Seven Months (The Burn)

When one’s jaw hangs grotesquely on its hinges, and ‘many many’ (a rough estimate on the part of a medical professional) stitches sprout from the forehead like coarse hairs on the chins of so many witches, it becomes surprisingly easy (almost absurdly so, I now realize in retrospect) to overlook the severity of a painless (on account of the obliteration of all associated nerve endings) burn on the calf.

Yesterday marks seven months since the motorbike accident I sustained one balmy night in the small Thai town of Thung Song. I was the passenger; my then-boyfriend (who, I’ll clarify to avoid any unintended negative connotations with that description, remains a cherished friend) was driving when we were blind-sided by a turning 18-wheeler (I should, again, clarify for those not in the know that we hit the truck, and not the other way around, otherwise we’d be talking about a truly miraculous happening. Though I suppose the events as they occurred probably warrant such an adjective anyway.).

Much has happened in that time. I spent a week in a Thai hospital (two for Wayne, as they tried desperately to reduce the swelling on his brain and erase a hematoma); my mouth was rigged up with and then rid of a set of ghastly wires; the stitches came out. I said goodbye to my home of a year-and-a-half and ended my relationship of nearly three. I returned to Virginia; attended football games and weddings; visited friends and family in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Chicago, and Florida. I celebrated my first American Thanksgiving in four years. I got a job (two, in fact, if you count the freelance video editing I’ve been doing) that allowed me to return to my college town; I unpacked suitcases in the home of a gracious friend. I survived an extended winter after spending so much time in a land of endless summer; my Thai dog saw his first snow (and took to it quite enthusiastically). I gave new attention to old friendships left to fester and welcomed a number of new kindreds into my life.

There have been joys and frustrations; moments of resilience but also weakness… a sense of purpose paired with a thousand senses of restlessness. I ate, drank, sang, wrote, laughed, cried… but above all tried to appreciate the significance and divinity of each moment. To remind myself that everything I experience is an important step leading up to the next experience– whatever that is, and it’s okay not to know! (I mean, these are all the cliché things you expect someone to become aware of after a near-death experience, right? That sounds dramatic. I hate phrasing it as such, but I’ve  drunk a bit of wine and the fact remains that I was helmetless.)

For those of you who are wondering, Wayne’s been doing wonderful things with his life; perhaps considerably more wonderful than those that I’ve done with mine. I think his story fits the ‘miraculous’ bill more appropriately than mine as well, in that he was approved to begin scuba diving a mere two weeks after his release from the hospital (we’d heard with head trauma it could be anywhere from six months to a year, if at all, before you can handle such pressure changes), and with one of our dearest friends completed his Divemaster certification on the lovely island of Koh Tao. He now leads fellow enthusiasts into the depths to see turtles, enormous grouper, and– the unicorn of Koh Tao– whale sharks. He lives in paradise and has been able to turn a passion into a means of employment. We should all be so lucky, right?

Well of course, nothing remains perfect and just recently he was struck by a bout of dengue fever that allegedly is becoming somewhat epidemic in his region. Dengue is never a pleasant experience (and, as in the case of an Englishman in Thung Song we never had the good fortune to meet, can very infrequently result in death), but most are restored to good health after a miserable and bedridden week. Then again, those with lingering cerebral lesions, such as our friend and protagonist, wind up far more susceptible to seizure and the need to be rushed by speedboat to a Koh Samui hospital (an expense covered by the government, in response to the growing epidemic).

Wayne is fine. He was given meds, has taken it easy, and has once more been approved to do what he loves. But it goes to show that now, even seven months later, this Incident finds ways to rear its ugly head.

So it has gone for me. It didn’t take long for my mouth to begin to open wider and straighter, leaving me at this point only with a sometimes-kind-of-numb-corner-of-my-lip that always takes me by surprise when I notice it. The scar on my forehead has faded so as to only be conspicuous with certain lights and angles. But when my afore-mentioned dog went on a chewing-streak a few months back and destroyed the journal I began as I left Thailand, I entered borderline panic-attack territory as I collected the pieces and, in so doing, set off an unexpected and terrifying thought process concerning all the terrible ‘what-if’s of the accident. I gasped for air and choked down tears, and am so very thankful for the friend who was on G-chat at just the right moment so as to talk me out of my mania.

Neither Wayne nor I recall the accident, which I imagine is in our best interest, but there are times when I’m standing on a street corner, a crosswalk, a Subway platform in New York City… and as the trains or cars approach I get this sickening sensation of impact that sends my heart racing and has me grasp for the nearest solid object in order to steady myself. It’s as though some things will never be thoroughly thrust from the memory, even when they can’t be properly remembered.

And then there’s the burn. I had a jar of Silver Sulfadiazine cream from Thailand I’d invested all my hope in, but I agreed I should visit my family’s clinic before heading out to the Midwest last fall. I was referred to a wound care center and, afraid they’d recommend skin grafts straight away, wasn’t too disappointed when the only doctor available on the day before my departure didn’t accept our insurance.

So I wasn’t seen again until Christmastime. Through the course of my domestic travels, a mixture of a new batch of Sulfadiazine and Vitamin E (you know I like to employ natural solutions when available) had the wound start closing in. Where it once spanned a nearly five-inch diameter, by the time I was back in northern Virginia for the holidays it was down to three. However, a different physician at our clinic was less than impressed.

“Burns should heal in two weeks,” he said. I found it strange that the first physician at that clinic had seen it after a month had already passed and expressed no such concern.

“It’s an unfortunate location, you know?” he continued. “Because of blood flow. If the same burn were on your torso, or on your arm– imagine. The blood flow’s so much better there. But on your leg…”

He went about writing me a referral to the UVA Plastic Surgery department. Once again, I prepared myself for a swift skin-graft recommendation, though at this point I’ll admit to being more willing.

(DadNow, before you seemed really against skin grafts…
MeDad, that was four months ago.
Dad [humored, albeit begrudgingly so]: Four months…)

So imagine my surprise when my plastic surgeon took a more conservative approach.

“Yeah, the Sulfadiazine gets prescribed a lot, and it’s good. Don’t get me wrong. But we’ve got a salve we manufacture here ourselves. It’s got four types of antibiotics and a bunch of other stuff in it that could really kick-start the healing. I’m gonna rub the wound with some silver nitrate… that’ll essentially burn off all the dead skin and kill any bacteria, and then you just apply this new stuff like you were before with the Sulfadiazine. And it’s water soluble! So you can go ahead and shower with it. Rub some Dial soap right in there.”

This was news. For months I’d been showering with a bandaged leg perched on the rim of the bathtub, highly wary of the infective properties of tap water, very thankful that shaving was almost never a consideration in such a season.

Even so, we scheduled an appointment for surgery on February 25, just in case. “Come back in two weeks and we’ll see.”

Well I did, unsure of what his findings would reveal. As it turned out, with the new salve my wound had closed an extra centimeter (significant, when I’d previously considered it to have stagnated). Surgery was canceled. I continued cleansing it in the shower, and applying my Miracle Salve.

Seven months to the day of the accident (and only then), I finally consider the wound closed. The scar is an eyesore and weeps. Dr. Campbell assured me scars continue healing for close to a year from the time of the injury; that I should continue massaging the area daily to help soften the skin. I have a regimen of Vitamin E/tea tree/coconut oils and honey planned to assist with the healing, but already have had stressful dreams about being caught on a sunny day without any sunscreen to protect my sensitive patch of skin.

Still, I do feel a corner has been turned. I’m someone who can find a metaphor in anything; our long winter seems to have finally ended, an old wound is all but healed, and I feel ready for new beginnings.

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