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.
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.
August 12, 2015 @ 4:09 PM
one of the reasons i make sure there is some on the ground support system when i travel out of my comfort zone, is a solo traveler has NO ONE to help them……am still looking for a program that offers this service, since the consulates often don’t help
August 14, 2015 @ 10:50 AM
Yeah, I’m not sure a service like that exists. I think it’s about doing research and knowing what your options are ahead of time in case something does happen, and trying to make connections while you’re traveling. If I got sick like this in another country, I do know I’d have some time before my condition got bad enough to land me in the hospital. In fact, I bet I’d act on things faster if I was on the road and got sick, as opposed to being home like I was when this happened.
Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
August 12, 2015 @ 5:00 PM
Ali, I’m SO SORRY to hear about how sick you have been! It must be especially stressful given all of the dietary modifications you’ve been making over the past year, and the fact that you have a chronic condition that can get so badly exacerbated if you get sick.
While I won’t pretend I can completely understand what you went through, I do sympathize and have been waging my own GI battle the past few weeks. Within days of arriving in Oaxaca, I started showing signs of food poisoning and after a few days of running to the bathroom every hour or so and having no energy, I decided to self-treat with Cipro, something I had done a few times on our travels (though, thankfully, not too many!) and always bounced back within a few days.
Not so this time. Although my symptoms initially disappeared, within a few days, the rumbling tummy reimerged, though not as severe and not as persistent… just intermittently. Every few days I’d think I was getting better, only to have a relapse. This happened for nearly a month, and I switched to an elimination diet where I was only eating bone broth, boiled chicken, boiled carrots and bananas, and that seemed to help, though I still had issues. I cut out all dairy and sugar. I definitely despaired and felt that I would never get better and never be able to eat normal food without fear ever again. When we arrived in Playa del Carmen and it had been 5 weeks of not knowing whether I’d wake up in the morning with a messed up gut, I finally went to the doctor for blood & stool tests. They came back negative, though my bloodwork showed I had had a bacteria recently but everything else was normal. Of course, I was still having wonky tummy issues, and the doctor said I might still have traveler’s diarrhea, IBS, or colitis. He even said maybe I had a thyroid issue or gluten intolerance, but this all happened following one meal, and I haven’t been eating much gluten here anyway (and my symptoms honestly didn’t track with anything I ate. I could eat broth for 3 days and be sick, then switch over to more substantial foods and be fine for a few days…).
ANYWAY, I’ve been taking an anti-inflammatory med for my colon and really strong probiotics for the past five days now and that has helped a lot. I’m supposed to take it for a month and the doctor says that should be enough to help calm my guts down, since it may have just been what ever bacteria I picked up may have really aggravated my large intestine. I am relieved that I can enjoy meals again, but part of me does wonder what will happen when I’m done with this medication in a month. Hopefully it will do the trick and I’ll be back to my old self! I’m really glad that you’re feeling better and are on the mend… the road to recovery may take longer than either of us would like (I’ve done a lot of reading, and apparently our guts can take a long time to really heal), but all we can do is be patient and kind to ourselves.
August 14, 2015 @ 10:54 AM
Steph, this sounds awful! I can’t imagine dealing with all of that without really knowing what was causing the problem. I really hope the meds are helping, and the probiotics should be good too. I haven’t tried those yet, but I plan on asking my doctor at my next appointment. Yes, it certainly does take a long time for the gut to heal, and since I’ve had this disease for half my life, there’s a lot of damage in there. I sometimes feel like the work I’ve put in over the past 9 months was worthless if I just got this sick from food poisoning, but then I have to remind myself I can’t erase 16 years of damage in 9 months. Anyway, please listen to your body and be careful, and I really hope your digestive problems are almost behind you!
August 12, 2015 @ 5:42 PM
Ali, I’m glad you’re on the mend, but I can empathize with how scary it is to get sick and feel so poorly for so long! Like you, my (still undiagnosed) illness have led to so many fears in the last couple of years, but they didn’t quite hit me until earlier this year. I think that unknown and wondering if/when I’ll get better has led to more stress, which just makes everything worse. But you’re right, we have to figure out ways to address and overcome that. We HAVE to.
I’m in the midst of another round of test-taking, and my health keeps yo-yoing. Hoping we both continue to work toward better health and wellness!
August 14, 2015 @ 10:57 AM
The stress really is the worst. Almost every single flare up I’ve ever had can be attributed to stress. Even this time, I’m convince that I would not have gotten so ill if the food poisoning had hit at a time when I wasn’t already so stressed out. It was a perfect storm situation. I hate that you’re still struggling to pinpoint what your exact health problem is, but I think it’s great that you’re not giving up.
August 12, 2015 @ 7:00 PM
Wow I had no clue it was that bad. Like I k ow you told me it was but wow that seems like a nightmare. Two weeks in the hospital? You know what freaked me out the most you getting a blood transfusion. Omg I never really thought about that but omg I wouldn’t want one. The thought of it scares me. Like I would have someone else’s blood in me. And omg no joke the other day I was talking g to someone that I don’t even know my blood type. Maybe I should find out. Anyway ahh this reminded me of the time I got really sick in Rio and thought I was gonna die. It was an intestinal infection from something I ate and I too ended up in the hospital but luckily only for a few hours. Ahhh it does scare you and makes you a bit more careful on what you eat but in my case after a few weeks I was back to just eating anything lol.
I’m glad you are doing much better and OMG I can’t wait to see you in like less than two weeks!!!!!
August 14, 2015 @ 11:02 AM
The blood transfusions were weird. I always thought about people needing them because they were in a car accident or something like that, so to have the doctor come in several times and tell me I was losing too much blood and needed transfusions was strange. Yes, there’s always a risk in getting someone else’s blood, but they run a lot of tests on the blood that’s donated and the risks are miniscule. Plus, what was the alternative? My body needed that blood. As for the blood type, I didn’t know mine before this either, but they test you multiple times. I hate that you were so sick in Rio, that sounds awful, but I’m so glad you got help and recovered. I don’t actually know how to be more careful about I eat as far as food poisoning avoidance. I ate at a clean-looking restaurant in my own neighborhood in Berlin. There’s just no way to know what happened, how Andy and I got sick from their food. And by the time I was in the hospital, all the bacteria had run its course, so they didn’t even find a specific strain to blame it on. I had worked through the food poisoning and was left with major colitis issues. Ugh. Anyway, yes, see you soon, can’t wait!
August 13, 2015 @ 5:11 AM
After being without decent internet for quite a while at my end, its good to read another post from you and that although you have been through one hell of an ordeal, you seem to be on the mend.
I must admit that I have been hospitalized for food poisoning before but that was before my Fibromyalgia diagnosis in 2005, two years before that even and even then it was just an overnight stay at my insistence. Having colitis certainly does complicate matters and I think that had the nurses not been to it by you and Andy, things could have gone even further downhill and rapidly too.
There is a famous Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk by the name of Thich Nhat Hanh. I remember listening to one of his recordings once on the subject of mindfulness. He said that when we get sick, it is then we appreciate having had good health. I think that is really applicable here. The best you can do, you already seem to be doing. You’re eating healthy, you’ve lost a considerable amount of weight and it appears to have stayed off – always a plus and you’re still here to talk about your experience.
As for me, I am a bit of a white knuckler when it comes to going to hospital as an inpatient. I usually wait until the very last moment as I have had some really shit experiences in Australian public hospitals as I don’t want to repeat the experience if I don’t have to.
I like your attitude to all this though – that you won’t let fear get the better of you. I could use an industrial strength dose of your courage right now. I have things in my life I need to take a no prisoners attitude towards too 🙂
August 14, 2015 @ 11:10 AM
Matthew, you’re back! Yeah, this was definitely scary, and I still can’t believe it stemmed from food poisoning. Although by the time I got myself into the hospital, there wasn’t even any bacteria left, just colitis complications. I understand your white knuckling, I really waited too long to address this problem too. I will continue to eat healthy (well, mostly) and do what I can to improve my health so I can avoid things like this in the future. I’m really happy with the weight loss, and hopefully I can keep losing a little more until I’m at a more healthy weight for my height.
It’s slow going but I am making improvements. I like your quote from the monk about health and sickness. That’s totally true. It’s really hard to focus on doing things that are healthy when we don’t feel sick. Suddenly getting sick, all you can think is, I gotta do all these things to be healthy! It’s a constant battle to keep health in the foreground even when we’re feeling ok.
I think you’re stronger than you think you are. Give yourself a little push now and then, and you can totally have that take no prisoners attitude. Sometimes you have to fake it to realize it’s in there.
Henry | @fotoeins
August 14, 2015 @ 7:31 AM
I love how Andrew was like a damn solid rock … as always.
And I love how you’re still totally digging Thai food.
And privately, you will warn me never to go to that g**dd**n Thai place that poisoned you both.
I’m glad you’re better and improving.
August 14, 2015 @ 11:14 AM
Andy was wonderful! He visited me every single day, brought me food, brought me a Lonely Planet Central America book, helped me shower, brought me new clothes and other things I needed, and so much more. He was so supportive. I couldn’t have made it through without him.
Thai food…I think it helps that we’ve had so much delicious Thai food that I couldn’t possibly be turned off by one bad place. I crave it all the time. I can’t really deal with spicy food right now, so I’m trying to resist until my health is a little more stable.
Don’t worry, I won’t let you eat at this place. I’m sure it was a fluke, otherwise they won’t be in business long, but even still, I will always associate that place with my hospital stay. No thanks.
Thank you Henry!