Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ear Irrigation

Five months after 9-11, I found myself bravely having my ears irrigated in Jakarta, Indonesia and thinking, "It doesn’t get any better than this."

Most of my courage was already depleted by accepting my expatriated sister Carol's invitation to visit her in a Muslim region. I feared the violent extremist group Laskar Jihad running around the archipelago, the 23 grueling flight hours, food poisoning, earthquakes, floods, insane traffic – and what it would be like if my sister and I didn't hit it off. Carol and I share a birthmother, but met for the first time as adults. Virtually all of our contact for the next 13 years was through e-mail, until I flew to Indonesia for three weeks.


Getting to know each other involved much talking, which involves much hearing. However, after a post-flight swim, I couldn’t hear properly for days. I had to see a doctor – in a developing country. Here I had been so concerned about anti-American sentiment, hepatitis, and feeling at ease with my sister that I completely forgot to dread blocked eardrums.


I told Carol I'd read that some Jakarta medical facilities rivaled the best in the U.S. She responded with a major belly laugh. “If I ever need serious treatment, let me tell you,” she said. “I’m getting medi-vacked to Singapore.”

Nonetheless, I offered to go to the clinic alone because Carol said the doctors there spoke English, and because she had much to do before we left for Bali the next day. But no – she wanted to be there for me because the doctors were known for more of a graveside manner than a bedside one, and were likely to proclaim, “You’ll never hear again.”

The doctor was decidedly brusque in his lack of eye contact and smile-free diagnosis of my impacted earwax. He led me toward the empty emergency room – not a single American victim of assault or typhoid infection to be found.


It was the cleanest, brightest, and most modern facility I think I’ve ever seen. But the best part was that while I lay on my side with peroxide bubbling in my ears and wincing as the doctor forcefully shot water into them, Carol distracted me with a funny story of how an Indonesian cockroach once crawled into her husband’s ear while he was sleeping. My wax buildup seemed so wonderful by contrast I almost thought about keeping it.


Carol then offered to take pictures of me receiving treatment. Photos, at a time like this. Can you believe it? Actually, she absolutely read my mind. That’s when I knew that spending time with my sister would be even more delightful than finding out how little my treatment cost: $17.


Despite the cockroach story, I slept without earplugs for the rest of the trip. That was almost eight years ago and I'm 90% sure that the rustling I sometimes hear is nothing to worry about.