My trip to the hospital in Kenya for lower back pain went from a very calm, routine check in, to a confusing game of “Wait, what’s happening?”

The matatu ride from my little village on the coast was always a 45 minute safari-esque, bone-rattling jaunt over coral rag and large rocks, followed by a pothole-riddled highway leading to town. (the hospital in Kenya was not easy to get to.) A rough ride any day of the week, but with an ache in my lower back similar to the pain of your dentist slipping that little metal scraping tool into your soft gums… this was NOT a pleasant journey.

Finally reaching the Diani Beach hospital, I stepped out into the hot but breezy ocean air and slowly walked to the door, mildly whimpering on the inside as my lower back continued to undulate waves of nauseating pain.

I checked in and was immediately admitted- my own room, the blue and white pinstripe pajamas and air conditioning… I could relax here! All I needed was my own personal massage therapist and this would be the best hotel stay ever! Minus the whole ‘being sick’ thing. (SOP for a tourist hospital is an iv drip in the hand for rehydration, so I got that too.)

I laid in bed and watched the palm trees outside my window dance back and forth in the midday sun, enjoying a quiet, peaceful moment to myself when two nurses came in. Happy to oblige any request, they asked me to flip over on my stomach. I did so slowly, and with great care not to disturb the momentary equilibrium of tranquility in my back.

Just as I did, the one nurse pulled out a needle the size of a bayonet and told me to keep calm.

“Where the fuck do you think you’re sticking that bloody thing!!!??” I said.

My calm and relaxed nature disappeared- running for the door, into a cab and on the first flight out of “Needle town Kenya”.

Just as I did, the one nurse pulled out a needle the size of a bayonet and told me to keep calm.… Click To Tweet

“We’re giving you a Cortisone shot to help with the pain in your back”, she said.

I had no choice but to relent, keep my eyes on the window and try not to think of the car antenna they were about to stick me with.

One- two- three…  GEEOOOWK!

Directly into the clenched, right cheek of my ass.

A surprising burst of laughter spouted forth from my mouth and I was glad it was over. (Naively thinking this was the pinnacle of excitement for the day) I rolled over to reach my cell phone to call a friend, just as my right leg went numb. I laughed some more.

“What the hell, hey is this normal?”

Shortly thereafter, the doctor introduced himself and explained that I didn’t appear to have an infection, so they wanted to do an MRI of my lower back. Ok, cool!

“But we don’t have an MRI machine here.” Waved the doctor, addressing his surroundings.

“Riiiiiiiiiiigggghhhhtttttt… …” me responding as Doctor Evil to mutated, ill-tempered sea bass.

“You have to go to the bigger hospital in Mombasa, there is an ambulance outside waiting to take you” He said.

My journey was far from over

Before I could contemplate the journey ahead, the nurse helped me to my feet. I took one step forward and fell instantly into the wall, forgetting I had no feeling in my right leg. The wild, circus act of my current circumstances had me laughing and playfully flirting with her as she helped me stand upright.

“Looks like you’re gonna have to carry me.”

She disconnected the iv drip and caped the needle in my hand, as if corking a wine bottle and threw my arm around her shoulder to help me down the hallway.

We chatted and laughed together as I dragged my dead leg like a zombie, inching my way the 100 meters or so towards reception and the sliding glass doors to outside and my VIP escort.

Halfway there, a woman nearby pointed and screamed in our direction!

“I know, I know, these pajamas are hideous.”

some friends did come to visit me while i was sick. And i did NOT want my picture taken!

some friends did come to visit me while i was sick. And i did NOT want my picture taken!

She was actually pointing behind us. I turned to notice a trail of crimson droplets scattered across the hospital floor, following me all the way from my room.

The cap for the IV in my hand had come loose and unbeknownst to me, was letting all my blood out! I felt like a car with a bad oil filter- just leaking vitally important stuff everywhere I go till there’s nothing left, and my engine won’t start.

Very nonchalantly though, I raised my hand in the air, above my head- as if I were a student in 2nd grade, reluctantly asking to use the restroom. “Mrs. Maxwell, can I use the restroom?” “I don’t know, can you?” she’d say. The class murmured with delight at my misuse of grammar. “It’s, MAY I use the restroom.” I’d repeat my question properly, receive a nod of confirmation and trod off to the toilet- my yellow pee stream arching in embarrassment and dehydration. Also in that class, I’d say, “Mrs. Maxwell, I’m done with my homework.” She’d shriek, “You’re done?! What are you, a microwave? NO! You mean to say, you’re finished.” God she was annoying.

“Um, help?” Another nurse rushed over to secure the cap and stop the drip. We continued to walk and I just shook my head in disbelief. On the plus side, my impression of a bleeding, limping zombie recently escaped from the Willy Wonky pajama factory was going great!

The chase was on!

Once outside, I climbed into the back of an ambulance and sat down on a bench across from an array of silver drawers and cubby holes filled with medical supplies. The back doors slammed shut and we sped off toward Mombasa.

The pain in my lower back had subsided, either due to the steroid shot or my preoccupation with the fear of hitting another car as my chauffeur tore through oncoming traffic at high speeds, like a NASCAR driver high on cocaine and Redbull- sirens ablaze. I actually looked through the back window to see if someone was chasing us or something.

An hour later, just before reaching Mombasa, there was a boat ferry crossing- a choke point of traffic, pedestrians and clutter on the banks of Kilindini Port. We arrived, narrowly missing the ferry. I sat back in my seat, watching as it pulled away, chugging through the water to the other side. I was content to wait the 45 minutes till it came back. My bat-outta-hell driver however, had other plans.

He flipped the siren back on to get the attention of the dock supervisor, no less than 1000 people surrounding the ambulance turned to see. A uniformed man walked over and had a heated, swiftly spoken exchange in Swahili with my driver. I didn’t understand one word.

Feeling baffled, out of place and a little shy, I sat quietly not wanting to attract attention. Suddenly, through the windshield, I could see the ferry in the middle of the river… stop, turn and come back!

“He made them turn around for me?!”

I was so embarrassed! It’s not like I was dying or anything. I felt like they were making a much bigger deal of this than it should have been. I imagined what he told him to bring the ferry back-

that he was carrying the son of a U.S. senator who’s stricken with malaria, radiation poisoning and the venom from a Cobra and I could explode at any second!!!

(Just ad-libbing at this point)

Regardless, the ferry loaded with hundreds of Kenyans, goods and vehicles had to come back, to pick up an ambulance with one white boy with minor back pain- the siren still bellowing as we sat parked in place.

Getting on the ferry once it came back was a challenge too. The ferry was packed! It was a bit like trying to squeeze onto an already full elevator- the people are attempting to be polite, but really, they’re hiding their displeasure with having to share their personal space with yet ANOTHER person.

Cars had to be moved, crowds of hundreds ushered out of the way, just to make space for me. Luckily the windows in the back seat were one-way. A few did cup their hands around their eyes and lean into the glass, to catch a glimpse of whomever inconvenienced them in such a way, but I remained anonymous.

Reaching the other side and apologetically using the bumper of the ambulance, in every manner of the literal term, to bump people aside, we drove off, back to rejoin the NASCAR race. Does this guy ever slow down?!

The Hospital in Mombasa, finally!

The driver walked me in but luckily my leg had regained much of its strength by this point.

I entered a hot, beige colored waiting room with stained linoleum flooring and hard, avocado-like fiberglass chairs (the kind you find in an old storage closet at church camp), and sat down.

I waited for two hours before someone came to get me.

The MRI process was simple and interesting. I lied down, flat on a table and let the Magnetic resonance imaging machine do its thing on my lower back.

A short while after I was done, a doctor pulled me into his office and showed me the results.

A disc in my lower spine was bulging out of place and causing all my discomfort. My mind immediately flashed back to all the heavy lifting I did in the oil field- all those long nights hauling iron with weights beyond my strength but being too proud to admit it, I knew I was causing damage to my body. And now it was catching up with me.

Appointment over, and getting to be late afternoon, it was time to head back to the initial hospital in Diani. I felt relieved it wasn’t a disease or virus or any one of the many illnesses one could contract when in Africa. It was a back injury, something I could work with.

The hospital in Kenya was like being on another world.

I boarded the ambulance, still donning my pinstripe pj’s and was once more in the trusty care of my expert driver. We had just started the journey back when he jerked the car over to the side of the road, climbed the curb and shut off the engine. Shocked, I asked if everything was ok.

Completely ignoring me, he rolled his window down and waved to a friend he’d seen walking in our direction. His buddy approached and they shook hands and greeted each other like excited puppies at a day kennel.


They chatted for and eternity before he invited the man to climb on in. He walked around and hopped into the passenger seat. Once this stranger was comfortable, the vehicle was started and we were on our way. I couldn’t believe he pulled over, while transporting someone to the hospital, to pick up his friend. What if this were a real emergency?

In any case, I reached Diani in one piece, exhausted and ready for a generously sized meal, a shower and a cool bed.

The next day, I sat in bed waiting for my doctor to appear and tell me what we should do to fix my back. As I lied there thinking of which movie I was going to request to watch in my room, a young, beautiful Kenyan girl walked in.

“Hi, I’m Elise. The doctor is recommending a week of physical therapy including twice daily massages to help realign your lower back. I’ll be your massage therapist.” She said.

An uncontrollable smile stretched from ear to ear. “How about that,” I thought to myself. “My own personal massage therapist. NOW it’s the best hotel stay ever!

After my week of physical therapy was over, I left the hospital feeling so rejuvenated, at peace and alive! I wanted to run back to the jungle to test out my new found strength. Instead, i took a taxi to meet up with friends at a nearby cafe. I sat down and was greeted with cheers filled with gallantry and welcome. It was good to be back.

I could feel my calm, relaxed state fade away in an instant as I poured myself a glass of wine. It was the weekend… time to party again.

Leave a Reply