Updated 05 July 2013

An alien in my ear

A perfect start to a routine day... turned to paste. The cause: an alien in my ear. Neil Young shares his pain.

A perfect start to a routine day... turned to paste. The cause: an alien in my ear. Neil Young shares his pain.

If my wife had known what lay ahead, she would not have gone off to Gauteng with my two daughters. However, in blissful ignorance my family bade me farewell, leaving me to my own very capable devices. I was alone.

The earache was unexpected, but I was on top of it. The treatment of earache is non-complicated, easily resolved with a bottle of bog-standard eardrops.

Worse by the minute
Maybe not. By lunchtime it should have been obvious this was no run-of-the-mill ache: there was an angry blush to the painful area. By dinner, this had evolved to a red-hot glow, a full-scale rebellion, swollen to a cauliflower in need of the nearest hospital.

What alarmed my doctor most, he told me later, was the speed at which this event escalated. And with no forewarning. I mean, one minute I’m enjoying a leisurely breakfast at home; and by nightfall, I’m a victim of hospital cuisine.

My ear, formerly just a polite and subservient addition to the head with a selective hearing responsibility, had become a tenant from Hell. It threw a house party for infectious diseases.

From heaven to hell
The next three days were characterised by frequent swings from white-hot pain, through to a pleasure veil of carefully administered drugs (I must confess to particularly fond memories of my short interlude with pethidine, the wonder drug used in obstetric practice to relieve labour pain). Doctors would silently appear at my bedside with furrowed brows and sympathetic bedside manner, their arms folded as they observed. The skin around the affected area turned blue, and friends who visited were shocked at my appearance. I felt like a cross between a guinea fowl and the Elephant Man.

Under the circumstances you may appreciate, all I cared about was relief from pain but, thanks to the cocktails of antibiotics and painkillers, I sometimes found myself actually curious about what was going on. I found myself frustrated by doctors’ insistence on sticking to the complex medical terminology. It was only later that I grew to understand their keeping me in the dark to be an act of kindness. We always imagine the worst and had I known what was really going on inside my head, I would have leapt from the bed in terror (regardless of those ridiculous hospital gowns), to run screaming down the corridors.

A real nasty
You see, I had an infection of the outer ear canal (otitis externia). In turn, that led to cellulitis. This, it turns out, brings along two nasty bacteria: streptococcus and staphylococcus. In my case, it was the former that took up the invitation to move in. If left unchecked or not properly treated, it would likely have resulted in the grand-daddy of all party animals you don’t want to know: necrotising fasciitis. That’s the one that eats your flesh.

Apparently, this opportunistic organism is ever present in our day-to-day lives. It flourishes on something as simple as a rusty nail or unclean surface, always looking for a patch of dry skin or minor cut. It chooses its moment to act, hitching a ride on your arm sleeve as you innocently wipe the sweat from your brow on a hot day.

In my case, this nasty coccus took advantage of an eczema condition on my outer ear and used it as a pathway to the tissue below. Were it were not for the astute observation and swift action of my attending doctor, the consequences could have been far more horrible. As it was, the correct and potent mix of antibiotics saved the day, my ear and, probably, a whole lot more.

I am now a little wiser. And I have no doubt as to how lucky I was that it was caught.

Take it from someone who’s been there: if your ear aches, and goes on aching, don’t wait too long before you call the doctor. You could find yourself imploding.

(Neil Young, Health24, March 2009)



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