Everybody has a travel nightmare story and everybody has a medical nightmare story. Unfortunately mine combined into one hellish event that unfolded in possibly the worst town, in the worst country for medical facilities. Potosi, Bolivia.
My friend Caleb and I had just finished a tour of the famous Potosi mines (pretty much the only reason to go there). It was hot, dark, sweaty and scary, but what a fantastic feeling it was coming back into the oxygen-filled light when it ended. We high-fived and stripped out of our dirty overalls. My foot was itchy. I scratched at it like a madman.
I picked up some rum on the way back to the hostel and we chilled on our beds for a bit to relax. Foot still incredibly itchy, to the point I was actually annoying my roommates from scratching it so much. How could a mosquito bite cause such irritation? So I propped my left foot up on the bed to take a look… Hmmm. What is that squiggly red line?
“It’s a FUCKING worm!”
Caleb and Rox didn’t believe me at first. Rox said it was just irritated veins. Caleb suggested it might be a tumour. Thanks guys, but veins don’t squiggle or make “S” shapes and Caleb, you need to work on your Arnie impressions. At this point I was freaking the fuck out. I’ve watched those youtube videos of people winding foot long tapeworms out of their necks with a pencil. I don’t think we even had a fucking pencil! I did have a swiss army knife though.
“CUT IT OUT!”
I begged Rox and Caleb to slice me open and get the thing out of my body. It was just under the skin, we even saw it move (I think). They both thankfully called me an idiot and talked me into finding a Doctor. What’s the word for Doctor in Spanish? Nobody knew. The hostel receptionist couldn’t even tell us where a clinic was. Fantastic. Before wandering the streets of Potosi looking for help I decided to post a picture of my foot on Facebook asking for advice.
So we hit the pavement and found a chemist to see if they could direct us to some medical help. Luckily there was a Doctor there who took a quick look, said it looked quite serious and gave us directions to the hospital. We walked past dozens of people in the waiting area and I showed my foot to a confused looking receptionist. She simply shook her head and ignored me. I guess this wasn’t the worm hospital. Some random dude ended up pointing towards an alleyway across the road, the adventure continued.
I entered a doorway next to a bouncing nightclub. I saw ugly green painted walls and the smell of disinfectant filled my nostrils, this must be the place. A Doctor promptly appeared. He was wearing blue Crocs and a fake Adidas tracksuit. He couldn’t have been over twenty one years old, this kid was still struggling with acne. So Señor Doogie Howser takes me to an exam room to have a peek. Caleb joined us as a translator. “There’s something in your foot” said Captain Obvious. Oh really? I was here to get my prostate checked shit-for-brains!
Then Doogie produced some sharp things from an empty Fanta bottle. Seems legit.
Slice and dice time. Caleb made a quick exit, he’s not good with blood or bad fashion sense, so it was a double whammy. Young Doogie dug around in my foot for about forty-five minutes and produced plenty of blood, muscle and veins but no worm. He was getting pretty stressed out, I figure it’s because he’s missing his favourite cartoon. So I suggest we stop before there’s nothing else left in my poor left foot. He gave me some medication for infections and shrugged his shoulders. A quick stop in the office to pay the bill before leaving. Twelve dollars. I gave him fifteen and told him to keep the change.
The next morning we caught a cab to Sucre, the capital of Bolivia. Surely there would be better facilities there. Our hotel Manager had a friend who was “the best Doctor in town”. She made a call and he was on his way. Caleb and Rox went out to get drunk while I waited in our room. An older, bearded man in a tweed suit arrived at my door along with a hotel worker to translate for us. Better than Crocs and a tracksuit, good start I guess. He looked at my foot for less than three seconds and asked where I had been over the past few weeks. Brazil and Chile. “Ah! Brazil” he exclaimed. Then he made a quick phone call before scribbling Myiasis on a piece of paper and said he had called a Surgeon to come right away. I dare you to do a Google image search of this condition. After I sufficiently filled my pants with shit I calmed down and did some further research. I firmly decided that I wasn’t full of maggots and remembered the Facebook post.
About three Doctors from Facebookland had replied to my desperate plea for help. They all diagnosed the same thing. Hookworm. I probably contracted it after being bit by a fly near a swimming hole in the Chilean desert. Treatment: three doses of an easy to find antibiotic. Rox popped down the the chemist and was back within ten minutes.
The next morning the Surgeon showed up. I hastily explained in my best Spanish that I wouldn’t require his services and to kindly fuck off. He wasn’t too happy and was obviously quite looking forward to cutting up some gringo’s foot for money. I showed him the medication and he shook his head with vigour telling me that I would probably die. My conscious held strong though and I forced him out the door. It’s a strange and scary feeling telling a medical professional that he is wrong and disobeying his orders. But I had three Facebook Doctors versus his one Bolivian Doctor. It was my decision to make and it was the right one.
I felt better by the next day. My fever subsided and my appetite returned. From what I had read, the larvae which made the track lines in my foot had already hitched a ride in my bloodstream to the intestines, where he intended to set up shop for the long-run. The antibiotic, albendazole quickly took care of the little guy and my battle was won.
The morals of my story are:
- Don’t walk through mud barefoot
- Don’t immediately trust Doctors in third world countries
- Facebook isn’t just for making friends jealous of your holiday pictures