Having a motorcycle accident in Vietnam is inevitable, so I was not overly surprised when it finally happened. In the six months I’d been living here, there was no one I knew who didn’t have a scar to show or a story to tell. My accident hardly counts because I didn’t even come off the bike. But just to get it out of the way, here’s what happened: a guy with two large metal bins attached to his bike — one on either side — came towards me from the other direction, and the bin closest to me smashed off my foot. That was all. It was over in a second. No explosions, no screeching tires, no brawl at the side of the road. In fact, neither of us even stopped.
However, three weeks after the initial injury the swelling around the wound would still not go down, and after another night in the pub (exhaustive research had proved that alcohol alone would not heal the damn thing), I decided to soak my foot in a bucket of boiled and salted water. Roughly circular and about the diameter of a penny, the wound was run around on all sides by a raised whitish ring, and beyond that the skin was pink and bulging and felt as if there was a great tide of blood in there waiting for release, ticking under the pressure of my pulse.
Playing with the Wound
After I had soaked my foot for about 40 minutes, I pressed the area around the wound and a trickle of dark blood seeped out from its southern pole. I pressed a little harder then, urged on by my morbid curiosity and a natural sense that somehow this was the right thing to do. The entire wound itself seemed to raise up then like a spring-loaded button, and with both hands firmly clamped around my foot, it suddenly erupted with a black jelly of clotted blood.
The thickness and viscosity of the stuff resembled nothing more than blackcurrant jam, and I was at once horrified and satisfied at the sight of it. I pressed again and rolled the skin with my thumb from the back edges of the wound like you would squeeze out toothpaste from its tube, spilling out more and more of the clotted black jam. I took some of it and pressed it between my fingers and sniffed. I expected the rank odour of anoxic death, but thankfully it just smelled faintly of iron.
When I had squeezed the last of it out, the blood, now red, welled up freely from the hole, and when I put my foot back in the bucket, fresh blood curled out into the water in a macabre and enchanting slow dance. I removed my foot from the pink water and dabbed the wound dry with my last remaining piece of sterile gauze to examine it under the light of my reading lamp. I had remade my wound by bursting out the clotted blood. I had, in fact, blown one side of the scabbed cap off it, and the scab now only functioned as a hinged lid. Where the lid lifted up there was now a gaping maw that reached deep — far too deep — into my own foot. This black hole would draw things into it, because that is the nature of holes, they have a will to be filled.
I tried to join one side of the hole to the other by looping medical tape around my foot and hooking it under my pinkie toe to hoist it up against the natural angle of the joint. This was, I knew, only a short-term solution to keep the wound closed while I made my way to the hospital.
On the Operating Table
At the hospital I sat up on a trolley and, surrounded by one doctor, two nurses, two interns, a security guard, and a couple who had also been in a crash, I removed the blood-stained surgical tape to a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’. There followed a brief silence where we all stared into that black abyss and collectively acknowledged the fact that, no, this was not good. The doctor took some gauze dipped in iodine, and, pinching the brown and yellow scab, lifted it clean off. What we saw then was worse than what any of us had in mind. There seemed to be no flesh in there at all. There was only space, far too much horrible empty space and some thin straw-coloured fibres that I supposed was sinew or a nerve ganglion or perhaps just something rotten that had no business being there at all.
The girl who had been in a motorcycle crash and had scuffed feet and grazes trailing down her arms and legs, tutted and shook her head. “No good,” she said. And again, “No good.” Her boyfriend, who had no visible injuries, brought his hand to his chin and made a thoughtful expression as if this was a problem he had the solution to. The security guard inhaled sharply and said something in Vietnamese that I didn’t understand. I looked up at the gallery of faces standing about me and waited for someone to make a decision. Finally, the doctor — probably picking up on my snowballing sense of panic — said, “Don’t worry.”
Within five minutes I was in an adjoining operating theatre where the surgeon was meticulously painting my foot with a wad of gauze soaked in iodine. He made careful strokes in between my toes and in a straight line across the top of my foot. The intern on the left of the operating table asked me to lie back fully, whereupon he began a running commentary of everything I couldn’t see happening to my foot.
“He is putting on iodine to serialise the wound.”
The other intern, who was on my right, corrected him, “Sterilise.”
“Yes. To sterilise the wound.”
“Your English is very good,” I said.
“No, no,” he said modestly, “not good.”
I looked up for a moment to see the surgeon apply his final brushstroke with an artist’s flourish and the nurse carry over a tray of surgical cutlery: tweezers, scrapers, scalpels, that sort of thing. I turned my head away then, because to anticipate what these instruments can do is often worse than the real and actual moment of pain they create. Sometimes, however, the pain is worse.
“The doctor now will cut away the dead tissue. No need for lidocaine. It won’t pain.”
Prior to this I was told that there would be local anaesthetic, but evidently there had been a change of plan.
“Oh. Okay then,” I said. I will believe anything a doctor says.
“Don’t worry,” he added. This “don’t worry” tactic was obviously something heavily reinforced during medical training. And although I was glad to hear it every time, I was beginning to think it was just perfunctory reassurance without any real basis in fact.
A minute later, and with me writhing and doing my level best not to yelp, the doctor decided that lidocaine was in fact necessary. I sat up and looked him in the eye. “I agree,” I said.
When the dead tissue had been scraped and cut away, there followed two sharp and deep pains that I suppose was the suture entering either side of the wound. Then the drawing together of the string like a corset being pulled tight.
Before the surgeon dressed my wound, I took a good look at his work. A taut black equator ran across the once circular wound and pulled it together, like a planet imploding longitudinally.
On my way out, I said thank you and goodbye to all the doctors and nurses and the security guard and the couple who were now being examined by one of the interns.
The other intern, the one who gave the running commentary on my procedure, walked me outside to the kiosk where you pay. I hobbled slowly and gingerly beside him carrying my helmet as he explained the drugs I needed (antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, pain-killers), and the various tinctures and patches to clean the wound.
When I had paid my bill, we stood outside in the hospital car park. It was close to one o’clock in the morning and still warm.
He said, “You come here along.”
I said, “What?”
He said, “You should have someone to... to...”
“Ah yes. I came here alone.”
“You don’t have someone take you home?”
“No, I have no-one,” I said, suddenly surprised by how sad that statement was.
He looked at the motorbike helmet in my hand and then down at my foot. “Will you drive okay?”
I flexed my toes by about a micrometre. “Sure,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
Dara O Foghlu is an Irish writer living in Hanoi