Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A South Pacific Nightmare

This past November I was jet-set and bound for the States and the coming ski season in Utah. Little did I know but a short stop in Tonga on the way lead  me straight into some pretty intense drama. A few days of summer turned into a medical mess. That's what you get with summers, this is why I am a follower of WINTER!

After a couple days of scuba diving off of the idyllic tropical island of Vava'u, in the remoteness of the South Pacific, I fell ill. Not the sicky-flu-like ill but more the hard to breath, my chest hurts, why is there so much pressure behind my eyes? kind of ill. "Oh Shit I'm bent," I thought. What do I do now? Well, you go to the hospital is what you do, but there isn't a decompression facility anywhere nearby, not a one in the country as matter of fact. Ultimately I was admitted to a medical institution which was more what I would have imagined a prison in Southeast Asia to look like. First and foremost there was no soap, instead there were cats. There was morphine though and I will say that it is an interesting experience being awakened by dozens of biting mosquitoes when writhing in an opioid sea. At first the local doctor wasn't convinced that I was suffering from anything related to the dives. By morning however he began to reconsider his evaluation after results of a normal blood count came back. He didn't quite know what to think. Ironically this is close to where I am sitting with the illness even now.
Jesus is honestly a pain in my ass. You could be plagued with illness but the only thing you are going to be able to do in Tonga on a Sunday is go and pray, rest assured.  In this religiously absorbed area of the third world there is nowhere to buy anything, including a phone card. Obviously these people must have not been praying hard enough if a white boy from afar can't use a telephone on a Sunday, right?. With no help from anyone and in a hazed delirium, it took incredible effort to achieve even the most basic of communications. Eventually, I found that I actually could make calls to far away places with the assistance of my credit card number. This, however, was like signing the phone receiver with blood as the calls were more than $6USD a minute. It was somewhere around this time that I remembered that my international evacuation insurance had lapsed. My calls to the nearest American embassy (in Fiji) were unfruitful as well due to the Sunday effect at hand.
In the case that I was suffering from the bends the best solution was to be re-compressed in a hyperbaric chamber as soon as possible. This is generally a problem when you are on a remote island without a chamber. The only access to or from the island is either by boat or by plane. To get to a facility a boat would likely  be too slow and a plane would likely take you too high, which can exacerbate symptoms even further due to the pressure change. I'm not sure what was worse by this point, illness or anxiety.
Three and a half days later I walked down the tarmac of the local airstrip, approaching a small prop plane bound for Tongatapu (the main island of Tonga and the only international connecting hub). Very nervously, I approached the captain of the plane while boarding the aircraft and explained my situation. The Kiwi recruited pilot said to me that he would see what he could do and that he would try to keep the cabin pressurized to a near sea-level equivalent. I sat in the first row of seats on the puddle jumper, right behind the pilot. As we took off I noticed that he had the operations manual open on his lap, obviously this wasn't standard procedure! Every now and then he looked back and signaled to me with his hands to see how I was handling the ascent. I was very uneasy about what was going on as I really wasn't sure if my head was going to explode at any minute! (That wont actually happen but it can still be dangerous for a bent individual. I didn't know the extent of the danger at the time) I had close eyes on my altimeter watch during the entire flight.We ended up landing without incident less than an hour later at our destination.
The captain had kept the pressure below a 1600 foot elevation equivalent. I still wasn't sure if i was safe yet though, I didn't know how I was going handle the 12 hour flight from there to Los Angeles. I knew very well that the captain of the trans-Pacific, jumbo jet was certainly not going to fly by the seat of his pants the way the puddle jumper pilot had. Ultimately, after a 12 hour round of the local diarrheal pleasures, I postponed my flight 36 hrs. Unfortunately  I then had to fly back to New Zealand to be able to get to L.A.. Scheduling was as such for the rest of the week, adding another good five hours of flight time and a six hour layover in Auckland to the already long haul. Eventually I got back to Salt Lake City where I rolled out of the plane and into the emergency room for evaluation. I received hyperbaric treatments the two days that followed.
As I sit now I feel I bit better but not even close to normal and doctors are puzzled as to what I have or have had happen to me. The Bends? Maybe. Something else? Maybe. Skiing is on hold for this lad for the near future. This is ironic considering the massive winter that has unfolded over much of the North American continent and Utah particularly. The piles of snow in the woods of CT are going to have to please my visual senses for now. We shall see how well that works out. Wish me luck.

Funny Note: Over the years I have learned some tricks of the trade when it comes to maximizing the amount of baggage that you can bring onto the plane while minimizing the cost of it. In this trick-of-the-sick I asked the check-in lady at the airport desk in Tonga to take my photo after putting on my ski boots to wear onto the plane. The guys at security had no idea what they even were and I doubt that they had ever seen snow in their lives. They asked me what they were and I responded, "Oh, I have bad ankles," so that they wouldn't question what I was doing. Once through security, they went straight back into my carry on bag. I have thought to threaten to do this for years and it's ironic that the first person that gave me enough shit about baggage weight for me to actually do it was in a random tropical island!