A year ago I was in the middle of my first true field season. I’d be spending over a month split between El Salvador and Nicaragua. I would also unknowingly be contracting Salmonella.
The symptoms started within the first week or so of my fieldwork, I ignored them to my body just “adjusting” to the field conditions – 100F heat and 100% humidity, lots of bugs, new food, new sleep schedule, etc. I took so many Imodium during that field season, it became like a daily vitamin. Obviously, that should have raised alarm in me, but I was on a remote island, and needed to get this field work done. I had worked tirelessly over the past nearly 4 years to get this project going, to raise all the money to get myself there, I was not about to back down due to some little stomach bug.
Oh, how stupid.
I continued on my field season, completed it nearly a month later. Flew back home to Texas, symptoms still raging, Imodium still a near daily-fixture (which, turns out – was just allowing what was in my stomach to fester, great). I had lost weight, felt nauseous most of the time, could barely stay out of the bathroom, and one light beer would make me wasted. Clearly, signs of my body saying, “GO TO THE DOCTOR”. But, I’m a PhD Candidate, I need to graduate soon, I have shit to do, research to be done, connections to be made!
Two days after getting back to the field I attended a 2 week intense short-course in Utah. The first week of said course I ended up in urgent care because some mystery reaction happened, where red tender spots the size of a golf ball started on my feet and worked their way to my knees, hips, back, arms, and out the top of my head. Urgent care doctor had no idea what it was, understandably, and I went on gnarly steroids and antibiotics for a week, it seemed to go away.
My stomach was still not functioning properly and I continued to make excuses for it and push on. This summer school course is elite, and I was not going to miss it on account of my body not feeling right. I’ve worked too hard for this!
Less than a week or so after I got back from Utah, my husband and I headed to a friend’s wedding, where after 3 beers over 3 hours and a hearty dinner, I spent the night on the bathroom floor as if it were my 21st birthday and I had taken 10 tequila shots. I dragged myself to the wedding the next day, against the will of my body. I have worked hard all summer, I want to have fun with my friends, this “little stomach bug” won’t prevent me from this!
The morning after the wedding, at 6am, I had a flight to Wisconsin for a conference. I felt like hell at the airport, bought a new package of Imodium and some Dramamine for good measure then called my husband from the airport crying that I just felt so awful and didn’t know if I could get on the plane. But, I had to! I was presenting at this conference! I had earned a travel grant to attend, and was part of a workshop! I hadn’t been working hard to not attend! So, I popped an Imodium, got on the plane, and made it to the conference. I got to my hotel, called my husband crying again because I felt so awful. I had to go to the opening mixer and network (usually my favorite part), and I was dreading it because my body was so run down and sick, but I just sucked it up, popped another Imodium, noted where the nearest bathroom was, and headed to the mixer. My career, my science, I can’t miss this! I didn’t work hard to get here to not network!
Finally, I returned home from the conference. My stomach hadn’t been working correctly for months at this point, and finally small red spots started appearing on my skin. At first I had just a few on my arms, “hmmm that’s odd”, I thought. Then they spread all over my arms, on my chest, even on my boobs (how dare they!). I freaked the fuck out. I remember when I noticed how many there were, I was in my closet changing my shirt for school, I had just finally gotten out of the bathroom and felt okay enough to go in to the office. I saw the spots, broke out in sobs, and collapsed to my closet floor. My husband came in and said, “Enough is enough – you are calling the doctor today.” Husband and I are usually a democracy, but he was, rightfully, insistent. He had been telling me to call a doctor along every step of the way, BUT MY WORK! MY SCIENCE! MY CAREER!
EARTH TO KATIE – IF YOU’RE NOT HEALTHY, NONE OF THAT MATTERS.
It was now August, this had been going on since the beginning of May. Finally, I went to my primary care doctor and she was stumped. I had blood tests, stool samples, urine samples tested for everything, but we were stumped. The spots continued to spread. My stomach continued to wretch and the toilet continued to be my home. I lived off chicken top ramen, Gatorade, and saltines for over a month – not nutritious but all I could manage.
Finally I was referred to an infectious and travel disease specialist, I got a new round of poking and prodding, and ended up – finally – being diagnosed with Salmonella. I don’t even remember what kind of Salmonella, but an uncommon one, I didn’t have all the normal symptoms, and it showed up very faintly in my blood test results. I was told that I basically had to re-start my entire digestive system from zero. All the pro-biotics, Activia yogurt, kefir milk, antibiotics, and a few other prescriptions.
The stomach symptoms finally went away, over 4 months from when they started. Just in time for me to go to the field again, for my second field season.
I made sure to get clearance from my doctor, updated my vaccinations, and bought probiotics and antibiotics to take with me just in case. Upon immediate return from the field, I made sure to promptly make doctors’ appointments, to make sure that I had returned healthy. I didn’t schedule any traveling, conferences, or other stressful work-related activities immediately after I returned. I gave my body time to readjust, to recuperate.
I am so very lucky that it was “just” Salmonella. It could have been much more serious, and letting it go that long – when it was clear, when I knew that something wasn’t right was irresponsible and just plain stupid of me.
A year later I am still rebuilding my digestive system, and the red spots still sometimes appear (usually when I’m stressed). The doctors tell me the spots are now an immune response that my body initiates, to not worry about them – that my body just hasn’t figured out they’re no longer necessary.
The excuse that I couldn’t “waste the grant money” by taking time to go the doctor, to leave a conference or a short course early – was just stupid. I have promised myself to never do this again, and if I am a professor or a mentor to others someday, I will advocate fiercely for the time they need for self-care.
So, fellow grad students, field biologists, and anyone else who uses work and productivity as an excuse to not take care of yourself. Please, make that doctor’s appointment and keep it. Get those blood tests done quickly, and if you need to leave a conference or the field early to take care of yourself: do it.
Your health matters. You matter. Take care of yourself, we need you.