If ever there was a traveler adept at marring a relaxing, tropical vacation on a beautiful, remote island in the Indian Ocean with the world’s clumsiest injury, you can trust that would be me. Naturally I wouldn’t hurt myself hiking steep, slippery mountain slopes in Peru, diving into ice-cold waters in Antarctica or cage-diving with great white sharks and crocodiles in South Africa. No, similar to how I had dislocated my knee in 2011 by stepping out of a cab and again in 2013 by getting into bed, this time I hurt my neck putting on a wetsuit.
My friend Molly and I had arrived on Mahé island in the Seychelles a couple days earlier, ready for some of the world’s best diving. The conditions were perfect – 30°C in both the air and water, beautiful marine life in the sea below, spectacular white-sand beaches giving way to stunningly blue and turquoise water. After our first dive on the second day, we kicked back and relaxed on the boat for a while. I was happy to get my wetsuit off for a bit and jump in the water for a pleasant swim. I returned to the boat and started getting ready for our second dive of the day. Putting each leg into my 3mm wetsuit, I weaseled it over my thighs and with a hefty yank tried to lift it over my backside. And that’s when I felt a shooting pain run straight up my right back and shoulder and into my neck. I wouldn’t be going on that second dive after all.
A bit of background information on my prior history with neck pain: About 3 years ago I began having similar pain every few months, namely in my neck and shoulder area and usually on one side of my back. True to form, it would come about from normally very routine activities: sleeping, sitting in a chair working and standing at my kitchen counter doing and lifting nothing at all. Every time, the pain would last about two weeks and would be unbearable in any position – lying, sitting, standing. I tried a number of potential remedies, including some very expensive massages, sleeping on various surfaces and even muscle relaxants despite the fact that I’m always very reluctant to take prescription meds. (I find that my culture is far too quick to turn to habit-forming pain killers as a solution to even the most minor inflictions. When I lived in Germany I had knee surgery and the only medication I was sent home with was ibuprofen, so I’d like to think I can manage pain without heavy drugs.) Nothing worked.
Then, nearly two years ago, after my last neck incident, I tried acupuncture for the first time. Not only was it affordable and non-habit-forming, but it was actually rather pleasant. My Chinese acupuncturist in Portland placed the needles in my back and left me to relax in a dark, relaxing room with enjoyable aromatic scents and soft music. Two treatments and I was feeling great, with no pain again for almost two years.
So naturally my first thought on the boat in the Seychelles after pulling a muscle in my neck was that I needed to find an acupuncturist. That can’t be too difficult, can it?
It turns out there’s one and only one person on the entire island who provides the service I so desperately needed. The internet at the house Molly and I had rented had stopped working the day before, so I made a call to my boyfriend Chris. Once again, Chris to the rescue. He researched acupuncturists online and originally found nothing, but finally did manage to get the contact information for Dr. Choi, a tip I had received from a local on the island. I barely slept that night given that every possible lying position left me in pain, so I was thrilled when Chris texted me at around 7 a.m. to say he had set up an appointment for me that morning. I knew there was a reason I keep that guy around!
After a grueling 45 minute drive up, down and around Mahé’s many bumpy, mountainous curves, we finally arrived at a brand new but oddly deserted shopping mall on Eden Island, just south of Victoria airport. Dr. Choi’s office had enormous signs advertising him as a chiropractor, but that didn’t faze me seeing as how he also had acupuncture listed on the window in smaller letters. If only I had known.
Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in Dr. Choi’s office and immediately knew this was going to be painful. He informed me that the tourist price would be 1500 Seychelles rupees (approx. US$125) instead of the 1,000 rupees Chris was quoted on the phone. At least he told me beforehand, I thought.
The straight-faced Korean asked me very few questions about my injury or past with neck pain and appeared to not even be listening when I requested acupuncture, stating that it had worked very well for me in the past. Instead, he signaled to his table of torture, his expression inauspicious as a prison guard accompanying a convict down death row. I lay on the table slowly, but before I could even get my face down I had Dr. Choi’s hands on the back of my head, slamming it down onto the cushioned hole where my face should be. Apparently I wasn’t fast enough for him.
What came next was possibly the second most painful experience I’ve ever had (after my knee surgery, of course). With absolutely zero interest in being delicate with my pain, Dr. Choi began to poke and prod at my sore muscles and tweaked nerves. He pushed into them with as much force as he could muster. He informed me that my neck was misaligned and followed that up with a couple of jerking twists and pulls of my head. I don’t normally cry from physical pain, but there I was, face-down in a flood of tears. Molly, sitting patiently in the waiting room, could hear my screams.
Dr. Choi had no interest in calming me once I began hyperventilating from the pain. I was actually pretty proud of myself in that I was able to focus on my breathing and prevent a full-blown panic attack. “Do you like your pain?” Dr. Choi asked me, bringing our encounter to a whole new level of creepy and awkward. In an odd bout of compassion he then told me in his broken English, “you a brave woman.” Umm, thanks? He jabbed a couple of pins in my back with the same delicate touch that my two-year-old nephew has putting crayons to paper, and pulled them back out less than 30 seconds later.
The story does get happier, though: I actually walked out of his office feeling better. Almost human, even. And certainly less robotic in my movements. It would seem idiotic to agree to a second appointment with Dr. Choi, but I knew immediately that my pain hadn’t been for naught.
I arrived the next day for more abuse. This time it seemed even more excessive – there was the usual slamming my head into the table when I failed to lower myself onto it fast enough. A couple times Dr. Choi would say something in a voice quiet enough that I couldn’t hear, and when I lifted my head to inquire as to what he said, found it slammed back down into the table again. With a few pokes and prods into my still-sore muscles, my groans of pain were met with Dr. Choi’s hands violently slapping the backs of my shoulders, proclaiming “You not a baby!!!” I’ve heard of doctors lacking bedside manner, but this took the cake. Another couple jabs with some needles, this time left in my body for about five minutes, then I stood up and was virtually healed. Dr. Choi asked me to turn my head in each direction (success), glanced at me with the cockiest look I’ve ever seen (why wouldn’t he, after healing me in two visits?) and stuck out his hand to get a fist-bump from me.
Two days later I was scuba diving again. Molly and remarked about how the guy may be the epitome of evil, but he gets away with it because he gets results. Because of him, I was later able to swim with brilliantly colorful fish, turtles, octopuses, a manta ray, devil ray, white tip reef shark and ten-foot nurse shark. It was the best diving I’ve ever done, so I guess you can say my relationship with Dr. Choi is a love-hate one.
For good measure, though, I found an acupuncturist upon arrival here in Dubai yesterday. The friendly Chinese doctor was kind, gentle and caring. So I eventually got the best of both worlds.