I was 17 when I took my first trip away without my parents. I went to Kyoto, Japan, on a Boston/Kyoto sister city exchange program for high school students.
I was aways an adventurous spirit so it was easy for me to board the plane and take a 17-hour flight with other students and a couple of teachers. (Conversely, it would be hard for me now to leave my 3-year old daughter for such a flight.)
I loved Japan, the bustle of Tokyo, the beaches of Kamakura, the temples in Osaka, the Grand Shrine in Ise, the noodle shops and the shabu shabu that I devoured.
I loved every second of the trip. That is until we got to the top of Mount Fuji.
I was doubled over in pain and couldn’t step off the bus to see the view, to see anything. I attributed my severe nausea and stomach ache to breakfast: tonkatsu, pork cutlets, which my host family had served for breakfast. My American stomach was used to Cheerios, yogurt and toast.
Someone called an ambulance. The next thing I knew, I was at a small hospital where a doctor with a long beard told me to remove my shoes as was customary. Through intermittent conversations with a translator, the doctor diagnosed me with appendicitis.
Next I was in another ambulance. This one was taking me to a major hospital where I’d have an appendectomy. I remember sirens and throwing up. I started missing my parents and wishing they were there. But time sped by. Soon I was in an operating room but felt like I was in a science fiction movie. Doctors and nurses, all dressed in blue and speaking Japanese, stood above me preparing me for surgery.
Then I woke up, in pain and not able to feel my legs. I told a nurse I had to pee. In her broken English, she kept saying, “You go, you go.” I didn’t understand. What she meant was that I had a catheter and I was already going. My legs felt like elephant legs, so heavy I couldn’t move them.
I could communicate with no one except for the anesthesiologist who’d studied in Boston and spoke English. I asked him to please stop by my room, and he did a couple of times, but mostly he was busy with other patients.
Then it was time to call my parents. In all the chaos, there hadn’t been a moment to call them. The teachers who brought us on the trip told me to be calm when I called, so I wouldn’t worry my parents. I bawled my eyes out but I assured them I was okay, that they didn’t have to come over.
I remember feeling alone, yet not completely alone. Somehow, continents away from my family and everything familiar to me, I knew I would be okay.
And I was. I felt this sense of being okay in the world. Of being safe and protected.
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