In the summer of 2011, I learned two important lessons. My first lesson was how disgusting my body could be, and the second and most important lesson was just how important it is to listen to my gut.
If I hadn’t listened to my intuition, I might be missing a hand.
It was my third year working in Yoho National Park. It’s just down the Trans-Canada highway from the more famous Banff National Park, home to such sights as Takkakaw Falls, the second highest waterfall in North America and Emerald Lake (where Barbara Streisand likes to stay on vacation). It has a pretty solid tourism industry.
I worked in Yoho campgrounds and loved it. A lot of the job was talking to the folks who came to visit our park, explaining camping regulations and answering questions. I’m pretty passionate about the Canadian Rockies and I’m about the friendliest person in the world, so I was really pumped.
Unfortunately, there are a few other things that had to do that I didn’t love quite as much.
You know when you’re on a road trip and you really have to pee? So, you stop at a horrible outhouse on the side of the highway because you just can’t hold it anymore? And it’s really smelly? And super gross? Somebody has to clean them. Unfortunately, that person was me.
Honestly, it wasn’t too bad. I mean, it was really bad, but you kind of get used to it, and it was only for about 5 or 10 minutes a day. We used heavy-duty chemicals and wore rubber gloves that came up to our elbows, so we were somewhat protected from the horrible things down in those pit toilets. After we were done, we’d all get into the car and cover ourselves in hand sanitizer, up to our elbows, just as an additional measure.
I had done this job for two years and I loved the experience. My co-workers were all awesome, I got to spend time out in the mountains, and I got to live by myself out in the boonies. However, in summer 2011, I had noticed that my eczema was getting pretty bad. It looked a lot worse than it had ever been before.
Everyone seemed to notice. It looked pretty gross, so my boss gave me a pair of thin, cotton gloves to wear underneath my rubber gloves while I cleaned, just in case it was the rubber that was bothering me. It didn’t help at all, so I’d wondered if I had gotten some chemicals inside my rubber gloves. I threw them out and got new ones. It didn't help.
I slathered on corticosteroid cream before bed, but it just kept getting worse. My left hand looked like the skin was falling off. It was all pink and chapped like I had 3rd degree burns. It blistered. It began to look like a bubbling mass of flesh with sections of missing skin, and the worst part was that it oozed. The pinky side of my left hand was constantly weeping a clear fluid. I have never, ever seen my body do anything this disgusting in my life.
Eventually, one morning at work, I was in the office when my boss said, “Hey, Paula, are you gonna get that checked out any time soon?” I told her I’d been planning on getting it looked at that evening after work, but she let me leave right away to go to the nearest walk-in clinic. I drove the hour and a half to Banff and went to the emergency room instead.
There wasn’t much of a wait at the Banff Hospital, so they saw me quickly. I went in and explained to the doctor that while I have eczema, I have never had it this bad. I explained that I worked with chemicals frequently, and that I thought it may be a chemical burn.
She quickly looked it over and told me it was just eczema and I needed a stronger corticosteroid. I was freaking out, so I told her that I really, really didn’t think it was eczema, and begged her to do some tests or something because, “I KNOW WHAT ECZEMA LOOKS LIKE, OKAY?? And this is SO MUCH WORSE THAN ANY ECZEMA EVER!”
She looked at me like I was a very crazy hypochondriac and told me to calm down and go fill the prescription.
I called my mom. I cried and told her what the doctor had said and that I was really worried that she was wrong. My mom asked me what I thought I should do. I told her that my gut said that the doctor is wrong, but that I didn’t want to see a second doctor who would also just tell me it was eczema and look at me like I was crazy.
She told me that if my instinct was telling me to do something, I should probably listen and that it wouldn’t hurt to get a second opinion. She told me to come home to Calgary and she’d get me into a priority health clinic for that evening. I drove the two hours home and she took me to the clinic right away.
I saw a wonderful doctor there who took one look at me and put me on a massive dosage of biaxin for 10 days. She told me she’d never seen anything like my left hand, and that she needed to swab it and send it to the lab to confirm any suspicions she might have about my condition. I also had to stay in Calgary for a week just in case it got worse. I started taking the medication, and while being on such a hardcore antibiotic made me feel pretty awful, my left hand started clearing up.
After about a week had gone by, I got a call from the lab. The lady I spoke with said that it was one of the worst staph infections that she’d ever seen in all her years at the lab, and she asked me if it looked better. I told her it did, and that it was starting to clear up. She said that I had been prescribed the right medication, but that if there was any concern about it getting into my joint tissue, I had to go back in. I thanked her and told her that it was healing nicely.
A few weeks later, I was hanging out with a good friend of mine, and I told her all about my experience. She’s in medical school, so I frequently harass her with medical questions and descriptions about my gross body.
As she listened to my story, her eyes widened with surprise. She said that it really sounded like it was flesh-eating disease, and that the lab wasn’t obligated to tell me it was a flesh-eating disease if they caught it early enough. Either way, she said that I was so lucky that they caught it while it was still treatable and that I got a correct prescription.
I still don’t know where I caught it. I don’t know if it was the outhouses, even though I blame them. All I know is that trusting myself saved my left hand. Trusting my gut and getting a second opinion meant that my disease was caught early. If I had waited any longer, the disease could have spread to my joints and amputation would have been the solution.
Have you ever had a situation where you didn’t trust what a doctor told you? Did you trust your gut feeling, or did things get worse?