The Dubious Honor of Teaching Mr. Takahashi New English Vocabulary

WARNING: This post contains information about my medical history that might be considered TMI. However, since family and friends read this blog and I want to remember every gory detail of the trip, I am posting this story. If you are a student and do not want to know about your teacher's eczema, then don't read!

First a little history. When I first moved to Chicago for grad school I developed eczema. Actually, we had no idea what it was - I went to the emergency room and 5 doctors just trying to get it under control. At its peak, I had eczema on my hands, on my arms and legs, on the soles of my feet, by my eyes, on my scalp and under my fingernails (how do you moisturize under your fingernails?!?)

The bottom line is just that I have very sensitive skin. I don't mean in that North Shore "I would just die without my $200 an ounce hand cream from France." More like when I'm under a lot of physical or emotional stress (say a change of routine) I develop blisters, usually in select spots on my hands. What can I say? I'm just a delicate flower.

My first mistake was not bringing my steroid cream with me, but I was trying to pack light and I hadn't had an outbreak in months. Plus I figured I'd be home in 3 weeks so how bad could it get? At any rate, there they were: two or three little patches of eczema.

Day by day they got a little bigger and started spreading to my fingers. And I think they were, well, angry. My steroid cream was en-route at this point, but the patches were definitely uncomfortable and difficult to ignore. I thought if I could just get some neosporin or really thick hand cream it would tide me over until the package arrived. So, I worked up the nerve and after a lesson asked Mr. Takahashi if there was a drugstore nearby.

I hoped he would let it drop, but of course he wanted to know why and after offering up my weeping hamburger hands he decided I would need a translator and that he would go with. It is a humbling experience to be clucked over and spoken rapidly about in a tongue you can't possibly understand while your secret shame is laid bare under florescent pharmacy lights. The woman was very nice and patched me up but wouldn't let me buy any medicine until sleeping on it to see if it worked (I know what you're thinking - that would NEVER happen in America!) But she wouldn't take me at my word that it was just dry skin.

I came back the next day (alone) and the patches looked better but I had new ones (which concerned her). I was confident that as soon as my steroid cream came I would be a-okay. Later that day Mr. T interrupted my practice to see how I was doing and I was in high hopes since the medicine came that day. He proudly informed me that he consulted the dictionary the night before and learned some new words: eczema, blister, sterilize, steroid, and fester. Yes, folks, I taught the Big T to say "fester."

Mr. T gave me some stretches to do. He told me he had healed himself of stomach cancer 20 years ago without medical help and that it was simply mind over matter. I had the steroids in my hot little hands and figured that between the two of them I couldn't go wrong.

But it wasn't better the next day. And the following day I realized it was on my feet and legs. By Sunday I could barely move my fingers and came down to Mrs. Ishii resolved to go to the hospital. But Japan isn't really open on Sundays. She called Mr. T and they agreed that since it wasn't life-threatening that I shouldn't go to the emergency room. (I still kind of disagree) He came over and gave Mrs. Ishii strict dietary instructions and spent over 30 minutes trying to start the healing process from my second vertebrae.

Mrs. Ishii nodded and responded affirmatively in all the places dictated by polite Japanese conversation as he described the meals I was to be eating. I wasn't fooled, however, I could see blank incomprehension in her eyes. It was clear to me that they were from two different camps, Mr. T fasted in order to get well, Mrs. Ishii healed through food. How could she feed a guest only fruit and water for breakfast? I couldn't even have bread? It was clear Ishii-san had her own plan.

Happily, the two converged in a few places. He wanted me to have as much vinegar as possible, and she loves to pickle everything under the sun. She was making a dish with miso beans and had me drink the milk, which he agreed was very good for anyone fighting an illness. He brought over special healing mineral water which she reverently pours into my breakfast and dinner glasses.

Mr. T picked me up this morning and took me to a dermatologist. By this time I could barely walk and I couldn't practice at all. I felt a little guilty at his crestfallen look when he realized that I wasn't any better for all of his administrations (but I was happy to have a half a piece of toast with breakast!) The dermatologist was nice, but not confident, and sent us to the hospital after having three nurses wrap my hands and feet to high heaven in guaze. When tears came as they mangled my senstive paws they kept saying "don't worry don't worry" I wasn't worried - it hurt!

On the way to the hospital I asked Mr. T how to say "gentle" in Japanese.

The University Hospital in Matsumoto is the largest in Nagano prefect. They have a whole automated system for waiting that is just very Japanese, down to the little electronic sounds the monitors emit when the animated nurse comes on the screen. We were there waiting for a long time. Mr. T said, "Enjoy the hunger, it will help your metabolic enzymes to not be distracted by digestion."

By the time the doctor was able to see me I was used to the obligatory gasps and the "so des ne" that accompanied my unveiling. The aid unwrapped the miles of guaze that had been painstakingly if not carefully put in place only hours before and Mr. T proceeded to tell the doctor my medical history.

The doctor turned to me and said "This happened to you before? And they told you this was stress? No, this is an extreme allergic reaction to something. When you get back to America go to a different doctor and get a patch test, you have to find out what your body doesn't like."

He left and we waited for the aids to apply some medicine. Mr. T looked at me, clearly impressed, "International doctor" he said.

When all was said and done, the two visits and the oral and topical steroids came out to be 8,661 yen. (less than $90) Mr. T said that if I had Japanese insurance, I would have only paid 20% of that.

As I am typing this my hands look like a cross between the stay-puffed marshmallow man and a mummy. We are going back tomorrow to have the bandages changed. Throughout the whole process, everyone seems to think that I'm worried about my hands. I'm not so much worried, I know they'll heal - I'm bummed that I lost two days of practice (but stoked that I could catch up on This American Life podcasts) but more over I'm overwhelmed by how difficult it is to ask for help. Mr. T shouldn't have to cart my limping pathetic carcass all over Matsumoto and wait for hours with me during his time off. Mrs. Ishii shouldn't have had to make little guaze fingerlets for me so that I had the option of playing. I am the trouble-making American, and that's not how I want to be remembered! I'm hoping I'll be able to see the humor in the situation eventually, and I was heartened today when Mr. T referenced "next time you come" since I was sure he'd never let me back in the country!