Blood Transfusions and Hospital Stays: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

The waiter brought over my Pad Thai, and Andy and I dug into our meals. Neither tasted authentic or overwhelmingly delicious, but the flavors were decent enough for what we were looking for – inexpensive and short walking distance from home.

What we hadn’t bargained for was the food poisoning that hit us both a few hours later.

We spent more time in the bathroom over the next four days than anyone really wants to. The difference between us though was that Andy started to recover around day four while I did not. My immune system is a bit weaker anyway due to my ulcerative colitis, so I didn’t think much of it. Maybe I needed five days or even a week. I started throwing all kinds of natural remedies at the problem (peppermint tea, raw garlic, aloe juice, among other things) because antibiotics can cause colitis issues.

A visit to the emergency room

But when one week turned into 10 days and my symptoms were actually getting a lot worse, I finally had to throw in the towel. Andy and I just moved to Berlin, so we hadn’t gotten around to setting up new doctors yet. (Um, big mistake. For the record, that problem has been resolved.) So we went to the emergency room at a nearby hospital, knowing my condition was bad enough to be admitted.

The ER nurse receptionist apparently didn’t understand me when I said ulcerative colitis, even though I pronounced it the way my German doctors always have. And so the only thing that ended up on my form was food poisoning, which landed me at the bottom of everyone’s priority list.

After hours of waiting and checking with the receptionist several times, I started to get even worse – deteriorating right there in the hospital waiting room. So Andy and I went to check again. I cried to a nurse, pleaded with her, “do you understand what colitis is?” and luckily she said yes. I told her I didn’t think it got on my chart and it was very important.

It turns out I was right: it hadn’t made it onto my chart.

Within five minutes, she had me in a bed.

After several hours of waiting and several more hours of tests (almost nine hours total), I was officially admitted.

A mix of emotions

In some ways I was relieved to be there. I knew things had gotten bad and this was where I needed to be. But no one wants to be in the hospital. It’s scary, unfamiliar, and not exactly cozy. I was exhausted, and I had barely eaten a thing in the previous 24 hours. I was emotionally drained from the long day of waiting and testing. The longer I waited to get seen in the ER, the more frightened I became. Once I was admitted, I relaxed a little, but I also worried about how long it could take to get well and go home. Having to be away from my biggest comfort and support system, Andy, was also scary right at the moment I needed him most.

Not only was it upsetting to have to be in the hospital, but it meant having to cancel a trip. We were supposed to go to Slovenia to hang out with my good friend Gigi at Lake Bled, and then Andy and I were going to go to Ljubljana on our own. Instead I checked into the hospital two days before our scheduled departure and didn’t get released until four days after we were supposed to come home. I hated having to cancel this trip. Not only was it a new country for both of us, but it was one we had really been looking forward to. And most of all, I missed out on getting to spend time with one of my closest friends.

Here’s a picture from Gigi’s time in Lake Bled. Check out her site for more of what I missed out on in Slovenia.

Lake Bled

It’s all in the people…and the food

I think I handled my hospital stay better this time than a few years ago in Freiburg for several reasons. First, I knew better what to expect. I saw the same incredible doctor 99% of the time instead of whichever random doctor was around. Even the nursing staff was more consistent. Three or four in particular were extremely helpful and made my experience much more tolerable. I still had to stumble through speaking German with most of the nurses, but luckily my doctor spoke near-perfect English.

This hospital seemed to do a little better with dietary restrictions as well. The kitchen really has nothing to do with the medical staff, so it wasn’t smooth sailing, but I was able to tell them no gluten and no dairy, and most days they got it right. (Though there was a day they brought me pasta for lunch, and since no one could confirm whether it was gluten free pasta, I refused to eat it. So they brought me two awful meatballs that tasted like sausages, along with three whole raw tomatoes.)

Typical German dinners are just bread and deli meat, so I managed to get them to make me chicken soup, which they cooked at lunch time and reheated at dinner time. It was fine at first, but after a week of the same damn not-as-good-as-mine chicken soup, I was going crazy. Once I started feeling a little better and my appetite came back, Andy started bringing me take-out food. Healthy or not, hamburgers, tacos, and Pad Thai (no, the food poisoning did not turn me off Thai food…just that particular restaurant) were exactly what I needed when I couldn’t eat another bite of that soup.

It was a bloody miserable time

I lost a lot of blood during my first week in the hospital. That made things even more scary, and I had a few days when my fears took over and all I could think was, I’m never going to get better. I was sick enough that the only times I got out of bed were to go to the bathroom. I didn’t change clothes or brush my teeth or hair for days. After about five or six days, Andy helped me shower, and even though there was a little seat in there and he did about 80% of my hair washing, etc., I still needed a nap afterwards. I had to request a wheelchair for my second of three ultrasounds because it was at my weakest point and I knew I didn’t have the strength to walk up there.

One morning I got up to use the bathroom, and as I was washing my hands, I started to feel lightheaded. I tried to quickly dry my hands and get back to bed, but I fainted instead, hitting my head on the door jam. My sweet 81 year old roommate heard me fall and called the nurse. I must not have been out for long because I woke up and got myself off the floor before the nurse even opened the bathroom door. And my head was fine. There was another day I felt similar but managed to get back to my bed without fainting, and another day I was down the hall talking to my doctor when I had to sit down on the floor to avoid fainting. Fun times.

All of this blood loss led to my hemoglobin dropping to around 4.5. The normal range for females is between 12 and 14. So yeah, not good. On three separate days I got a total of five bags of blood transfusions. I learned that normally your blood has 30-40% red blood cells, but the blood I received as a transfusion had around 80%. So I got 1.25 liters (about 2.6 pints) of highly concentrated blood donated to me. (Hey, I have German blood now!)

Blood donation is an odd thing. Or rather, receiving donated blood is odd. I never knew my blood type before this. I knew that there were careful checks and balances around blood donation, but I never thought much about it. Each time my doctor came in and said, “we’re giving you more blood,” he asked me to verify my first, middle, and last name, along with my birthday. Then he put two drops of my blood onto a little card in two different spots that double confirmed that my blood type matched. Then he hooked me up and waited with me for the first couple of minutes because if you’re going to have a bad reaction, it will happen within the first minute or two.

Along with the new blood, I received the normal medications I’m used to getting for my disease when it acts up. After about six days, they added one more that really seemed to be the turning point and things started improving from there, though it was still slow going.

By the last few days, I knew I was improving when I was starving, when I was getting out of bed and wandering up and down the hall just to not be sitting, when I had Andy bring me my laptop so I could write blog posts (sadly the only internet I had was the tiny data plan on my phone), when I was able to take another shower without any assistance, when I started doing things like filing my nails and trying to look pretty. I seriously considered having Andy bring me make-up even though I hardly even wear it in normal life.

Finally going home

I really felt like I had a great team of people taking care of me there. In fact, no matter how much I wanted to go home, it was actually a little scary when they finally did release me. It was like my safety net was gone. Two weeks is a long time to spend in constant care with the same group of people bringing my medicine and checking up on me. (Although I did question the nurses on dosages every day because mistakes happen. One day a nurse tried to lower one of my medicines, and since it’s one I take every time I have a flare up, I knew she was wrong to lower the dose so quickly. And yes, I did all of this questioning in German.) I always had someone there if I needed something or freaked out about a symptom.

Maybe it’s a defense mechanism, but as I write this, just a few days after being released, I’m having a hard time clearly picturing my doctor and some of the nurses. I think my mind is trying to forget.

I still have a few weeks of recovery and extra medicine ahead of me. Normally when a person loses blood and has low hemoglobin, they take iron supplements to help get the red blood cells back up. But when I was first diagnosed with colitis, my doctor put me on iron pills for anemia and somehow never mentioned that it was a temporary thing. I took those pills for 12 years until my doctor in Freiburg noticed and forbid me to ever take them again because my iron numbers are insanely high. So I can’t take them now, and from what I’ve read, the body is slow at using the excess. I just have to wait it out, but it’ll work eventually.

Illness leads to fears

At first my mind went wild, thinking, if I can get this sick from a decent-looking restaurant around the corner, how can I ever think about traveling to other countries where chances of picking up a bug are even higher? I questioned traveling, I questioned eating out at all. Nothing felt safe.

What if this had happened in some third world country? I questioned whether I could really risk going somewhere with lower sanitation standards and lower-quality medical care. I suddenly felt trapped, confined to my own home.

Is my immune system getting weaker, despite all the work I’ve done over the past nine months? Or did the food poisoning just hit at a weak moment when I was overly stressed out already? Are more and more things going to make me sick now? I don’t like feeling like I have so little control over something as important as my health.

But realistically, if I get sick while in a country with a medical system I don’t trust, I would get on a flight to the nearest city with good medical care. This has always been my back-up plan, and I always research this ahead of time. Plus I do have travel health insurance.

And I think the food poisoning just hit me at a weak moment. I eat so much healthier than I used to, and I weigh 30 pounds less than I did nine months ago. I was just at the tail end of a few months of intense stress and a newly emerging dairy intolerance.

I still believe eating a mostly Paleo diet is good for me. I see how much better I do without eating gluten, and I’ve had horrible experiences with dairy over the past few months even in tiny amounts. I still believe there’s a lot more to being healthy beyond western medicine, and natural remedies can be really effective.

But no amount of natural treatment was going to be able to work quick enough to heal me when I was that sick and losing blood. So I still ended up on antibiotics and steroids and higher doses of my normal medicine.

I refuse to live my life in fear

While I certainly don’t want to be sick, I also can’t avoid all dangers. I can only be smart about what I do and pursue the things that bring joy to my life.

One of those things is travel. If I can get sick in Berlin, I can get sick in Cambodia or Panama or Japan. Just like you can get mugged in some foreign city, you can get mugged two blocks from home as well. Staying home or traveling will not make a major difference, the risk is there either way. So I choose to travel and do what I enjoy.

This last round of illness really scared me, and those fears are hanging on a little too tightly. And the weight of the experience, especially the fact that I needed several blood transfusions, is still knocking around in my mind. I’m a bit of a mess emotionally. But I know it will pass. I’ll slowly get off the extra medicine. I’ll slowly rebuild my red blood cells and regain my strength and energy. And life will start to feel normal again.