Getting into the back of the taxi, my affect was dull and inward. I did not have the energy to be more congenial with the driver, nor the staff person accompanying me. My ears had been blocked since I arrived in India. I felt like I was living on a boat, walking about with an internal swaying sensation that caused me to occasionally brace myself on the nearest post in the outdoor corridor of the beautiful, tranquil and loving Ayurveda Healing Center where I had come … to heal.
I had not slept well since my arrival, as there is a 12.5 hour time zone difference between Coimbatore and Portland. I cherished the 3 - 4 hours of sleep I was getting between 10 pm - 2 am and languished in my pre-dawn yoga practice for 2 - 3 hours before anyone else was even around. I included a long savasana in these sessions and felt revived and pleasant by the time the sun was rising.
However, this was afternoon as the hours of the day had worn on my ears were causing increasing challenges. I could not hear the bird song, nor the doctors. I avoided other guests due to this and perhaps came off as a bit aloof. I had a headache so terrible that I was vomiting. This gave the doctors a hint: this wasn’t just the concussion for which I had come here to receive treatment.
So they collected me and a staff person to accompany me and off we went in a taxi to the local hospital. Of course, the road was bumpy and the car had terrible shocks (if any). So my head and I were caused to bobble about in the back seat, bringing no ease to my symptoms! I did not muster joy even though I was very appreciative for the chaperoned visit to the hospital with a pre-arranged second chaperone already waiting for our arrival in order to help expedite the appointment.
As we got closer to the city, my usual intrigue and delight in the mayhem and beauty of India eased some of the pain I was in. Life was once again bigger than - and more colorful and chaotic - than me and my ear problems.
Until the speed bumps!
In India it is customary to drive fast and swerve within inches of other vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles, cows, pedestrians, and then to, all too suddenly, slow WAY DOWN to cross a misshapen speed bump that makes the car jostle as if you were riding a camel. SO. MANY. SPEED. BUMPS. THERE. WERE!
Dizzy and exhausted, we arrived at the hospital and were escorted to the check in station.
- “What? No one told me I should bring it with me.”
“How about a photo of your passport?”
- “On my phone?”
“Yes, on your phone?”
- “Who keeps a photo of their passport on their phone?” My mind was swirling as I shuffled through my purse to pull out my USA driver’s license. Did I ever take a photo of my passport? How would I find that among the thousands of photos on my phone? I handed over my driver’s license while unlocking my phone and looking for a roaming signal.
“Your father’s name?”
- “Who wants to know? Why?” (I wondered if they knew something I didn’t know?!) “James Marsh.”
Satisfied, she continued to fill out a piece of paper with 3 carbon copies beneath it, continually flattening them down as the large fan on her desk blew in her face to cool her off while ruffling every piece of loose paper within 4 feet of her.
I found my passport photo on my phone with an ease that reminded me that I have amnesia. (I had just taken a photo of my passport before boarding my plane in Portland!) There it was, not farther back than 12 images. I tried to recall the version of me that had the sense to take this photo at the Portland airport. I handed it over and she took some more notes and compared the passport photo (taken 9 years back) with the driver’s license photo (taken 4 years back) with the person standing at the counter, aging with dizziness.
Soon we were escorted by 3 hospital workers wearing bright pink scrubs and exchanging glances of curiosity about me, a caucasian woman with two clogged ears and turquoise sunglasses. They appeared to enjoy their important roles in the hospital and were eager to find me a seat in the waiting area, telling me it would be only a few minutes. My papers were handed to another woman, older, wearing pink scrubs, a face mask and what looked like a baker’s hat. She made more notes, pulled out a huge decorated folder which appeared would be dedicated to my case (my personal file!). In it she put the 3-layered carbon paper with the original writings and her handwritten copied version of each thing already documented, but on a new piece of paper with some boxes and lines on it. While trying to close the folder, the even larger fan, a standing floor fan that oscillated, only partly, kept blowing the papers hither and tither until she won the battle by placing a heavy dictionary on them to keep them still. I wondered how records were kept in order at this point but decided I didn’t have the energy for that much curiosity, nor judgment.
Her desk was obviously a shared desk at which no one could sit properly since it was completely covered with various folder and office supplies. She had to sit on a wooden folding chair to the side of the desk, her back becoming vulnerable to passersby in the hallway as the space was too small for all that was going on. But, no one seemed to notice except me. It appeared no one was going to organize anything differently and nothing was out of order, so why would you?
I decided to rest a bit. I sighed. Leaned back. Waited to be called, expecting it to be hours, as it was in the US when I was last in an ER. On that occasion, I was wheeled into the ER waiting room, unable to walk due to my swollen, painful feet and was unable to use my crutches as my hands were swelling too. Unbeknownst to me and the admitting staff, I had a blood cell infection that was moving faster than the ER was. By the time they wheeled me back to the blue scrub wearing medical staff in my private ER bay with the intense lights and obvious sterility all around me, I was diagnosed with vasculitis, cellulitis and nearing sepsis. From a spider bite. What an adventure that was!
I was pulled out of my memory of those hours in Portland, Oregon when, within minutes, the pink scrub wearing young Indian women came to escort me to see the doctor. His office was only 6 steps from the waiting room, but everyone went with me. My personal chaperone, 3 pink scrub interns, and what must have been the head nurse, or the head notetaker since the process with the notes and the whirling fan and the shuffling papers began all over again.
The doctor’s office was cluttered, chaotic, and not much bigger than a storage closet. I felt concerned for the sterility of the instruments he might be using with me until I noticed an extremely neat and orderly set of tools on his otherwise crowded desk. He wore a headlamp to look in my ears. He made sounds that, even with an Indian accent, which is usually congenial and welcoming, gave rise to concern. I was sitting on a rotating stool, not even a chair really, when he turned me to be positioned so he could do the procedure. From the wall across the quite small room, one pink scrub wearing intern handed him a long tube. This was apparently like the vacuum cleaners at the car wash in the US. Of course, much smaller. He tilted my head with one experienced hand and picked up the right sized tool with the other. Attaching it to the hose, he said, “This will be noisy.” And, by golly, it was!
The right ear was first and needed only two vacuums. The left ear required four vacuums with a change of tools partway through and an adjustment to his headlamp while making more non-verbal utterances that led me to think he was intrigued. What did she bring with her to India in her ears?
Finally, after a lot of noise from the vacuums, I was able to hear again! My ears cleared and I realized how noisy the hospital was. I smiled and my intrinsic joy and appreciation returned. The doctor asked me where I was from.
- “Oregon. North of California and south of Canada.”
“It’s cold there!”
- “Well, not right now. I’m growing mustard greens and okra in my backyard.” (I mentioned these two native and abundant, sun and heat loving crops in southern India to purposely let him know it’s not always cold in Oregon!)
He lit up and asked me what I did for a living.
- “I teach yoga.”
He lit up even more and pointed to a poster on his wall that showed yoga poses for overcoming vertigo. He gestured for me to demonstrate the poses but the office was too small and crowded and the first 3 poses would have had me on the floor.
We laughed and the 3 pink scrub wearing women walked me out to take a seat in a different waiting place, in a different hallway. One of them then realized they had forgotten to weigh me or take my blood pressure before the procedure. So they got me up and walked me a long way to step on a scale which looked like one you would use to weigh your luggage at the airport. I wondered how much baggage I was carrying and if the scale would pick that up.
We walked back to the ruffling of papers so they could record my weight in the proper place. After a few minutes, I was given the bill on a simple piece of paper. Handwritten. 500 rupees. Less than a palak paneer with jasmine rice and a lime soda.
We were kindly escorted out where the driver awaited us to return to the healing center. On the trip back, not only could I hear the noise and chaos of life in India again, I saw the colors, the movement, the people, their exchanges, and all of the myriad ways in which life goes on here, with my usual heart-swelling fondness for India.
From the back seat of the car, the familiar sites of small Indian cities pulled my senses into the aliveness and fray around me. Rows of large murtis (sacred statues), piles of tires for sale, a scrappy dog underfoot of a cow eating garbage, colorful saris and kurtas hanging outside the shop, pineapple vendors offering sweet relief from the heat. I wanted one of everything (except the tires and the cow). Clearly my senses, previously dulled by my clogged ears and directed inward through a week of Pancha Karma, were awakening my surroundings.
The trip back to Vaidyagrama seemed shorter, less bumpy. I arrived relaxed, without a new kurta, nor a fresh pineapple. Craving is easy to come by in human nature. Fortunately, so is my inner witness and a reservoir of equanimity.
Back in my room at the healing center, I listened to the bird song. I heard the loving staff making the concoctions of awful tasting medicines that we drink 5 times a day. And, though those truly taste terrible, I smiled to hear the sounds while realizing my head was no longer spinning and the world seemed okay once again. I took a long and satisfying nap.
PS. I came to India for medical therapies for my ongoing post-concussion symptoms AKA traumatic brain injury (TBI). This medical condition is often invisible since those of us with TBIs are not wearing a cast on one arm or an eye patch over an eye. We’re walking amongst the milieu with this invisible disability. No two brain injuries are alike, yet it can be really helpful to connect with others who have had concussions or who live with a TBI. The issue with my ears was not related to my concussion but exacerbated my symptoms of social apprehension and vertigo. (It’s hard to feel socially engaged when you experience hearing loss, even temporary loss, and the world inside your head is spinning while no one around you seems to notice.)