A brush with death isn’t always quick. Sometimes death holds on like Velcro only loosening it’s grip when it’s finished with you. Occasionally death is like the comb you use every morning to fix your hair. It seems harmless, but it’s really killing you. A brush with death can be slow and tricky, like a light bulb that gets just a little dimmer every day so that you don’t really notice how hard it is to read. When you finally do notice, you think it’s your eyes that are going bad.
People walk with death their entire lives, trying to avoid making eye contact or holding hands with it, but it’s always there. And the longer you walk, the more you realize that it’s really always been just you and Death. The sickly friend with buck-teeth and thick glasses who stares too long at people when they’re talking.
I don’t like to be sick. And I don’t like to admit that I’m sick, even if I’m dying. Probably because, like everyone else, I don’t like to think about dying. I carry a full medical bag when we travel. And when I say “full”, I mean I usually get flagged going through security and I have to defend my bag, one item at a time. I’d rather have my med bag with me than an extra pair of underwear when we get where we’re going. There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of nowhere where there are no doctors, no acceptable hospitals, and one of our crew becomes seriously ill.
In Morocco, John got sick. I sat at the end of his bed in the middle of the medina in Fez with three business cards late that night…I stared down at them feeling helpless as he lay there feverish and utterly ill. I had no antibiotics. I had no Internet to research the healthcare options. The business cards held the names and numbers of merchants I’d spoken to in the medina that day. It was the first time I’d ever wondered how we’d get out of a country because of a life-threatening illness. How sick was he? Would he be okay the next day? Where was the nearest hospital and how would I get him there from the middle of a city laid out like a labyrinth lacking cars, taxis, or buses?
Since that time, I’ve read a lot about tropical diseases and of course, I have my travel med bag. The CDC Yellowbook had been my most valuable reference tool when we’re abroad. I take it with us on every trip, but on our last big journey overseas we encountered something that even the CDC book hadn’t covered:
As a result of the Morocco incident, we stopped eating in restaurants abroad when we travel. Our goal is to be healthy as much of the time as possible while we’re traveling (and in general). We don’t even eat the food offered on the plane. We take along peanut butter and our own food items. When we get where we’re going, a hotel, whatever, we eat rice and vegetables hand washed and cooked by yours truly. Because most digestive illnesses are transmitted via the fecal-oral route (someone else’s poop ends up in your mouth), I figured that we could avoid a lot of the most serious digestive illnesses by cooking our own food. And by and large, we’ve been right about that. But because the CDC Yellowbook all but scoffed about parasites, I never considered them as something we’d really have to really worry about.
It was in Tunisia that my flexibility went away. An old injury from running in cross country tightened up every time I went for a jog. In Italy, I’d done some fairly complex yoga poses at 3:00 AM in a tiny one-room studio apartment to relax and hopefully go to sleep (since it was the middle of the day to my jetlagged body) while John and Lydian slept, but by Tunisia, one week later, I couldn’t even touch my toes. I called it “stress”. I assumed it would go away when we got out of Arabia.
It’s impossible for me to pinpoint when the downward spiral commenced because new symptoms, all seemingly unrelated to the others emerged over the course of several months’ time. In South Africa, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking I was pregnant. I’d skipped my period and I felt “pregnant” (I’d never been wrong about this). John waited for daybreak and then headed out into Johannesburg in search of a test. I imagined the trip home from South Africa to Iceland to the U.S. as a pregnant woman. It kept me up the rest of the night.
The test was negative. Whew! I thought. Must be “stress”.
We went home and as soon as we got there, we started doing renovation projects. I felt tired, but who wouldn’t? Jogging 5 miles became difficult. But it seemed “normal”. We’ve been traveling, we told ourselves. We’re tired. We’re overwrought. I explained it all away with the same “stress” excuse I’d been using and continued on the downward spiral.
After a week or two of feeling terrible, I’d have a few days, maybe two days, maybe three when I’d feel a little better. I’d think, Okay…I’m getting better!
John and Lydian had other symptoms that were mostly different from mine. We were all on separate downward spirals together. When I felt good, they felt bad. When they felt bad, I felt okay. We all agreed about being tired. And we all agreed that we weren’t hungry. Every time I ate, I felt sick, but not so sick that I could call it “sick”. Only sick enough to stop eating. We stopped eating breakfast. Then we stopped eating lunch. I couldn’t bend over too quickly. My muscles were too stiff. And I’d get a head rush and almost pass out. Walking up the stairs was exhausting. In the morning, when I woke up, I could feel things crawling under my skin. This was harder to explain, but my memory was failing. I couldn’t remember things, so I usually forgot about it after I got up and started my weary day. Every afternoon, I’d get a pounding headache. My elbow developed an arthritic pain that made it difficult to turn doorknobs. I was so sure that a doctor would diagnose me with arthritis that I never went to see one. Still, I called it “stress”.
At night, I’d wake up in a sweat. I thought I was going through menopause even though I’m not even 40 yet. My arms and legs would jump out of bed as I was sleeping with a strange life of their own and then I’d wake up with a start. One day while I sat in a warm beam of light in my office, my head pounding, my body lethargic and tired, a voice in my head said, Maybe you’re dying.
I waited to feel something. A pang of fear. A sad sinking feeling in my chest as I realized that my life was eeking away.
I didn’t feel anything.
Another part of me noticed that I didn’t care about dying. I thought it was strange to not care, but it felt good to at least acknowledge the possibility that I was dying. I felt alone with my illness even though John and Lydian were sick too because they were sick with different symptoms and we couldn’t relate them to each other. I couldn’t think straight and I knew that if I went to a doctor I’d get a grim diagnosis and be sent for a bunch of tests that would reveal that I needed some kind of expensive and still somewhat experimental surgery or drug therapy. It wasn’t until John, Lydian, and I were sitting in the living room one day trying to talk to each other that I realized that something was seriously wrong with all us. As usual, my head was throbbing. I could hardly look at John because my eyes hurt. It was lunchtime, but none of us were eating. John said something that I couldn’t understand. Lydi and I chuckled about it. He’d garbled his words. In fact, we’d all been garbling our words a lot.
We’d be working outside and John would walk into the house and he’d say, “I’ll be right in.”
I’d be standing at the sink washing my hands and it would be John’s turn. “Your way.” I said one day when I meant, “Your turn.”
He laughed at me and said, “What?”
I said it again, “Your way.” I couldn’t stop myself.
Malaria is like this; at least certain types of malaria. People get a fever and they’re deliriously sick for a few days. Then, the fever subsides. They think, I’m better. A few weeks later, they get a fever again. The fever goes away and the cycle continues. If the person gets sick enough that they shit themselves and start seeing the dark tunnel and the light beckoning, they go to the doctor (or they die). Otherwise, they think various things: Must’ve been the flu…I must’ve had a bug…a cold. Maybe it’s stress? They think this over and over again, sometimes for years, because in the U.S. we’re not programmed to think about something that lives as a waxing and waning population inside our bodies. This is how parasites work. They make us just sick enough to do their bidding, but not sick enough to die…
In the United States, we like to believe that we’re above parasites. People say, “Oh, but you travel overseas. That’s how you got them.” But that’s not true. It’s just that when the modern medical industry was taking shape, the northern hemisphere placed dibs on bacteria and viruses while southern doctors spent the majority of their time on things like parasites. Because the doctors down south could diagnose patients with parasites, we called those diseases “tropical”. Meanwhile, in the U.S. parasites like pinworms infect up to 66% of all children in public schools, but we treat them with Ritalin and call the disease ADHD.
To make a long story short, we did a parasite cleanse thanks to some advice offered by Robin Scheisser, our acupuncturist in Boulder, CO: a combination of wormwood, black walnut, and cloves for two months. After that we took several doses of a veterinary medication called pyrantel pamoate that I ordered online (per my own research). Sound risky? Maybe it was, but I believe it was less risky than going to the doctor in a weakened state and being persuaded to have a medical treatment that’s more dangerous than the disease itself. I wasn’t sure what type of parasite we had and I learned that American doctors lack the diagnostic tools to determine what types of parasites are infecting their patients so most of them don’t mention the possibility of parasites. They also don’t know how to treat parasites. People with chronic low back pain will end up on the surgical table. Women with menstrual irregularities end up with hysterectomies. People with stiffening joints end up with a diagnosis of fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. I wasn’t interested in what our doctor might sell us.
Before the cleanse, each week that went by, I felt worse and worse. Now, each week I can’t believe how much better I feel than the week before. I hadn’t noticed how horrible I’d begun to feel. I’ve hesitated writing about parasites because I didn’t want to scare people in regard to travel, but parasites aren’t something that only travelers get. They’re ubiquitous. And I think it’s important for people to realize that what ails them isn’t always a bacteria, virus, or an issue that can be resolved with surgery. Sometimes the cure is something so simple, it grows in your backyard.
I don’t know if we were infected in the United States or abroad. Symptoms came on so slowly, we couldn’t measure the slow progression downhill. Over the past five months, as we’ve made the arduous progression back to baseline, I’ve been watching the world with the contemplative stare of someone who’s on their way back from hell. I’ve seen how the trees move when the wind blows (it’s really pretty amazing) and how laughing babies almost always make people smile. It’s nice to notice the ants on my cherry tree (even though they’re eating my cherries) and feel interested again. There are so many people out there who are barely alive. People who are avoiding death by avoiding life. People who embrace a low quality of life because they’ve lost faith in something as simple as health or a good job. And I can’t say that I’m unhappy with my experience even though it’s not what I initially signed up for because I’m healing now. And there’s nothing quite as invigorating as realizing that if I don’t dance with death and take risks to do what I wanna do I’ll never get to experience the ascent on the upward spiral.
Everyone should try it.