My apologies for the silence of the past week. After ten months of teaching maybe twelve hours a week, this sudden jump to over thirty has left me with absolutely no recollection of how to manage my time. I meant to write about my recent trip to UB last night, but that was before the evening went so thoroughly awry that all thoughts of getting any work done were summarily dispensed with. I don’t mean the “the power’s out and my computer’s dead, so I guess I can’t plan my lessons” sort of awry, either; I mean the sort that results in blood on the carpet and freaking out your friends with text like, “how deep does a cut need to be to require medical attention?”
Like everything else in this apartment, our knives are cheap and shoddily made. One of the first skills I learned here was how to sharpen them on the unglazed bases of our ceramic bowls, but while you can use this method to put on an unexpectedly good edge, it never holds for more than a day or two. So I’ve grown accustomed to brute-forcing my way through carrots, potatoes, and beets with dull knives and a carelessness that nearly always earns me a few nicks on the days when I actually think to sharpen them. (Yes, I know my Scouting readers are shaking their heads and threatening to take away my Totin’ Chip. I don’t blame you; if I was my merit badge instructor, I would too.)
Today, it was not I who did the sharpening, but my roommate’s brother, and he actually used the back of another knife for the purpose. I thumbed the edge when he’d finished, unimpressed; it didn’t seem that much sharper than it had been before. But I figured it would do; at least it wouldn’t be a struggle to slice bread.
And then I attempted to cut the slightly-moldy part off of a carrot and made two discoveries. First, that the carrot was more rotten than I’d thought and offered almost no resistance, and second, that the knife was much sharper than I’d taken it to be. So sharp, in fact, that it sliced straight into my finger without causing any actual pain; the sensation was one of surprise more than anything. And then I was standing over the sink, rinsing away the dirt and holding tightly to stem the flow of quite a lot of blood. Sh*t, I thought, surveying the damage. That’s probably going to need stitches.
Brother got a look at the wound and turned away with a grimace of disgust. I’d not anticipated squeamishness from a people so tough, but obviously, some people are more easily grossed out than others. If you’re among the former category, I’d suggest you stop reading now, because I am not. And because I hang out with people who spend an inordinate amount of time discussing poop, even while eating, and so I have misplaced my that’sgrosspeopledon’twanttoknowthat filter. You’ve been warned.
Rather than go straight to the hospital, as would probably have been advisable, I sat around holding a dishrag wound about my finger for a while. I’m indecisive under the best of circumstances; under duress, I freeze, fret, and cry. My first thought upon seeing how deeply I’d cut myself was that I probably would need stitches – but I’d never had stitches, so who was I to make that judgement? Brother hadn’t suggested we head across the street, so maybe I was just overreacting. Plus I wasn’t sure how well I could navigate a hospital with my limited Mongolian, and the PCV who worked there sounded like she trusted it about as far as the students at Miami had trusted McCullagh & Hyde (which is to say, not very far; we called the place “kill ’em and hide ’em”). Also, I was pretty sure my Fulbright insurance coverage had expired the previous Friday; would that be a problem? But not going could very well be a bigger problem; that large a flap of flesh wasn’t going to graft itself back on with ease. Maybe I should take some ibuprofen while I sat here figuring out what to do, since that would help with the pain and swelling. But if aspirin was an anticoagulant, didn’t that mean ibuprofen probably was as well? Taking an anticoagulant while bleeding seemed unwise.
And so it was it about this point in the evening that I started snapping at the two-year-old niece every time she toddled into my room and making sounds of frustration when the brother tried to ask me questions in Mongolian too fast and complex for me to understand. Who yells at a two-year-old when she calls you “big sister” and asks if you hurt your hand? Me, apparently: sharp-tongued, dull-witted me, the girl who starts crying after she cuts her finger open, not because it hurts, but because she just wants someone to tell her whether she needs to go get stitches or find some gauze to stop the bleeding herself.
Well, gauze was a place to start. I didn’t have any, but the Peace Corps Volunteers all have medical kits, and those would probably have gauze. Kevin would be closest, and after coaching for so long, he was sure to have extensive medical training. So it was away from the hospital and off to Kevin’s I went (though not without first grabbing some cash in case we ended up there).
I probably should have saved myself the walk and the seven-story climb. I think even Kevin knew the probable prognosis when I moved to the sink before unwrapping the dishrag. Kevin surveyed the damage for approximately a millisecond before declaring, “ooh, that’s deep. That’s gonna need stitches.”
But at least now, as I headed to the hospital, I at least had a few friends in tow, and one of them was even Mongolian. When we entered the “emergency room” (it was a room, and the door did say “emergency,” but mostly it just looked empty), Suvdaa explained to the clerk what I had done to myself and to me what I’d need to to do to get myself stitched up again. The sum total of my paperwork: my full name, age, and Mongolian address. They didn’t take my phone number or my passport number, which I’m required to produce every time I want to purchase so much as a bus or train ticket. They didn’t make a fuss about me not having insurance; they didn’t even ask if I had any. They just asked me to write down those three facts on a scrap of paper, once they managed to find a blank one.
And then I was following a doctor in mint-colored scrubs into the next room, where he sat me down on a plastic stool as he set a ceramic basin on a table covered with paper that looked clean, but probably wouldn’t be changed until it stopped looking that way. You are so going to get some sort of disease from this place, whispered part of my brain – the part that’s seen that most Mongolians don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom and slice bread with the same knife and cutting board they just used to cut frozen, but raw, meat. But the doctor snapped on gloves before setting to work, and the syringe of anesthetic came from a sealed package; so far as I could tell, everything that needed to be sanitary was.
If I’d thought about it, I probably would have realized that injecting a digit full of fluid would a) force most of the blood from the wound and b) make the afflicted area swell to roughly twice its normal size, so that the wound began to turn itself inside out. But, never having needed stitches before, I hadn’t, and so this part of the process was characterized mostly by alarm. Also by pain. The doctor snorted at me as I winced and gasped and grimaced, asking how old I was the way you’d ask the same question of a teenager throwing a toddler-type temper tantrum. But this was the part that was supposed to make the process hurt less; how on earth could getting anesthetic injected into the cut be more painful than the actual cut? And did he really need to move the needle eight frakking times, or progress from less to more sensitive parts of my finger every time he did so?
Happily, the drugs had kicked in by the time he broke out the actual sewing materials; that part I didn’t feel at all. I couldn’t quite bring myself to look as the needle went in, but I did find myself watching as he knotted off the first two stitches. The first two of exactly how many, I’m not sure. It was at this point that the world around me began to dissolve into a vivid shade of purple laced with yellow lightning bolts, the sort of color combination that compels you to put your head down whether you want to or not. I’m dehydrated; I need water, I managed to think through the most extreme light-headedness I’ve ever experienced, but in that state, the ability to assemble and voice the phrase “Ус байна уу?” eluded me.
Happily, the doctor, having noted my distress and inability to do anything but focus on not sliding off my backless little stool, summoned Kevin and Suvdaa, and the two glasses of water Kevin brought me did wonders. The world returned to a reasonable color spectrum, and I was able to sit upright and watch as the doctor wound a roll of gauze around his handiwork.
In the end, the entire process cost me 5,000 tugriks – the average hourly wage for a teacher, equivalent to roughly $3.50 in USD. It is also, apparently, the cost of a little iodine, a syringe of Novocaine, and some surgical thread. I’m not sure how many different things you get billed for during your average trip to an American emergency room, but all the Erdenet Hospital charged me for was materials.
There’s an argument to be made, I’m sure, about the costs of healthcare and the pros and cons of the American system, but it shall have to be made at a time when I’m not exhausted and mistyping every other word because my left middle finger’s doing double duty. For the moment, I’m just glad the process was quick, easy, and cheap.
If I start to develop gangrene, I’ll let you know.