but what’s that it’s touching, hmm my other foot!! I must have bored myself with it in the end as I did fall asleep and got woken up by someone checking my pulse and telling me they’re going to move back to my room. I thought I’d been in recovery an hour but transpires it was 3!! Seems trying to move your legs can keep you entertained.

11.45pm and I’m lifted into bed.  I still can’t walk, although the feeling in my legs from the knee down is back. Send a few messages home and then sleep. Well kind of. Having been in India sometime now I’ve truly mastered sleeping anywhere, buses, trains, taxis probably even a rickshaw.  But I’ve never tried to sleep with my legs half numb, connected to an IV with rehydration stuff being pumped in and my leg elevated. If that wasn’t enough, Swathi had to get up every 2 hrs to check the IV bottle didn’t run empty.  So another sleepless night for her too.

Friday, recovery day. The swelling has reduced by at least 90% and I have no pain at all from the operation. The doctor does a quick examination around 11am, confirms it’s all fine and if when he changes the dressing tonight it’s ok I can go!!  It’s just a case of resting now and waiting.  And waiting and waiting and waiting.  I was starting to get seriously bored by this point.  I knew the operation had gone fine and it was now just a case of letting the wound heal, but until the doctor assessed it again I knew I couldn’t go anywhere. We literally waited around all day to see the doctor. 8pm comes, still no sign, 9pm told he’s still in theatre, 10pm and I give up and go to sleep.  Swathi stays up and says she’ll wake me if he does turn up!  But he doesn’t until 11am the following morning.

Dressing taken off from the operation, which was really interesting (don’t worry I didn’t take a photo although I really wanted to). The incision is about 9cm long and about 5mm wide, they won’t stitch it as they need to ensure that any further infection in the body can come out if it needs to.  New bandage put on and I’m told I can go.  I’m not sure who was more relieved and happy me or Swathi but either way within 10 minutes of him telling us we could go a taxi was ordered and all our things were packed up, we were ready!

4 hours later, 3pm and the hospital is just about ready!  We had clearly forgotten that the rest of India was still very much working to Indian time.  3.30pm and I’m back home (in Manur).

I’m sure most people fear getting ill abroad. The unknown of it all, is it clean? Is it safe? Will they look after me? Who will check on me? Perhaps the fear is even greater when you think about India. It’s reputation for hygiene, the chaos, the noise and as a volunteer that’s heard the horror stories from some of the medical volunteers then perhaps the fear is justified. But my experience couldn’t be further from this. The medical attention and support I got was first class and yes I’m not naive enough to think it’s got nothing to do with paying for it but the staff genuinely looked after me, really asked how I was, took time to talk. I certainly don’t hold the same fear about Indian hospitals as I once did.
What has touched me more over this week is the incredibly support, care and thoughtfulness of what I guess have now become my adopted Indian family.  Swathi has been with me the whole time I’ve been here, doing everything, I literally don’t know what I would have done without her.  A month ago I’d met her twice, we had exchanged emails and I’d literally spent the last two weeks really getting to know her, Johnson and everyone else. Two weeks on we’re now with each other 24/7 with no indication of when we can go. Johnson has been running back and to the house to collect things and run errands for me and his mum was sending me in 3 home cooked meals every day. A week ago I would have said we were becoming good friends, now I wholeheartedly say they are like family and I’ll be forever grateful for everything they have done.

Was I scared? Yeah course at times. Was I frustrated? Absolutely. But did I for one minute wish I wasn’t in India? No not for one minute. I know for people back at home it must have been hard, receiving random whatsapp messages about what was going on, feeling so far removed from it all. But there was nothing more that could be done, it was just a waiting game.  I constantly believed it would be ok and as Johnson said perhaps that was half the battle.  If at any point I’d have doubted it then perhaps I would have wanted to get home but despite the frustration, boredom and tiredness I never felt that.
So now as I look at the bandage on my leg thinking over the last few days, the last thing I feel is sad, fearful or frustrated.  Weirdly I’m actually smiling, perhaps the drugs have sent me a bit delirious but I don’t think it is that. It’s a feeling of real fortune, not luck. I am incredibly fortunate to have met people who I regard now as good friends, fortunate to have been so warmly accepted and fortunate that they made sure I would be ok.  So as the wound heals with an inevitable scar I sit here and wonder what it is that makes me love this country so much.

It’s people, it’s as simple as that.

So from this post onward it will be a complete honest, view, perspective and no doubt rants about the daily frustrations I’m facing as I resume ‘normal’ life here. I’m sure it’ll also include some of the million and one things that truly make me laugh out loud!

If nothing else expect the unexpected!