Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fallout from the Blind Encounter with a Jellyfish

Author's Note:
A journey back to your heritage always invokes a modicum of soul searching because the question of what brought you here, at this stage in life at this particular point in time, demands unadulterated honesty associated with the benefits of hindsight. When you look at childhood from your prism as an adult it lends a measure of satisfaction that youth, George Bernard Shaw notwithstanding, after all was not exactly and entirely wasted on the young.

This is the second in a series of chatty narratives on my childhood, related in the first person. The first, Misadventures with a Jellyfish, may give you the necessary perspective to put this one in its proper context. In the interest of full disclosure, for those who may be squeamish in intestinal fortitude let me warn that the picture emerging from the narrative may not be altogether wholesome. I enjoin you therefore to look it over with guarded leisure. May you have half as much fun reading it as I had both living and writing about it.


As "I slapped and scratched my way through the underbrush" the jellyfish welts of course broke at some selective most vulnerable acute spots. That was how I was reduced to a "nearly skinless carcass." The bitter-sour yellow-green kind of pain which accompanied the induced bursting out of welts of any kind gave me the sensation of screws being tightened at my temples. Despite my father's penchant to mete out commensurate punishments for capital offenses, I was once again spared the ordeal by my miserable physical condition.

{Lest somebody got the impression that father had the habit of killing off family members, let me clarify what was construed as 'capital offenses.' There were codes of conduct and rules of behavior, mostly unspoken, definitely unwritten. We just learned to tell right from wrong by observing how our parents and older siblings conducted themselves. My parents were both stringent disciplinarians. Mother mainly dispensed verbal admonitions. Father sometimes meted out physical punishments. One of the most common forms was lashing with the leather belt or a rattan switch or a flexible twig freshly picked specifically for the occasion. Another was being put inside a stinky copra sack such that you were barely able to stand on tip toe at the sack bottom because of stitching constraints at the top of the sack and the sack suspended to the rafters until the subject mostly fell asleep from exhaustion. Any infraction which resulted in a physical punishment was what I dubbed a 'capital offense.' The physical punishment was preceded by a thorough conceptual discussion of the infraction to make sure that the subject understood and admitted the punishment was well deserved and commensurate with the crime. As a child I sometimes preferred capital punishment to the verbal kind. The former had a rather prompt closure to the incident. The latter could continue for ages without any prospect of closure, until it was eventually forgotten or superseded by something else considered to be more serious.}

This was, however, not exactly a ticket for weeks of rest and relaxation at home. I had become a fulltime patient being medicated with the traditional herbs and roots soaked for ages in coconut oil. Most of the welts had then become a reddish mosaic of exposed skinless flesh painful even to the caress of the evening breeze of a typically humid tropical day. The few exceptions, the ones which were not so acutely bloated, managed to shrink to normal size within a couple of weeks under the medication, and the skin was somehow saved. At the same time, or perhaps a little shortly thereafter, scabs began to develop over the open lesions, heralding the unmistakable signs of healing.

Healing had its definite downside, however. Heightened itching sensation as normally associated with the process only served to exacerbate by several degrees the original itchy characteristics of the injury. While I was able to restrain myself, albeit with extreme difficulty, from scratching away at the scabs when I was awake and conscious, I miserably failed at avoiding the deed in my sleep. I would emerge from sleep all bloodied up from my inadvertent scratching reflexes.

To my family's credit for being compassionate, nobody ever suggested to have me tied up in my sleep to save me from myself. So true to my hubristic instincts as a little boy perpetually pregnant with brilliant ideas, one Sunday morning when nobody else was around, I decided to wash off my scabs to get rid of the itch, once and for all. Armed with a bar of laundry soap, I proceeded to scrub myself at the spot in the creek where the family habitually washed the household laundry. My total accomplishment with this maneuver was the premature removal of the scabs with attendant profuse bleeding.

To appreciate the full medicinal implication of this brilliantly bold initiative it behooves to note that except for drinking, for which we used surface spring wells, the creek was the all purpose water resource in the locality. This meant that upstream of where I bathe myself, were regular watering holes and wallowing dens for the ubiquitous carabaos which farm owners traditionally kept as versatile draft animals. It would have taken a miraculous combination of luck and fortuitously favorable disposition of the immune system to have come out of the proceedings free of infection. As it turned out, I was not all that lucky.

Overnight my left leg had bloated from severe inflammation to such an extent that it was impossible to move it, let alone stand on it. By the third day the largest and most acute lesion located on the fleshy backside of the leg started to ooze with pus with the putrid stench of a rotting carcass. I was reduced to dragging the leg as I navigated around the house on my hands, right leg, and buttocks. It seemed to my little boy's mind that all the wrath and venom of the malicious jellyfish were poured into my leg while the rest of my body was gratuitously spared, as I continued to use the herbal/root coconut oil ointment to dress the less serious lesions which seemed to be progressively healing.

The ointment was however utterly useless to abate, let alone reverse the rapid deterioration of my left leg. For this I started using the flame-softened leaves of the cactus-like common milk hedge or soro-soro (Euphorbia neriifolia) to dress the miserable limb. The live or raw soro-soro leaf was brittle with milky sap. Heated or cooked to pliability, the sap was transformed into a sour juice and the leaf itself into a succulent patch which when applied on a lesion oozing with pus, engendered a suction effect on the pus as the patch dried up, hence a cleansing effect on the lesion. The only other use of the soro-soro leaf that I was aware of was for stuffing when you roasted notoriously very gamey victuals such as foxes, iguanas, land turtles, etc., for the express purpose of mitigating the gamey flavor of the meat.

The healing mechanism was not very effective where and when there was a super abundance of pus, as was the case with my rotting leg. I increasingly found myself unequal to the task of cleaning off the pus in order to deploy the cactus patch effectively. Living in the farm, there were always three to five dogs at any one time which constituted the household's army of domestic guards. As luck would have it, one of our dogs gave birth to a liter of three cute chubby puppies, one of which grew very affectionate with me as the only person in the house most times because everybody else had work to do in the farm. Unbeknownst to anybody else for a week, I promptly employed the puppy as my nursemaid.

His main job was to lick off the pus from my leg, a chore he seemed to have taken to with utmost enthusiasm. The only drawback was his licking tickled a lot. It was definitely more bearable though compared to the pain and anguish I experienced when I had to meticulously pick off the pus by whatever handy instruments I could come up with. When my parents got wind of my priceless contribution to medieval medicine, they were first appalled. But on observing that a dog dressed his own wounds by licking them at regular intervals, father decided he could very well have had a medical genius for a son.

Many a few medical professionals, on learning of these escapades, had assured me much later that I was exceptionally lucky to have not caught an infection of rabies from my cute chubby canine medical assistant. Nevertheless, almost three weeks into this rather unorthodox medical regimen, my leg exhibited unmistakable signs of progressive healing. The swelling however persisted and the attendant palpitating pain was akin to an acute case of gout, a malady which incidentally persisted in the genetic DNA of the family for generations. Even after the lesions had completely healed with distinctive scars, the leg still proved useless for standing, let alone walking on it.

Then came the news that a renowned practitioner of the ancient traditional occult healing technique of lahid, was visiting for a week the nearby island, about an hour's boat paddle away from my village. The traditional modus operandi for the technique has been documented in the literature as follows:

Using a white linen pouch containing ground herbs is massaged on the affected area of the patient's body for several minutes, ranging from 20 to 40 minutes. Items extracted from the body are usually solid objects such as bones of fish, broken glass, stones or insects.

The debris extracted from the patient's malady is retrieved from the pouch intermixed with the original herbal contents.

The practitioner who treated me departed from this orthodoxy in that instead of a pouch he used a transparent flat bottle the size of an audio cassette tape containing a mixture of herbs and roots soaked in oil. The bottle was tightly sealed. He was wearing short sleeved shirts during all three procedures of my treatment. I had in my suspicious mind absolutely ruled out the possibility of any sleight of hand subterfuge.

He spread an old newspaper page on the floor and made me position my leg above the paper, foot down while I was seated on a chair. He proceeded to rub his bottle on my bloated leg, downwards, i.e. from the knee towards the ankle. I witnessed, mesmerized as he extracted a mixture of debris consisting of pieces of dried fish bones, splinter of chicken bones, stone-like debris, some hair clippings such as you would find on barber shop floors, some broken sea shells, etc., some of them freely dropping onto the paper. This lasted for about 30 to 40 minutes at the end of which he told me to sit still while he loaded his pipe tobacco and leisurely but very somberly smoked a pipeful.

On finishing his pipe, he asked me to slowly stand up. I did and to my immense delight, did not feel any pain. He informed my father that I needed two more treatments at two days interval. He advised me to treat the leg very tenderly and refrain from walking unless I really felt the irresistible urge to walk just to get the leg moving, considering that I had not done it for quite a while. Two days later I went back for my second treatment. At the end of the visit, I walked from the house to the boat.

The debris he extracted from my leg appeared to have progressively gone finer in consistency from the first to the third treatments. I walked to and from the boat at both ends of the trip on my third visit for treatment. One week after the third visit, I went back to school fully recovered. I was absent from classes for more than three months. I had to take both a written and an oral test to prove that I did not significantly lag behind the pace of the entire class before I was allowed to get back to second grade in the same school year. I ended up finishing second grade ranked 2nd in the class.

Today, more than 59 years later, the scar I got from the jellyfish is the most distinctive identifying mark but it did not even get noticed by the passport issuing authorities so it is not mentioned anywhere other than where I have written about it. It mimics the shape of the map of the Philippine archipelago and I am sporting it as a badge of adventure, seeking every chance I get to show it off. I have been most definitely convinced that the entire jellyfish saga had made me better able to handle with grace, morally and emotionally, the vagaries of all sorts and flavors of adversity.

If nothing else, respecting this episode in particular, I can assert with certainty that youth was definitely not wasted on the young.

1 comment:

  1. I deem this the most appropriate venue to record my confession that my experience with the healing art of LAHID was among the factors which motivated me to donate my cadaver, for cute medical students to cut up, to the Stony Brook University Medical Department.

    By and large, I consider myself schooled in science and technology. The LAHID phenomenon is the one experience I'll have to archive in my memory banks as yet needing a cogent scientific explanation. If somebody out there has one, now is as good a time to share it with the eager public.