I’d never known a dizziness like the one I experienced during my internship in Kenya. Somehow, I pushed myself too far for so long that my body finally fought back. This was the lowest I remember feeling in my whole life.
I was so dizzy I wanted to give up, on everything. I couldn’t see straight, could barely stand- with an arm wrapped around my friend as she helped me across the parking lot to the emergency room, I wondered how long I had to live.
It was a beautiful, tropical afternoon in my little seaside village of East Africa. My duties as a Kenya jungle guide were complete for the day, so I made my way to one of my favorite spots- a secluded hotel patio adorned with wicker lounge chairs and chilled wine, where my friends awaited.
I walked as fast as I could. My coworkers had already been partying for an hour and I couldn’t bear the thought of missing any laughs or inside jokes. (#FOMO- fear of missing out… that’s what the cool kids call it nowadays.) I slipped my muddy, callused feet into worn-out sandals and was hurried along by my aching spirit, feeling the call of ocean air and the lightness of a good wine buzz.
Inside though, was a voice telling me I really needed a break- to find a quiet place to rest my mind. I hadn’t done this in months.
I dug in deep- gulping down glasses of Red to join in the fun. I loved this so much. The jokes and laughter we shared as staff members and close friends was addicting and I never wanted it to end. The emotional high from that sense of freedom and comradery was intoxicating, or maybe it was the wine!
The evening wore on as I sat back in my chair and listened to stories. Soon though, I found myself starting to withdraw. I was feeling more drunk than usual. “I thought I handled alcohol like a champ? Can’t believe I’m this sozzled already.” (I just looked up synonyms for drunk, sozzled is my new favorite word, btw!!!)
To my own personal objection but wisely so, I switched to water for the rest of the night.
With the sun down and the night air turning to a chill, we called it an evening and I wobbled to bed, never so happy to see my pillow. “I can’t wait for this drunk, dizziness to leave me.”
I woke up the next morning so dizzy I thought I may throw up. The whole world was spinning around me. The only thing I can relate this to, is that feeling you get after a long night of heavy drinking, where the room spins and you pray to the beer gods to let you vomit and get it over with… it was like that, but I was sober. It was awful.
I couldn’t get out of bed, or sit up straight for that matter. I made phone calls while lying down to let people know what was going on. One of my friends told me I just needed to rest. I took her at that advice gladly and slept the day away.
But by the next morning, my condition had not improved, it was back to hospital once again.
I should really have a hospital frequent visitor store card or something, I’d be one hole punch away from a free sandwich by now!
In any case, I was in bad shape. I couldn’t walk on my own. I sat in the car on the way to the doctor, looking out the window at world that would not lay still. Everything was spinning violently and making me want to puke. It was a nightmare. I wanted to cry, but no tears came.
3 days of testing yielded no results. The doctor and nurses were stumped. They poked and prodded me like a lab rat, testing my blood for any kind of pathogen or disease. My stress level was through the roof. I was so angry they couldn’t find what was wrong, fix it, and get me back to work. I was missing all my favorite things like hiking in the jungle, partying with my friends, etc.…
Faced with no other options, I was sent to the big hospital in Mombasa for further testing.
I walked through big sliding doors and clutched the wall to keep from falling. Upon seeing this pathetic looking tourist, one nurse ushered me to a room, following standard operating procedure, and took more blood. I let out a sigh of exhaustion that said, “Ok, I’ve done this before, pick a hand, any hand.”
She grabbed my left arm, jabbed a needle into the top of my hand and began draining my blood into a fucking paper cup! Like the ones you see in the waiting room, accompanied by a big plastic jug of water, tipped upside down with those little white and blue levers. Are you freaking kidding me?! WTF!!!
Then she gently stroked the back of my hand to squeeze more through the tiny pinprick in my vein. Where does she think she is, a dairy farm? All I could do was shake my head in disbelief. Africa sure does things differently. Then she carried the cup away. “Ok, don’t spill it, I’m running on empty over here!!!”
I spent the next 2 weeks in the hospital talking to doctors, resting, watching tv and being too dizzy to enjoy my day. I was so dizzy, that at meal time, I remember sitting up in bed for a bite of food, then laying back down to chew it. This went on for quite a while. I felt utterly defeated, demoralized and depressed. And still, no one knew why I was sick.
One day they placed me in the wheel chair and rolled me down sloping passageways and up through office corners. Where are we going? I could feel the hard stare of curious onlookers as I traveled to a far corner of the hospital- a wing with fewer people, less noise or daily traffic. That place felt hardly used and eerie.
Finally we reached an inconspicuous looking door in a long hallway and we entered. It was a very small, very dark room with sound proofed walls and a big pane of glass on one side, like one of those interrogation rooms where the police stand and watch the perps. It had slick metal drawers and cabinets hugging the walls and a team of doctors and nurses. The lights were dimmed to the point I had to squint to see the other side, it was so dark. But I could see in the middle of the room was an exam table covered in that crinkly wax paper. My heart started to race with worry.Volunteering in Kenya wasn't all fun and games. I was sick, and no doctors knew why. #Africa Click To Tweet
I was instructed to lay on my back on this freezing cold table, where they tilted the head rest down, exposing my neck and throat to the technicians. They went on to explain that this was a test to listen for blockages in my carotid arteries that may be causing my unbearable dizziness.
With my head back, all my eyes could see was the dark greyness of the room- upside down and uncomfortable. They turned on a speaker, rolled a sensor back and forth over my throat and arteries, and waited.
Thump, thump, thump… With the machine picking up the sound of my blood pumping, I listened to what sounded like the noise becoming louder and louder. The room, the darkness, the unbelievable set of circumstances all caved in that moment- I just lost it.
I exploded into tears, crying harder than I ever have in my life.
I had reached my limit on confusion and stress. No one knew why I was sick. I had no clue why I was dizzy, or how to get better. And with my family so far away, in that moment, I felt more isolated and alone than I thought possible. I honestly wondered if my dizziness was a precursor to some unknown, life threatening illness. I was living an episode of House, and Hugh Laurie was nowhere to be seen. After being escorted back to my room, I spent the rest of the night wide awake, questioning what to do with the remaining days of my life.
The next day and after weeks of puzzle solving and process of elimination, my doctor diagnosed me with benign positional vertigo. Basically the medical term for, “We don’t know why you’re dizzy, but you’re not gonna die.” I was furious, but the last few days I discovered that the regular onslaught of vertigo was miraculously subsiding, coming and going only briefly now. With no other insights or words of wisdom, I was released and could go back to work.
Back at my Kenya home, I was greeted with elated cheers of welcome and concern. I didn’t know what to tell people, because I still felt confused as to what happened. I knew I had vertigo, but never learned why.
That evening, I sat down for a cool night of drinking with my friends, as if I had never left. Like the whole thing had never happened- some cruel nightmare I was waking from. I could almost believe I dreamed the past two weeks, if not for the vertigo still present in my head, which had calmed from a raging torrent to a dull moan. I focused on my friends and laughing and telling stories once more.
I sat quietly but suddenly wondered, what if everything I had been through in Kenya so far, all added up to what had happened. All those little warning signs I ignored for so long- my time on the island, the parties, needing a quiet place to be alone…
What if somehow, the stress of it all, manifested itself as extreme dizziness? Could that happen?
The condensation dripped from my beer as I pushed it away. I got up and walked into the night, alone, to contemplated this epiphany.