When "good" water is bad for you
The story of how a desperate prayer, a German doctor, a mystery injection, some mystery powder, Coca-Cola, and lemon water quite possibly saved my life. Oh, and happy birthday, David, if you read this.
I was all set to go back out into the forest on Sunday morning. Still wasn’t quite back to normal but thought I could handle it as long as I took it easy. At some point in the night, I woke up with stomach cramps and the Vortex began anew. Up until about 5:30am, I kept holding out that this was fleeting and I would be good to go monkey watching. I kept drinking water and some very weak Gatorade, positive that this was going to prevent me from getting dehydrated.
No such luck. As the sun came up, I was feeling worse and worse. The Vortex was occurring just minutes apart and I was dizzy, woozy, and light-headed. After each wretched bout, I would drink some weak Gatorade and water and then fall into a narcoleptic sleep until the next bout. I could tell that I was severely dehydrated, and I knew I needed to stop losing so much fluid and electrolytes. My mind began to wander in the style of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” (a stream-of-consciousness story of a woman on her death bed). I recall realizing that it was a bad sign when I began to wonder if I had really told Amy how to get to my old journals, and what she was to do with them if something happened to me.
Rob was upstairs on the balcony working on his computer, but he might as well have been a million miles away. I knew I was getting worse and worse, and above all, I wanted to avoid going to the hospital. I started praying so hard and I tried to breathe calmly and concentrate on something other than the sickening nausea that felt like it would be the end of me.
In the midst of all this, I heard some tourists outside talking in English. They were making small talk—introducing themselves, discussing their travel itineraries, etc. One of the tourists must have asked another what she did for a living. Her reply, in a pleasant German accent, was, “I’m a doctor.”
For a moment, I did not react. Then I realized, these people were out there talking and I had heard them for a reason. I stumbled out of bed and opened the door. “Did someone out here just say that they are a doctor?” A German woman came towards me as I began to stammer that I was sick—I could not stop throwing up and was very dehydrated. I remember telling her that I didn’t want to go to the hospital. More than the stuffy heat and lack of cleanliness, I was afraid of having an IV. Rob’s had gotten inflamed and he was given antibiotics, I assumed to get rid of the infection that was causing this. Because I am allergic to virtually every antibiotic I’ve ever been given, I was desperate to avoid getting some kind of infection that would necessitate antibiotics. She told me that at the hospital, the only thing they would do for me would be give me an IV (which was likely to become inflamed in a tropical environment) and it would be better to do this on my own. I threw up again while she fixed me a glass of water filled with some sort of mystery powder (electrolyte replacement, like a suero, I assume). She said that the filtered, purified water here was so pure that it had pretty much flushed out all my electrolytes, leaving me a mess.
I puked again and then tried to tell her about the medicine they’d given me for Rob at the clinic in Mérida—the injection was supposed to stop vomiting, but we hadn’t used it because we hadn’t found anyone who could administer it. I grabbed the vial from our room and showed it to her. She studied the tiny vial and said that the medication would stop my nausea and stomach cramping for a couple of hours at least, but that just might buy me enough time to replenish my electrolytes and get through this thing.
I sat outside at the picnic table while her husband (boyfriend?) tied a rag around my arm and Rob propped me up. She disinfected my arm with one of the BD Alcohol Swabs I’d bought for cleaning off the pieces of the toughness tester and then stuck the needle in my cubital vein. “Just breathe normally,” she instructed as I began to feel the medication go in. As soon as the medicine was in, I puked up all of the electrolyte drink she’d given me. She told me not to drink the plain, purified water. She said I should have the gross tasting electrolyte packets and—of all things—Coca Cola. Apparently Coke, with its high content of sugar and salt, is great for replacing electrolytes.
When the medicine kicked in, I began to feel better. I slurped down about another 500 mL of “suero” and drank 2 cokes. Normally I won’t touch that stuff, but at the moment, it tasted great. I vaguely remembered reading that back in the day before Gatorade, marathon runners would drink de-fizzed coke to replenish electrolytes, so it started to make sense to me.
Everything was going great until the medicine wore off and I began to puke and otherwise again—losing all those precious electrolytes I’d worked so hard to recover. To make matters worse, my injection arm was becoming swollen and painful. I asked Rob to send an email to Dr. Y (our friend who is in med school) about my arm. The night wore on and we received advice and reassurance from Dr. Y—he said it was probably just a hematoma (spelling?) and would heal on its own without requiring antibiotics.
Although I was reassured about the pain in my arm, I was running to the bathroom quite frequently and by 7:30pm, I had a fever. Rob asked if there was a local doctor he could take me to, but the nearest doctor was in Altagracia and the earliest they could get me there was the next morning. I resolved that come hell or high water, I was NOT going to the hospital. I gulped down more wretched “suero.” I drank several glasses of water with lemon and sugar in it, as the German doctor had suggested. I took an ibuprofin and the fever went down.
Somehow it worked. By the morning, I was no longer dehydrated and actually felt better than I have in at least a week. I didn’t have to go to the hospital, and I am overjoyed about that. I’ve actually felt like eating today—have had brown rice with salt on it and some chopped tomatoes. I feel like I am definitely over this thing. All that remains is to go back out there and find the monkeys again.
So thanks to all who were thinking of me and sending out good vibes yesterday. Its a bit weird, but I felt the presence of so many friends and family while I was sick. And thanks especially to Dr. Y, who provided online medical assistance—I hope there’s a way for you to put that on your CV!