We have officially returned to the beautiful Washington State, three months earlier than planned. While we love it here and it has been great to reunite with our families, this was not at all how we hoped to end our trip. We are so thankful to have explored 6 countries, have life-changing experiences, and meet so many wonderful people. It was the best 5 months of our lives and I don't regret a thing. Unfortunately, it ended in the worst week of our lives.
Mike and I had been renting a condo in Northern Thailand, in the great city of Chiang Mai. We had been in Chiang Mai for two weeks, and had planned to stay for 6 more weeks, volunteering, teaching English, and playing games at an amazing orphanage for kids with HIV. Our good friends Brian and Martha were with us their for the first few days in Chiang Mai, and we had a great time riding elephants, attending a Thai cooking school, going river rafting, and on a jungle trek.
After they left, Mike and I settled into our new home and began a somewhat routine schedule. Last week, I had a bit of food poisoning. At first, I didn't think much of it, and continued with business as usual. We knew we were eating spicy, unfamiliar food, and often visited street vendors and markets, so it wasn't too surprising to have a stomach ache. That being said, we wanted to be more considerate than usual,
because there have been 7 recent deaths in Chiang Mai this year due to a possible food related illness.
On the night of April 8th, I began having a strange pain inside my chest. I had never felt this before, and I couldn't sleep because of it. Around 2 am, I started having trouble breathing, so I woke up Mike. He asked what I thought it could be from, and I sat up to Google "chest pain" on our iPod touch. I remember typing the word "chest," and then I lost consciousness. The next thing I remember is waking up hunched over and shaking and Mike was on the phone with the man at the front desk of our building, saying "emergency."
The man from the front desk came upstairs to check on us, and asked us to come down stairs with him. We started to follow him, and I only made it about a foot into the hallway when I leaned on the wall and asked Mike to hold me up. I passed out again, and again don't remember anything until I woke up with Mike leaning over me and yelling out, "Help! Help! I need an ambulance!" My hands and legs were shaking and really sore, and later Mike told me that my eyes had rolled back in my head and my lips were blue. We were really scared.
For some reason, after the second time I passed out I felt a little better and I felt really calm and peaceful. I was telling Mike not to worry and that everything would be okay. I also told him that my symptoms were eerily similar to those of the tourists who had recently passed away, and we knew we had to take this seriously. Shortly, four medics came up and put me on a stretcher and took me to the ambulance. Mike knew I was doing okay because as I was being rolled away on the stretcher I told him that he might want to go grab a book because it looked like I might be awhile :) We got to the ER, and the staff was very friendly and supportive, although we did have a hard time conveying what had happened due to the language barrier. I stayed for awhile, got some medicine and electrolyte replenishment. The doctors ran tests, and said that they thought it was probably food poisoning and dehydration, but that I would be okay to keep drinking fluids and go home and rest.
We got a ride back to our condo, slightly relieved but still very concerned. I made it into the elevator where I passed out and began vomiting. I think we were both in shock. We decided the best thing we could do would be to call our parents, pack our things and catch the next flight home and go to a doctor there.
All that could go through my mind was the stories of the recent victims. One of the victims was a 23 year old girl named Sarah Carter from New Zealand. She and two friends all went to the hospital with food poisoning symptoms. After they had arrived, they called there parents to tell them what happened, and that they were okay. Within an hour of that call, Sarah was dead and another was having emergency heart surgery. A Canadian man also had the same symptoms, and checked into the hospital complaining of chest pain. He was there for 24 hours, told it was probably heartburn, and checked out. He died of inflamed heart muscles in his hotel room the following morning. A British couple with the same symptoms died simultaneously of a heart attack in their sleep. An American girl died on a stretcher while convulsing on the way to the hospital.
There are more tragic stories, if you are interested just search for Chiang Mai tourist deaths. It is only because of the persistence of the victims families that there has been any kind of media coverage on this. The NZ girls' father started a website to try to prevent it from happening again: www.thailandtraveltragedies.com. The government in Thailand has said it is a strange coincidence and prefer not to let any sort of fear of illness impact tourism. Thankfully, the CDC and the World Health Organization are investigating, and while they haven't pinpointed the cause, there was a virus called the Coxsackie B virus found in one of the victims autopsies. The virus is linked to eating contaminated food and can cause sudden heart attacks. We had eaten at the same markets as this victim, and decided we definitely wanted to go home to finish treatment.
We checked out, got our deposit back, and asked for a ride to the airport. When we got in the car, I got sick again and told the driver to go straight to the hospital instead (looking back, this poor guy had to be very confused). We checked back in, they remembered me, but this time said I looked worse and they admitted me to a room and hooked me up to an IV. They did an EKG (where they put clamps on your legs and arms and chest to test your heart), and blood tests. A nice women from our condo came to check on us, she spoke English really well and helped translate. They took good care of me for two days, as soon as they said I was okay to travel back to the US, we got a cab to the airport.
We bought the next plane ticket home, which left at 5:20 the following morning. In the hotel that night, we set alarms every hour to drink water and make sure I was still breathing okay. It wasn't really necessary because I was too afraid to fall asleep. I just layed there holding onto a necklace that I had bought in New Zealand. It is a Maori (Native New Zealand) bone carving of a spiral symbol, that means "explore far and long, but always return to your roots." I was praying over and over, "Please, please just let me make it home."
At 3 AM we went to the airport and spent the next 20 hours in a daze, only able to concentrate on the next step we needed to take. We had a 2 hour layover in Tokyo, and we found out later that our plane took off to Seattle 45 minutes before a 7.0 aftershock that shut down the airport in Tokyo. I'm starting to think we are a strange magnet for close calls.
We arrived at Sea-Tac and were greeted my parents, Mike's parents, and my Uncle Steve. We hugged and caught up for a bit, then went straight to UW Medical center for a 2 hour appointment with a great doctor, who asked me tons of questions, ran a bunch of tests, and did x-rays on my heart and lungs. The x-rays looked normal, which was the best news I have heard in a long time. She said that it is possible to have contracted a less severe version of the Coxsackie B virus, and that many people get sick and do not die from it, or it could be something entirely different. She said I was okay to go home, and gave me a list of symptoms to be aware of. If I have any of those symptoms we will go to Harborview immediately, but thankfully today I feel better, just exhausted and sore. Depending on the results of the test, we may need to do more tests, and I am also meeting with a specialist in Infectious Disease to follow up.
Last night we both slept for 12 hours straight, and we have been getting spoiled by my parents with homemade soup and cozy beds and all the relaxation we need. Being sick is never fun, and being sick halfway across the world is significantly harder. I am blown away by how nice our wonderful friends and family have been. I received so many supportive emails while we were in the hospital in Chiang Mai. People were sending there love, thoughts, and prayers, and even medical advice, translators, offers for medical referrals, and heartfelt condolences. My Mom even offered to fly to our hospital if we couldn't leave. Our volunteer coordinator from the orphanage offered to come to our room and hang out with me so Mike could rest. We've received multiple offers for rooms to stay in until we feel well enough to think about cars, jobs, and real life again. Our travel insurance agent could not have been more helpful, and have assured us that we'll receive refunds on our travel expenses as well as related medical coverage for the next year (including coverage in the US). Mike brought me popsicles, insisted on carrying all of our luggage so I didn't overdue anything in the airport, and most importantly held my hand and sat by me the whole time.
Awhile ago, I was thinking of an idea for a blog entry about all of things I have learned to appreciate and be thankful for in America. Sort of a comprehensive list of what we've learned that we used to take for granted on our travels. It would include things like being able to use tap water to brush our teeth and not worry about getting sick, and knowing that the police are in favor of the public's well being, and that no matter what your views on politics are, we have a government that looks out for it's citizens more than I ever understood before. We will still write the blog posts about the places we went and didn't have time to write about, and we may still write this one. However, right now, all I can get my head around is that I am thankful to be alive, to have the love and support of so many people, and that Washington just might be the best place in the world.