I once heard someone say, “There are no strangers, only friends we have yet to meet.” (Hey Chris) Nowhere has that been made more true than here in Mongolia.
Let’s see… up until this point, I’ve backpacked through Europe, sailed across the South Pacific, volunteered on varied farms in Oceania, taught English and trekked to EBC in Nepal, experienced Thailand’s wet and wild new year… what special experience would Mongolia have install for me… hmmmm… It’s got to be something different. Oh! I know… how about a hernia repair.
Surgery in a foreign land was the last thing on my list of lists of experiences and desires but as the irony of life mocks our illusion of control from time to time, all we can do is suck in the experience and hope it doesn’t hurt too much… physically, mentally, spiritually, financially, or otherwise. But as Perry grew and further complications arose, an intervention was desperately needed.
My brother, Tony, had an interesting response – “DO YOU KNOW HOW CRAZY THAT SOUNDS?!?” He would later tell me, “All I kept picturing was Chevy Chase in ‘Spies Like Us’… “Doctor. Doctor. Doctor. Doctor. Doctor.” “… and you sprawled out on a wooden table in a tent shared by chickens and cows.”
The facilities weren’t quite that archaic. Simple, yes, and more importantly, efficient.
Was I scared? The only thing I was scared of was for my decision to be a bad idea. Invariably, I was asked many times by the doctors and staff, my students, and my guesthouse hosts… “Are you scared?” I responded with the most honest answer I could surmise… “Not yet.”
Haliuna’s father suggested that maybe I could get a discount on the surgery for the work I was doing at the hospital. I never pushed the issue, nor did I ever inquire. I was told surgery and the necessary hospital stay would run me 1,000$ (the foreigners price). No problem! Compared to running the risk of bankruptcy having it performed in America, this was a basement bargain price. However! Haliuna, the Nursing Director, and the Hospital Director all pushed the issue for me. Right up to the morning before surgery I was expecting to pay what I was originally quoted, and then the phone rang. The director had good news. Rather then being charged the ‘out of country’ fee, I’d be getting the operation for the local’s price of T250,000 (180$US). Unbelievable! Paid up front, this covered the operation and my six day hospital stay. And so it began…
I checked into the hospital on August 4th, paid my bill with a fist full of Mongolian bills, and was escorted to room #303 on the surgery ward. No gowns are worn by patients. You wear what you bring from home. Every floor has it’s own cafeteria run by soup kitchen nazis or SKNs. Who ran a tight shift and restrict your diet according to some invisible time line set to your surgery schedule. The Mongolians are VERY particular about theirs and yours diet. I was reprimanded on several occasions. And absolutely, no visitors were allowed on the floor.
I had arrived just in time for lunch, and when I filed in line behind the pale, hunched over patients all holding one hand across their abdomen, and the other clutching their dishes from home (That’s right, BYOD – bring your own dishes) Slowly, one by one, they all turned around and stared at me in a bewildered wide-eyed gaze. As if a record had just screeched to a halt, I now held the attention of everyone in the room and behind the counter. Oh boy…
It was Tuesday and I had a class at 4. It would be my last one for a week or so. So I went, taught, returned to my room, took a nap, and missed dinner… damn it! I was starving and my next meal was at least 15hours away. Having no other options, I sneaked out of the hospital and strolled on down to a bar for dinner. Don’t worry… I was good and had only chicken soup and tea… but then the cell phone, which Haliuna had lent me, rang… it was Haliuna.
“Where are you?!”
“At the hospital. Why?”
“They are looking for you!”
Caught! Crap. I headed back to the hospital and met my nurse with a smile, who in return, greeted me with an enema. I think it was part required/part punishment. Recalling Mrs. Strassburger’s words, (hey, Jake) “It’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than it is for permission.” At least I had a full belly… empty bowels, but a full belly.
After some time on the toilet, the nurse then lanced my finger tip with a 20g needle, collecting seven healthy drops of blood into seven concave depressions of a glass mold. What’s happening now? After she added a few drops of solution to each, she swirled them around, waited about five minutes, and swirled some more, she studied the drops intensely then pulled out a stamper and stamped my bedside paperwork with an “O”. Ah, my blood type.
The surgery went without a hitch. The epidural was, by far, the strangest experience my body has ever encountering. I had two young comedic doctors, Dr.Onon and Dr. Sanchen, standing over me for nearly two hours transfixed in a downward gaze. Only a thin piece of cloth separated my reality from theirs as they sliced a three inch opening down my abdomen and gave me intermittent updates in English.
“Wow. Very big! We cut more because it’s bigger than we thought.”
“Not yet… do you think I can hit the disco tonight?”
The doctors laughed… then they translated in Mongolian to the room full of staff and observers… then they laughed.
“Not yet… I’m looking for a Mongolian girl.”
Then they started pawning off the young doctor who performed my epidural, who was the very same one I met my first day teaching, the one who asked me to teach her staff CPR.
“Dr. Hajedma isn’t married.” The doctors told me.
“I know.” more laughter…
Due to Perry’s nature I had to have some mesh sewed into place as well, adding reinforcement and faster recovery. I was all for it. Dr. Sanchen poked his head over the curtain and showed me the 4x2inch synthetic material displaying a radiopaque “M”.
“M, is for ‘mesh’…”
He told me, and as he disappeared behind the curtain Dr. Onon appeared from the other side and said,
“… M, is for ‘Mongolia’.”
The two doctors broke out horse laughing. The translations were made, and a second round of laughter swept through the room. They were a jolly bunch.
It was exactly 2 hours between leaving room 303 and returning. I was minus an ice cube size piece of flesh that was my hernia, and given a Mongolian mesh souvenir in it’s place. I was also sporting a nice surgical scar – my new Mongolian tattoo.
I fell asleep as soon as I was rolled back into bed for an hour and awoke to the Nursing Director standing over me holding onto three suppositories… “For pain.” she tells me. Okaaaaay… suppositories?… for pain control? I couldn’t help but to think about a line from the movie ‘Trainspotting’…
“Oh, yeah, for all the good they’ve done me, I might as well have stuck them up my arse!”
I still had about two hours of residual left from my epidural so I was still doing alright at this point. I still couldn’t feel my legs… “I can’t feel my legs!”
A nurse came in with lunch for me – mutton soup with a side of rice. Fantastic! I was ravenous.
I was soon feeling everything below my diaphragm once again, including the onset of pain, but I hadn’t taken anything yet. If i didn’t move, I was fine… I thought. But while occupying my mind reading a short story, that’s when everything went horribly wrong…
I was reading a simple travel story… about a guy biking through some island in Thailand. But nowhere could he find a reliable map, if any, of the island. This was just a year after the tsunami had hit the region. So resources were scarce. After a mad search, he finds one, but it had no street names or village names on it… just a map of the island and the roads. “It’ll have to do.” He tells himself, figuring he’ll be able to ask locals for help along the way. Six hours into his first day riding, he’s completely lost. Stopping numerous times to consult the map with locals, no one could agree to his whereabouts according to the map… UNTIL… he meets an old man who takes the map from this weary traveler and says, “Ahhhh.” After studying it carefully, the old man lifts his head up and asks, “Your country?”
I don’t know what it was, the parallel scenario of my dilemma, trapped within a foreign land, not being able to communicate, simply wondering “How the hell did I get here.” or what, but… I lost it. At the immediate onset of laughter I started crying in pain. The more I tried not to laugh, the more I couldn’t help it, the more I couldn’t help it, the greater the pain was, the greater the pain was, the harder I laughed.
Two nurses, thank god, came into the room bewildered. Now imagine their surprise… they’re drawn into a room of a foreigner who speaks three words of Mongolian, he’s by himself in the room, hysterical, laughing and crying out loud, laying naked on his back, clutching onto a suppository, struggling in vein to place it in himself. I looked up at the two of them with tears streaming down my face, “help.” is all I could squeak out, before losing it in laughter and pain once again. One of the nurses donned a pair of gloves and assisted my needs. Walking out of the room looking back at me, smiling in confusion, she mustered in broken English, “Okay?” I gave her the thumbs up and started to giggle, “Okay!”
Surprisingly, the magical “ass pills”, as they were referred to, worked considerably well. Which brings up another interesting point… It was perfectly acceptable to take your own medication which most, if not all, drugs could be bought w/o a Rx. Since pain meds are considered ‘extra’, most Mongolians don’t/can’t afford to take them. I was ever thankful for those magical bullets. When I ran out, I limped my way down to the hospital pharmacy and purchased some more for about a dollar a piece.
My stay was very comfortable and touching. I had daily visits from my adopted Mongolian parents, Haliuna and Gana; Baska, my teacher; students and staff were all looking after me. I even had a visit from the gal who helped me look for a motorcycle during my first week here. I was gifted with homemade chicken soups, chocolates, and treats. I was left in awe thinking how I have only come to know these people over the last four weeks and I felt like I’ve known them my whole life.
I’m four weeks out now and doing alright. It’ll be another three or four weeks before I’m allowed to perform any real activity such as a push up or sit up, but I’m gaining weight, feeling fine, living happily without Perry.