Why we have to return to The Netherlands

Time to go home

Before Cathal and I left for our travels people would ask us, almost as excited as we were: “So, what are your plans, where will you go?” We would tell them about our Trans-Mongolian Journey, taking us to places like Olkhon Island and Jalman Meadows. The train would end in Beijing, and the total journey from Moscow to Beijing would take about two months.

Since our total sabbatical is about 8 months, the follow-up question would be: “Okay, that sounds great, and where will you go after Beijing?” We would say that we didn’t know yet. Maybe towards Nepal via the Northern part of China. Maybe further south through China, visiting cities like Nanjing and Shanghai. Maybe take a tour through intangible and intriguing North-Korea. Or just rent a little house near a beautiful white-sanded beach and enjoy drinking out of coconuts.

Not once did we expect the actual answer would be: back home.


After a few weeks of travelling my left foot started to hurt. I’ve been having trouble with both feet for almost all my life, but that became manageable once I found the right insoles and got to know and respect my physical boundaries better. Most of the time a day of rest will be sufficient to get back on my feet (no pun intended) if I overstepped (okay, pun intended) my boundaries.

But this time everything felt different. The pain in my left foot got worse over the course of a few weeks. The situation got to a low point in Mongolia, during our long walks through the beautiful steppes. The pain would start while walking, but continuing was doable. However, at night, when I would sit down, eat, relax, and prepare for bed the pain became impossible to ignore to the extent where I would not be able to sleep. Even the blanket resting on my feet would be too heavy and cause even more pain.

This worried me, but I was still hopeful some days of rest would make things better. However, back in Ulaanbaatar, sitting for a few days on the couch, I was still not able to walk for longer than 15 minutes. This made us decide to see a doctor as soon as we arrived in Beijing – a foot specialist in a fancy international clinic in the capital of China. We were sure he would give us some answers.

Shoes in a Beijing Hutong
Shoes in a Beijing Hutong


After two minutes in the room the podiatrist looked at me and said: “We’ll do an X-ray, if that doesn’t show anything, we’ll do an MRI. I suspect you have a problem in your ligaments, and if that indeed is the case, we can do surgery.”

I was unprepared for hearing the word surgery, because, well, I was travelling, something I had been dreaming about for a long time, and this super smart doctor would sure know a quick and easy way to fix my foot so I could walk again next week, right? I wanted to make pictures in the beautiful Hutong in Beijing, climb the Great Wall, hike to the west of the city where temples and palaces could be found scattered along the walking paths in the mountains…

The tears on my face from shock made the very professional but seemingly unempathic doctor a bit softer. “Minor surgery”, he said, and left me with the nurse to go to the X-ray examination. The X-ray photos showed everything was fine with my bones. That means no breaks, no deformation, nothing wrong at first sight. This got me to the next round: an expensive but necessary MRI.

During the MRI scan I was crossing my fingers and trying very hard not to move an inch while ignoring the nerve-wrecking sounds the machine makes. Would the doctor get an answer from this machine? Would he be able to see what was wrong? Would he know how to fix it? Would he – please! – have a clear and easy treatment path for me? Especially the clarity was something I really needed after weeks of uncertainty and hours of examination. I was ready to finally know what was wrong and get on with it.

Clarity was what I got. The doctor showed us the pictures from the MRI. “We’ve found necrotic tissue in your foot”, he said. The words necrotic tissue were not immediately registering in my mind, however, I did notice Cathal jumping up from his chair and walking towards the pictures with eyes full of surprise. “Really? Necrotic tissue?!”, he exclaimed, and he and the doctor started pointing to the pictures.

Slowly beginning to understand the seriousness of what was being said, mostly because Cathal is not the exclaiming type, I, too, walked to the pictures. A big black smudge was visible on my Talus bone. Part of that bone was dead. “But how?”, Cathal asked, meaning “how can a bone in a foot die?”. The doctor and the nurse tried to find the words, in the end showing us the word maldevelopment in a translation app on the nurse’s smartphone.

Shoes in a Beijing Hutong
Shoes in a Beijing Hutong

Realising more details about my diagnosis would be hard to get because of the language-barrier, we tried to ask about the treatment. The doctor explained he would suggest an open surgery of my foot, taking some bone and stem cells from my hip, and injecting that in the dead bone. “Maybe it will regenerate the bone”, he added. The maybe registered only a few days later. What did register immediately was the bizarre fact that one day in a clinic in China gave me more answers than I got in fourteen years of visiting specialists in the Netherlands.


Driving back home the conclusion of our day in the hospital began to sink in. I would have to be in a Chinese hospital for ten to fourteen days so they could test the necrotic tissue, get samples from my hip and prepare me for surgery. Then I would need physical therapy of three to six months. None of this would be covered by my insurance, and being in a foreign country in this situation just didn’t feel like a great plan.

So, here we are, preparing, not for our journey through China (we decided we wanted to go south, visiting all the beautiful places in China while the weather was still good), but for a way-to-soon and unexpected return to The Netherlands. Not knowing what to expect from there: which treatment will a Dutch doctor propose? Will my foot recover at all? Will we be able to return to our travels after the treatment? Where will we live?

It will be a new journey, on an unfamiliar road, in a very familiar country.

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