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How I became a paracetamol millionaire

It was one fine Saturday afternoon in Hong Kong, and I was late.

It was really a beautiful day, neither too cold nor too warm, and so perfect for strolling around aimlessly. There were scores of tourists in Central, everywhere from the Man Mo temple up to Lyndhurst Terrace, and down to Central’s glittering shops. It was the perfect weather to have an ice-cream or an egg tart, and stop every two meters to gaze at window fronts. Do I need a five-feet tall wooden giraffe? A fur hat maybe, for those cold nights so common in tropical Hong Kong? All legitimate questions, which required time, and the tourists certainly took them seriously.

The only problem: I was in a rush. I had my Mandarin class at 4, and I was late. I had already raced past the throngs of tourists on Hollywood road and Lyndhurst, and I was getting within sight of my destination, when I hit a bottleneck: Pottinger street. The narrow, winding down alleyway was crammed full of people, looking idly at the overflowing stalls. Sulking, I slowed down to their pace, and looked at my watch: 4:10. By the time I arrived, I would be more than 15 minutes’ late — and I didn’t have a phone number to call.

Miraculously, a path suddenly appeared among the tourists, who parted like the Red Sea in front of Moses. Not believing my luck, I jumped in…

…and immediately tripped on one of the street’s uneven steps.

I didn’t hear anything pop or crack, but the moment I felt my ankle twist far beyond its normal range, I knew I was in trouble. A pain wave engulfed me, stars flashed in front of my eyes, air escaped my lungs, and I had to sit down on the steps to avoid falling down. Slowly, the pain receded, and I was able to assess the damage. Strangely or thankfully, once the initial shock had passed, it didn’t hurt too bad. It was only painful if I tried to move it, but I could still stand on the leg. With some luck, maybe it would just pass with some ice and some rest.

I looked at my watch: 4:15. I really needed to get going.

A beautiful young woman noticed my ordeal and stopped to ask me if I was okay. I waved at her not to worry (note to self: amateur’s mistake), stood up, and hobbled to my class.

My teacher saw me come in with a limp, and of course asked what had happened. Upon my explanations, she suggested I should probably forget about the class, and go see a doctor.

“Nah, it’s OK, it doesn’t hurt.”

I sat down for thirty minutes, before I noticed that my ankle had doubled in size. It still didn’t hurt, but I was looking increasingly unlikely to be just a small sprain. So I finally decided to go to A&E.

I arrived at the hospital walking like Frankenstein’s creature. Without a glance, the triage nurse waved at me to sit down, and proceeded to take my blood pressure and my temperature.

“Well, you know,” I objected, “that’s not really the problem.”

He looked at me uncertainly.

“Down there,” I said, and showed my ankle, which was now close to the size of a melon.

“Oh. How bad is it?”

“Well, not as bad as it looks. It doesn’t hurt.”

This got me a second quizzical glance. “You sure?”

“Yes,” I shrugged.

“OK then. Here’s your ticket. If you are hungry, the cafeteria is downstairs.”

“Hungry? But it’s only 5…”

Then I looked at the ticket, and understood that I had made my second, or maybe third mistake of the day: it was a low-priority number. I’ve always been too honest.

Still, it was OK. I had a seat, a book, and it didn’t hurt. Around me, Saturday afternoon emergencies came and went — elderly people with breathing problems or fractures, kids with bad colds and fevers, and more than a few young men who were smiling, even though they looked like they had been hit by a truck. All these youngsters were dressed in rugby shorts — surely a coincidence.

Three hours later, a doctor finally examined my swollen ankle, and raised his eyebrows. “How does it feel?”

“Well, not too bad actually. It doesn’t hurt.”

“Can you stand on it?”

“Yes. It’s just not flexible at all.”

The doctor puckered his lips, thought for a moment, then reached a decision. “OK. If you can still walk and it doesn’t hurt, then we probably don’t have to make an X-ray. I’ll just give you something for the pain, and off you go.”

A doubt suddenly seized me. “What are you going to give me?”

“Oh, some paracetamol.”

I winced. “No need, I have plenty at home.”

Because the funny thing with paracetamol, is that it tends to multiply in your closet while you’re not looking. You get some for a bad cold, some for a headache, you forget to bring the pills to the office so you buy another box, you get some more from a friend who has too much (wonder why)… and before you know it, you have twenty boxes already.

Then they start making babies during the night. Trust me.

The doctor shrugged, told me to RICE (Rest, Elevate, Compress and Elevate) the sprain, and sent me off. Quite happy to have dodged that bullet, I limped back home.

 

Everything went well for a few days — the swelling decreased, leaving only a vivid bruise on both sides of my ankle, like a poorly executed combination of a Jackson Pollock painting, and a purple zebra’s coat (they’re a thing, look it up).

At some point though, I noticed that there was some play in my articulation. If I shook my leg around, the foot felt like it was dangling. I felt like I was turning into one of those zombies, whose limbs are held only by a tendon or two.

But still, it didn’t hurt…

…until two days later, when it started to really hurt like hell.

It rose gradually, throughout the day, making me start to take some of the prescribed painkillers. By 2 am, though, I was still shuffling around in my bed, my ankle throbbing, when I realized that I was approaching the daily limit for paracetamol intake (that’s 4 grams a day for an adult, in case you are wondering — and an overdose can be both fatal and very unpleasant — not a good way to go). There was only one thing left to do: head back to A&E.

A&Es on a Saturday night are different from Saturday afternoons. You’ll still see elderly people with breathing problems or fractures (elderly people can be up at all hours), but much fewer kids with bad colds. A casual glance might make you think that the truck-hit rugbymen have been replaced by partygoers who look like they fell off an elevator shaft, but if you look closer, you’ll notice that they are the same persons: they’ve just changed clothes, and are much drunker.

The triage nurse once again proceeded to take my pressure and temperature.

“No, sorry, it’s my ankle.”

He looked down. “Doesn’t look too bad.”

“Yes, the swelling has come down by now, I sprained it a week ago. But it hurts a lot now. I’ve had three grams of paracetamol over the past 24 hours, and I still can’t sleep.”

He looked at me skeptically, and handed me a low-priority ticket: tough luck.

A couple of hours later, a sleep-deprived doctor took a glance at my ankle. It still looked like a very ugly zebra sock.

“How long have you said it’s been?”

“One week.”

“And it’s still badly bruised. And you say it hurts?”

“Hell yeah, even after three grams of paracetamol.”

“It’s a really bad sprain. You should have had a cast made last week. Why didn’t they make one?”

I shrugged. “Well, it didn’t hurt.”

“But now, it hurts.”

“Yes.”

“So you should have had a cast.”

“Sure, but last week, it really didn’t hurt.”

“But now, it hurts, right?”

“Yes.”

“So you should have had a cast.”

I was tired too, so it took me several more cycles to realize the doctor and I were caught in a loop. I raised a hand. “Hold that thought. Do you have a time machine?”

“A what?”

“No, nothing. So, should I get a cast now?”

“What? No, it’s too late. You should have a brace, though.”

“Can I get it now?”

“At 5am on a Sunday? No, you’ll have to come back on Monday morning.”

I sighed. “OK… So what about the pain?”

“I’ll give you anti-inflammatories, and some painkillers.”

I sighed in relief, and waited for the prescription.

Instead, after a few minutes, a nurse came to me with a few pills. They looked very familiar…

“What is this?”

“Paracetamol, for the pain.”

I pushed the box back. “I don’t need it. I have plenty at home.”

The nurse raised her hands. “Sorry, I can’t take them back. They’ve been prescribed, you have to take them.”

I stared at her, but she wouldn’t budge.

“What about the other pills? The anti-inflammatory?”

“The pharmacy is closed at night. You’ll have to come back at after 8.”

So I took the paracetamol, and limped back home for the (very short) remaining part of the night.

A few hours later, I returned to the hospital’s pharmacy with my prescription. Retrospectively, something should have jumped at me on the sheet, but I was sleep-deprived and in pain, and I just handed it to the pharmacist.

Ten minutes later, he returned with an impressive stack of boxes.

“Wait. What’s that?”

“Five days’ worth of anti-inflammatory for the swelling, and eight of paracetamol.”

I slapped myself. “I don’t need the paracetamol. I have plenty.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t take it back now. There’s your name all over the boxes.”

I sighed. “How many pills are that?”

“Fifteen of the anti-inflammatory, and eight, sixteen, twenty four… Thirty two of the paracetamol.”

My ankle was killing me, so I just gave up, and took the pills.

I now have God knows how many boxes of paracetamol in my closet.

And I can hear them at night, making babies.