3) Typhoon Tetanus

Notes From Tha Cove – The Hurricane That Gave Me Tetanus

By Bill Boyles

Satellite imagery of Tropical Cyclone Cora as it approached Tonga
This is going to be a longer one, because it’s two stories in one: The story of a hurricane hitting Paradise Cove, and the story of how that hurricane gave me tetanus. The first thing you don’t need to know but I’m going to tell you anyway about this story is that I’m from Florida, and still live there. And in Florida, we get hurricanes. A lot of hurricanes. But in Samoa, the word is “cyclones” not hurricanes. So I’m going to use that word for the rest of the story. For all intents and purposes, they are the same damn thing, though.  In Samoa, unlike Florida and the rest of the states, cyclone season is from November to May (Samoa is south of the equator so the seasons are exactly reversed.) As I know this occurred somewhat before I got out of Paradise Cove in August of 1999, and since only one typhoon hit Samoa in the 1998-1999 season, I feel confident telling you that it was Tropical Cyclone Cora (not that I knew that then). It approached Samoa sometime around Dec.28. Anyway, as the storm approached, the staff began to batten down the hatches, but for some inexplicable reason, despite the fact that we lived on a beach literally 10 feet above sea level and 25 linear feet from the edge of the ocean, we weren’t evacuated. I’ve mentioned before that in our huts or fales, our “windows” were just holes in the wall with chicken wire nailed over them. Well, it turns out in the tropics it rains a lot (duh!) and it also turns out chicken wire doesn’t stop rain from entering very well (duh duh!). So the clever, clever staff devised a system of tarps, just plain old blue (some were brown) tarps like from Home Depot, nailed to the tops of windows and rolled up and tied with a strap to stay rolled up. These tarps could be untied and unrolled during inclement weather. Many families found scraps of wood to attach to the lower edge of the tarp both to make it easier to roll up and let down, but also to help keep it in place during wind; however, not all tarps had these wooden pieces. Now, a cyclone has wind. A lot of wind. In fact, it’s just a big ball of wind and rain. So the tarps were going to come in handy, but with all that wind, even the ones with wood strips were going to get blown around so bad they were going to get torn off. So instead of evacuating us, the staff (and some boys shanghaied into service) spent all day nailing down the tarps on all the buildings, even on common area fales like the dining room and kitchen, using new strips of wood to keep the tarps from ripping free of the nails in the wind. Thus battened down, we went about our lives on the dismal schedule, just waiting for the storm to hit. I think of all the kids there, those of us from Florida were in the worst position. We all knew exactly what was coming and exactly how bad we didn’t want to be that close to the ocean, trying to ride it out in those flimsy huts. The only thing we didn’t know was when the hurricane was coming and how bad it was going to be. Despite the fact that as Family Leader (a position for a Level 3 that made him in charge of the family for some things- they were big on rank and hierarchy at Paradise Cove) I was entitled to sleep in my family’s fale, a more prestigious sleeping position, I had continued to sleep in the dining room, which along with several other buildings was elevated by an addition 5 feet or so and further back from the water by another 20 feet or so. That decision really paid off for me that night, because that night was when the cyclone hit. The staff had brought down a few lamps, anticipating the power would go out, and go out it did. That was the first night in over a year that I slept with the lights off, and the only night I wished they were on. I couldn’t sleep that night. The wind was howling outside like a living thing, like a demon, like a banshee I felt like it wanted me personally and was screaming my name with rage. I was familiar with the sound, being from Florida, but still it scared even me. I have no idea how the kids from other places coped. Maybe better, asleep in blissful ignorance It’s worth noting at this point that the dining fale where I slept was somewhat more flimsily designed than the other fales, having mostly completely open sides without chick wire. It also had an open side with no door. I could hear the wood of it groaning as it strained against the wind. I knew the roof was just hanging on. My best friend Jamey slept in the hut, too (which is why I hadn’t moved.) I had inherited an air mattress from another boy who had left, and as we crawled underneath it. As we huddled together under it, we could hear the debris bouncing off the tarps that were our only protection. I don’t know to this day what he did, but I spent all night praying to a God I was sure had abandoned me to my fate long before. The praying must have worked, Maybe I wasn’t the only one doing it,  Everyone made it, although trees were down, debris was strewn everywhere, and rocks had even been dislodged from the cliffs above. I learned how my decision to sleep in the dining room had paid off: the storm surge generated by the storm had made the ocean rise over 12 feet, overtopping the cliff the row of lower family fales sat on. The water had even washed into the fales. The 5 extra feet that of height the communal buildings had spared me from that at least. We shook ourselves off and went back on schedule as the staff and gang-pressed kids began removing the wood strips holding the tarps on. Eventually, my family went to water sports. We were entitled to a shower after swimming to ward off sunspots, and my family began showering. I as the family leader didn’t need to be watched everywhere I went, and I quickly ran to our fale, within feet of the showers, to put my mask and snorkel away. Fales in Paradise Cove had corrugated tin roofs with internal pasteboard ceilings, so there was a hollow space in the rafters. The fales had open soffits, which is where many of us stored our water sports gear. I grabbed hold of a rafter and pulled myself up in a chin-up, putting my mask far back where it was unlikely to get stolen by someone else. Then I let go and dropped down. I landed hard, my foot stinging, but all I had on was a very flimsy set of cheap foam sandals, worn almost through, and I had landed one of the discarded strips of wood from the tarps, so it wasn’t that surprising. I got the surprise when I tried to walk. After a few steps I realized something was stuck to my sandal. I looked down, and it was the piece of wood. I lifted my foot to shake it off, and that’s when I realized it was stuck to my foot. I figured there was a nail sticking out stuck in my sandal, so I stepped on the piece of wood with my other foot and tried to pull my first foot free. I felt as curios pressure in my foot. That’s when I realized the nail was stuck in my foot and not my sandal. Why didn’t I notice a nail stuck in my foot right away? There’s a good answer to that question. We were often forced to go without sandals because our old pair would wear out and the program simply wouldn’t provide new ones for months. We also did exercises barefoot, played volleyball barefoot, and walked on the coral of the reef barefoot during Water Sports. Because of all these things, the skin on the bottom of our feet grew thick and calloused, nearly impervious to pain or puncture, at least by things that weren’t a freaking nail. So, I had a nail in my foot. I sat down and tried to pull the board off and the nail out, and to my surprise I couldn’t. Eventually I had to apply all my effort. There was a feeling of incredible pressure, followed by an audible popping sound, and suddenly the nail was free, but my foot was suddenly extremely sore. I knew who had taken the wood off our fale- I had assigned him the task, after all- and now I vented my anger. “Michael! I’m going to kill you, you -!” I won’t repeat all the names I called him, but they were as choice as only a teenaged boy living in a reenactment of Lord of the Flies could make them. I limped toward the showers. Once in, I scrubbed the nail hole as well as I could, but because of the calluses on my foot, it was just a small puncture wound. It wasn’t even open. That night, during Meds time right before bed, I went to the “nurse” and told her what had happened. She boiled a pot of salt water (I think actual ocean water!) and had me put my foot in while it was super hot. Then she gave me some Panadol, which is the Australian or New Zealand version of Tylenol. I went to bed. The next morning, it was clear the remedies hadn’t worked, and I found myself in a whole new world of hurt. My foot was hugely swollen and a nice, angry red color. It was so painful I couldn’t walk on it, and I was not then nor am I now a bitch about these things. I went to the “nurse” showed her my foot, and told her to do something about it. She offered me Panadeine, which as you may have guess is Panadol with Codeine. I took it, because hey, it was Codeine and my life sucked. Then I told her I needed antibiotics and to go to the hospital. In her broken English she refused. As the day went on I could see red lines start to form and begin snaking their way up my leg right where my veins were. I knew my life was possibly hanging in the balance. Luckily, Fate was on my side that day, because that day happened to be the day of one of my phone calls to my parents that I got every month or two. This meant I would see my case manager and go into town. My case manager at this time was a man named Duane Lee, who was also the Director of all Paradise Cove. I was using the very piece of wood that did me in as a crutch at this point. When Duane came down to the beach to pick me up, he saw the crutch and asked right away what had happened. I told him, then showed him what was going on. He took me into to town and had me call my parents, then took me straight to the hospital. He may have saved my life. Of course, his negligence about the hurricane in the first place was what had put me in that position, so I didn’t then nor do I now feel particularly grateful. The doctor, after looking and listening, ordered an immediate x-ray. When  he looked at it, he said, and I literally quote, “Holy shit!” The nail had gone over an inch into my foot, deep into the bone, and left a clearly-visible pocket there. They told me the infection was most likely tetanus, and gave me a tetanus shot. The best part was, they admitted me for three days! I bet that sounds crappy to you, but to me it was awesome. I should note I was at the brand new hospital they had just built, no more third-world, open air crap holes. I got hospital food (which was actually a vast improvement), pain medicine, and I even had a TV and I could watch it! I hadn’t watched TV in over a year, nor ordered what food I wanted. But soon enough the IV antibiotics healed me up, and after three days I had to say goodbye to luxury and return to my awful life in that nasty gulag. That’s the story of Typhoon Tetanus, and this was Notes From Tha Cove.

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