That Time I Didn’t Lose My Leg

“Your leg, you will lose it,” said the Frenchman.

We were on the side of the road, halfway through a twisting, fourteen-hour bus ride from Delhi, India, to the hillside outpost of Manali. This was our one rest stop, at a roadside café in the middle of the bus’ winding trek north. I sat in a small plastic chair, left leg propped up, twice the size of the other. Angry lines of infection made their way up from my ankle and calf.

“It will reach the bone. You will lose your leg,” he repeated, and walked away. The absence of qualifiers and inflection common to second language speakers gave him an air of authority. As I ate my masala potatoes, I thought, he’s probably right. I’m going to lose my leg. Time to get back on the bus.

The source of the infection was unclear. It could have been one of the ticks I discovered during the first shower after the three-day camel trek, one of the unidentifiable bites and stings, any of the unwashed blankets. This uncertainty had become common in the trip around India. Why does it always smell like burning? How does anyone cross the road without getting killed? Where the hell are these cows coming from?

Manali is a gorgeous town, population around 8,000, a hill station in the mountains of the state of Himachal Pradesh. Recently, it’s become more touristy (I satisfied a homesick desire for Korean food there), but it’s still sleepy. It’s a relaxing, cool respite from the dust and heat and noise of Delhi, and in April the views are breathtaking: a bowl of upright cedar trees rising around the village, brisk, clear air, snow-capped peaks in the distance. I took exactly three pictures. The Manali hospital is not quite as photogenic.

Straight from the bus, I was rushed there via tuk-tuk by the guesthouse owner: “We’ll go now. Okay if we wake them up.” The Manali hospital is exactly one doctor’s office and one emergency room. I waited on a cot for an hour (until they woke up, I guess) while the emergency room filled with Indian patients. Being the only Westerner, and the room being empty of privacy curtains, the stares were plentiful. I remember flies buzzing about too. Other places in Manali didn’t have flies.

The infection site had only gotten bigger. I could measure my heartbeat by the pulsing of it. Eventually, as I dozed off, the abscess just popped, oozing various liquids, smells, and a lot of blood onto the sheets.

In the same room, the doctor injected a local anesthetic while warning that “there is much dead flesh, so the needle might not be long enough and this will hurt.” He was right. He used what looked like a soup spoon to scoop out the infected, useless tissue. This I couldn’t feel — I could only feel whenhe touched the tissue that still had nerves. After a bit of digging, he wrapped the leg and gave me an army of antibiotics I still don’t know the name of. The infection hadn’t yet reached the bone.

The Manali hospital didn’t stock stitches, so I still have a broad, round scar from the surgery. Back in Delhi, I wandered around until I found a hole in the wall with the familiar hospital green cross sign. I paid a teenager 75 cents each day to clean and dress my leg. I assume he was the doctor’s assistant, though I never saw a doctor. Delhi is so dusty the wound had to be debrided daily. Two weeks after the surgery, I remember sitting in Lumbini, Nepal, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha. I watched a small gnat buzz into the blossoming scab, wander around, then fly out. Months of traveling (and a semester of law school) would pass before the infection finally cleared.

The surgery cost US$20, including the cost of replacing one pair of gloves and one syringe. Cheaper than replacing the leg.

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