It is now October marking the beginning of the fall season. Where I live, in the Poconos, the foliage puts on a display of stunning reds, bright yellows, and captivating oranges. The hot and humid summer days are replaced by chilly mornings and dryer air. Winter is nearing. While autumn is one of my favorites season, every year I am hit with a stark, and rather painful, reminder of an injury I sustained in the Amazon.
Several days ago, I woke up unable to open my eyes as excruciating pain shot through my left eyeball and to my brain. I wasn’t all that distressed because I was all too familiar with this pain and know exactly what was happening to me. Nevertheless, the pain is always the same and leaves me with a headache and blurred vision for days.
It all began back in 2013, when I was helping my Yanomami family clear land that bordered their relatively new shabono. This was by far one of my favorites times visiting my Yanomami family. My brother, Ricky, and I spent a lot of time together. He taught me how to use the Yanomami bow and arrow and I taught him how to read time on a watch. We had wonderful relationship sharing each other’s knowledge, technology, and language.
Because our village was relatively new, there was thick underbrush just outside the perimeter. I noticed that each family unit (designated by a hearth) was clearing their respective areas with axes and machetes. One day, I was relaxing in my hammock and noticed my brother was working on his area. I decided to help the man out, grabbed a machete, and began hacking away thorny brushes, vines and small trees.
It was fun work and good physical activity. Also, I felt great that I could contribute to my brother's “yard work." After an hour or so, I spotted a small tree, more like a tall bush, that was getting choked out by vines. I decided that it was going to be my next target. I quickly severed the trunk and pulled hard. But the tree did not budge. I pulled again but it was not going anywhere. The vines entangled every branch fastening them to a nearby log.
The only way to clear this tree was to cut away the vines. So, I hacked and swung my machete until I felt confident that I could bring it down. However, I made a huge mistake. I grabbed one of the branches and yanked with the same force as before I cleared the vines. The tree snapped towards me as one of the ends of the branch caught me dead in the left eye.
I screamed and yelped in pain. I rolled and writhed as the shockwave of pain shot through my eye, into my brain and down my spine. After a few deep breaths, I attempted to open my eyes. During the brief second I had it opened, there was a block dot that obscured my field of view. Then, the unbearable pain forced me to close my eyes.
My brother rushed over asking what had happened. I couldn’t speak Yanomami all that well. So, with my eyes closed, I grabbed a branch and tried to reenact what had happened. I think he got the point. He slung my right arm around his shoulders and guided me back to my hammock.
I tried to open just my right eye but was met with such piercing agony that I decided that I had to keep the both closed. I wished I was a chameleon capable of controlling each eye independently.
My mind was swimming at this point as if engaged in an emergency board meeting going through all possible options and then voting on what was the next course of action.
"You need to go to the hospital," was the unanimous vote.
But that was not possible. I was at least a week away from the nearest communication post. Then, I'd still have to travel several days further to the nearest outpatient clinic. Then, I'd have to be flown out on a military flight, and transported to hospital. Emergency medical first aid care was not an option.
I was frustrated that I couldn't at least assess the extent of my injury. While I was in triage mode, I was more scared about the near future. Specifically, whether a bacterial infection will take hold. When you're in the middle of the Amazon with no access to medical care it is a frightening thought. I have not a single does of antibiotics on me.
When my brother carefully set me down in my hammock the entire village descended upon me. I could hear mom and my brother talking rapidly to each other. She placed her hands on my chest which immediately gave me a sense of calm. Then, she carefully pried my left eyelid open. I knew she was just try to get a visual of the injury but I was not in the mood for an inspection. I quietly whimpered in pain. I heard some of the kids and women giggling in the background, mocking my whimpers. Oh, how the Yanomami can make light of just about any situation. And it even made me laugh.
Once mom pried open my eyelid completely I heard a few "ooohs" and "aaahs". That was not reassuring. Without notice she blasted my eyeball with a forceful blow of air! Ouch!
“What the hell!?” I thought. That hurt so freaking bad. Again, I whimpered.
This continued for a little while. Then, my brother decided to use the end of small stick that was widdled down to a fine point to clear out the debris lodged in my eye. The pain level skyrocketed to a whole new level. I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to be left alone and for the torture to stop. I finally through my hands in the air and pleaded,
"Enaha, enaha" - That's enough, that's enough. So glad I knew how to say that in Yanomami.
After about an hour everyone returned to their hearths. I laid quietly in my hammock thinking about how this could end. I decided that I would just have to lie here and hope that my body’s repairing mechanisms kick into high gear and heal my damaged cells. It was a long night. I calmed myself and entered a meditative state. I just had focus my mental energy on healing.
The next morning the crowd returned, I heard my mother call for someone specifically several hearths away. She carefully pried my eyelids open again for inspection. My vision was extremely blurry and I couldn’t make out the faces staring at me. A female figure approached me. Moments later, I felt two cool, liquid drops hit the surface of my eye. It felt like the refreshing Visine drops that I put in my eyes for when I have seasonal allergies.
The relief was immediate. It felt so wonderful and calming throughout my entire body. I was elated and hopeful that I was going to make it. I surmised that those drops had to have been a vial of antibiotics. I thought a medical team visited the village relatively recently and left behind some eyedrops to treat eye infections.
Not only did I have relief but I was so happy that I was receiving antibiotics to hep stem possible infections. Throughout the day, this process was process.
Then, the next day, mom came over for another inspection. When she pried my eyelid open some of my vision had returned. Oh, how happy I was that I was beginning to heal. Then, mom called out again summoning the same person as yesterday. I looked up and noticed that it was my Yanomami "wife” (Getting a wife is a story for another day. Don’t jump to conclusions here but all I knew was that I was to refer to this girl as my “wife”)
I smiled at her and said, "Oh, hello. So, you’re the one with the antibiotics!”
Then, she leaned over me, took hold of her right boob, carefully placed her nipple above my injured eye, and let out several squirts of breastmilk. I didn’t react but I was a little...taken aback.
It was not medicine. It was breastmilk! And interestingly enough, I receive a whole lot more than a couple of small drops. Breast milk flooded my eye and spilling all over my face.
To put this in context, I grew up in a suburban neighborhood in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Everything I knew about medicine and healing wounds and first aid education did not include breastmilk. So, this came at a bit of a surprise.
Naturally, they were trying to flush my eyes and clean them out. I didn't care that this was nowhere near the conventional medical attention I'd receive in the US. I just knew that it was working and it took the pain away. However, I was still worried about infection. Breastmilk isn’t a sterile solution. It contains hundreds of bacterial species. Some of which come from the retrograde flow of the suckling baby.
Later in the day, a different lactating women was called over to repeat the process. However, I noticed that this women had severe pink eye.
I whispered with stern words of apprehension, "No, no, no, no. Not you, please God, no. I know you're family and you are trying to help me but you have a severe eye infection. You should be nowhere near me."
After a few days, I was nursed back to health to the point where I could finally open my eyes with minimal pain. I inspected my eye with a mirror and was relieved that there were no signs of infection.
When, I returned home to the United States I suffered many episodes of debilitating pain rendering me unable to open my eyes. It happens in the morning when I first wake up. Upon trying to open my eyes it felt like there was a piece of course sandpaper scraping against my eyeball. It affected daily life. I had to call off work a couple of times. Eventually, I sought medical attention from an ophthalmologist. Upon inspection, my cornea was still quite damaged and there was leftover debris. The doctor cleaned out the damaged cells and inserted a contact lens to serve as a protective barrier.
To this day, I periodically suffer episodes but only during the cold and dry winter months. Whenever I do, I am taken back to those scary moments in the jungle. But I also remember the love and affection my mother and family showed me as they nurtured and cared for me.
Such love. I miss them dearly.
To learn more about the Good Project and support is work with the Yanomami people please visit www.jointhegoodproject.org