Medical MGMT

We’ve all had to deal with things in the field and this week Becky Friesen shares her story of dealing with a cyst in the middle of a tropical rainforest. I, myself, have had a similar experience and it’s nice to know I’m not the only one!

Working in the field is a fully immersive experience in simple living that provides an incredible opportunity to connect with nature, often without luxuries like hot water, internet or electricity. I have worked on annual biodiversity monitoring projects in tropical forests of Peru and Honduras since 2015, and reverting to a simple camping lifestyle with no emails, traffic or appointments but just the sounds of the rainforest is one of my favourite parts of the job.

BF Photo 1 Forest

For the past four summers in a row, I have participated in a biodiversity monitoring project in Cusuco National Park, Honduras. I, along with a group of about 50 other scientists, spend two months each summer meeting other scientists and science students, playing cards games, waking up to the sounds of the dawn chorus and catching, recording and measuring every animal we can possibly find. Mist netting, camera trapping, pitfall trapping, light trapping, butterfly catching, tree-measuring and visual encounter surveys take up every single day of the project. Our goal is to contribute to a giant, 15-year-old data base describing all the flora and fauna of the park, which will hopefully be used to make the case to the Honduran government for improving park protection and management. It’s a great project with great people and a great environment, and I am always excited to go back each year.

BF Photo 2 Camp

But sometimes, simple camp life has its drawbacks. Drastic changes in climate, diet and hygiene between my normal life at home in Canada and the field site in Honduras can wreak havoc on your health and cause some pretty uncomfortable medical issues. For many years, I have had a benign cyst on my inner thigh which had never caused a problem. But to my horror, during my third summer in Honduras, the cyst developed into a full-on fluid-filled abscess while I was in the field working on this project. Believe it or not, having a giant (5cm diameter), painful abscess right next to your lady bits is not the most comfortable situation for taking long hikes and conducting field surveys, much less in the jungle! Walking, sitting and peeing were all uncomfortable and difficult which was hard to hide, and lead to plenty of awkward questions as my field mates watched me hobble around camp for days looking as if I had just gotten off a horse after a painfully long ride.

Luckily, the project was equipped with a team of mega-knowledgeable doctors, paramedics and medical students who came to my rescue. Unluckily, being surrounded by incredible medical professionals did not magically make a comfortable, appropriately equipped medical facility magically appear in the middle of the Honduran cloud forest so that I could be treated privately and comfortably.

After a few days of awkward questions about my cowboy posture and accidentally peeing on myself trying to squat sideways like I was in Cirque du Soleil to reduce the pressure on the giant abscess, the doctor’s orders were to let her drain the abscess right there in camp. I had never had an abscess before and had no idea what to expect, I only knew that I needed to let the doctor do her job so that I could get on with my critter-chasing surveys, so I agreed.

We met in the dimly lit, cramped 3-person tent that I shared with a few other tent mates after lunch one day. She unpacked a pile of medical supplies and fitted herself with a head torch which made her look like an old-timey gold prospector to help her observe my nether region in more detail.

BF Photo 3 Tent

The doctor was so professional, and I felt quite relaxed despite the circumstances. We chatted about field work as she cleaned her tools and prepared dressings, and she told me about a time that she had worked as the field medic on the Australian version of Survivor and had drained another abscess on reality television. I took that as a reassuring sign. If she hadn’t been so approachable and kind, I would have been traumatized from the start! But the distress came later.

I could not have anticipated what it would feel like to have an abscess drained in such a sensitive area, but it was much more painful than I expected. I’m sure people innocently passing by were a bit terrified hearing my distressed peacock-calls drowning out gentler forest sounds from my flimsy, very much not sound-proofed tent. But the doctor finished and bandaged me up, and I made a full recovery. That is, until 6 months later when the same cyst became infected again, and again 6 months after that when I was in the same field site yet again.

BF Photo 4 Becky by D Aguilar

Photo credit Daniel Aguilar, @daniel_aguilar93

This experience was slightly traumatic, but these things happen to so many travelers and field researchers so I think it’s helpful to share them to remember that no one is alone in having embarrassing and uncomfortable medical issues! It was also an important experience for me because it reminds me how important it is to me to have professional, capable, approachable and trustworthy female medical professionals to support women and provide support on issues of women’s health in the field or at home.

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