In the West we’re quick to berate hospitals in the developing world for their inferior hygiene standards and dubious methods; I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Some of the time our criticism is justified, born out of bad personal experiences, but as I lay on a Balinese doctor’s couch one day in late January, wincing as a nurse tenderly cleansed and dressed my wounded foot I could only express gratitude for the service I received. Let’s re-wind and I’ll walk you through what happened, step by painful step…
Rising with the sun for banana pancakes by the ocean we started the day in buoyant spirits, excited about riding off on the motorbike to a remote, palm-fringed crescent of white sand that welcomes only the most intrepid beach-worshippers on account of its isolated position down an inaccessible mountainous track. Since much of Bali has volcanic black sand beaches, it felt worth the extra effort. All we needed was a tank of petrol before we hit the tropical, winding coast roads.
Normally we filled the bike with watered-down fuel sold cheaply in old vodka bottles by the side of the road; it is by far our preference to support local people over global corporations. But on this occasion our only option was a chain petrol station. We pulled in at the pumps and I dismounted in my normal way – for the sake of my dignity let’s pretend this was with grace and elegance. With my peripheral vision obscured by my helmet, I failed to see another bike pulling in alongside us and as I swung my leg over, the clash happened. If ever there is a moment when vulgar expletives are necessary, it’s the moment you sear your bare skin on a burning motorbike exhaust. I am admittedly clumsy and accident prone so minor mishaps are common in my daily life, but that didn’t lessen the shock. The pain was instant and piercing, accompanied by hot adrenalin pumping through my body. Slumped against a railing, breathing shakily through the agony, I recalled Ben’s warnings about the dangers of motorbike exhausts in a previous conversation I’ll refer to as “Teaching Rosie How to Be a Good Passenger and Avoid Injury” (a lesson that clearly requires repeating).
I closed my eyes while waves of burning pain shot through my big toe, semi aware of Ben running off to buy toothpaste which he smeared over my damaged skin. It seemed bizarre treatment to me, but he’d once seen a Thai guy do it and believed it would soothe the inferno. While we sat on the concrete forecourt in the beating sun he calmly explained that in his broad experience of such injuries, the next step was hospital. At this horrific thought my lower lip trembled and internally I gave myself a stern warning not to cry. But, inevitably, tears started rolling – proof that I’m not as brave as I aspire to be – and continued throughout the ordeal of having the burn treated by medics. My foot was so sensitive it took some time before I could even allow the nurse to touch it. She was tender and caring; I was a whimpering mess. The moment when she opened up the burn with scissors and a syringe was a particularly low point. Ben held my hand throughout and tried not to laugh at his hysterical girlfriend.
I was given a cocktail of painkillers, antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, along with a burns cream and a 1,400,000.00 Rupiah bill. Shock quickly gave way to frustration – at my own clumsiness, at the reality of the situation. I was warned sternly against getting the foot wet because of the high risk of infection, so for two weeks in stifling island humidity I could only stare longingly at the aqua dreamland surrounding me, unable to swim. Nor could I shower normally; I devised a system that involved wrapping my foot in several plastic bags and holding it in a gravity-defying position by my ear to prevent droplets getting to the bandage. Monsoon downpours didn’t help – the plastic bags became permanent accessories as I hobbled around like an old lady, with my younger man propping me up. There were two elderly women at our guesthouse sprightlier than me, who shot me looks of empathy and I hated the attention it drew; the locals fussed around me with good intentions, but it got tiring. When we could no longer bear to stay in one spot we wrapped me in plastic and braved the seas, arriving ninety minutes later at a small cluster of paradise islands where Ben lifted me off the boat fireman-style, he himself wading knee deep in water.
Eventually, once the skin had sealed over the wound and an alarmingly young doctor had given me his nod of approval, I was allowed back in the water. After weeks of aquatic deprivation, the relief of the cool water surrounding my body was indescribable. But of the whole experience, it was Ben’s handling of the situation that will stay with me. Whilst I don’t want to encourage his ego too much, I will say this: without him I would have been lost. For weeks he dealt singlehandedly with our luggage (three backpacks and a guitar), he sterilised and re-dressed my wound twice-daily with diligence and care, never once complaining, and he kept my spirits up: hero status unquestionably earned.