It’s funny how your life can sometimes be turned upside down in an instant. Funny and tragic at the same time. It’s especially stunning when it happens when you travel and are far away from the safety of your doctors, friends, family and your home. One minute you could be enjoying one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, and next thing you know, you are writhing in agony on a hospital bed.
And that’s exactly what happened to me recently on a small but popular island of Ko Phi Phi in the Andaman sea in Thailand. A gust of breeze got some sandy dust into my eye – nothing that hadn’t happened to me, or anyone, before. Carelessly, I tried to rub it out, a tad too vigorously, apparently, because before I knew it, the eye was flooded with what felt like gallons of tears, and the sensation turned from mildly annoying discomfort to the excruciating pain.
Ko Phi Phi is a very touristy island. For its population of over 2000 people, there are probably hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit it every year to see its jagged karst rocks jutting out of the sea, its white sand beaches and visit the top-notch world that is tempting snorkelers and divers just beneath the water surface. You’d think there would be some decent medical facilities on the island, considering that injury-prone activities abound here. And you’d be only partially right.
There is the so-called “Ko Phi Phi Hospital” near the beach. It’s more of a large barn, but with a reception and even an ER – an open-door room with a couple of lazy cats strolling in and out. The best part of this “hospital” was that it was on the same beach where I was nearly screaming in pain, and off I ran to it, covering my aching right eye with my hand. It was still morning, and 2 or 3 female staffers seemed half asleep. My screams for help finally made them realize it was more than a case of a bad sunburn for another farang, and they laid me on one of the cots in the ER and poured something into my eye. Miraculously, the pain quickly subsided – it was numbing anesthetic eyedrops, and thank goodness for that invention.
Now I was ready to see the doctor. The doctor, a Thai girl aged about 25 with surprisingly good English, flashed her flashlight into my eye holding it open with her fingers, and said I had a scratched cornea. “Don’t worry”, she said. ‘It will heal on its own in a day or two”. When I told her I also could not see anything with my eye, she said the vision would come back as well.
As unlikely as it seemed at that moment, it was a huge relief, and I was sent back to my hotel with a makeshift eye patch taped to my face. Not before I was charged by the hospital a fairly hefty amount, but that’s another story.
Thinking it’s no big deal and despite the ongoing discomfort in my eye, I went on an all-afternoon boat trip – I mean, it’s Ko Phi Phi after all, with its beautiful cliffs, beaches and lagoons. And although I tried to keep the eye mostly closed, it wasn’t always easy. Long story short, there was zero improvement the next day, and on my second visit, the young doctor said she couldn’t help me and suggested I go to Phuket or Krabi and see an eye specialist.
I chose to go to Krabi – in part, because it was a little closer, and also in the hope that if my eye would get better soon, I could still explore the many sights and beaches of Krabi Province. The doctor gave me a short list of eye doctors she knew in Krabi town, I bought the ferry ticket and in a couple of hours, I was in a hotel room in Krabi, just round the corner from the first recommended to me eye doctor – Dr. Wim.
Dr. Wim looked at my eye with his machine and confirmed the diagnosis, except it was far worse than just a scratch. I had a cornea abrasion that covered my iris almost completely. As baffling as it was, it explained the pain and blurry vision. The doctor also confirmed that the abrasion does heal itself normally, but it would take more than just a couple of days. He couldn’t be any more specific. He prescribed me some pills and eyedrops and told me to come back in 2 days for a checkup.
With almost zero vision in my right eye and constant discomfort, there wasn’t much I could do but wait. Krabi is perfect for it – a quiet, provincial town, not a beach resort, so there was no temptation to go swimming or be near the water. It has all the amenities necessary – restaurants, shops, decent hotels, even a handful of bars, which seemed strange as there were hardly any tourists at all. All the better for me, I figured.
When I went to see Dr. Wim again and told him my vision hasn’t improved one bit, he seemed a little impatient. I got slightly uneasy when he suggested I don’t blink my eye and mentioned a possibility of drawing my blood in order to somehow use it for faster healing. After that, my Western suspicions of Thai medicine got the better of me, and I decided to seek a second opinion.
Dr. Parada was the second recommended doctor. She was an attractive lady, with decent English and a seemingly well-equipped office. She confirmed Dr. Wim’s diagnosis but said it could be weeks, not days, before the abrasion of my size actually heals. She seemed a lot more caring than Dr. Wim, and I decided to stick to her advice. She said the pills prescribed to me were all painkillers – no wonder I was always drowsy last couple of days! She said I could quit the pills, stick to 2 different kinds eyedrops every 1-2 hours, and come see her again in a week.
Days went by. I’d spend most of the time in my hotel room, getting out only to get food. If I tried to open my right eye, everything was as blurry as it was the first day after the incident – kind of like in murky water. There were some doubtful thoughts in my mind for sure – what if it doesn’t heal? Will I remain blind in one eye? The sandy, scratchy feeling in the eye slowly subsided, but there was no improvement on vision. I could hardly even read, as my left eye is slightly far-sighted. All I could do is listen to podcasts in my room and try to hope for the best.
Finally, after nearly 10 days, I noticed a significant reduction in blurriness. I still couldn’t quite see clearly but at least I could restore some sort of stereoscopic perception of my surroundings. I went to the doctor again and she said the cornea has all but healed, with just a small patch still scarred. I was to continue the eyedrop regimen for at least another week and wait a bit more before vision would be back.
It was a huge load off my shoulders, and for the first time during the whole ordeal I started enjoying being in Thailand again. The food, the beer, the weather, the scenery – everything became suddenly more pleasant again. I began making plans for the upcoming weeks, something I had held off for a while.
Now, nearly 4 weeks after the incident, I am at about 90-95% vision. There is still room for improvement, and who knows, it might not even happen, but I realized that with eyes, you’ve just got to be patient. And never scratch them, especially if there is something inside – you can make it really, really worse. Trust me, I know.