Medical adventures: Anecdotes from 65 years of travel

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 61 of the September 2012 issue.

(Second of three parts)

Toughing it out

While hiking the Milford Track on the South Island of New Zealand in December 1983, my wife, Flory, and I braved pouring rain, waded up to our waist through raging rivers and slid down the steep, rough, rocky emergency trail which took us to our next accommodation.

There, hot air blowing in special drying rooms dried our clothes to prepare them for the following morning’s jaunt.

After hiking the Milford Track, we planned to continue trekking through other parts of lovely New Zealand, using the book “New Zealand Walkways” as our guide. Alas, fate decided differently.

We were in our hotel room in Nelson one night when, after Flory had finished her shower, I heard a “bang.”

“I slipped when I got out of the shower. I am really hurt,” Flory exclaimed.

I suggested we visit the nearest emergency room, but she adamantly refused. She wanted to continue our hiking adventures.

A few days later, when I walked back to the airport departure lounge after returning our rental car, I found my wife slumped in her chair, unconscious.

A Good Samaritan, who happened to be a nurse, rushed Flory to the county hospital emergency room, where a flustered intern made a vain attempt to obtain her blood pressure.

Fortunately, the attending physician, a vascular surgeon who had been trained in Houston, Texas, intervened. He remarked to the now-conscious Flory, “We both know what you have. A ruptured spleen. In addition, you have five broken ribs.”

She received five pints of blood, and, instead of removing the bleeding organ (the usual treatment for a ruptured spleen at that time), the surgeon decided to use “watchful waiting.” Finally, after a few days, the hemorrhage stopped.

Ten days later, Flory left the hospital. Contrary to being the powerhouse she normally is, she could take only three small steps before having to sit down and rest, due to anemia.

After she rested at a motel for several days, NEAR, our insurance company, decided that Flory was able to go home.

Can you believe that the firm insisted that, because of her precarious condition, we fly first class to Seattle, with a stopover in Hawaii?

NEAR paid not only for first-class transportation for both of us but also for an overnight stay and all meals at the Hilton in Honolulu. In addition, it provided a private sightseeing tour of Honolulu in a fancy town car.

The next day, we flew first class to Seattle, where a stunning plant, courtesy of NEAR, awaited us.

I would love to provide you with the address of the insurance company. Unfortunately, six months after we received the plant, the firm went bankrupt. The plant lasted for 10 more years.

Dermatological adventures

Our trek to Namche Bazaar in Nepal in 1997 was uneventful, except for the fact that I contracted pneumonia, for which I had to be evacuated to Kathmandu, the capital. Not to outdo me, Flory had developed a bad rash.

We decided to consult the Chief of Dermatology at Kathmandu University School of Medical Sciences.

To get to the professor’s office, we had to follow a brown line painted on the floor. We were patiently waiting in front of the sanctum sanctorum when the secretary intercepted us, declaring that we first had to pay.

“Follow the red line back to the cashier,” she instructed.

Tiptoeing along the line, we were prepared to pay a hefty fee in order to see the head of the department.

“Thirty-two rupees (32 cents), please,” the voice behind the plastic shield intoned.

After taking our receipt for the 32 rupees back to the secretary, we were allowed inside the office, where the professor scrutinized Flory’s rash.

“Scabies,” he pronounced — a likely possibility after having been exposed to the human itch mite, courtesy of the many monasteries we had visited.

Unfortunately, the prescribed salve did not work and the rash became generalized.

When we arrived in India, the next country to be visited on our trip, we consulted a different physician.

“Are you a dermatologist?” I asked the doctor in India whom we had found through IAMAT (Niagara Falls, NY; 716/754-4883).

After answering in the affirmative, he said, without having seen Flory’s eruption, that he would bring the required pills to our hotel. When I asked him, upon receiving the tablets, whether they would cause any side effects, he stated, “No side effects whatsoever.”

Upon informing him that both Flory and I were physicians, he invited us to see his clinic the following morning. Were we surprised! The sign on top of his building said “Obstetrics and Gynecology!”

When Flory ran out of medication in a different town a few weeks later, we decided to buy more, although the pills hadn’t improved her rash. The box the pharmacist handed us was stamped with a skull and crossbones and prominently stated, “May cause death.”

We looked at each other. Isn’t death considered a side effect?

We didn’t buy the pills.

Upon returning from our journey, we went straight from the airport to our dermatologist’s office. He diagnosed her rash as contact dermatitis and prescribed prednisone, which cleared the condition in a few days.

Tetanus inoculation

With our bikes safely parked inside of our hotel in Bath, England, we were enjoying an after-dinner walk when Flory suddenly tripped over a curb, resulting in a gash in her forehead.

In the hospital emergency room, a friendly doctor made Flory smile when she assured her that, once the wound was sutured, she would be left without a scar.

After bandaging the cut, the surgeon asked, “When did you have your last tetanus shot?”

Knowing that a tetanus shot is mandatory every 10 years, somewhat sheepishly she answered, “15 years ago.”

After Flory received her inoculation, we went back to the hotel.

A few days later, a story in a Bath newspaper related that a man who had sustained a similar injury at about the same time had died from tetanus.

Italian treat

In 1996 we were walking near Sorrento, Italy, on a narrow wooded trail surrounded on both sides by tall apartment blocks when Flory suddenly grabbed her abdomen.

“I’m sick,” she said.

Severe cramps ensued, followed by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Fortunately, nobody passed by.

After a while, the spasms subsided and we returned to the start of the trail, where we were lucky to find a pizzeria. Flory spent a whole hour in the bathroom.

As the owners began closing the restaurant at 2 p.m., they offered to take her to the nearby pronto soccorso, the Italian first-aid station, where, after examining Flory, the technician started her on intravenous fluids.

When we were ready to leave, I inquired how much I owed.

“Nothing,” was the answer, “Treatment is courtesy of the Italian government!”

“Unconventional transportation” is the theme of the anecdotes in my next column.