An Unexpected Souvenir While Surfing Playa Hermosa, Nicaragua

With only a few days left of our 2nd annual Thanksgiving surf trip, I had my best surf experience to date surfing Playa Hermosa, Nicaragua. I paddled out on my own, caught two waves and was turning. After the last wave, standing in shallow water with not a soul around, I let go of my surfboard for a second (which you are never, ever supposed to do) to adjust my bikini top under my rash guard and WHAM. A monstrous gust of wind coupled with a wave brought my large, heavy beginner board down on my chin.

My body had never been hit so hard. I thought my jaw was broken. I tapped on each of my teeth with my index finger. All there. Though, I discovered the hole in my face, it was just skin. What concerned me was the pain that instantly engulfed my neck, jaw and head. I was hit on the left side but it was the right side of my jaw that wasn’t closing shut. Until my face was numbed later, I hadn’t realized I had a gash on the inside of my mouth as well. Opening my mouth was agony.

The Aftermath

I made it out of the ocean, dumped the board and holding my chin approached a few friends not surfing, I calmly said “9.1.1.” They looked confused. I remove my hands and said it again. They jumped into action (like the Stooges running into each other). I immediately took ibuprofen. The beach was empty but to our surprise, an American EMT was there and confirmed I needed stitches. Throughout the week, we were forever waiting on a ride back to San Juan del Sur from the beaches but within 5 minutes my friend and I were racing back to town. Once the ibuprofen kicked in, I knew there would be no medevac or surgeries and all would be fine.

Receiving Private and Public Healthcare in Nicaragua

I saw one private doctor and went to two public hospitals in two Nicaraguan cities within the next few weeks. Public healthcare is free, even for foreigners. The visit with the private doctor cost $10 USD. I’ve been asked by fellow travelers what it was like to get stitches and go to the hospital in Nicaragua. I suppose it’s what I expected. It’s not my first time at a hospital or doctor’s office overseas. But I’m not here to judge. I’ll share some observations but I’d have to review public health indicators to compare apples to apples.

The three spaces I visited were dark and dingy. I wondered if new floors and a fresh coat of paint would suffice to transform them for my American eyes. There were no bio-hazardous waste cans and I laid down on stained sheets. Going to the open-air hospital outside of Granada was humbling. I went after a holiday weekend. Suffering and sometimes bloody patients and hysterical family members were sitting alongside me on benches in an outside plaza-like space waiting to see a doctor. After a few minutes, I was ready to leave, thinking I shouldn’t be there as I didn’t have an emergency. The doctors moved through the line quickly and within an hour and a half I was getting my stitches yanked out (I didn’t know that face stitches should come out within a few days. Otherwise they leave a Frankenstein-like scar.)

Good or Bad or Just Different

I can ignore dinginess. It doesn’t dictate good healthcare. Of the three experiences, only the private doctor asked about a tetanus shot in the last 10 years. I’m a Spanish speaker so language wasn’t a barrier. None asked about allergies when prescribing medicines. No one examined my jaw or the inside of my mouth. In fact, when my stitches were removed I had to convince the doctor that the area was infected (based on the peanut-size swelling under my skin). He gave me topical and oral antibiotics and sure enough in a few days the inflammation was gone. You could argue that my body could have healed it but I didn’t want to test it out being so far away from my comfort zone. Maybe they didn’t ask these questions because my injury wasn’t serious and they needed to attend to those in need or maybe people should know their own health history? I can’t say but I do know, whomever stitched me up could have done it blindfolded.

My Nicaraguan Souvenir

Later that afternoon, I was in a hammock when the rest of the ladies returned from the beach. They had been out surfing when everything went down. They expected me to be turned off to surfing and were ecstatic when I started talking about the last two waves I caught and getting back in the water as soon as possible. A few weeks after the accident, I could fully close my jaw and I was back in the water. All that remains is a battle scar on my chin and a sweet surf story about my Nicaraguan souvenir.