Mystery Illness

Blogging is narcissistic, but it’s important to recognize the limits of chocolate as a means of medication.

When I returned to Peru in January after having spent ten days in the US for the holidays, it suddenly occurred to me that I had eighteen weeks left on my contract in Trujillo. And after previously having spent weeks distressed over the limited amount of time I seemed to have left in the magical country – inefficient, unequal, ethnically homogenous, yet full of life; true, gritty, spontaneous, meaningful life – I suddenly felt overwhelmed. Eighteen weeks suddenly seemed a cold, lonely eternity, and every honk of the incessant Peruvian car horn made me all the more anxious. And so I decided to self-medicate with chocolate. I popped open a bag of dark chocolates with almonds that my thoughtful sister gave me to sweeten the remainder of my stay, and counted out eighteen – one for each week. I dropped them one-by-one aptly into an empty vitamin bottle, determined to eat just one on every remaining Friday while south of the equator.

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But only about two days after devising this plan, I started to feel at ease again. Peru started to feel once again like home, the cockroaches stopped bothering me so much, the smog of the city became tolerable – negligible really. But I ate my first chocolate on January 10th anyway. I almost crumpled the wrapper without reading the cheesy message printed inside because I’m kind of tired of Dove suggesting I smile more or follow my heart, but at the last minute, I paused to read the wisdom of the tinfoil, which said, not so inconsequentially, “Happiness is in the heart, not in the circumstances.”

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On the sixth Friday of eighteen, I found myself strangely emotional. As someone who fears routine and sometimes seeks change for the simple sake of change, I ironically started to fear the inevitable date that would cause me to lose what I had in Peru. Things I can’t even really pin down. Some sort of half-hatched egg of a relationship and an ever-evolving yet never complete command of a language, culture and city. I listened to “La vuelta al mundo” and held back tears by means of self-suffocation, holding my breath, saying out loud, “Three whole months! Chill out!” And it worked. But I still felt panicked. Like what awaits me back in the U.S.? Some kind of tranquility that I don’t want. Because tranquility feels stagnant. And stagnant scares me.

And then when I got to this point, imagefour chocolatey Fridays left, I went to work with a headache. When I returned home, it persisted, so I took a nap, which unintentionally lasted three hours, and would have lasted longer had my new roommate not slammed the front door unnecessarily in her typical fashion, slowly awakening me. I stumbled zombie-like into the living room and announced to V, my beetle-conquering roommate, that I wasn’t feeling so well, and toppled back into bed, inexplicably exhausted.

That happened on a Saturday. I don’t remember much of the following Sunday because I slept through most of it. I remember waking up at an odd hour and trying to prepare oatmeal, when the room started spinning, and I was overcome by nausea. Sleeping had not cured me of my overwhelming exhaustion, and I felt incredibly weak, so I went back to bed, oatmeal ingredients left out in the open. I was awoken hours later by an intense heat boiling throughout my body, followed by sharp leg pains. I took Tylenol and slept more. I woke up again later because I now felt the discomfort of a cold dampness on my skin. Sweat dripped down my chest and under my nose. It matted my hair. V convinced me to go to the hospital, so I went, (after showering of course – V agreed) thinking I had some sort of flu.

The doctors were confused. “Por qué te has mojado?” Why have you wet yourself? they asked me.

“No, I’m sweating,” I explained, my T-shirt clinging to my skin.

They told me to come back the next day so I could see another doctor. I had no way of knowing that this suggestion was the start of a pattern that would persist for the next week and a half.

Following my first hospital visit, I continued to have daily fevers and shooting pain in my legs, hips and back. Doctors would look at me without hiding their confusion, take my blood, remain confused and send me home, often telling me to come back the next day, or referring me to other doctors. Their only recommendations were sleep and Tylenol.

I saw more doctors in a week than I had seen in my life. I saw one so old he needed a magnifying glass to read my temperature on his thermometer, and another so swarmed with patients that he hardly acknowledged me at all. The most memorable doctor was blind. Once, as I exited his office defeated when he, like the others, sent me home without answers, I felt his heavy hand on my shoulder. I continued to walk out the door and he shuffled close behind. It turned out I was unknowingly guiding him out of the room.

And then suddenly, I was on a boat. It was a small boat, and I think I may have been paddling. The sun was warm and I had friends sitting near me, though I’m not sure who they were exactly. But it was nice and I felt pain-free and relieved. Then all of a sudden I heard a fierce, rapid thundering noise drumming into my ears, like that insufferable pounding you hear when you’re driving on the freeway and leave the back window down. And the next thing I knew, my eyes were fluttering open and I was surrounded by strangers in white coats in an unfamiliar, gray room. I gasped for air, looked at each stranger in the face, panicked, trying to figure out where I was, when finally I saw V, desperate and worried by my side. And then I remembered. I was at hospital #2 with doctor #3 who ignored my request to lie down when I said I was weak and dizzy. It turns out I had fainted (the boat was a dream…) and had been convulsing and babbling in English much to the confusion (yes, more confusion) of the negligent doctor and his entourage of interns. V said she nearly cried and prayed – something she is not known to do – and could only recognize the word, “Help!” in my string of exasperated English. I think I may have given her post-traumatic stress disorder. And still, the doctors had no answers.

Over the course of that week, I saw seven doctors, gave my blood eight times, (one time yielding hand-written results on a scrap of paper) and did a sonogram to examine my internal organs. But the pattern continued. The doctors kept sending me home saying everything was normal. They didn’t know why I had so many fevers. One suggested I see a psychologist. (I intended to storm off when he said this, but my energy only permitted me to stand up slowly and hobble away.)

Finally, when I had resolved that I would probably never know what was wrong with me, an epidemiologist cracked the code. He barely examined me, just asked a chain of rapid-fire questions like a detective, and responded, satisfied, with words like, “Perfecto!” and “Excelente!” when my responses corresponded with his suspicions. I was glad he was asking the right questions, but also secretly had the urge to slap him. There was nothing excelente or perfecto about my fevers and pain. But fortunately his inquisition led to more blood tests and then to the blind doctor who ultimately confirmed the epidemiologists’ divination about my diagnosis.

I’ll just keep it simple and say I contracted a virus, one that is common in developing countries and completely treatable. The Peruvian doctors, however, insisted that the only treatment was one month of bed-rest and the consumption of honey and quince, a Latin American fruit. My sister, a doctor, did not agree with honey or fruit as a proper treatment, and my mother was losing a lot of sleep. Furthermore, I only had one month left in Peru and didn’t want to spend it in bed, in spite of my insatiable exhaustion. They also recommended I not eat chocolate, which completely ruined the chocolate Friday project. I went back to the blind doctor one last time for more blood tests, and when the results showed that I had only gotten worse, I decided it was time to go home. Stagnant or not, you can’t beat proper medical attention. He called out, “Come back Tuesday!” as I left, to which I responded, “Sí! Claro que sí!” knowing full well that my next doctor’s appointment would be in the U.S.

So here I am. And much healthier. I can barely tell I was ever sick, actually. And now I am hoping this turn of events doesn’t indicate an end to adventure, merely a resting point until the next one comes along. You can throw your anchor down, but pull it up again, right?

And besides unintentionally gaining knowledge about developing-world illnesses and conquering my fear of needles, I learned how important it is to have good friends. V has been my closest friend in Peru for months, and I therefore had the confidence to share my symptoms with her, rely on her to accompany me to the slew of doctors I visited, allow her to force-feed me when the sight of food made my stomach turn, and unleash my emotional distress on her (not just during my time of illness, I should say). She must have missed a week of work to take countless taxi rides with me to various hospitals, and to hold my squeamish hand when the indifferent nurses pricked my arms, wrist and hand to draw my blood. Only I can fully understand how important her support was to me while the mystery of my illness slowly unraveled, and as a result, I know I will gladly provide the same support to her or any of my friends if ever necessary. Good friends are hard to come by, but their value is beyond words.

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3 thoughts on “Mystery Illness

  1. Scarlet Jones says:

    Another beautifully written blog. I am so relieved that you are better and that you had V to rely on when things were bad. I am sure that you will have many more adventures in the not so distant future

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