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I have been traveling internationally for 7 years, and never have I been so close to death.
Peru - Aug 2017
Aug 3rd - Day one: It started on my second day in Cusco. Full body shivers and tingles, super strange, unidentifiable sensations. Did not quite know what to make of it other than it felt similar to anxiety although I was not anxious.
Aug 4th - Day two: Shortness of breath walking up stairs, still thought this to be quite normal after walking up some stairs in a high altitude town. Headache and a bit of a fever. A cough starting - maybe I was catching a cold since I had just traveled from the jungle to the mountains and my body was adjusting (I thought).
Aug 5th - Day three: Blurred/psychedelic vision. Cough worsening, could feel it deep in my chest. Mucus and fluid-like. Large heart palpation mid-day which gave me a startle, but again, didn't think too much of it as sometimes this does happen to me. Headache again. Runny and stuffy nose. Around midnight, I had the migraine from hell. As I lay in bed to sleep all I could do was writhe, back and forth. Tossing and turning to find comfort, but to no avail. Both sides of my head were throbbing to an indescribable unit of pain. The fucked up part is, I've been a migraine sufferer all of my life, so I'm used to that kind of torturous misery. I didn't think too much of it, other than it was the worst migraine I think I had ever had. Hellish and demonic thoughts filled my brain. Sleep never came and all I could do was pray. I prayed to God, "Please help me, please help me, please help me," over and over and over as tears ran down my face.
Aug 6th - Day four: Morning came, the sun was rising and I had a fever, I knew something was very wrong. Something was different this time. My partner Jack too was thrashing in agony. Me being someone who is quite passive when it comes to physical ailments, I immediately said to him, "We need to go to the hospital now!" As soon as possible we were being rushed to the nearest hospital by a friend. Both of us were quickly linked up to high levels of oxygen and I.V.'s, getting blood and urine tests done. We were told little to nothing about what was happening to us.
The pain in my head was unbearable, at times I did not think I could live another minute through it. I couldn't keep my eyes open or bare to see light. It was like daggers to my brain. On top of that my cough had worsened to a fluid-filled chest situation. Every time I exhaled, I coughed. And every time I coughed, it put insane pressure on my head which forced me to cradle my head with my hands and pray that my brain didn't start bleeding out of my ears or something.
Jack and I were held in the hospital over night. As you can probably imagine, being in another country where their spoken language is not your spoken language, being in emergency care and trying to find out up-to-date information is not easy. The night lingered on, the pain subsided but never went away. Countless nurses came in and out, changing I.V's, upping the oxygen, turning knobs, switching dials, and I'm like, "Hello, does anybody want to tell me what's going on here?" Though yes there was a language barrier, little to no exchange was made.
Aug 7th - Day five: The next morning a new doctor, with some English speaking abilities, explained that I had a bacterial infection (most likely picked up in the jungle) and was also suffering from AMS (Accute Mountain Sickness) He explained that Jack was free to go that morning but that I needed to stay another night, but did not explain why. It looked to me that Jack and I had come down with similar illnesses, been treated similarly, and had healed similarly. Although, we were never told anything during the process. The doctor was super nonchalant and didn't seem to care really whether I stayed or left, so I opted to sign myself out that day as I felt not 100%, but better. Man, was that the wrong choice.
Merely minutes after leaving I could tell my breathing (unassisted by an oxygen tank) was having a very hard time. Then the stairs to our home, oh Jesus I barely made it up those. A few hours go by and I am laying in bed crying, crying for dear life as my head pain has returned and I just don't know what to do about it. No pain medicine, cup of tea or any remedy is working. Every little move I make takes my breath away and I actually, legitimately can not breathe. My lips are turning a blueish color and I say to Jack, I need to go back to the hospital. That car ride was a thousand times more agonizing and traumatizing than the first one. Every bump and every turn killed my head. Again, I cradled my fragile skull in my hands as I cried and whispered quietly "oh fuck" or "please help me."
As I arrived to the E.R. an additional doctor needed to be called in to care for me. She arrived quickly and we went upstairs. She asked me to explain from the very first symptom what was going on. She knew immediately what was happening to me and explained in DETAIL, in English, (thank the heavens) what it was. At this very point I was experiencing HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). HAPE is a life-threatening form of fluid accumulation in the lungs that occurs in otherwise healthy people at altitudes typically above 8,200 ft. (I was at 11,200 ft). What makes some people susceptible to HAPE is currently unknown. HAPE remains the major cause of death related to high-altitude exposure, with a high mortality rate in the absence of adequate emergency treatment. I feel very grateful to have had emergency treatment. My right lung had already begun to fill with fluid, my oxygen level was nearly down to half, and my brain was swelling. "If we don't get you proper care NOW, I'm sorry to say this is already turning into a High Altitude Cerebral Edema and you will die."
That was the scariest thing anyone has ever said to me. And immediately into treatment I went. Luckily my partner Jack, during his own heartache and still illness, was able to rush around the town and track down some immediate flights OUT of Cusco first thing the next morning. The only real cure for High Altitude Pulmonary Edema is to GET TO LOWER GROUNDS. The worrisome part for myself, for Jack and for the doctor was knowing I would have to be unassisted in my oxygen from the moment I left the hospital until the moment I got on the plane (where they indeed pump the cabin with oxygen - so in that case the airplane is kind of like my own personal oxygen room). Her recommendation was to have me bring my own oxygen tank but this requires hiring a personal doctor along with it and we're talking $$$. "Not an option," I weeped.
Aug 8th - Day six: I wake up from a pretty peaceful sleep, having never been taken off the oxygen once. This doctor was an angel and god-send. I feel like she took this condition much more seriously than the previous doctors that had seen me. Her actions did so much more for me in those hours than the evening before. So now, with her suggestions I leave the hospital with a serious plan, leave the hospital at this time, get to the airport at this time, TAKE IT EASY (no matter what - your brain has just taken a major beating), you will be without oxygen for an hour and a half max! I made it to the airport, my flight was delayed an hour (fuck me right?) but all I can do is meditate and keep a steady breathing pattern. Don't go too fast, no sudden movements, and just trust. The moment I sat on that damn plane and the doors shut, I shed a tear. And when we touched down in Lima (a city in Peru at sea level, yay!) I walked off that plane and breathed like I have never breathed before. I had color back in my face, my hands...I felt human again. I have to go easy for the next 5 days or so. I can not fly again for 5 days, doctors orders. Well that's good cause my flight home is in 7. ;)
I am tired. My brain hurts and my breathing won’t be back to normal for a little while. But I am so grateful for my lungs today. I am so grateful for my partner Jack. I am so grateful for Western medicine in these times.
I am so grateful to be alive.