I was carrying a bundle of sticks, helping to put a grass roof on a chicken house in a Botswana village. I felt a sudden, sharp pain in my left eye and shouted out, dropping the bundle on the ground. With my right eye I thought I saw a shortish red snake slithering into the bush.The nearest doctor was in a Seventh Day Adventist compound. My wife, fearing I would collapse and die, dragged me there. We waited the better part of an hour. My eyelid was swollen, but I could see out of the eye. Reasoning that if I was going to die, I would already have done so, I stood up to leave.
Just then the doctor appeared, a short man with bushy eyebrows. I was led into the treatment room and examined. The verdict was that I had been bitten, but probably would neither die nor go blind. He gave me a tetanus jab and an eye patch and told me not to rub it.“Is this the most unusual patient of the day?” my wife asked.
“Not unusual at all,” the doctor said. He spoke with a European accent I couldn’t identify. “Would you like to hear about my most unusual patient ever?”He had been working at a clinic in rural Zambia. One evening a family arrived, leading an older man by the arms. The patient was shivering and seemed to be in a trance-like state. As he sat on the treatment bench, the doctor spotted his complaint.
“How did he get a nail driven into his head?” he asked. The head of a rusty four-inch nail protruded from his bald scalp.One of the family spoke. “My uncle went mad and started attacking everyone. At first we thought he was drunk, but found out he hadn’t touched a drop. We were afraid, so we locked him in a shed.”
“I had a terrible headache,” the patient said. “I thought people were all against me. I was trying to defend myself. When they locked me in the shed I thought that my only option was to kill myself. There was no rope to hang myself and nothing sharp to cut myself. So I started pulling at a board until it came loose. There was a nail in it. I took the board and drove the nail into my head.”“Well, let’s take it out,” the doctor said grimly. He put on rubber gloves and tried to pry the nail out, but it wouldn’t budge. He tried forceps and then a pair of pliers, with no result.
“Not like that,” the patient said, and hooked his thumbnails under the head. “This is the way I did it before.”“You pulled the nail out before?” the doctor asked incredulously.
“After a few minutes I was still alive and my headache started to go away. I decided to pull the nail out. But when I did, water started shooting from the hole all the way to the ceiling. So I was frightened and pushed it back in.” He lifted the nail completely out of his head and dropped it into a metal tray the doctor was holding in shaky hands.“I gave him a tetanus shot and a dose of penicillin and a box of aspirin. One of those small round plasters on top. I asked if they wanted to pray with me, and they did.”
“Did he die?” I asked.“No. In fact, he is one of the nicest and most popular people in his village, or at least he was when I came here last year. He wears the nail on a leather thong around his neck.”