Light at the End of the Tunnel: When Illness Strikes
In the words of journalist Caitlin Moran, all of life’s events can be divided into two categories: “things which are amazing at the time. And things which are awful at the time, which then turn into amazing anecdotes.” My experience with mono was firmly in the latter camp.
My family and I were hiking in the Alpujarras mountains in Spain. No matter how hard I tried, I could not keep pace. We were not at that high an altitude, but to me the air felt thin. My body was not cooperating, and so while they hiked, I spent most of the week in bed feeling inexplicably fatigued.
Eventually my family flew home and I traveled alone to Fuengirola, a seaside town in Andalusia. It was October and, in spite of the weather being mild, I assumed that the red splotches on my chest were just heat rash. My family have always joked that I am a bad Texan. But the rash spread and my lips started to swell. Assured that it was nothing an antihistamine couldn’t fix, I sought out a local chemist. The woman behind the counter looked concerned and advised I go to the hospital. I explained that that wouldn’t be necessary — besides, I had a flight to catch tomorrow; I would visit my doctor when I got back home.
By evening, angry welts covered every limb. Even my palms itched. It was relentless — definitely not innocent enough to be heat rash. I frantically applied creams, to no avail. My body was under siege. I called the hotel front desk for help, and within 10 minutes a matronly nurse arrived at the door.
She did not hide her horror. Under the harsh bathroom lights, she examined my welt-ridden body. The mirror showed a sad reflection – a girl with greying lips and a pink, swollen face. My tongue sat fat in my mouth.
“Es muy fatal. Muy grave,” was the nurse’s verdict.
Although I knew “fatal” in Spanish does not have the same meaning as the English “fatal”, I did not enjoy hearing that word. The nurse called an ambulance and instructed me to bring all the medicines I was currently taking. She escorted me to the lobby and left.
I waited there amid holidaymakers and a few businesspeople reading newspapers. Then, the sounds of sirens started in the distance, drawing nearer until two paramedics ran into the lobby with a stretcher. So much for discretion. Mortified, I insisted on walking the 20 feet to the ambulance.
In the ambulance, the paramedics took my blood. I regrettably did not know how to say “please tell me when it’s safe to look” in Spanish, and so I opened my eyes to see a red pool at their feet. They had dropped the vials of my blood. Back to square one.
One paramedic explained that my symptoms were consistent with a severe allergic reaction. Once at the hospital, nurses inserted a drip and pumped cooling fluids through my veins. Being cooled from the inside out was a peculiar sensation. Everything about this experience was foreign, including the language. I cried, hoping no one would notice. More nurses came and pricked me with needles, each promising to be the last.
After much paranoid deliberation about having contracted some variety of flesh-eating parasite, the doctor returned with an official diagnosis.
“Tienes la enfermedad del beso.”
The kissing disease. Or: glandular fever, mononucleosis, Epstein-Barr virus. The relief of receiving a diagnosis was short-lived. I had to stay overnight, and the hospital was demanding €1,000 upfront. More tears and a few phone calls later, my parents made a reluctant bank transfer.
That night I lay naked in bed atop the hospital sheets. The touch of fabric to my skin intensified the itch. A young male nurse ensured that I had a thin layer of cortisone over my skin at all times. I amused myself thinking that, under different circumstances, a young man massaging lotion onto my naked body would be erotic — this was anything but. Strangely, I didn’t feel embarrassment. My physical discomfort had transcended social qualms. I really liked that nurse — he kept me company when I needed it. I will never forget how to say “it itches” in Spanish. “Me pica” was my never-ending chant that night.
I ended up staying three nights at the hospital. Flying home was out of the question. My spleen was enlarged, rendering the cabin pressure dangerous to my organs. My liver was also swollen, giving my skin an unpleasant yellow hue. One positive that came out of this ordeal was the rapid expansion of my Spanish medical vocabulary. I bet you don’t know how to say spleen in Spanish!
The second day in hospital was excruciatingly dull. A nurse informed me that I couldn’t eat because I was due to have a sonogram. But not to worry, the appointment was scheduled for 11 a.m. Come 6 p.m., there was still no news of the sonogram. I was famished, so I told the nurse I hadn’t eaten that day:
“No he comido hoy.”
Unsympathetic, she explained there was nothing she could do. Dinner was at a set time.
I remembered seeing a vending machine at the far end of the hallway, so I gathered a few coins and mentally prepared myself for the journey ahead. It was only a corridor, but I hadn’t walked in a while. I was so weak that nurses would wheelchair me if I needed to get somewhere. But this mission had to be clandestine. I couldn’t recruit help.
I had been horizontal for so long that just standing was a dizzying task. I was attached to a drip, and so the metal stand had to come with me. Unfortunately, its wheels were broken — I ended up having to half carry the apparatus down the hallway. My goal was in sight. I inched closer to the vending machine, which promised to relieve my hunger. I wore a hospital gown that was only loosely tied in the back and, as I lumbered along, it flailed open, exposing my behind. I did not care. Modesty was a thing of the past. After much exertion, I reached my destination. To my disgust, I discovered that the machine only vended bottles of water. What the f— kind of vending machine only vends water? Incensed, I made the odyssey back to my bed. I snacked on cough drops until dinner time.
My days began at 6 a.m. when the nurse came in to take blood. This hospital was a time warp — totally divorced from the real world. Minutes and hours became meaningless units of measurement. It was a never-ending cycle of blood tests, liver enzyme counts, steroid injections and medical jargon I didn’t understand. More appointments. More boredom. By now my arms looked like the bruised limbs of a junkie.
There was one final calamity that concluded this series of unfortunate events. I needed to use the bathroom. This was the sole reason I ever left the hospital bed. I never showered. I smelled the musk of my own body odour and didn’t care to fix it. But I was not at the point of being willing to lie in my own urine. I could muster the voyage to the lavatory. The drip stand and its broken wheels impeded my mobility so, having learnt my lesson from the hallway episode, I removed the bag of fluids. I would carry it. Much easier. To my horror, I noticed a crimson stain appear in the clear fluids. It grew tendrils like a blot of ink. Something had gone horribly wrong – the intravenous tube was draining me of my blood. The sight reminded me of Frida Kahlo’s medical paintings. The tube connecting me to the bag was red with my blood, like the thin vessel running between The Two Fridas. Except they are poised — I was not.
I called my friend who was studying medicine. A totally irrational move, given that I was in a hospital surrounded by actual doctors. My friend told me that she had no idea what was going on — that I needed to urgently seek help. I pressed the emergency button and a nurse came sauntering in. “Por qué lloras?” — she asked me why I was crying. Her cool demeanour really pissed me off. I pointed to the IV bag on the bed filling with my blood. She huffed. Now we were both annoyed. I learned that the IV bag must always be kept above heart level to ensure that fluids flow into the body, not vice versa.
The next day, I flew home. I still looked ghastly — the young boy seated to my right stared with big, frightened eyes, and I didn’t blame him. I had visible welts all over my limbs, my face was puffy and my hair lay matted on my head. I told him not to worry; I wasn’t contagious. The air hostess gave me sympathetic looks throughout the flight. I tried not to make eye contact with anyone.
It took me a full year to regain my strength. When I first arrived home, I had no medicines and learned the hard way that you cannot fill a Spanish prescription outside of Spain. I had to take breaks on the landings on the way to my bedroom. The stairs were an overwhelming obstacle. I obsessively took B12 supplements and steroids, waiting for my body to return to its non-swollen state. For the first months of recovery, I couldn’t go for a walk without feeling light-headed. Yes, mononucleosis ravaged my body, but it taught me gratitude. Now I know how incredible it is to be able-bodied. These days, my body no longer limits me. I can even keep up with my parents on hikes.