When pilots get together to tell their stories over whiskey, it tends to start with “So there I was…” Of course, their stories only have to be 10% true
I’m going to tell you a story that is 100% true.
I’m also going to ask for a pass from any old fighter pilots who might be reading this, mostly because I’ve got a glass of Jameson’s in my hand as I’m telling it (which tastes far better than Jeremiah Weed 😉 but also because I would be more than happy to pour a round for any pilots who are willing to sidle up to my stool at the bar and listen to my story.
Besides, this story is just as exciting as any other ‘war story’. It involves planes and third world countries, unpredictable weather conditions, communication difficulties, and an unexpected loss of power, a motorcycle adventure, and less than sterile technique. In this particular case, my story begins at the end. Intrigued? I know I am…
So there I was…
On an eighteen-day trip to Nepal, almost nine-thousand miles from home, in a hospital bed, wondering if I was going to ever make it back home.
Just to put it out there, in case anyone is wondering, I’ve been a nurse for over thirty-years and when traveling to places like this, I am really good about bottled water, hand sanitizer, and closing my mouth in the shower. Not my first rodeo. Still, about a week into the journey I began having – well, intestinal issues.
It’s also important to mention that I had a strict “no fresh vegetables, salads, or fruits without a peel” policy. Except this one time…
We were up in the hills above Kathmandu, visiting Namo Buddha. We had just completed a grueling three-hour hike in the blazing sun, and stopped at an inn with an organic restaurant attached. It was owned by a German woman and all the patrons appeared to be Westerners (which is usually a good sign as far as food safety goes). They had their own organic gardens on the property, and our guide assured us that the vegetables were washed with bottled water and everything we were about to be served was safe to eat.
Our first course was a beautiful lemon avocado salad on a bed of fresh greens. At that point in my journey I had only eaten dahl, spicy vegetables and curries, rice, and eggs. I missed avocados dearly, and we were all so hungry after that hike… Fast forward a couple of days and the trouble had already begun.
Like I said, this is the price you pay when you travel in a third world country. You don’t go anywhere without your own roll of toilet paper, biodegradable wipes, hand sanitizer and Imodium.
Unfortunately, after eight days in country, by the time I separated from the main group (who were headed out for a trek into the Himalayas) I could barely keep anything down, and the stomach pain was getting worse.
However, being on my own meant no longer being tied to a rigid touring schedule, and I really enjoyed exploring different parts of the city and visiting museums with no time constraints. I even spent a couple of extra days in the artistic center of Patan to attend a specialized training to learn the ancient art of Sound Healing Therapy with singing bowls (more on this in another post!)
I also started taking some sketchy medication from the Nepalese pharmacy that was supposed to help with…these sorts of intestinal issues.
Looking up the ingredients of the medication (as nurses tend to do) there was one I recognized, and the other was an anti-protozoal that was not actually FDA approved. Just the thought of having to take a medication that kills protozoa was enough to skeeve me out, but I had very little to lose (well, nothing really since my stomach was completely empty most of the time 😉 I figured a couple days on the medicine and I’d be feeling better in no time.
As long as I didn’t eat anything, I could manage on fluids, so I decided to just gut it out.
The Sound Healing training was incredible, and definitely worth it! I learned so much that I will be able to incorporate into my healing practices at home. I’m very happy I stayed and participated in the training, but I wasn’t feeling better yet.
Far from it, actually.
The next part of my journey involved a short flight to Pokhara, a beautiful city at the base of the Annapurna range. I was supposed to spends several days at a yoga and meditation center while I was there.
Unfortunately I didn’t even make it through the airport in Kathmandu without having an incident that required a partial change of clothing (I’ll leave it at that🙄).
I spent the first night in Pokhara and the next day went on an eight hour long motorcycle adventure around the Pokhara Valley, which in hindsight only made things worse, but at the time I’m pretty sure I was no longer thinking straight. (The motorcycle adventure is also a whole other post that even involved a ride across a sketchy suspension bridge! You can read about it here.)
Long story short, my symptoms got worse overnight, so the next morning I ended up taking a taxi to the “hospital”, which in this case was a medical clinic in a converted house with a Nepalese doctor and his incredibly kind Indian assistant, Sunhil.
When the doctor pressed on my stomach I about hit the ceiling, so they immediately admitted me and started an IV. He also ordered an ultrasound, labs, the works. Unfortunately, by this time I was so dehydrated, they couldn’t even get enough blood to send to the lab.
I will save the details of the less than sterile technique, rusted IV pole, leaky bathroom and antiquated equipment used to take care of me, because they were doing the best they could with what they had available. I learned later from a nurse who used to live in Nepal that they often reuse and repackage IV tubing there, the thought of which totally freaks me out, but then again I lived, so I remain grateful!
I was sick and completely alone, 9000 miles from home and was in no position to argue. Still, nothing about this experience gave me the warm fuzzies from a medical standpoint.
Turns out it was really lucky that they did an ultrasound, because I had a gall stone the size of a boulder was told I needed surgery, fairly immediately. The doctors said it could possibly wait a day or two, provided I didn’t develop a fever or start vomiting.
Sunhil assured me that the medicine the doctor was giving me was from India (not Nepal) and was much better and more effective than the Nepalese version I had been taking. No wonder I wasn’t getting better on the stuff I got from the pharmacy in Kathmandu.
He also told me NOT to have surgery in Nepal.
Thus began a panicked series of texts and WiFi calls to my family, who literally worked around the clock to make arrangements on my behalf. Tickets had to be cancelled and rebooked, travel insurance contacted, hotel rooms cancelled…not to mention finding a surgeon in the states who would agree to see me as soon as I returned.
My family launched what they lovingly referred to as “Operation Get Mom Home”
They split up the different tasks and responsibilities, and took shifts staying up all night to check in with me every step of the way. I will be forever thankful for their unending love and assistance. What they accomplished as a team was superhuman. No one person could have done any of that on their own, (especially not one who was sick and could no longer think straight) but first things first.
Step one: Pay the doctor.
No credit cards, no American dollars, the doctor needed rupees. 44,000 of them to be exact. (For those of you who are wondering about the conversion, 44,000 rupees is about $400 US. This covered my room, IVs, medications, care, and the ultrasound.)
Oh yeah, and then there was the thunderstorm.
We’re talking – torrential rains without sophisticated sewer systems, and land that doesn’t drain – it just floods. I’d been through these storms in Kathmandu and they just caused chaos.
In order to get back to civilization I first had to get back to Kathmandu, but the valley around Pokhara was socked in with fog and rain. The doctor said it was highly unlikely that any planes would take off in the morning, but if I couldn’t get to Kathmandu, I couldn’t get home!
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Back to step one: Pay the doctor.
During a brief break in the rainstorm, the doctor’s assistant offered to give me a ride to the ATM, and since he was currently the only person I knew, this seemed like the logical choice. Little did I know his offer included a ride on the back of his motorcycle with the IV line still in my arm. Also, there was only one helmet and he was wearing it, so I held onto Sunhil’s waist with my non-IV arm and hoped for the best.
Literally every moment of those last few days blurred into a surreal kind of mashup of terrifying fear and the kind of calm acceptance that is birthed out of necessity.
Speeding down the rain-soaked roads of Pokhara I had some interesting thoughts like “If my gallbladder bursts I’ll get septic and then what?” and then “One good slide and I could hit my head and never wake up.” (ICU nurses are morbidly realistic when it comes to the reality of extreme situations)
He stopped and directed me toward an ATM and I drifted toward it in a daze. My legs were moving but they didn’t feel quite connected to my body. As I pocketed this huge wad of cash, it briefly occurred to me that if somebody wanted to rob me, it would have been a great time to take the money and run. I was an easy target. You could have pushed me over with one finger.
Not long after we got back from the ATM, the thunder and lightning started again.
Then the power went out.
So there I was…
Wearing my headlamp so I could see to manage my IV tubing, trying to navigate the leaky bathroom and creating some semblance of organization of my gear. I literally thought to myself – “If I survive this, no one is going to believe this story.”
After a restless night’s sleep and more IV medication, I forced down some soup so that the doctor would give me an official looking certificate saying I was “fit to fly”. Looking back I’m not sure I actually was, but I still had no fever and I wasn’t vomiting, so by my book it was worth a shot.
The game plan was to get me anywhere that had decent medical care, so that if I had to have emergency surgery, at least it would be in a developed country. Wheelchairs were ordered every step of the way, and without the kind souls who pushed me through throngs of people and to the head of every line, I know I wouldn’t have made it through.
It took six different flights and over 48 hours to get me home.
I had countless moments of doubt. Moments I was sure I didn’t have the strength to continue the journey. By the time I landed in the US, I broke down crying. I finally got home on a Monday night and had surgery Tuesday morning.
I met so many angels along the way. The woman next to me on the longest flight was named Sheila. I never got her last name or her contact information but she helped and supported me throughout that grueling sixteen hour flight between Delhi and Newark. If she ever reads this I hope she knows how much I appreciated her kindness and compassion. Flight attendants checked on me, pilots were alerted to my precarious position, and all along the way I found help and compassion from complete strangers. These kindnesses I was shown may have been small to those that gave them, but they got me through an extremely vulnerable time in my life.
I know this world is full of people who do bad things and get bad press, but humans make a real difference in each other’s lives every single day.
In the upcoming weeks I’ll post other, not so frightening things about my trip (except for the suspension bridge – and a few aggressive monkeys) and there will be lots of pictures for the culturally curious! There are so many wonderful stories to tell, but since the end somewhat overshadowed the beginning, it seemed best to start with:
“I’m fine, I made it back safely, and I lived to tell about it! Literally!”