The Foot Experience

Mackenzie McMillen - Ecuador


March 7, 2013

I don’t know what, if any life lesson can be learned from the past three weeks but I’ve come to realize that not every event needs to have a lesson attached to it. Maybe there’s a lesson but frankly I’m too exhausted by this whole thing to uncover it right now. So I’m just going to tell you what happened and let it stand without any significance or value other than that it’s a good story, it’s now a part of my experience here, and it’s a little sad and a little funny.

The 11-hour car ride to Same, Esmeraldas in the far Northwest corner of Ecuador immediately seemed worth it. I’ll admit I had high hopes that this mid-year retreat would be the warm, humid, beachy change of pace and scenery I had been looking forward to and needing.

Let me say this, I have had a love for swimming in the ocean ever since I can remember and because I come from a state that’s about as land locked as you can get I have never gone to a beach without getting in the water. However until Ecuador I had never been able to run into the ocean without bracing myself for breath-stopping icy water. Naturally I intended to spend almost every possible minute of my free time in the ocean.

One afternoon of the third day a group of us walked down to a nice sandy beach about 15 minutes from our hostel where we knew we might find some Ecuadorians to hang out with. When we got there we started talking to a group of guys our age that had been playing soccer. They pointed to a bridge and asked if we wanted to go over to it and jump off into the water. So we went and for a while had fun jumping off into some really questionable harbor water.

Before everyone else was done there I decided I wanted to walk back over to swim in some waves that were especially big. Tsion and Fikrta said they would come too but I ran ahead straight into the waves. But my fun was short-lived.  When I was in up to my chest I turned around to see how far the others were and took a step I now really wish I hadn’t.

The adrenaline hit me as fast and hard as the venom itself. Pain shot into my left foot as panic surged in my brain and chest. I don’t know what exactly I though had just happened, only that I needed to get out of the water. But, in shock and in pain and not knowing what I had stepped on, and not wanting to step on it again I tried very very clumsily to swim back up onto the sand as I screamed to Fikrta and Tsion something along the lines of “Something got me! A crab! Get me out!” preceded, interspersed, and followed by a number of profanities. When they realized I wasn’t just shrieking and flopping around with more enthusiasm than usual they came running to my side asking what happened as I crawled up onto the wet sand. I don’t remember if I was crying but I do remember that when I turned around to look at my foot I saw a little trail of bright blood on the sand and flowing from a small puncture in my foot.

As the rest of our group including a handful of fellows and 3 or 4 of our new Ecuadorian friends started gathering it occurred to me that I looked like I was just being extremely dramatic. And I can see why because the visible damage looked miniscule compared to the shooting pain that was only increasing in my foot and calf. The people around me tried to understand what had happened and how to help but I could only cringe from the pain and say that something “got me” and it hurts like hell. My friend John called the staff to have Andy, one of our team leaders, drive down to get me because there’s no way I could walk all the way back to the hostel.

A few feelings and emotions followed as we tried to move in the direction of help. First and foremost of course was pain that was definitely getting worse each moment. Confusion was also rather prominent as the Ecuadorians made tried to explain what I had stepped on. All I could understand from what he was saying was that it was a fish that stings and hurts. Another feeling was skepticism as it was suggested that the guys take turns carrying me on their backs. I have yet to mention that our Ecua-friends are really hot. Next was embarrassment as I was piggy-backed first by a buff, shirtless guy and then my friend Brian. Keep in mind I myself am about 80% naked, and in pain at this point, and becoming less charming with each passing moment. One of the other Ecuadorians chuckled as he said “Los Estados Unidos pisa Ecuador” (The United States steps on Ecuador). I didn’t find that very funny.

After about 150 feet embarrassment turned into an ugly mix of frustration and anger. I insisted that walking would be a million times easier and more dignified than this. Thankfully Andy pulled onto the sand in his pickup truck and swerved around, stopping beside our group before I had to limp very far on my bloody foot. I climbed in the car without saying as much as a “Ciao” to the rest of the group as Andy very quickly got the story from the others and understood the word I hadn’t, Canchimala.

To get people out of the way as we drove off the beach back into the town Andy leaned out the window and said “¡Picadura de Canchimala!”  (Canchimala sting!) And the people immediately understood that that meant we were in a hurry and let us pass. As we sped toward the closest health clinic Andy explained to me that a Canchimala is like a type of catfish that has venomous stingers on it and that one had stung him when he was a kid and it was the most pain he had ever felt in his life. That sounded about right. Especially now that I was sitting still in the car and the pain felt like it was increasing as we drove, climbing up my calf into my knee. All I could do was rock my body back and forth and clench and extend my fingers as white specks started to sparkle behind my closed eyes. At this point I was praying that I would pass out.

As barreled through the town of Same, asking directions to the subcentro, we saw Carrie and Meliza outside of a store. Andy leaned through the window and told them it was an emergency and that we needed them to come with us and for a moment I was grateful for this shred of luck as the two of them climbed in to the bed of the truck. At least I would have someone to hold my hand. But the luck ran out quickly. The subcentro was closed so we took of toward the hospital in Atacames, about 20 minutes away, passing moto-taxis and camionetas at top speed.

Once there I hobbled inside with Carrie’s help and threw myself down on the examination table as Andy explained what had happened to the doctors. I laughed through the pain with Carrie about the ridiculousness of my bad luck and the young doctor chuckled uncomfortably and looked at me like I was insane when I mostly-sarcastically muttered in the only Spanish words I could find for the moment “this is an opportunity to learn.”

He confirmed that it was the venomous Canchimala, cleaned the sand from the tiny wound on the bottom of my foot, injected some anesthesia, and prescribed 600mg of Ibufrofeno and rest. I forgot to ask how long the pain would last, not that anyone could have predicted the answer to that question. Then we were on our way back to the hostel. The anesthesia made the pain bearable for all of about ten minutes and then it was back with a vengeance and I continued to spit swearwords through my gritted teeth.

When I crawled into my bed in our cabin at the hostel I finally burst into genuine sobs upon realizing that water from the upstairs bathroom had dripped down onto the mattress (I took this especially personally because the bed I had been in before that kept being pooped on by some small, unseen critter). “I’m cursed!” I moaned pathetically into the pillow on the bed Carrie offered up to me. (It’s okay, you can laugh. I realize now that there is definitely some humor to be found in the whole situation).

That evening while the rest of the fellows were getting Salsa lessons I slept some but mostly thrashed around in the bed for hours until finally the adrenaline, frustration and pain had left my mind and body so exhausted that I passed out.

In the days that followed I limped around the beautiful hostel, unable to put any pressure on my foot but not willing to miss out on any more fun. I even went swimming again to which my friend said, “I can’t decide if you’re stupid or brave for going back in the water.” I think mostly I was just too stubborn to miss out but probably a little stupid too because about two days after the incident my foot had become swollen, red, and very warm. My supervisor, Yuri, and I decided I needed to go back to the hospital to take care of the infection. Before getting into the car I took a Benadryl, as I was advised to do to help with the swelling. I had never taken an adult Benadryl before and didn’t know that my reaction would be comparable to a mild high. So while feeling incredibly loopy I saw doctor #2 and this time left with antibiotics, some type of antihistamine and more ibuprofen.

But no pill I ingested had any visible effect on my foot, which a few days later, when I had returned to Alausí, had become a gradient of different colors ranging from red to blue to an especially unnerving purplish-black. It was also still very warm and puffy and the veins were bulging. I showed my host parents and they agreed it was time to go back to the hospital. Doctor #3 had never heard of a Canchimala but he told me that the pills I had been taking were no good and gave me a bunch of new ones which I took diligently for a week while sitting in my bed and becoming more and more stir-crazy and bitter. Eventually the swelling went down but I still couldn’t walk normally and if I accidentally put too much weight on my bad foot the pain would be sharp and sudden and I would suffer anew for about a day. This lasted for three weeks. Three weeks of spending extra money on taxis in Riobamba because I couldn’t walk the otherwise short distance to the bus terminal. Three weeks of feeling like I looked like a weak complainer to everyone around me. Three weeks of being in denial that it would hurt if I went on little outings with my family. And three weeks of sinking lower and lower psychologically.

One evening after squeezing an astounding amount of sickening bloody puss from the wound I told Yuri that my foot was still infected and showed no signs of healing. So he and I went to see Doctor #4 in Riobamba (The capital of Chimborazo, 2 hours North of where I live). This appointment was more expensive (the others had been free) and he poked and prodded my truly disgusting wound and took a sample of the bloody puss that was oozing from the puncture sight. More medicine and test results that didn’t tell me anything that wasn’t obvious.

When I went home my host-mom, Mama Lules came to my room to have another look at it herself. She began to dig in the wound with tweezers making me squirm and resist like a little kid but as she pushed out more puss and blood and pulled off some of the dead skin that refused to heal she said that she could see something in the hole. Digging a little further and telling me to calm down and hold still she finally pulled out a small shard of what appeared to be a piece of bone and, when looked at closely was obviously from a fish. I was extremely lightheaded as I looked at the piece of the fish’s quill (I’ve really struggled with what to call the thing, in Spanish I say púa, which translates to tine. In English I usually go with pokey-thingy) but also extremely relieved that we had found the source of the problem.

The next morning, however, I woke up and looked at the hole in my foot again. I guess all that puss had been serving a purpose; to eject the remains of the bizarre foreign object from my body. Looking closely I could see more of the small white bone. I reached for my tweezers, took a breath, and pulled out the rest of the púa, which turned out to be over 1.5 cm, extremely sharp, with little hooks up the sides. This explains why when I stepped too hard on it the pain would shoot through my foot again and of course it explains why it wasn’t healing. It doesn’t however explain why not one of four different doctors realized what was going on. Instead it took a mom, with all the common sense, pragmatism, and experience women tend to develop when they become mothers, to think to dig a little and make me sit still.

My foot has almost completely healed now and I can walk normally. I guess I learned that sometimes in life unpredictable loco stuff happens and it will get you down but (hopefully) you get through it without too much damage or bitterness and come away with a pretty decent story.

Mackenzie McMillen