Medical Mishaps in Fiji

Coral Cuts

Generally we have remained injury free and healthy, except for some minor scrapes and bruises, although over the last 6 weeks I've been a little less lucky. One day, in a few moments of carelessness, I scraped the top of my foot on coral. It was pretty minor but I'd heard that coral cuts can become easily infected so I put antibiotic cream on it and watched to see if it became inflamed. It didn't get red but, boy, did it itch! After a couple of weeks I was still scratching and beginning to think the small bumps under the scabs and scars were a bit peculiar. I still had coral bits in my foot. I'm all for souvenirs, but not embedded in me! With Bjarne's help, some alcohol (the rubbing kind – drat), and a needle, we performed minor surgery and dug the bits out of the bumps. We topped it off with some antibiotic powder and all was well. What struck me was how easily such a small thing could have blown up into something much worse.

Displaced Digit

After 4 days of downpour in Savusavu, I was a bit restless, so I rowed One Night Stand ashore to go for a walk during a break in the rain. I chose the closest, albeit rocky, shore. The walk was good but I came to grief when I attempted to return to Freya. A slip on the jagged wet rocks had me pitching forward into the water, soaking my wallet, the runners I was trying to clean the mud off of, and a good portion of myself. The scraped knee and shin were minor, although they bled enough to get good sympathy from Bjarne when I returned to the boat. The more significant damage was done to my finger, which jammed against a rock. Ouch. By that evening the finger was an interesting shade of blue and somewhat fatter than usual. There were no obvious bits of bone sticking out and the finger didn't seem crooked so I hoped it was a sprain and kept a finger splint on for about a week. Bjarne complained that I kept giving him the finger. Once the swelling was down, a red tender lump remained on one side and made me wonder if, gee golly, maybe I should have seen a doctor while I was in Savusavu. As “luck” would have it (more on this later), I was in Labasa a couple of weeks later. The doctor said I had either torn a ligament or broken the finger, but he couldn't tell without an X-ray. My ride was leaving in a few hours so there was no time for the X-ray, and anyway, it was too late to set the finger properly if it was broken. I was advised to use anti-inflammatory cream, do physiotherapy, and wear my splint at night for 6 weeks. It kept me out of anchor-pulling duty for a while.

Mangled Molar

So, why was I in Labasa? It all started while I was in Viani Bay eating scrambled eggs. There was something crunchy which I assumed was eggshell. After I swallowed, I noticed a jagged edge in my mouth. Man, those must have been tough eggs! Sorting out how to get a broken tooth fixed was quite a challenge and involved several people. First I had to use Key of D's on-board email to ask Curly in Savusavu for the name of the dentist in Labasa that Curly recommends. I also needed to know when the dentist was in town as he has an office in Suva as well. A couple of days, and a few emails exchanged with some of Curly's associates, got me booked for Friday at 1000h on the last day before the dentist left for his other practice. This was settled on the preceding Monday night. That may seem like a long time to get oneself to the dentist but not so! I really didn't want to sail back to Savusavu (takes a full day) and then catch a 3 hour bus to Labasa. We'd already spent enough time in Savusavu and were keen to get a bit further around the island. Further on in Buca Bay it was possible to anchor, and then walk to a road to catch the bus to Savusavu, but we didn't know the bus schedule, and likely it meant spending at least one night in Savusavu. We had heard that it was possible to get to Labasa from Also Island, on the northern part of Vanua Levu, but we needed details. That meant an early morning visit to Key of D, this time to use their shortwave radio to speak with Jim who lives at Also Island and runs a daily radio program for cruisers, called The Rag of the Air. We learned that, with effort, one could travel to Labasa but probably not by 10 a.m. on any given day. That meant we needed to arrive at Also Island by Wednesday, so I could figure out transportation on Thursday, in order to make it by Friday. The shorter tropical days limit how long one can sail for, especially when the light is so important for spotting reefs, so although we had only 65 miles to cover, we needed two days. We felt disappointed to be skipping some of the places we'd planned to go, but were excited to reach Also Island, which we had heard many good things about.

From Also Island, sometimes a van can be arranged to pick one up at a road about a mile away by boat. The van costs $100. Another option is a 1.5 hr boat ride to a place where one can catch a bus. However, four local folks were needing to get to Labasa on Thursday as well, so Jim took us all in the Also V, a small power boat. It burns about a $100 in fuel so we split the cost for this 2.5 hour trip. I spent Thursday night at the Labasa Guest House and had plenty of time to get to my appointment on Friday morning. The 2 hr trip back to Freya was by land in a double-cab pick-up truck along a very bumpy, pot-holed gravel road. We even drove through a narrow river at one point. The landscape was beautiful, however, and we were even treated to at rainbow arcing over one of the valleys. Our departure was quite a bit later than planned (a good example of Fiji Time), as my traveling companions had many errands to complete, but finally we were dropped off at the end of the road a little after 1800h on Friday. A short boat ride got me back to Freya. Whew.

Since we weren't exactly close to a dental clinic when my tooth broke, we hauled out the supplies kindly provided by our most excellent dentist at home (thanks Todd). I was mainly concerned about preventing an infection, especially since I didn't know when I'd get to the dentist at this point. The first attempt to fill the tooth, using Temparin (TM), was not very successful. It was crumbly and hard to work with. Later we tried Miracle Mix (TM) – with a name like that, how can you go wrong? We called it Miracle Max's Miracle Mix (a reference to The Princess Bride for the uneducated). It consists of a powder, to which one adds a drop of liquid, turning the whole thing into quickly-setting silver filling material. The hardest part was keeping the tooth dry. Apparently, I'm quite a drooler. We stuffed the slobber-absorbers into my mouth, and I held my tongue away with a little dental mirror while Bjarne tried to get the filling material on before it hardened. I then had to keep my mouth open, and hopefully dry, for a few minutes while the stuff set up. It took a few applications to get adequate coverage and I was left with a rather sharp edge. By the next day I was talking funny because my tongue was so sore. Back to the kit – we had handy dandy blue dental wax which stuck well and covered the sharp edge quite nicely. Bjarne must have done a good job since the dentist was willing to simply smooth out the sharp spot and send me on my way. I reiterated that it was done by an amateur, that we probably didn't prepare the tooth properly since I wouldn't let Bjarne use the Dremel (TM) tool :-), and that I didn't want to lose the filling in the middle of the Pacific. Nothing personal Bjarne, but I'm happy to have my new, smooth, composite filling, all for $30.00 Canadian.

Lumpy Leg

Well, I thought the medical mishaps section was finished but on Oct 12 I got some new material. A very warm, red, painful lump developed on my leg over the course of a few hours after diving. Consultation with the Merck Medical Manual suggested it was probably a type of bacterial infection, either cellulitis or folliculitis. Since the treatment for cellulitis recommends that antibiotics should be taken quickly to prevent the infection from spreading to the blood (yikes!), I opted for the safer course of taking antibiotics that I might not need rather than waiting for a more definitive diagnosis. The swelling and redness diminished somewhat, but after a week it still hurt like like crazy and was ugly to boot. I was glad to arrive in Savusavu where I could seek medical advice. My bacterial infection diagnosis was correct, but the antibiotics weren't strong enough. I guess these tropical bacteria are tough critters. I left with a new batch of drugs and instructions to use an alternating hot/cold compress on it to soften it up, and to use saline on the bandage to draw the icky stuff out. It took about 3 weeks to get rid of this rather gross thing on my leg.

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