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A Little Confession…. Facing Down the Worst Sickness of My Life

hongsa, laosI knew it was inevitable that I would get sick at some point. When you travel through Asia it’s less a matter of  “if” than “when.” I didn’t consider what it would mean to get violently ill in a region of the world so untouched by Western medicine. Just a few weeks into my five months in Asia, I paid my dues and faced down one of the scariest illnesses of my life.

Before I left to travel, the travel clinic issued me a prescription for Cipro with instructions to take it for cases of severe traveler’s diarrhea. It had occurred to me that I would need it at some point, but I didn’t research the range of illnesses that could necessitate a course of strong antibiotics. And then I contracted dysentery.

It started mild with diarrhea and pain, but I thought it would be over in a day or two — just something disagreeable that I had eaten. A week later, I was severely dehydrated, helplessly weak, and curled up in a ball on the dirty tiles of my cold bathroom floor. I was alarmingly sick. I was in a remote area of Laos. There were no hospitals for days. I knew I had a serious problem when I was too weak to lift my head as I vomited, and too dehydrated to cry as sobs wracked my sick body.

I survived that night — in the years since I call it my “dark night of the soul.” I would have given anything to go home at that moment. I begged the gods to trade my travels for a helicopter that would whisk me to a clean, safe Thai hospital. I promised I would stick to the safe, controlled life I had once known. It was fear and uncertainty that had me blaming my trip — surely a “safer” life was a better option than alone and sick and thousands of miles from my family.

And in that moment, I truly would have given it all up. But since then, I see it as a desperate moment in the throes of uncertainty. I have worked every day of this trip so that I could afford to continue exploring. I valued this trip over my acting career, over my ex, and over proximity to friends and family. And in my most lucid moments, I still see my choices as the best ones for right now. I am grateful that I am able to take this round the world journey. I am also grateful that I survived. I am grateful that  my food follies ended neither my trip nor my life. Although I was lonely and sad in that moment, it was a fleeting part of a much larger story I am creating for myself. I’ve decided not to let a single illness, nor the fear of future illnesses, to dictate the course of my life. Getting sick is just one part of travel, and if I stop now I won’t see what else awaits.

It sounds so dramatic in retrospect. That night, it all seemed fraught with sadness and inevitability. I wrote my parents a letter in case I died. When I woke up, I viewed it as a chance to try to live. I packed my bags and paid a local to carry them to the tuk tuk. Then I did the only thing a person can do when they’re face down in the arena — I stood up and kept trying. Without a way to call for help — the town had few cell phones and no internet — I took a tuk tuk several hours down the mountain to the river. Then, I paid every dollar on my for a boat up the Mekong River for nine hours; at times I begged the speed boat to stop so I could squat in a bush. Once I arrived, the border with Thailand had just closed for the night and I was stuck in the anonymity of a Laotian border town.

And throughout that long day, somehow, I got better. I had started taking large doses of Cipro in the hopes that it would stay in my system long enough to help. And it did. And I feel, once again, grateful for the privilege that affords me access to medicine and the ability to go on these crazy adventures and come out the other side alive. This is not the case for so many in this world. Had I been in nearby Thailand when my illness struck, I would have easy instant access to Western hospitals and a clean IV drip. But because I had ventured into Laos, a country with 6.8 million people, a treatable illness became life-threatening within days. It’s humbling to understand the implications of where we are born and how it affects our lives.

For now, I venture on. I’m a little more cautious; I’m a lot thinner; and I’m alive.

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  • Niki

    Yikes!!! My poor Shanjuanita! I felt like death when I was food poisoned and it lasted for two days…I can’t imagine 8!

  • Bill

    Looking at your website, there is almost an ENTIRE page I have not yet read. I am sorry for not reading. I have not forgotten about you. It is March 17 here, so I hope you found a green beer with which to celebrate. Perusing one of m favorite web sites tonight and came across a blog quite fitting to you and one I thought you might enjoy.

    Yes, that is THE Ebert. Roger Ebert.
    Hope you are well.
    Will read and leave more comments soon.
    With good thoughts and love.

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