I was bit the beginning of September, which also coincides with the beginning of the rainy season in Nicaragua. September and October are the rainiest months of the year in Nicaragua. The river in my community that had run dry during the dry season, from November to May, was now spilling its banks. On a rainier day it could be more than chest deep in some spots. On less rainy days the people in the community could hop across the river on big stragetically-placed boulders, since there was no bridge. I crossed the river many times in a day. When I taught English classes at the small elementary school twice a week, I crossed the river twice to get to the school. I ate lunch and dinner with two different families who happened to live on the opposite side of the river from me. I would cross the river to join them for meals and also to work with other families on various projects, such as chicken vaccinations, small family gardens, and simple cooking classes. Plus, I spent a lot of time just visiting and getting to know people in the small farming community. Many of the times, I would cross the river on the rocks, but sometimes they were under water or I would cross at a place with no rocks to step on. So, I had no choice but to go through the river. I took care of my leg, I washed it twice a day and applied the ointment. I kept a bandage on it to keep the dirt out and so that I wouldn’t get too much sun on it. The leg was slow to heal. The large hole didn’t get a scab, it just oozed for weeks. The smaller puncture wounds hurt more because they were in the calf muscle, but they seemed to be healing better.
In October I needed to go to the Peace Corps office for my annual check up, to make sure I was still healthy enough to stay in-country for my second year of service. I made the appointment for the second Friday in October (my birthday is the first and I was planning a party, so I decided to put it off until the second week). A few days before the doctor appointment I began to feel like I was coming down with a cold. When I bent over to tie my shoe, my arm brushed my right leg and it felt warm to the touch. I thought perhaps it was warm from the sun. The color of the drainage from my leg changed from reddish-brown to yellow. I figured the appointment was only a few days away and I would certainly have the doctors take a look at my leg when I got to Managua.
The morning of the appointment, I woke up early, around 4 am. I trudged 40 minutes through knee-deep puddles and mud to get to San José to catch the 5 am Expresso to Managua. It was standing room only. I stood and tried to keep my leg out of the fray as more passengers boarded and disembarked the bus. My leg throbbed as I swayed on my feet, clinging to the guide rail above me. After about an hour and a half, I was able to nab a seat. I fell asleep and slept the rest of the way to Managua. I made it to the Peace Corps office, but I was not feeling well. I hoped they would be able to give me something for a cold.
The doctors had not arrived yet to the office, so I dozed while I waited for them. Ximena came in first and ushered me into an exam room. She checked my chart and talked about my health in general. She looked in my eyes, my ears, and down my throat. She asked me if I was taking the chloroquine to prevent malaria. I asked her if she wanted to know the truth or if I should just tell her I am in compliance. I told her the medicine made me have crazy psychedelic dreams which made it hard for me to sleep. Plus, it was making my hair fall out. So, I stopped taking it. I told her malaria was less of an issue in my community, that dengue fever was a far bigger threat. She gave me some different malaria meds and suggested I try those. Then she asked me about me leg. I explained to her that it wasn’t healing very well. She asked to see it. So, I hopped up on the exam table and rolled up my pant leg. Her back was to me, writing in my chart, as I eased the still-damp bandage off of my leg. Doctora Ximena turned around, looked at my leg and shouted, “Oh my god!” Then she ran from the room.
I sat bewildered, wondering what just happened. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Ximena came back in with Doctor Eduardo, chattering in Spanish that they needed to do something about my leg that maybe they would need to “cut it out” and perhaps it would be best if I was sent to Panama for more thorough medical attention (if a volunteer has a serious enough medical issue or emergency, they are sent to USA equivalent hospitals. The closest to us in Nicaragua was in Panama City, Panama). Doctor Eduardo calmed the doctora down and then turned to me to explain. He said I had a very bad infection in my leg and they were worried about it. I would need to stay close to the Peace Corps office (they did not have places for us to stay in the office, but put us up in a local hotel – which compared to living in the poor rural villages, it was like staying in the Ritz!). He wanted to send me for testing to see what type of infection it was and also to make sure I was not diabetic, since the leg was so slow to heal. Doctora Ximena explained that I would not be going back to my home community and that I would need to be seen by the doctors every day until the wound healed.
“But!” I exclaimed, “I don’t have a change of clothes with me and no one in my community knows I will not be coming back and-and-and I don’t even have a tooth-brush!” Doctora Ximena said I could simply buy the things I needed here in Managua, but I pleaded my case and begged to be allowed to go home this afternoon and return the following day, first thing in the morning. Had the doctors known this would require trudging through dirty mud puddles and crossing the river, they might not have consented.
I quickly left the Peace Corps office and took a cab to the lab across town. When the lab technician jabbed a long cotton swab into my leg, an intense pain shot up my leg, not unlike when the lime juice was squeezed on the wound. My stomach rolled as I gritted my teeth and tears of pain rolled down my face. A wave of cold sweat washed over me. My vision became cloudy and the tech yelled for someone to bring me some juice. Once again I was on the brink of passing out. After what seemed like an eternity, the lab tech ceased his torture, and I hobbled out to hail a cab, my leg throbbing in protest. The cab dropped me off at the bus terminal and I decided to take an Inter-local van to Leon, hoping to catch the 3:00 pm bus from Leon to El Sauce. The 3 pm bus deposited me at San Jose around 5 pm and I slowly stumbled home, as the setting sun cast long shadows ahead of me.
I arrived home to find my boy-friend’s sister, Masiel, sitting in my hammock. She had been taking care of my dog while I was gone for the day and decided to come meet me at my place. She also told me her mother had invited me over for dinner. Gratefully, I followed her across the river to her place and accepted the dinner of white rice, red beans, and a fresh, warm corn tortilla. I then explained to Juana, one of my closest friends in the community, what the doctors had told me and that I would need to return first thing in the morning. She was worried about me and asked me how long I would be gone. I explained that I did not know, the doctors weren’t really sure what they were going to do with me yet.
I left her place and went to another friend’s house close by, to tell her the news and to ask if she would puppy-sit. When I told her the doctor’s said I had an infection, she burst into tears.
“Oh, I don’t want you to die!” she wailed and flung herself upon me, sobbing into my shoulder. I patted her on the back and promised not to die, feeling she was being a little over-dramatic. She sniffled and explained that some family member she had got an infection in their leg. The doctor’s amputated the leg, but the person still died not too long afterward. I was not fearful, knowing I had good doctors looking after me; doctors who were trained in the US and would send me back to the States if things got that bad. I told her I would be fine and not to worry, I would be back good as new.
My boyfriend came over to my house that night and I told him what happened at my doctors visit earlier. He told me my leg was not healing because we were intimate with one another. I said this was nonsense, but he insisted, telling me a tale of a woman in the community who hurt her foot. She was sleeping with two men and because she was having sex, her foot just would not heal. In fact, her injury got worse. I knew the woman he was talking about and had witnessed the pain she was in each and every step she took. My husband explained to me that her small injury to her foot was exacerbated by her being intimate with men and caused the foot to twist and turn so that the bottom of her foot faced up and she in essence was walking on her ankle. I chided him for his folkloric belief and we made love to tide us over, while I underwent treatment in Managua.
I returned to Managua on the Expresso the next morning and checked into Hotel Europeao, two blocks from the Peace Corps office. The office was closed because it was Saturday so I would not be seeing the doctors until Monday. I indulged myself in a nice hot shower, washing the dust and grit off of my body. I scrubbed my leg, as instructed by the doctors and then turned on the TV. Few families in my community had TVs. Those who did, could only choose from 2-3 channels which all showed the same things, gruesome news stories and over-dramatic telenovelas. I avoided Nicaraguan TV like the plague. But, the hotel had cable. I settled in and found some Friends re-runs. Later that afternoon, my roommate returned. She was a volunteer who had been on the Caribbean coast in the town of Bluefields. The Peace Corps closed all posts in the RAAN and RAAS (North Atlantic Autonomous Region and South Atlantic Autonomous Region) due to increased danger from the growing drug traffic moving up the Caribbean coast. The Peace Corps also restricted any travel by volunteers to these areas, which was a shame because the Caribbean coast was the most beautiful area of the country. My roommate was now stationed on the Island of Ometepe with her boyfriend, another volunteer nicknamed El Gigante because he was to tall and burley. We decided to go to dinner together, since there were very few volunteers around.
After dinner I called home. My mother was not expecting my call, since I next to never called home on a Saturday evening. Therefore, her first question was, “What’s wrong?” I explained to her about my leg and that I was in Managua indefinitely.
“I told you so,” was her response. I said I did not know what type of infection it was, but I was back on some heavy-duty antibiotics to help fight it. I told her about over-hearing the doctors talking about “cutting” it out and she said that they would do that if the infection seemed to be progressing too rapidly for the antibiotics to really help. She said this might not be a bad option, since it would mean the infected area would be removed and the leg should heal more rapidly. I did not want to go to Panama City, as much as I would like to see other places in the world, I did not want to be shipped out to some random city and have my leg hacked apart.
Thankfully, that did not happen. Monday morning I went to the Peace Corps office bright and early. I saw a different doctor and she told me that I had a Staphylococcus infection – in laymen’s terms, a staph infection. I would need to come to the office twice a day to get my leg scrubbed with a vile-smelling iodine soap and I would also need to scrub it when I showered every night. I had to keep it bandaged and coated with a thick white antibiotic ointment. I was staying in Managua for at least a week.
At first, it was nice being in town. No chickens were crowing at obscene hours of the night or day, I could use the computer whenever I felt like, watch all the US re-runs I could stand, and eat food that wasn’t beans, rice, or tortillas. But, I was lonely. I missed my own little home with it’s dirt floors and outside “shower.” I loved taking my bucket bath under the stars. The cool water running down my back as I gazed up in awe of the amount of stars I could see and how brilliant they appeared. On clear nights it felt like I could reach up and pluck one from the sky. I missed my dog, Canela, and my two cats, Sullie and Guapo. I also really missed my friends Juana and Martina and of course, my boyfriend Nelson. After the first week, I was ready to go back to my Nica home. But, on Friday the doctors announced I would be staying until at least Monday. Then they would re-evaluate how my leg was progressing at that time and determine how much longer I would be staying with them.
After this proclamation, I returned to my room dejectedly and decided to take a nice hot shower. It was the one of the only things I had not gotten tired of in the past week, the other being getting my clothes washed in washing machines rather than the river – fabric softener never smelled and felt so good!. In Nicaragua, in all but the two largest and fanciest hotels, the water is heated by a hot water heater located somewhere in the bowels of the hotel. Rather, most of the hotels had an electric heater attached right to the shower head and the water passed through the heater before raining down on sudsy heads. A few days previous I noticed I would get a slight shock when I touched the metal shower knob. I didn’t think much of it and chalked it up to operator ineptitude. Before I disrobed I reached into the shower to turn it on and let the water get hot. When I stepped inside, I grabbed the knob to change the temperature and received a rather nasty shock. And then I heard a loud POP! I looked up and noticed sparks fly out of the heater and a small fire erupt from the wires behind it. There was an electric fire above me and I was standing in water. Not a great combination. I yelped and jumped from the shower as the flames grew. My roommates boyfriend yelled to me, “Are you ok?”
“Uh, no there’s a fire!” I yelled back, grabbing the tiny towel and trying my best to tuck all the goods inside. I finally pulled my t-shirt on and used the towel as a skirt.
“I’m coming in, ok?” he called back.
I huddled, dripping wet in the corner of the tiny bathroom as El Gigante stormed in and quickly smothered the flames with a towel. He used the same towel to turn the water off.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, averting his eyes from my half-naked form.
Self-consciously I shrugged and replied, “I think I’m fine. Just a little shaken up. And, I don’t know how I’m going to finish my shower now.”
I ended up calling the hotel and taking a shower in another room. After that fiasco, I was too exhausted to go out to eat, so I read a book until I fell asleep. I slept a lot more, as my body fought the staph infection in my leg.
I was going stir-crazy being stuck in this hotel room. Some volunteer friends would pass through, but none stayed for more than a day or two. Plus, eating out in Managua was getting expensive. My modest stipend was plenty when I was living in my tiny rural pueblo, but here in the big city, I was spending money hand over fist. It was nice being more in-touch with my parents and with friends via the internet, but I missed the personal connection. And, due to constantly bouncing from air conditioning to the hot Nicaraguan sun combined with an immune system busy fighting the good fight with my infected leg, I got a nasty head cold. In short, I was pretty darn miserable.
Fortunately, a fellow Aggie was coming to town because her boyfriend was visiting. Kristen and I met up in the Peace Corps lounge/library/post office/computer lab the Wednesday following my second week of imprisonment in the Hotel Europeao. The doctors decided Monday that I was not ready to head back, but would take another look on Wednesday. I told her what happened and winced at how sore my leg was after the morning’s scrub. She said she was sorry I was hurt and also that I was going stir crazy. We talked about how weird it was that when we are in our little farming communities cut off from the world all we want to be able to do is use the internet and sit in air conditioning, yet how quickly we become bored with these things when we have them.