What I was sick with
How it happened
How I recovered
Since there aren’t really any “fun” pictures associated with being sick, I will fill this post with photos of plants. This here is some kind of fruit tree.
Before we left Richmond the study abroad advisor said something to the effect of “about half of you will get sick.” This statement really got under my skin, and I’ll tell you why later, but for now I will tell you that I had the honor of being the first one in our group to go down.
So, what happened?
Flowers hanging from a building
Aside from being tired, I felt fine throughout the entire first half of the day. Then, after arriving at a museum and taking the elevator, I got dizzy in a way I had never experienced. The room was wobbly, I couldn't stand straight, I felt weak, I felt nauseous, and all the noise around me was muffled (especially in my left ear). I could barely lift my arm or head and the teacher said I was looked pale.
I leaned against a wall and slid down onto the floor, grateful for its coolness. The museum medics showed up and took my blood pressure, which I later found out was somewhere around 90/70 mmHg (ideally it should have been about 110/70). The medics gave me water, chewing gum, juice, a cookie, then put me in a wheelchair. After about 20 minutes I was more or less recovered, and by dinner time I was a 6/10 on the “How are you feeling?” scale. At that point I only wanted to sleep.
So, what caused all this? Whatever was wrong with me was somewhere in the ballpark of altitude sickness, low blood pressure, low blood sugar, and dehydration, triggered by the elevator’s sudden increase in altitude. I also racked up some other symptoms throughout my week in Mexico City that may or may not have been related to my semi-fainting episode. There were a few days when I was snotty, a few days where I had some terrible stomach cramps, and no matter what I felt dehydrated. I also noticed that my skin was suddenly very dry—the cracked & bleeding kind of dry—even more dry than it had been in Qatar.
How did it happen?
A tree and a half surrounded by greenery and ivy
Firstly, I hadn’t slept a full night's sleep in the week leading up to the trip, so my body was already starting out in the negatives. In fact, the day of the trip I only slept for two hours prior to catching my first flight. Once I got going, I was subjected to a long flight, little food, not much water, and the general busyness that always comes with travel. In fact, this was the schedule on my first day:
4:00am – Arrive at Richmond airport
5:45am – Flight from Richmond to Newark
9:10am – Flight from Newark to Mexico City
1:40pm – Arrive in Mexico City
Quick lunch at airport
Uber to Airbnb
4:00pm – Drop off bags at Airbnb
4:30pm – Leave Airbnb for museum
5:30pm – Tour museum
7:00pm – Dinner
8:00pm – Return to Airbnb
On top of all this, I learned from doctors and locals alike that Mexico City poses a good handful of risks when it comes to falling ill. No, no one talked about contaminated water or food poisoning, but instead often pointed out that Mexico City sits at a very high altitude. I had no idea Mexico City was so high, but I’m sure even if I had known I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Until then, I associated altitude—and my vague understand of altitude sickness—with airplanes and Mt. Everest, not metropolitan cities. Since I had never been sick on an airplane nor had any desire to mountain climb, the effect a change of altitude may have on my body just never crossed my mind.
This plant looks like an alien flower, but I’m into it
To add to my false sense of security, all my other international experiences had been in low altitude cities. On those trips I had never had to worry about altitude because it just wasn’t a relevant concern, so when I went through my travel prep checklist the effects of altitude naturally wasn’t on there. The effect Mexico City’s altitude had on me was so pounced I decided to look up the altitudes of other cities I’d been to while resting in the apartment: Altitude of Doha: 33 ft (10 m)
Altitude of Istanbul: 131 ft (40 m)
Altitude of Richmond:167 ft (51 m)
Altitude of Rabat: 520 ft (160 m) at its highest (but I stayed near the coast, so I probably never went higher than double digits)
Altitude of Athens: 1,109 ft (338 m) at its highest (but I only got as high as 490 ft [150 m])
Altitude of Fes: 1,350 ft (410 m)
Altitude of Marrakesh: 1,528 ft (466 m)
Altitude of Mexico City: 7,281 ft (2,250 m)
That was a big jump, huh?
Mexico City also had significant air pollution, so even if I wanted to breathe—which I did—the air was essentially thin and dirty. I was also told that all the concrete in Mexico City absorbs heat and makes the environment hotter. So, the travel, the pollution, the heat, and the breathing of 25% less oxygen, just created a god-awful cocktail that took me out on Day 1.
And while I’m here, I want to mention something I wrote down in my notes: “BRAD - Blood pressure, respiratory, allergy, disease/food poisoning”. There was no context surrounding this note, but it seems like a cheat sheet for what could possibly be wrong with you when you fall ill abroad. Something to keep in your pocket, I suppose. Recovery
This is a cool flower, right?
A day or two after I semi-fainted, I went to a doctor in Mexico City. She gave me a physical, determined that my blood pressure was still low, and prescribed me two medicines: One for dizziness and one for something else I forgot. Right next door to her clinic was essentially a tiny CVS, a pharmacy that also sold soda, candy bars, diapers etc. Now, I don’t know all the ins and outs of the Mexican healthcare system, but I do know that I was able to get a physical and two prescriptions for $25 without insurance. I also had the option of getting bloodwork done for $40 right across the street. Mexico’s universal healthcare system may not be perfect but it’s a helluva lot better than what the United States offers at the moment. So, I’ll say it again: Universal healthcare.
Okay, let’s continue.
I mean, the cheese bread was good
The only weird thing about my recovery experience was the extent of people encouraging me to drink Pedialyte. Drinking it made sense—and there were a lot of genuinely good flavors—but people were buying me bottles and bottles of it in a way that began to feel weird. I know they were trying to help, but it got to a point where I was told to leave the apartment (where I was attempting a nap), meet a woman across town so she could accompany me to the clinic even though it was known to be closed at that hour. So, the woman—bless her—bought me some cheese bread and Pedialyte, then sent me on my way back to the apartment. The gesture was appreciated, but not thought through and ultimately unhelpful.
So, even after seeing the doctor, skipping some group activities, and chugging electrolytes, I never fully recovered, in part because I wasn’t getting the rest I needed. Our days were full and draining, and I usually wouldn’t get back from dinner until 11pm (and wouldn’t go to bed until 2am). I was only getting about five hours of sleep every day and, if you recall, the week before the trip I hadn’t been sleeping much either. Little sleep, long days, thin air, pollution, lots of walking, and overall feeling meh throughout the trip just led to an inability to bounce back.
I also feel I should mention that I was sick when I came back to Richmond with some really bad intestinal turmoil. My guess is that it probably came from the American food I suddenly had to subject my body to again. Oh, America.
Giant aloe plants (I think)
Earlier I mentioned that study abroad advisor who matter-o-factly said that about half of our travel group would get sick. I was bothered by her statement because it came across as pessimistic, not realistic, and off putting in its vagueness. I was wondering, What is she basing this statistic on? Why would you end a meeting like that? What exactly do you mean by ‘sick’? And how does your spoiled sushi experience in New York compare to whatever it is you’re suggesting we’re going to experience?
The thing is, her prediction was 100% correct. About half of our group got sick with something. First there was me and my blood pressure, then every day something happened to someone else (most of them got struck in the gut). It kind of became a running joke, all of us laughing and wondering “Who’s next?!”