Sunday, May 10, 2009

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Belize is a beautiful country, with crystal clear water for snorkeling and diving, hundreds of white sand islands to explore and great sailing (relatively consistent trade winds but little seas because of the protective barrier reef that runs along most of the country). While we've thoroughly enjoyed all of these aspects of Belize, we've also had some other experiences here that have made our visit memorable, but not so much in a good way.


Belize was a sight for sore eyes...sore, because they'd been stinging from the sweat that had been incessantly dripping into them for the last week that we were back in the Rio Dulce after our travels inland. As soon as we cleared customs in Guatemala and headed out of Livingston, we were once again able to enjoy anchoring out in cooling sea breezes and swimming off the side of the boat in the clear blue water of the Caribbean Sea, as opposed to the murky waters of the Rio Dulce.

Traveling with our new friends from South Africa, Tamara and Warren, we spent our first few days in Belize enjoying some really fantastic snorkeling, while visiting a different set of islands along the southern part of the country each day. Our best day of snorkeling included spotting two sting rays (one of which was a spotted eagle ray, which are relatively rare) and our first nurse shark. Yes, I spotted a shark, which honestly, scared the crap out of me, even when I learned that nurse sharks are generally more scared of people that we are of them, and also have rounded, rather than sharp teeth. Plus they pretty much sleep all the time. Still, I imagine it’d hurt like hell if one decided to bite you. We capped off our visit with Tam and Warren in Placencia and said good-bye to them over a truly sumptuous dinner at a funky French restaurant that could have competed in quality and style with any number of great restaurants elsewhere.

Old friend, New ailment

The next evening, our newest guest arrived, this time, a friend of Kevin’s from high school and college. Kevin and Scott hadn’t seen each other in nearly two years, but picked up right where they left off over numerous happy hour rum and cokes. It was no surprise then that Kevin woke up the next day with a pounding head ache and a feeling of general malaise…it seemed pretty clear that he was suffering from a cheap rum hangover, so we had no reason to reconsider our plan to head out of Placencia, a town on the mainland, to visit some of the islands lining Belize’s coast.

That evening, after a great day of sailing, we arrived in Cary Cay. Kevin still felt lousy, so we decided to start him on some antibiotics, figuring that he was fighting some leftover Guatemalan germs that we could blast with drugs. The next morning, Kevin thought that the antibiotics were starting to work and would surely start to work better soon so we decided to sail another 10 miles northeast to the Pelican Cays, a deserted set of mangrove islands near the edge of the barrier reef. At one point, I suggested that perhaps we should select an inhabited island, in case Kevin got sicker, but I was assured that it wouldn't be a problem. Of course it was.

Monday night we consulted our on-board medical guide, “Where There is No Doctor” to figure out what could possibly be wrong since Kevin continues to get worse, and is now contending with a fever that seems to spike and break at irregular intervals. The list of potential ailments includes hepatitis, malaria, Dengue fever and meningitis, none of which sounds particularly appealing. Since Kevin can put his head between his knees, which our book tells us is a good test for meningitis; we rule it out (with much relief) and focus on the remainder of the list. Given what we know about Guatemala, we figure that Kevin likely has malaria and begin to treat him, as our book suggests, with massive doses of chloroquine. If you have ever taken chloroquine for travels to malaria-prone regions, you can image the impact that 5 weeks worth of doses in 48 hours can have on a person. Highlights included projectile vomiting, hallucinations, and generally feeling like you want to die – some treatment!

By some miracle of technology, we manage to get a cell signal from Scott’s phone on Tuesday morning, and make what must have been $50 worth of phone calls to the US. We are fortunate in my family to have two doctors (my father and brother) and a nurse practitioner (my step-mom) and finally manage to get my brother on the phone. He confirms the likelihood of our diagnosis and tells us that 1) Kevin may get worse before he gets better (awesome) and 2) that if his fever continues, we’d better get him to a doctor. We consider sailing back to Placencia on Tuesday, but are thwarted by the weather. We really need decent sunlight to navigate through the many coral heads that litter our route back to Placencia, and the skies remain cloudy for the rest of the day.

One hell of a day

On Wednesday morning, Kevin still feels terrible, and we have no choice but to promote me to captain (yikes) for the nearly 20 mile sail back to Placencia. After two years of living aboard Cielo, you’d figure this wouldn’t be a big deal, but I’ve never actually been completely in charge of the boat and considering we have crappy charts, less than ideal light and many shallow spots to contend with, I don’t really feel like I have the most favorable conditions for my debut. After a bit of a struggle getting the anchor up, Scott and I are able to successfully motor-sail back to the mainland in just under three hours and have the boat anchored down in Placencia by 11:00 a.m.

Thankful to have arrived in one piece, we set about getting Kevin to the health clinic in town, but arrive only to find that the clinic doctor is away in the town of Dangriga, an hour’s drive (or two hour bus ride) away. The nurse who sees Kevin recommends that we get him to the hospital as soon as possible and indicates that there’s a bus leaving in a few hours that will get us there by late afternoon. Even in good health, bus rides through Central America can take quite a toll, so we immediately begin looking for another option. Fortunately, we run into one of the women who works at the Placencia tourist office and explain our situation. She springs into action, calling the airport to reserve two seats on the next plane to Dangriga and flagging down a friend on the street who can drive us to the airport. Within 15 minutes we are sitting at the airport, tickets in hand, waiting for our 20 minute flight for Dangriga to depart. As we’re waiting for the plane, we catch a glimpse of CNN news on the waiting room television and learn of Mexico’s swine flu epidemic. As the other passengers watch the story and then catch a glimpse of Kevin’s frighteningly sickly appearance, they quickly change seats, leaving us the waiting room all to ourselves.

Finally, we board the plane and endure a terrifying flight in a tiny tin can during which time, I begin to look as pale and sweaty as Kevin. Thankfully, the flight is short, and 30 minutes after take off, we’ve not only landed, but have taken the taxi they had waiting for us and have arrived at the public hospital in Dangriga. Apparently, swine flu is the major concern of the day and Kevin and all those coming into contact with him are masked up within 30 seconds of our arrival. Amazingly, Kevin doesn’t have to wait at all for care, and is immediately given a bed and his first bag (of four) IV fluids. However, though we’re happy to be at the hospital, Kevin is still in terrible pain and other than taking some blood to have a malaria test done, he’s not getting any further care. I ask the nurse to give him something for the terrible pain in his head and she gives him a butt shot of some sort of painkiller that does absolutely nothing. 20 minutes later, he’s still groaning and is also becoming agitated as he begins to feel like there’s something desperately wrong with him, and there’s no one at the hospital able to give him the care that he needs. Taking matters into my own hands, I flag down the attending physician and explain to him that 1) Kevin is in debilitating pain and 2) he is making it worse by freaking out cause he thinks he’s going to die, so could he please have some more drugs, and this time, perhaps ones that include a sedative as well? About an hour later, once the nurse is able to locate the key to the locked cabinet where the strong drugs are kept, Kevin finally gets the meds that he needs. His headache begins to feel manageable and evidently the sedative begins to work, as his whole body begins to tingle and he stops worrying aloud that something is “seriously, seriously wrong”. I begin to wonder if I could convince them to sedate me as well.

By this time, it’s nearly 5:00 in the evening, and we’re informed that Kevin’s malaria test has come back negative, but that they’d like to get him tested for Dengue fever, which they’re unable to do from the hospital. So, they take more blood and set about the process of getting it sent out for testing. Around 6:00 I go out to use the phone to call Scott and give him an update, but when I return, Kevin has been moved.

“He’s been admitted” I’m told by an orderly and he offers to take me to the “male ward” where Kevin is now laid up in a bed in close proximity to four fellows who are looking mighty sick and more than a little contagious. I soon learn that the doctor was unable to get the Dengue test sent out, so he’s suggesting that Kevin stay overnight so that they can take more blood and try and get him tested the following day. At this point though, Kevin is starting to feel human from all of the IV fluids and pain meds, and we decide that it may be more comfortable for him back on Cielo, rather than in the Petri dish that is the room in which he’s been located. I go outside to find out about transportation back to Placencia, only to find out that the last bus and plane left shortly after 5:00, and that we are in fact stuck in Dangriga until the following morning. Not cool at all.

It is at this point that I lose it, realizing that we have to spend the night in a place that provides no towels or toilet paper or tooth brushes—all things that I’d really like access to if I am going to be forced to sleep over. I call Scott to let him know that we won’t be able to make it home, when it occurs to me that if there’s anyone who can finagle a way to get us home that night, it’ll be Scott. I explain the problem and when I call him back 20 minutes later, he’s on his way with a cab driver who’s agreed to drive from Placencia to pick us up. I should also mention at this point that our decision to leave the hospital was based on the fact that 1) We’d already treated Kevin with a full course of malaria meds, so if that’s what it’d been, it was gone, or nearly so and 2) that if he had Dengue, there’s nothing that the hospital could do that we couldn’t since there isn’t a cure for it, and since for pain, they weren’t able to give him anything stronger than Tylenol in the main ward—we had stronger pain killers on board.

Scott arrives by 8:30 and Kevin is permitted to sign himself out of the hospital, though it’s clear that the nurses on duty think we should stay. I head to the front desk to find out how much we owe for his day at the hospital that included four IV bags, two pain injections, a set of X-rays and overall, very attentive care. I’m told that we don’t owe anything. Kind of makes bringing your own toilet paper not such a big deal.

Bumps Along the Road to Recovery

Kevin has been feeling much better now for about a week now, though he did suffer a short relapse of fever and hallucinations the night after we got back from the hospital. And after talking with my dad and with some folks from Guatemala who told us that Dengue was on the rise there, we’re pretty sure that’s what he had. We were finally able to leave Placencia and enjoy great sailing and snorkeling with Scott before he flew out last Monday and for the past few days, Kevin have been anchored off of Cay Caulker with flat calm water, internet access from the boat, and plenty to do ashore….which is a good thing after the calamity we experienced traveling up to Cay Caulker..but I’ll let Kevin give you the details in the next entry….


Blogger kyle said...

As scary as all of Kevin's illness was... I can say, from personal experience, the scariest moment of the story was Lizz captaining the boat! Haha

Love you guys! So happy that you are safe!

May 15, 2009 at 1:16 PM  

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