Day four, I have escaped. Through displays of spectacular enthusiasm for physical therapy and the light of day, I have convinced my doctor that I should be released a day early from the foodless overpopulation of my Saigon hospital. Will I miss the other four patients and their seven family members who’ve shared my three bed ward throughout this journey? Not really, may they prosper.
I am craving the privacy to give myself a sponge bath, access to a kettle, and the unspeakable luxury of more than one pillow. I want a bathroom where the floor is not wet and slippery under my crutches with the remnants of other people’s baths and other people’s hair. Above all, however, I am grateful to be even remotely concerned with such things.
Two days earlier, as I shuffled sideways to follow my surgery nurse through rows of gurneys blocking the corridor, I couldn’t keep the concern off my face. They stripped me down, wrapped me in green, and carted me off.
The orderly in charge of wheeling me through the corridors was a sweet young man who tried to distract me by talking about the spiciness of Thai food. “Don’t worry, it’s all going to be fine,” he told me breezily as I watched the ceiling tiles migrate overhead. He transferred me to a cold, hard table in a freezing room where two gigantic surgical lights hovered over my face. People were moving in and out freely, and orderlies were watching youtube in the corner near my head. Wasn’t there supposed to be some sort of sterile protocol, I wondered.
When the nurse told me that I’d be receiving an injection to my back for the spinal block which I had specifically not ordered, my anxiety reached about seventeen on a scale from one to ten. I didn’t know what was going to go down here, but no way did I want to be awake for it. And no way was anyone sticking anything in my spine.
A few seconds of unconcealed alarm ensured that the feeling became mutual: someone else in green quickly agreed that I would take a little sleep. The mask came up, nobody asked me to count to anything, and then I woke up in purgatory.
* * *
I was on a trolley in a sea of trolleys, each occupied by a helpless, green-clad post surgical form. Some of them lay still, others groaned regularly. There was some sort of insane pressure in my right leg, just below my knee cap. As the muffled sounds of other people’s pain reached me, the pressure seemed to mount, like someone was steadily screwing something into the top of my tibia. In a haze, I could only register surprise. What could be going on there?
I could feel the muscles in my abdomen flexing from the pain for a while before my groggy mind realised what was happening: You’re in pain, tell the nurse, there’s medicine for that. I tried groaning for a little while but it had no effect. Now I could also feel a second unbearable pressure, this time in my bladder. I was going to wet myself in a minute. For some reason, this prospect was far more upsetting to me than the pain. I tried sticking my head up to look around for the nurse – there she was, she saw me. She didn’t come. The pain combined with the helpless inevitability of wetting myself made me sob a little. The nurse looked annoyed, and ignored me. I stuck my head up again and made like I was going to get off the trolley. This got the nurse’s attention, and she came over, looking seriously displeased with me.
“It hurts! I need to pee!” I told her helplessly, in English and hopeless sign language. Surely she could see the tears in my eyes? Surely she knew that when people get sliced up for surgery, it hurts?
She came back with some medicine and the sharp edges started fading away from the pain in my leg, but I was still about to wet myself. I couldn’t get anyone’s attention, and I was in misery. Please, no, don’t make me lie in a room full of strangers in my own urine. I pulled the only trick that seemed to work: look like you’re getting out of bed. The same nurse came to push me back down, but then another orderly came to say to me in English, “what do you want?”. “I need to pee,” I told him desperately, and was finally understood. The first nurse came with a bed pan, looking just as annoyed as before, and slid it under me. She left me there to marinate for what seemed like forever, but I didn’t care anymore.
It would be 24 hours before I could physically move myself to a bathroom, but this would be the first and only time that a member of the nursing staff would assist me. Apparently, keeping the patients fed, hydrated, clean and generally alive is not part of their job description.
Perhaps strangely, this was the most distressing part of my hospital stay: needing assistance with bodily functions, and being unable to access the assistance I needed from the nurses. They would only come to administer medicine. There was no nurse call button, no checks. You could die in there, and they wouldn’t notice from 8pm until 6am.
I guess that’s just how it works here, and for sure my hospital bill was not expensive. But I just didn’t expect it, and it did seem somewhat lacking in concern for human dignity.
My lifesaver was, as always, P’Lah. Having never visited Vietnam, he came along for a holiday and ended up being more intimately acquainted with my corporeal being than I am sure either of us would prefer. Usually he’s helping to lever me out from under an upside down motorcycle in the jungle somewhere; this was a different kind of jungle.
* * *
My surgeon messaged me that the operation had gone well. Not only had they successfully replaced my ACL with a piece of my hamstring, but they had also been able to stitch the tear in my meniscus.
Here’s a photo of where my ACL should have been before:
And here’s my new hammy-turned-ACL in all its glory:
Doesn’t that just gladden your heart?
Ultimately, my surgeon was a champion. He rocked up, he did the surgery exactly as promised, and delivered me a new ACL right on budget. He also arranged everything for me when I was in Thailand and had no idea how to do anything in Vietnam. One minute I’m at home in Chiang Mai Facebook messaging a friend of a friend, and the next minute, I’m booked for surgery in Ho Chi Minh City! All I had to do was catch the flight and pay the bill, and the bill was on point.
I was a bit surprised by the nursing set up but I guess that’s what you get when you go for budget surgery in a South East Asian country without your niece or your aunty to sleep by your bedside. My friend Jenna in Cambodia had talked about the necessity of having a “hospital buddy” before but I’d mistakenly assumed that this was all about moral support. It is not.
Now, today I have been discharged from the hospital with crutches. I have to do gentle exercises five times a day, put only 20% weight on my upgraded knee, and practice gently bending my leg to 90 degrees and then back to 0 degrees. I have only 7 stitches which will come out after 14 days, and almost no pain.
Since my easy commuting range is currently limited to about 150m of crutch hobbling, I’ve retired to a very nearby hotel to lick my wounds. There are many reasonably priced hotels here, even if most of them charge by the hour as well as by the day.
I am trying not to think too hard about what the velour armchair in my room has seen before. But I have privacy, soft pillows, towels, and hot water, and I regret nothing.
Today I spent some quality time balanced on one foot like a flamingo as I gave myself a wash, and it felt like luxury. I can’t help thinking that all this standing on one foot might even improve my balance for when I get back to riding. Better faster stronger, right?
Big love to all you lovely people who’ve sent me good wishes for the recovery. It’s all coming together.