The Nightmare after Christmas
I would never have thought I would spend the Christmas of 2017 in Brazil, nor that I would do it with my new family. After hiking the Caminho das Missões in Rio Grande do Sul, Joel and I had hitchhiked to the neighboring state of Santa Catarina. We spend days on the road, sometimes waiting for long hours for a ride, hitchhiking garbage trucks, but also ending up sleeping in a charming hotel. Our last ride left us in the village of Porto Belo.
The first few days, we camped in an almost deserted beach, where our only worry was taking shifts to go to the supermarket. To be totally honest, I also had another concern: that of buying a new bikini. I had spent the past few months using underwear instead, but since we were planning to spend the next weeks at the seaside, I thought it would be a good idea to wear something sober. Nevertheless, I hadn’t come to terms with the famous Brazilian panties, which had more in common with dental floss than with clothes. Since I did not intend to show my butt around, finding a more Orthodox model became my mission, in which I only partially succeeded.
We loved Porto Belo both for its size and quiet. Nevertheless, our goal was to make money and therefore we needed to find a more touristic place. Much to our regret, we moved to Bombas, a town 9 km East. The touristic season hadn’t started yet, but there was definitely more activity than in Porto Belo. Camping was more complicated, and we were obliged to hide our tent on a small island that could only be reached during low tide. On our first days there, we camped on our private beach while going crazy looking for a place to rent. Somehow we managed to avoid the filthy rooms of the town’s tailor that seemed to be our only option, and we rented Nilson’s studio for 1,300 Rs instead.
I quickly found a job in a bistrôt than I then left to work at an Italian restaurant that had nothing Italian, not even the name. Joel found a job in a pizzeria, and so we spent our first days in Bombas chilling together in the morning and working during the evening/night. Even though our colleagues were not the brightest, and even if we had our disagreements (of course we did) with our bosses, we soon got used to our jobs and prepared to welcome the wave of Argentinians that would soon break the quiet of the town. Some people told us that Portuguese would disappear to make space to Spanish, and others confirmed that we would soon forget that we were in Brazil. Nevertheless, we never managed to find out ourselves, because our professional adventure ended before it had even started.
On December 24th my restaurant stayed closed, so that I spent the evening cooking. I was doing my best to reproduce some Christmas spirit, even though the beach and the 30°C didn’t certainly help. I bought a bottle of my favourite wine, and prepared a tasty vegetarian dinner. Joel came back from work and we quickly finished both food and the Carmenère. We started watching Cinema Paradiso, his favourite movie, that for once took the place of my sister’s Christmas obsession for the Grinch.
The night of December 25th, my right eye started to hurt a bit. Since it looked like there was nothing to worry about, I went to sleep without thinking too much about it.
When I woke up on December 26th, my eye was red with white discharges, and the pain had gone from mild to severe. Since there was a small emergency room close to our studio, we went for a doctor to check it out.
After a short wait, a lady doctor called me in. She opened my eye using her pink claws, and without moving her false eyelashes stated that I had conjunctivitis. “It is very common over here. The sewage system is not ready to receive this many people, and bacterias are everywhere. Just apply some eyedrops and you’ll be fine in a few days. There’s nothing to worry about”.
We bought the eyedrops she prescribed and there I realized that among the papers there was also a sick note that justified my absence from work for the next three days. Because I have always been a model employee though, the only excuse for me not to go to work is if I’m close to death. Since it was not the case, on December 27th at 4 PM o’clock, I went to the restaurant ready to lift tables. Blissful ignorance on my part, I had no idea that conjunctivitis is contagious. But my colleagues knew well, and I soon understood that my presence was undesirable. I walked back home with my tail between my legs.
That night, staring at my image in the mirror I noticed a white spot, but thought it was an accumulation of the white discharges. I washed my hands well and tried to remove it with a finger, when I realized with horror that the white spot was not on my eye, but inside it.
Instead of overreacting, I returned to the emergency room. I gave my data, had my pressure taken and finally entered the studio of a hipster-looking doctor. He confirmed that I only had conjunctivitis, that I should not worry because a lot of people had been infected,, but that if I wanted he could prescribe me antibiotics. No, I don’t want thanks – I take nothing but herbs, so I don’t want meds. But if I have to, then I will. I asked him to direct me to an eye doctor, but it was useless. It was just conjunctivitis, there was no need.
On December 28th we decided to try a private clinic. My travel insurance had expired the month before, and even though I was not excited about spending money on doctors, I did not trust the GPs. While we were waiting for a bus that was never coming though, we met an Argentinian who had been living in Bombas for years. She told us about a pharmacist who “knows way more than any doctor over here”. It was late, the clinic was back in Porto Belo and Joel had to go to work soon. We decided to give it a try and ask the super pharmacist. He looked at my prescription with disapproval and confidently gave me a different type of eyedrops. He seemed sure that it was conjunctivitis, and as I always do when I’m told right what I want to hear, I believed him.
But on December 29th I started to worry. Not only wasn’t my eye improving, but it was getting worse. It looked smaller, redder and had more discharges every day. My iris was covered by a white layer that made it look like a dead fish eye. Natural or artificial light was killing me, so we covered my eye with a bandage. Joel told his boss he would not go to work that day, and we went to Itapema, where according to Google there were a couple of clinics.
I let him guide me like a blind person lets their faithful dog show them the way. Alone, I couldn’t even put one foot in front of the other. I held his arm tight, and trusted him blindly. Due to the shitty connections and frequency of the busses, it took us over two hours to make just 20 km. When we finally got to the city, we got the stop wrong, and still had to walk a long while before we found an optical shop and asked for directions. Using the plural is like cheating, because Joel was the one who did everything: I was completely blind and therefore useless. Two ladies left the shop and drove us to the clinic. Angels kept crossing our paths.
Even without seeing, I could feel that we were in an expensive clinic. On one side, I was worried about the amount of money I was going to pay, but on the other side I was calm because I knew that I was finally in good hands.
The cruel verdict was fast to come: corneal ulcer with hypopyon – toda joya. Translation for those who are not ophthalmologists, like me: I had an open wound in my cornea, aka that protective layer that covers our eyes. The bonus of the hypopyon meant that not only had the wound eaten my cornea, but that it also got deeper in the eye. If you have a weak stomach, you might not want to Google my Christmas present.
So, after confirming with another doctor, he prescribed me three different antibiotics to be applied every hour and half. Day and night. The infection was so serious that the doctor told us to come back two days later for a check-up.
On Sunday, 31st December the doctor showed up at the clinic wearing shorts – it was holiday, after all. She asked me how I felt, and as optimistic as usual I told her that I felt better. Joel kept saying that I looked much better, that my eye was getting back to its original beauty. He was making the huge effort of smiling to an eye that looked completely dead. I was not even done removing my bandage, when the doctor said without many turn arounds that my eye had got worse and that I needed to be hospitalized. Her secretary, who had also showed up especially for me on the last Sunday of the year, made a couple of calls and got me a bed in the Hospital Regional São José in Florianópolis.
We just left, carrying nothing else than our documents and few savings. We took a cab to the terminal, Joel fought with a taxi driver that had the bad idea of trying to rip him off when he was in his most sensitive mood, and three hours and 70 km later we finally made it to the hospital.
We registered and spent infinite horus waiting for my turn. The hours passed while we were sleeping or discussing about my future pirate look. We imagined a sexy black bandage crossing my face – way better than looking like Polyphemus. I never found cyclopes very fashionable.
When it was finally my turn, the diagnosis I received in Itapema got confirmed: corneal ulcer with hypopyon caused by a bacteria that they never managed to identify (my eye had been given way too many antibiotics to tell) and the use of contact lenses. The other good news was that I would most probably need a corneal transplantation. The horror movie had just started, in case you wanted to leave the room before we got to the best part…
Despite everything, knowing that I was taken care of had a surprisingly calming effect. My previous worries came from not trusting the doctors back at the ER, but now I felt safe. The other patients in the waiting room kept saying amazing things about that hospital, from doctors to food. It sounded like doctors did know what they were doing, and moreover, I was watched 24/7. They gave me eye drops to apply every half an hour, day and night claro. At 9 PM on December 31st, 2017, I signed my hospitalization in the Hospital Regional São José of Florianópolis.
A nurse showed us to my new room on the third floor. One of the three beds was occupied by Luana, lovingly watched over day and night by her mother Edna. Lu, who would soon start her first teaching experience, was there because of an accident she had had while driving on her motorcycle together with her boyfriend. She had broken one arm and seven ribs, and she also had a bonus: pneumothorax.
A few days later came Dona Gloria, a strong and proud woman who did not let her mediocre husband dominate her. Her red lace thongs constantly hanged in the bathroom, so different from Luana’s childish panties or mine, that had seen way too much road already. Gloria was very religious but also very funny, and she was always complaining about the flautolencies caused by her drugs. She was hospitalized because of a strong abdomen pain, but despite all the exams she had to take,t they still hadn’t found the cause when I lef. Whatever the illness, she passed away a few weeks after I left. Her great strength was not enough to beat her disease.
That December 31st I chose the bed next to the window. I hoped to have a view on the life still going on out there, but I soon had to move to the one that was farther from the light. And still, I had to make use of a folding screen to have as much darkness as possible. Joel left to buy toothbrushes and toothpaste, and since dinner had been served hours before, he also got us a few chocolate bars. The only shop still open was a pharmacy, and as usual it sold both the cure and the disease.
Joel didn’t let any nurse take care of me. He set his alarm clock every half an hour to apply the antibiotics that burnt my eye as if I was in hell. When the midnight alarm rang, the fireworks reminded us that outside the white hospital walls life was still going on and people were celebrating the end of a year and the beginning of a new one. The black sky of Florianópolis suddenly got shiny with colors. Joel and I stared at the pyrotechnic show from the window, celebrating our first new year together in the least expected of ways.
Days went by slowly, beginning with the regular 8 AM doctor visit together with the other ophthalmology patients. They were all men with problems similar to mine, and they had the privilege of sharing the only dark room. Men and women had to sleep in separate rooms (“once we found two patients that were getting… intimate, so we split the rooms according to gender”), and my (bad) luck was that the only room for ophthalmology patients was already occupied by men at my arrival. Your problem, menina, and so I spent my days fighting against the ignorance of those who did not seem to understand that the light was killing me and wanted the curtains open at all costs.
My three weeks of hospitalization were marked by the constant sound coming from the TV that was always set on the soap opera channel. Novelas are the national pastime in Brazil, and for some people they were enough of a reason to skip dinner. Everything was about novelas or religion. If I went to the corridor and tried to read as I could, as soon as I turned off the TV there would be someone coming and asking “Don’t you like watching TV?”. They would take possession of the remote control and choose the newest Turkish novela. Or there would be members of some Catholic group asking for permission to pray for me. So I had my sister reciting Buddhist mantras, my Haré Krishna friends sending blessing from Chile, and now also a bunch of Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelists from all kind of church praying for me. With so many people praying, there would be no doubt that my eye’ would heal.
Joel spend his days by my side, sitting on a chair and somehow sleeping with his head on my bed. There was no way he’d leave my side, and it took me ten days to convince him to accept a bed in the house some priest left to the relatives of the patients.
Despite the nightmare, I had been lucky to get sick in a country that guarantees free healthcare for people of all nationality, and also that it happened in one of the richest states of the country, where hospitals work well and doctors are professional. “Imagine if this had happened in Nordeste… you could say goodbye your other eye as well”, people told me all the time.
Days went by. Every week a different student of Nutrition came to visit me and prepared a yummy vegan menu, but the information kept getting lost in the kitchen, and my tray was always a full of proteins: chickpeas, beans, lentils, some boring salad and rice. Dona Gloria and I were competing in a gas war. But slowly it got better, I got my appetite back and the food was not that bad. They even prepared fresh orange juice and natural sandwiches, and there was always tea before bedtime. Even the patients’ plus ones were served free lunch and dinner, so that Joel could go to the canteen showing his “esposo” label.
I spent my time talking to Luana that I really liked, or to her sister Karol that always filled the room with laughs. Lu was slowly getting better, and after many promises she was finally discharged. Her bed was taken in turns by women of all ages who would usually stay only a couple of days.
Weeks went by and the gaps between the different antibiotics got larger. My eye was getting better, and the dead fish layer slowly disappeared. My iris got its shiny blue color back. The eye was still red and small, and even if I looked like Quasimodo, it seemed that Joel still loved me and even found me somehow attractive. I don’t know what I would have done without him, who in the scariest moment of my life confirmed he was the best partner I could wish for. Not only was he always by my side, but he took care of all the pending processes we had left in Bombas. The apartment that we had already paid for nothing was full of our belongings, and we still needed to get paid from our jobs. He went back and forth a few times, until he finally managed to sell the gas bottle and the fan to an angel who offered to help us, got my money from the restaurant and brought our backpacks to the hospital.
When we started to think I could be discharged soon, Joel suggested we went to Italy. The only reason why my parents hadn’t jumped on the first flight to Brazil was that they knew he was by my side. They still didn’t give up until I got in touch with the Italian consul in Floripa, whose regular calls boosted all sort of rumors -the nurses kept asking me if I was someone famous. There was still the high chance I would need a corneal transplantation, and I wanted that to happen back home.
On January 19th, twenty days after I was hospitalized, I was finally discharged. After spending a few days locked inside some friends’ apartment in Curitiba, on January 31st Joel and I were boarding a flight that would take us from São Paulo to Bologna. Fourteen months later, I was going back home.
Three months later, Joel and I flew back to Brazil. I did not need any surgery, but my eye will always bear the scar that compromized my vision forever and that reduced my prescription by 1.5 diopters of myopia.