The good news is that I managed to last over a full month without horribly injuring myself in the dumbest way possible. The bad news is that I have horribly injured myself in the dumbest way possible. Before you get too worried I will be fine but I needed to get six stitches on my hand.
Firstly, you should know that ‘basic’ kitchen items can be a rare find here. I recently found a cheese grater for a reasonable price (40 Kina; $16 CAD), and was pretty excited about it. Not only are kitchen items sometimes hard to find, but they can be outrageously priced! Small muffin tins are around 100 Kina ($40 CAD), cutlery sets and sharp knives can be upwards of 150K. I’ve even seen plain wooden cutting boards for 125K. One thing I haven’t been able to findx are butter knives
Now I love coconut. I could drink coconut water and eat fresh coconut for the rest of my life. I usually limit myself to 1 or 2 coconuts a week. Coconut doesn’t really grow up here in the highlands, but plenty gets shipped up from the coast to be sold at the local market (prices of 50 toea to 2K; 20 – 75 cents CAD). Naturally, I bought a bush knife to open my coconuts – what else would you use in the tropics? It works well enough to break it apart into smaller pieces, but I still have to pry the flesh off the shell.
It was a typical Goroka Saturday, and I thought I’d try my hand at making coconut macaroons by shredding my own fresh coconut using my newly acquired grater. Draining the coconut water and opening the coconut with the bush knife went fine, as usual. And I pried about half off the shell and grated it.
Now what do you suppose I was using to pry the coconut flesh from the shell? In Canada, I would have been using a butter knife. Can’t find those here (yet), so, like an idiot, I was using a flimsy serrated steak knife. This is something I had done successfully quite a few times since moving here, injury free… until now.
I feel I should warn you, that if you feel a bit squeamish about injuries, you should just skip the next paragraph…
My hand slipped. The steak knife plunged about an inch into my hand, right between my index and middle fingers. There was very little pain, it happened very fast. I didn’t know how bad it was, but I knew it was going to be bad. I pulled the knife out and immediately a stream of blood spurted out of my hand, landing on the couch, floor, and all my hard earned shredded coconut. As soon as the blood sprayed I gripped my hand hard to stop the bleeding and starting yelling for Matt, who was sleeping. I told him I needed him to call Yaz (the head of the unit I am in at the IMR), and that I had cut myself badly and would need stitches. I then laid on the floor, gripping my hand, and probably hyperventilating.
Yaz didn’t answer, nor did the next 3 people he tried. I started to panic. Matt tried Yaz again, and thankfully he answered. Matt, in his usual calm manner, laid out the situation. Too calmly if you ask me! As we waited for Yaz to arrive I developed tetany. This is when your extremities seize up, and can be caused by low calcium, and/or hyperventilation. It’s very disconcerting as your muscles contract involuntarily, and you can’t move your hands or feet. I got Matt to bring me some orange juice with a straw, and I tried to calm down.
Yaz arrived after 15-20 min, followed shortly by Willy (deputy director of IMR), his wife Norries (also works at IMR), and one of the IMR nurses, Mary. Mary looked at my wound, and said it was deep and would need stitches, but that we didn’t have the stitching thread or anesthetic at the IMR clinic. Everyone began phoning all of their contacts, trying to find a reputable doctor who had the supplies. Apparently the country shuts down between 12 and 1pm on Saturdays for church, so it was hard to find anyone. Finally, someone confirmed that they had supplies at the public hospital, and that someone would be able to stitch me up.
We headed to the public hospital. Healthcare and medication is free from the public hospital, just like Canada. The ER, however, was very unnlike Canada. No pristine white tile and sterile smell of bleach, just blood-stained cement, peeling paint, dim lighting, and the smell of sick people permeating the air. Even when I tell PNGians that I was treated at the public hospital they are appalled. But, they got me into a minor surgical room very quickly. The nurse tending me wore a 1950s style crisp and clean white uniform, new gloves, and a mask. This reassured me somewhat.. Plus, she assured me she was good at stitches.
They gave me IV saline, glucose, and Penicillin. And then, the cleaning of the wound. Oh. My. Goodness. I don’t know if you can remember back to scraping your knee when you were a kid, and your parent slathered Iodine on it. The sting. Well, try to imagine that sting on an inch deep wound instead of a tiny scrape. The pain was so intense it brought tears to my eyes, and I whimpered pretty intensely. The whole time Matt was beside me and Norries was behind me petting my hair. Matt tried to get me to do meditation breathing, but he later said “We need to practice because that was the most violent medatative breathing I’ve ever heard.” After cleaning it was discovered that I had 2 cuts. A massive one between my fingers and a smaller one on my palm, just below where you get callouses. I don’t remember how I got the second cut – possibly I was still holding the knife when I grabbed my hand to stop the bleeding.
After the cleaning they gave me 5 shots of anesthetic and she proceeded to stitch me up – 5 in the main chasm between my fingers, and 1 in my palm..She placed iodine soaked guaze on my wound, gave me prescription for Amoxicillin, and sent me on my way.
For the first few days I couldn’t feel temperature on the tops of my fingers. The sides of my fingers facing the cut were completely numb, my fingertips mostly numb, and both fingers were very swollen and immobile. By Wednesday, sensation was slowly returning – I could feel temperature again and a biy on my fingertips. But with the return of sensation, also came more achiness! I went to see one of the IMR nurses Wednesday who told me to switch antibiotics. I consulted with some doc friends in Canada who recommended Cephalexin, and I was able to buy that at the pharmacy.
On Friday, a friend of mine who is a midwife that teaches at the University of Goroka took my stitches out for me. As my fingers were still quite swollen she made me a sling to wear for a while to keep my hand raised. I still can’t feel anything on the sides of my fingers – it will be a long road for the nerves to heal. I may never get complete sensation back.But, thankfully I didn’t do any tendon damage, or sever anything super important.