This is now my 5th installment in the “How Ali Almost Died in Guatemala” series. Here is a quick re-cap of what has happened so far: A volcano exploded, I hiked a (different) volcano, I went to the most beautiful lake in the world, I got real sick.
I, in my best thriller-author impression, left off my last post with a cliffhanger. When I talk about my trip in person, I dramatically pause after “hospital” and usually get a few different responses: 1. That really sucks. 2. Aren’t hospitals in Central America, like, not that good? 3. Was it scary? To which the answer to all three is a resounding “yep.”
You may be wondering if after 4 weeks of feeling sick why I did not go to the hospital sooner. The first reason is pretty stupid retrospectively. I had not been sick in about 7 years and I was not about to lose my health streak. I know, feel free to mock. The second reason was that I was convinced it was just my body adjusting to being in a new country, and the stress of new experiences were simply manifesting physically.
After I realized I couldn’t be making this up, I called the UT program coordinator who lived in Antigua, and though she was not technically the coordinator for my specific program she graciously agreed to accompany me to Antigua’s one and only private hospital: “Hopsital El Hermano Pedro.”
Mily and I took a cab to the hospital, then even though it was about 11 o’clock at night, we waited for about an hour before the doctor called me back. Mily came with me to be my translator, and I attempted to give the doctor a brief medical history as well as a list of my current symptoms to which I was met with a list of tests that would need to be done. Including a test for typhoid fever. Which I was pretty sure I did not have. But whatever.
I did all of the tests, and while we waited for the results for the ones that could be analyzed quickly the doctor did a physical examination, noting that I did not have a fever, or, and I quote, “no pareces enfermo.”
As I tried to explain that I do not usually get fevers, and I may not look sick but I felt terrible, he proceeded to push down on my stomach over and over again, trying to elicit some sort of response.
When I asked why he was pushing on my stomach he said he was trying to feel movement. He said he did not feel or hear anything, therefore, I was not dehydrated.
I looked at Mily with a bewildered look on my face, wracking my brain for the memory of when I learned that pushing on the stomach can tell you the level of dehydration in somebody…and she merely shrugged and said something really quickly in Spanish.
The rest of the appointment was a blur, but I do remember the doctor telling me that there was not enough observable turmoil occurring in my stomach to indicate that I had amoebas, so I went home. Before I left, he told me to come back two more days in a row for more testing because some parasites will not show up in the first sample, so I at least left with a glimmer of hope for resolution.
I decided to skip Spanish school the next morning, too worn out for conjugations…and I slept for hours, my host moms periodically bringing me bread and chalky water that was said to make my stomach feel better- neither of which I was able to get close to my mouth without gagging.
I walked by myself to the clinic in the afternoon, hoping the new samples would be more informative than the previous ones. They were not.
At this point I was convinced that it was all in my head, and I resolved myself to go back to Spanish school the next day. I almost didn’t even want to do the third sample, just feeling that I was wasting time and money and dignity as I carried my own feces through the cobblestone streets.
Then I threw up in Spanish school. Twice.
After running through the school to get to the bathroom more times than I could count during our three hour lesson, my professor realized there was a real problem, and then confessed that the healthcare system in Guatemala was atrocious. Riddled with under-qualified doctors, bribery, military involvement, and lack of proper equipment, it would be a miracle if I made it out with a diagnosis and money left in my savings.
He also convinced me, along with all of the other professors who had heard me puking my guts out through the paper thin walls of the restroom, to go back to the doctor. So I went, by myself, and asked for more testing. While the receptionist looked at me like I was crazy, she must have also noticed I looked terrible and sent me to the first available doctor.
I attempted to convey to this new doctor as much information I could while we waited for the results of the tests, but as I was without translator and not adequately educated in medical Spanish I am not sure how much she understood.
What I do know is that upon me telling her that I take medication for hypothyroidism she declared that perhaps my medication was functioning differently in Guatemala and that is what was making me sick…
When I told my family what she had said, my youngest sister, a mere 10 years old at the time, said: “How does Ali’s medicine know she is in Guatemala?” Which were my thoughts exactly. I am so glad I paid money for this expert medical advice when I could have gotten more reliable information from a 10 year old.
As our time together ended, the doctor had me go upstairs and wait for the lab technician to finish running the tests through the machine. I was up there for only 5 minutes when a very large, very round man came out of the door and declared:
He asked me if I wanted to look at them through the microscope, to which I replied ‘obviously,’ and he took me back in the lab.
If you are ever put in the position in which you are given the opportunity to look through a microscope to see one of the tiny creatures that has been destroying your intestines for weeks swimming around through your feces I HIGHLY recommend it. It really gives you a new perspective on life.
I went back to see the doctor, she prescribed me some medications, and I headed off to the pharmacy. Luckily I called my mom before picking up the meds and discovered that one of the medications I was prescribed was for schizophrenia. I did not get that one, opting for the “Amoebriz,” and headed back to my home-stay, getting to see a homeless man urinating in public on my way home.
An A+ day all around.
I took the medicine, drank some strawberry Pedialyte, (which tastes nothing like strawberry and everything like lies), and found myself getting sicker by the minute.
The following days I noticed I was walking miles behind the other girls on the way to class. I couldn’t stand up without blacking out. I declined more rapidly in those couple of days than I had the whole trip.
Then came Friday night. I had not eaten in weeks, and the way my body had been feeling, I was never going to eat again. At least that’s what I thought before the McDonalds. Yes, I mean the beloved golden arches.
For some reason, my mind had convinced my stomach that I should eat McDonalds. Since it was ‘familiar’ food (even though I eat McDonalds about once a year), I had convinced myself that I could eat it without throwing up. CLEARLY my sickness had spread to my head because no one in their right mind would EVER choose to eat McDonalds when they had parasites and had not eaten in two weeks…but I did.
I had the girls accompany me to the Mickey-D’s, laughing at how it was the nicest restaurant in Guatemala. Like, seriously. It had outdoor seating with a bubbling fountain.
I ordered a Big Mac and fries, fully expecting to eat a bite of each, but somehow managed to eat half of the burger. We walked home afterwards and I was feeling great. I remembered the feeling of having food in my stomach, and I liked it.
It also gave me the energy to make it all the way back home BEFORE I threw it all up again.
You can take comfort in knowing that a Big Mac tastes the same in every country. And that it tastes the same coming back up a second time.
The next morning marked three days since taking the Amoebriz, and I was walking to a tienda to buy some sufro-salts since I clearly couldn’t keep anything sold down when I blacked out and almost passed out in middle of the street. The girls panicked, noting that I was looking freakishly skinny and pale, and called Mily once again.
They took me to Mily, we called International S.O.S (which is the phone service of the insurance I purchased for the trip). The phone-lady freaked out when I told her what had been going on and told me to go to a hospital as soon as possible, so Mily called a cab that rushed me to the hospital in Guatemala City.
When we walked through the hospital doors the nursing staff took one look at me, decided I was apparently in mortal danger, and rushed me into a room where they hooked me up to IVs, poked me with all sorts of needles, and brought in multiple nurses and doctors.
I was greeted by a doctor that spoke English, and she asked me a hundred questions while we waited for the tests results to come in. I waited for a few hours, Mily patiently waiting with me while I napped to avoid the harsh fluorescent lights, then a doctor came in with the results.
While he did not speak English, he spoke slow enough and with enough sympathy that I knew what he was saying. I did not have amoebas, in fact, the Amoebriz had caused a less than helpful reaction. Instead I had different parasites- Cyclospora cayetanensis AND E-coli. A particularly nasty strand of E-coli at that. At the same time.
What the doctor essentially described was the final fight scene in Rocky, with the parasites and the E-coli battling it out to be the ‘top-dog’ of my insides. The E-coli were the tougher opponent, yet the parasites didn’t really lose either. I did. I was the loser.
I got the right medicine, rested for a little while longer and attempted to eat, then they released me.
The cab took me and Mily back, dropping me off at my home-stay. Mily explained to my host moms what had happened while I slunk off to bed. The next day she told me the cab ride would be 80 dollars and I cried again.
I was advised to take another day off from Spanish School, so I did- taking the time to call and update all of my family that I was okay (relatively).
When the girls got back we hung out at the home-stay, listening to Michael Jackson while I cried and held the family’s tiny dog.
While I was pretty much down for the count, and my family offered to do whatever it would take to fly me home early, I decided to stay. Mainly because I am stubborn and I wanted the class credit, but also because I had only 10 more days and a lifetime of memories to make.
And you best believe I made some memories.