Vanity 

Pride comes before a fall. And vanity comes before a humiliation. 

For years, I’ve been talking about getting laser surgery for my eyes. I have moaned here before about my glasses and contacts, and one of the reasons I was excited to be staying in Vietnam was the fact that medical procedures, including laser eye surgery is so cheap here, less than half the price it is in Ireland. A life without glasses and contacts! That’s the only thing standing in the way of me being the next James Dean!

It is still a significant sum of money and I saved up and made an appointment for the latest date possible, a week before leaving Vietnam (you have to stay around for a week after the surgery for them to check that the flaps they cut in your eyeballs are healing properly before you can leave the country).

I was nervous. People tell you things. You have to stay awake during the surgery and watch them cut your eyes open. Aaaagh! Apparently you can also smell your eyeballs burning during the procedure. And you can’t rub your eyes for a whole month after the surgery. So much fear. Luckily, I am vain enough to get through the fear.

I booked the surgery for yesterday (Tuesday) and was asked to go in for a pre-operative check-up on Monday. The check-up lasted for 3 hours! I was led to machine, after machine, after machine. Like everything in Vietnam, squatting was required. All these machines were low and you were expected to squat on a little stool while you read numbers or letters to a staff member.

I spent a long time with one man, reading lots and lots of numbers aloud. This man didn’t appear to speak any English, so I have no idea if he knew what I was saying, but he continued to make me read. About 10 minutes into this, we took a break, and he addressed me directly for the first time. “Where are you from?” “Ireland.” “Oh. Roy Keane.” “Yes.” After this cultural exchange, he had me lean towards the machine again and I once more started reading numbers aloud for ten minutes.

After a few spins on a few different machines, having had air puffed in my eyes, having looked at red lights and blue lights and looked at machines in the dark and in blazing light, I was sent to the waiting room. While I was sitting there, a young nurse came out and handed me a list of warnings saying that my vision would be blurry and that I shouldn’t operate heavy machinery. He then put eye drops in my eyes that stung the bejaysus out of me. Was I having the operation? I thought that was happening the next day? I guess this was OK. Was I spiritually prepared? Probably not. Aaaargh!

As it turned out, these warnings weren’t for the surgery, they just related to the ridiculously strong eye drops I was being given.

When you go to an opticians in Ireland, they make a big deal of washing their hands very visibly before they touch your eyes. In this hospital, they didn’t appear to do this, happily scratching their ears one second and jabbing their waxy fingers into my eyes the next.

I was taken to see the surgeon, who proceeded to do all the tests that had just been done again. My eyes were prodded and poked and photographed and blasted with air and dyed all over again. I read rows and rows of numbers again.

The surgeon then told me all about the procedure for the surgery, the risks and the prices. She included the following warning: “As you’re nearly 40, you’ll have to start wearing reading glasses soon.” What? I’m not “nearly 40”. I’m just 34. I’m not even 34 and a quarter. That’s not “nearly 40”. Anyway, my physics teacher in secondary school said most people don’t need reading glasses until they’re 47. And whatever about not being “nearly 40”, I’m definitely not nearly 47.

Once I’d agreed the price and time for the operation, the surgeon sent me with a nurse to do my medical checks.

This was golden Connor-is-fat comedy. The first job was to take a blood sample. I knew this would be tough. The last time I had blood taken, it took three nurses working together to get blood from me.

There were two young nurses working on me. They looked in absolute befuddlement at the back of my hands and the inside of my elbows. They’d never seen someone without visible veins before. They got out their mobiles and rang some colleagues. Before long there were SIX nurses, poking at my hands and arms, searching for a vein. They showed me the veins on the back of their hands, so I’d know what they were looking for and then looked at me expectantly. I don’t know what they expected. Did they think fat people carry a map of the location of their veins?

One nurse was wearing vinyl gloves (the only gloves I saw all day) but she kept taking her gloves off to look at the location of her own veins on the back of her hand to see if she could find an equivalent on mine. Another nurse was of the heroin-addict-on-TV variety, believing that if she slapped my arm hard enough then a vein would eventually pop up. They guessed. They prodded. They broke skin on four different places on my hands. Three people worked on squeezing the blood out of my arm, while another worked the needle. All the while, the only other patients in the room were two Buddhist monks, who looked on passively. They collected three dribbles of blood, from different parts of my hands. The test-tube of blood was still mainly empty. And I know from experience that blood collected in little drops from different punctures doesn’t yield a usable result but I didn’t protest. I certainly didn’t want them to keep slapping, squeezing and piercing me. It was all very 50 Shades of Blood.

I was then led upstairs. I laughed when I saw the blood pressure machine. The cuff was piddlingly small. There was no way they’d get my blood pressure. The nurse tried to fasten the cuff around my arm and turned the machine on. Within seconds, the velcro popped and the cuff fell off. He tried again. This time he held the cuff on my arm as it inflated. It still popped off. He tried a third time, wrapping both of his hands around the blood pressure cuff. This is the most intimate I’ve been with a man in ages. The cuff once again came off. My arm was too fat. An elderly nurse was sitting at the next desk. She turned to me and asked “Do you have high blood pressure?” I said I didn’t, she grabbed my file from the younger nurse, made a note and sent us on our way. 

I was sent home and told to come back at 10:30 the following morning.

I got another taxi to the eye hospital the next day, my third one. I was welcomed and I handed over my credit card and paid for the operation. I have to admit, I had my reservations. The hospital seemed clean and modern and the staff seemed nice, but I wished they knew how to take my blood successfully, or how to measure my blood pressure successfully, or more English that “Roy Keane”. I wished there were more sinks around and more visible hand-washing and glove-wearing. They’d given me a series of warnings. For a few weeks after the operation, it was essential to keep dust out of your eyes. I don’t know how one achieves that in Ho Chi Minh City, where you’re constantly surrounded by both motorbikes and building sites. You are also to avoid getting sweat in your eyes. Again, that’s asking the impossible in Ho Chi Minh City.

I did another quick round of eye tests, looking into a few machines, reading out some numbers and was brought to the surgical suite. Here I was prepped for post-op care, given eye guards and sunglasses, lubricating eye drops, antibiotic eye drops and anti-inflammatory eye drops, all of which had to be taken at different times on different days.

I then signed a disclaimer. As someone who has a degree in law, I should have known better than to sign it. It was barely in English. I don’t remember it properly now, but it had sentences like “The doctor explained me all I worrying”. I signed it anyway. Devil may care. That’s me.

A nurse who spoke no English brought me some pills. She couldn’t tell me what they were. Oh well. In for a penny, in for a pound. I took them all. She gave me a warm soapy tasting drink to wash them down – bath water?

Within minutes, waves of pleasure were washing over me. A true happiness nestled deep in my heart. Joy coursed up my legs, across my chest and down my arms. The drugs  were clearly working.

Drugs get such a bad rep, but they’re great. This was like one of those orgasms Sting has.

I was led into the preparation area. Here at last I saw evidence of hand washing and vinyl gloves. Not that I cared at this stage. The drugs were making me too happy for that.

I was made to take off my shoes and put on a pair of flip flops. Sterile flip flops. Surgical flip flops. I was given a hospital gown. Of course they had nothing my size. One nurse held the gown together while another pinned and taped me into the gown. I didn’t care about the shame. The drugs made me far too happy for that.

I was made to sit down and was given a few eye drops. The area around my eyes was cleaned and painted yellow. I was ready for surgery.

The surgeon came out and gave me instructions for the surgery. I was to look at the red light and not move my eyes. OK. That sounds fine. You could have told me to do anything while on these drugs and I would have agreed.

I was led into the operating theatre. I felt no fear. I got to the trolley and was helped onto it. It was a narrow trolley and even when my limbs aren’t floppy from drugs, I’m not very athletic when it comes to climbing up onto high surfaces. Two short nurses wrestled me onto the table. I imagine it looked something like a pair of circus trainers trying to get a walrus onto a gymnastics balance beam.

I was told to move down the table. In my drug-addled mind, I suddenly got upset. I asked, in a panic, “Which way is down?” on the brink of tears. I soon calmed down again.

They rolled the trolley towards the giant laser apparatus.

And then, my moment of shame.

I was too big. The laser equipment was fixed to the wall. It wouldn’t fit over my elephantine body. I couldn’t have the surgery.

The surgeons and nurses all started arguing in Vietnamese. Two of them stood me up. The main surgeon came to me and said that they wouldn’t be able to operate today. She had a proposal. They would take the wheels off the trolley. Then I would probably fit. I could come in the following day to test the height of the new trolley and then have the surgery on Friday. But I had a flight booked to Hanoi. And I wouldn’t be in Vietnam long enough to get my 7-day check-up. There wasn’t going to be an operation. All around me, Vietnamese doctors and nurses laughed and shook their heads and thankfully the drugs insulated my dignity.

I sat in the waiting room for an hour, in a haze of narcotics and shame, giggling intermittently at the silliness of it all. Then one of the receptionists came to me. It was going to be difficult to refund me as I had paid by card. Could I come back after 3:00pm? At this stage I would have agreed to anything.

I went home in another taxi, still giggling. I spent three hours at home, fitfully sleeping, feeling at turns joyful, amused, ashamed and sick.

I got another taxi at 4:00 back to the hospital. The receptionist looked at me shamefacedly and asked if I could come back the next day for my refund. At this stage, the drugs were beginning to wear off and I snapped, telling her that I had just been in my 5th taxi of the last two days, coming and going to the eye hospital.

She said she’d get me the money and she led me out the back of the hospital. We walked through a few laneways and up a flight of stairs. Was I going to get murdered? I was led into a nice sitting room where two teenagers were sitting, eating their dinner and watching TV. This was a family home, there were Tet cards all over the wall and dinner was in full swing. It appeared it was the home of the hospital’s owner. The owner, an older woman, went to a safe in the corner and counted out my refund: 145 banknotes, which I still have in my pocket.

At least I have enough money to enjoy my last ten days in Vietnam. Also, I really did enjoy the drugs.

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