I was 23 years old, backpacking through Asia, in a hostel in Singapore. The best friend I had been travelling with had just left to get on a plane to take her home to Canada, and I was on my own, without sufficient budget, visa running out, crying, feeling alone and very sad.
That night I went to bed feeling a bit nauseous and somehow discombobulated. As the night progressed I could feel myself rising into a spectacular fever. The heat was phenomenal, and within hours I was in a delirium, tossing and turning, unable to sleep, uncomfortable in every molecule of my body. It began to dawn on me that I was in bad way. The delirium was inducing an outlandish nightmarish un-asleep un-awake state and I was subject to the throes of an all-encompassing possession of fever.
For the next two days I was incapacitated, dizzy, exhausted, unable to stand, I had to crawl to the loo, divesting from both ends as my body tried to purge the very nasty pathogen that was invading me, fever over 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.6 C) The other hostel members moved me to the bed that was nearest the bathroom, and every time I needed to get there I would roll out of bed on to the floor and crawl to the loo to let the purgation loose, frightened, alone, and in the grip of a physical encroachment that I could not control or stop. Scared out of my fevered wits.
For three nights I suffered though the override of the illness, three nights of constant vomiting and diarrhoea - uncompromising - my body was expunging, eradicating and annihilating the pathogen. I was a war zone of bacterial invasion.
The third morning the hostel owner, Alvin, came to me and said "I'm taking you to the doctor". Three days without sleep, dangerously dehydrated, still in fever, when he said these words I knew unequivocally that I needed medical attention.
This was a huge relinquishment for me. The reason I was in Asia was that I had suffered a significant medical misadventure that had cost me my first career. I had been a horse trainer, on my way to building my ambition to ride nationally for Canada as a dressage rider, my coach rode for the Olympic team, and I was going to be the best rider that I could be and drive my skills to the peak of performance.
I had been suffering with serious allergy problems and to cut a very long story short I was admitted to hospital with anaphylactic shock, brought on by misdiagnosis and the prescription of the wrong medications. This had led to immune system complications that affected my liver function and I was in such a completely compromised situation that I was told that I must never ride again as the levels of dust in that environment would dangerously worsen my health. If I continued to ride I would never get better. (loooong story short). My recovery was slow, 2 years, during which I completely eschewed any western medical treatment - 'they' were now the bad guys.
I felt that I had been amputated, and leaving my career was one of the hardest experiences of my life. I stepped way from this terrible situation feeling lost, rudderless, unsure what to now do with my life, all I had ever wanted was to ride dressage and train horses. I felt an immense grief, and held an abiding anger towards Western medicine, feeling I had experienced an unjustified error that had imposed a great disservice, and that medication was the evil that had cost me all that I loved and wanted most.
Cue two years later in Singapore, recognising, in the throes of serious illness, that I was on the verge of the potential of organ failure and that the thing I needed most was to be hooked up to an IV transfusion that would re-hydrate me to being functional. I was in very dire straits and I knew it.
Bring it on. Take me to the medical care that would rescue me.
So Alvin gathered me up, carrying me, for I still could not stand of my own accord, and he bundled me into his car and started wending through the streets of Singapore. By this time the fever had dropped to 103F and I was lucid enough to be looking for the hospital. I was confused as we were moving further from the main part of town and dropping into a part of Singapore I had not encountered, deep into the Chinese quarter, nary a big white building with a Red Cross to be seen.
We stopped on a little road full of typical Asian garage shops, and went up to a small establishment with Chinese characters all over the windows. I could not quite see in, at this stage all was mystery. The sense of being in a foreign land was pervasive, away from the modern westernised Singapore city centre, we were now in a truly Asian part of the island.
As we stepped through the door we entered into a rectangular space about 15 x 5 meters. The left hand side had an entire wall that was floor to ceiling with tiny drawers with a library ladder on runners the full length of the wall, with a white coated assistant standing between the ladder and the counter with a glass topped cabinet filled with dried bits of roots and curious looking things of all shapes and sizes, unidentifiable to my uneducated eyes, scarily different and odd, like nothing I had ever seen before. A Chinese pharmacy.
At the back of the shop was a doorway that led back into a tiny kitchen, the quintessential round table, a couple of Chinese guys sitting and slurping up bowls of soup, the doctor's wife stirring a pot on the stove.
On the right hand side of the shop were two small bays, each with a table, chair on either side, and drawn back curtains that could enclose each consultation space. On the wall there were many anatomy charts, with lines and dots all over them, which now make absolute sense to me, but back then were my very first exposure to Chinese medicine. I had heard about acupuncture, but never ever seen or experienced anything to do with this medicine.
I was ushered into a chair and the 'doctor' sat opposite me, an extra chair pulled up for Alvin, and he then proceeded to interview me with Alvin translating. I was mortified to the depths of my middle class conservative Canadian soul as I needed to answer queries as to the pre-existing behaviour of my digestion, my bowels and my periods and then the gory details of the course the illness had taken. Talking about vomiting and diarrhoea to a perfect stranger did not come easily at this point in my life!
The doctor was doing funny things, tapping his fingers on my wrists which he had placed on a sort of bean bag, feeling, asking, feeling, asking, all the while with each question writing down Chinese characters on a piece of white paper. I was a bit nervous, but more than that, I was intrigued and willing. I had unexpectedly landed into this amazing circumstance, my awareness was drinking in every detail. All these years later as I write this I have a clear and present and very vivid recollection of every texture, every nuance, it is still as crystal clear as the moment it happened.
Retrospectively I see that my intuition knew that I was in one of the most seminal experiences of my lifetime.
All I could do was be a willing guinea pig to whatever might unfold, and with my (then but not now) strong prejudice against Western medical treatment I felt a great ease about embracing this opportunity to venture into this unknown potential and to allow this to do what it would.
With no idea how to gauge what any of this meant all I could do was count the number of characters he wrote down, 16, and then he handed the sheet of paper to his assistant who proceeded to move up and down the ladder, sliding it along the wall as he sought each of the drawers he needed, opium scales in his hands as he balanced out the measure of each of the herbs that were being weighed into the prescription.
As he finished there was a pile of dried curiosities bigger than I could have put two hands around. They then asked what we wished for, to boil up the script ourselves, or to come back in two hours and take the medicine there. We opted for the latter and headed off to a park where we lay in the grass under a tree waiting for the moment to head back to the shop. I was weak as a kitten and feeling woozy, but also fired up with curiosity, delighting in the adventure of this unexpected opportunity.
On returning I was surprised to see a crowd of about 20 people all pressed against the back wall of the tiny shop. I was ushered to sit at a high stool that had been placed in front of the glass cabinet of curios. The doctor's wife then came out of the kitchen bearing a steaming dish on a plate. This was placed on the counter in front of me, and there was a piece of paper that was between the bowl and plate with two Chinese characters written on it.
I asked Alvin what it said. He hung his head and (actually!) shuffled his feet. In a stern voice I asked again saying "Alvin! If you do not tell me what this says I will not drink it!" With deep embarrassment he mumbled "White Girl".
With dawning comprehension I then realised that I was the sensation of the week. All these people had gathered in the shop to watch the white girl drink the Chinese medicine. Perhaps I was the first white person to have ever come to this shop!
I picked up the bowl and brought it up to sniff; sludgy greenish grey, thick and grainy looking, most unappealing, it smelled sour and composty. I went to take a small sip and, as one, everyone in the shop wailed out a NO! I looked to the back wall and they were all miming to me that I had to just take it down in one go.
I took a breath and lifted the bowl back to my lips and with my eyes closed I went for it, gulping down the whole lot. As I finished, I slid off the stool and began to stamp my feet, as with every atom of my being I desperately tried not to projectile vomit. It was utterly vile! Words cannot describe the bitter scorched sourness of it. On behalf of White People everywhere I held it down, breathing heavily, really genuinely trying not be sick, as the entire shop broke out into a cheer.
As we left the shop the doctor said to me that I must not eat rice, rice was "making me ill" (interestingly, many months later in Australia I went to see a naturopath who diagnosed a total grain intolerance). And there was I, travelling throughout Asia having rice for breakfast lunch and dinner! My immune system was still so far out of whack that it was affecting my digestive balances to the point of intolerance.
That night my fever broke and for the first time in three days I slept, blissfully and peacefully, unbroken solid hours of rest, no more purgation, I was out the other side.
On the fourth morning I awoke, I gingerly raised myself to sitting, waiting for the spins of dizziness, expecting the nausea, anticipating the debilitating weakness of these last few days. I had been in delirium and there was not one iota of anything left in my digestive track, for three days I had not had any food or fluid but for the Chinese gray-green sludge.
As I slowly sat up I realised that I was not dizzy. With utmost care I gently brought my feet over the edge of the bed and sat up fully, expecting to fall over, I was amazed to feel quite, ummm - normal. With genuine amazement I pinched the skin of my arm and realised that I was hydrated.
But how?! I had not taken any fluids? How was this possible? Every time I had tried to drink in these last days it had vomited straight up.
I stood up, and to my abject astonishment felt COMPLETELY NORMAL.
Que comedy moment as I first looked behind me left, then swung to look behind me right, as if I would find the conjuror who was making this happen. With startled amazement I kept touching my body as if to ask 'Is this real?' 'Can this be happening?'
I had just had an illness of such debilitation I would have expected to feel like a wrung out dish cloth, weak and feeble for days, needing a convalescence back to wellness. There was no way I could be feeling like this with such a thoroughly and completely emptied system. And here was I, standing fully in my body, fully rehydrated, and Hungry!
And as I stood there I absolutely knew that I would spend the rest of my life studying Chinese medicine. Right there and then I knew I needed and wanted to learn how something so seemingly miraculous could happen. It was a eureka moment, as my life work landed into my lap.
And with great joy I went in search of one of the very best breakfasts of my life...