The Big Sick
Sometimes in a Thai gym things can really go sideways in terms of health. This was one of those times. A few weeks ago, my trainer Kru Nu came down with a “man cold.” He gets sick very infrequently; in the 3+ years I’ve been at the gym I’ve only seen him sick beyond a sniffle maybe four times. And even then he always recovers really quickly and rarely even takes time away from training to do so. He’s tough, as you’d expect from an ex-fighter raised in a farmer’s life. And since the gym is full of school kids, the seasonal cold or whatever else just kind of blows through the gym periodically but without much ado. The only ailments that keep the boys from training are the occasional case of Staph (fee in Thai), which usually clears up in a few days with some antibiotics and boran medicine (used basically the way we say “herbal” medicine). And then there’s this thing the boys complain of that I suspect often isn’t even real, which is an enlarged lymph node in their groins. They tend to get them after fights and get an extra week off, including running. Even if you’re genuinely sick you still have to run, but maybe don’t get to clinch so you don’t get others sick. But this groin thing gives you a full week of rest and since it can’t really be seen, I do suspect the boys use it as an excuse for a break far more often than it actually occurs.
So, I seemed to be riding the tide of the cold that went through the gym and thought I’d dodged it. It was hearty though, as it took Pi Nu down for a full day. It was a beast. I thought I’d escaped it after a week of not getting sick but then I felt the tickle in my throat and there it was. Not a huge problem, but at the same time I got this strange infection on the side of my ring finger on my left hand. Apparently it’s called Paronychia and can generally be cured with a few hot water soaks daily, but when pus appears you’re too late. I had pus, just under the cuticle, so I had to take some antibiotics. They did nothing really, the finger remained swollen, red and oozing when pressed, and the lymph nodes on the left side of my neck got big, really big. Then some of the scars on my face started getting these red spots, which I thought was maybe from my helmet chaffing my skin as I jet between gyms in the afternoon with a sweaty face. It was weird how they only appeared on my scars (I have so many it might be sheer coincidence) and so Kevin and I suspected it might be some kind of latent infection from my last set of cuts. But still, the antibiotics did nothing.
When I finally crashed and started to feel flu-like symptoms and some pretty strong pain along my forehead and scalp, I decided to go see a doctor, which I really don’t do too often. She diagnosed me with Shingles pretty quickly. I’ve had Shingles before, but not on my face. They suck. One of the western boys at the gym had shown up with a sore on his arm that he didn’t tell Pi Nu about and then clinched with the other boys. They each came down with what I assume was Chicken Pox as a result, as they got these spots all up the sides of their necks. They each recovered pretty quickly and Pi Nu sent the western boy home immediately after seeing the sore on his arm, giving a good scolding to his father for allowing him to train like that as well. You can’t give someone Shingles without direct contact with oozing sores (and then, only chicken pox is the result) which didn’t happen to me, so mine were a coincidental result of lowered immune system due to the cold and then a shit-ton of stress that I happened to be facing. The perfect storm. So the doctor gave me a shot, a bunch of anti-virals, anti-inflammatories, and two different creams: one for my Shingles on my face and one for the infection on my finger. My lymph nodes lit up like Christmas lights down a string for the next few days, but the anti-virals did their work. I stayed well away from the gym, especially because Pi Nu has a 3-year-old son, and had the longest rest I’ve had in 5 years. And I actually had to rest, for real, including my brain in order to mitigate the stress that caused the Shingles. It was hard; difficult. But really important because learning how to de-stress and restore myself is something I’ve put off doing for years.
Part of my stress was a mental training group that I’m taking part in, directed by Niyi Sobo of the Sports Motivation Podcast and I’m Not You. It’s a lot of work, not only pen-to-paper kind of organization and practical applications of techniques, but really digging into yourself to figure out why you believe the things you believe about yourself. If you have a dark side, this can be very, very hard. I find it very stressful… obviously. But the intensity proves to me how important it is for me to learn it and work on these things, so I’m very grateful for the opportunity and for kind of being forced to work on these revelations due to my health.
My Shingles cleared up and I got back to training, slowly. I had to cancel two fights, which was terrible, but obviously necessary. And I had to cancel my trip to Bangkok to watch the IFMA youth championships, an event which I had hoped to see for the first time. My finger still hadn’t cleared up, so I went back on antibiotics and with my Shingles under control and my immune system on the mend it finally started to heal up. The antibiotics gave me a candida infection, which I had just cleared up when a red spot appeared on my jaw. Pi Nu looked at it and said he was sure it was Staph; yet again an infection introduced by a group of young westerners training at the gym. This group, a different group, had a couple of members with multiple skin boils of Staph, which they clearly didn’t do anything about and had been training at the gym and even sparring/clinching with some of the boys before the boils were spotted by Pi Nu and he told them to stay away from the other boys. But by then it was already in the tank, so to speak. Pi Nu had the ring disinfected and I wiped down as much of the bags and equipment as I could, but I already had the Staph on my jaw. No choice but to go back on antibiotics, this time a stronger version that I got a prescription for. I sent Pi Nu a photo to commiserate about my expense of having to see a doctor again and all the pills and creams I had to introduce into my daily regimen again, to which he just added, “and you have to take the Thai medicine,” which is a laxative we take after fights to reset our systems. The worst.
Here’s the point about all this: gyms are intimate spaces, physically speaking. You are in contact with lots of people and, just like any kind of contact sport, there is a degree to which colds and the occasional Ringworm or something will pop up in the group. The best bet is to keep your personal hygiene tip-top. But, like vaccinations, the best prevention for the whole group is personal responsibility toward your own health. In the west we think of the importance of sterilizing the whole space like it’s a “safe zone,” but in Thai culture the emphasis is on keeping yourself clean. (The gym is cleaned every day, my point is that the primary focus is personal hygiene.) The first kid coming in with his sore and spreading it through clinch was a matter of him and his father not taking responsibility for the general health of the gym. It was the same with the next group that introduced the Staph, and I honestly believe they just didn’t know what it was, but given how many boils each of these two kids in that group had, you’d think they would see a doctor simply by how prevalent it was… even without knowing the diagnosis beforehand. If you watch Thais in the gym, they rinse off multiple times during training. Unless they’re coming straight from school, most shower before training starts. Then there’s rinsing periodically throughout and definitely a courtesy rinse before clinching, then again after. I do this also, including a quick fully-clothed soap lather and rinse before heading home for a real shower, which I take immediately. And I still got fee. When Pi Nu sees a boil or Ringworm on a boy at the gym, he always insists it’s a lack of personal hygiene, indicating quite a bit about the importance of and attitudes toward the multiple showers many Thais take per day. If you’re going to be training in a Thai gym, it’s important to take part in this regimen, not only to be polite (please don’t be that guy who doesn’t rinse body and hands before clinching, it’s so awful and nobody will say anything to your face but it’s bad; and I’ve seen western guys out shopping hours after training but still in their sweaty training clothes) but also because it’s a matter of health for everyone.
You can’t fully avoid Staph, it’s just in the environment and a certain number of people have it living on their skin at all times. It can come from anywhere, but when in Thailand making sure to cover even small cuts and insect bites (any opening of the skin) and keep clean is serious business. If you do see Staph emerge, take care of it immediately and keep it covered in the gym. If you have Ringworm, cover it. If you have a cold, don’t clinch for a few days. It was expensive and a super bummer for me to have to stop training in order to recover, and to have to cancel fights. For some of the fighters at a gym, it can be a very serious expense in time, money and opportunity. It seems so obvious, but for whatever reasons it needs to be mentioned: shower, with soap.