From bad to worse to “it could only happen to you”

Veal Thom grassland, Virachey national park, Cambodia. Photo taken during “Medical evacuation”. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

I stared at the 6 pills in my palm. Blue, red, yellow, white and a couple that were the colour of… well, let’s just call it “beyond expiry”. I peered more closely at the cornucopia trying to decipher their pharmacology from the colour and the  two or three letter designations written upon them. Amo 500, must have been Amoxycillin, an antibiotic. Two didn’t have any numbers or letters. One actually said “POWER” on it and the rest could scarcely even be called pills since they were in a partial state of degradation and were more powder than what could adequately be termed ‘pill’. Whether it had been brought to that state by time or by the stifling humidity was anyone’s guess. “Sou, how old are these pills?” Sou thought a moment and then shrugged not even hazarding a guess on the hazardous materials he was urging me ingest. As I got up from my hammock I swooned with the effort and rapid change in blood pressure, fortunately Sou was there to grab my arm and steady me. I was quickly moving into the realm of invalid I thought as I wobbled to the washroom whose distance from my hammock was steadily decreasing, threatening to invalidate the common wisdom and my own long-held maxim of “don’t shit where you sleep”. “Exceptions need to be made for exigent circumstances” I thought, lowering my trousers. When I returned, Sou looked at me with an expression that said “aren’t you forgetting something…?”. I bowed my head in silent acknowledgement of my omission and gathered up the pills I’d set aside. What extra harm could a handful of mystery pills cause? And besides, they might even help…I held them in my hand for a long enough time that Sou felt the need to give me a tutorial on how to take them. “With water, with water” he urged and mimed putting his hand to his mouth, tossing his head back and taking a swig of water. I sighed, offered up a momentary prayer that I wasn’t hastening an iatrogenic death and then swallowed the lot. Gulp…

Sou could hardly restrain his satisfaction and clapped me on the back as though I’d performed a daring feat…and perhaps I had. Though I simply nodded, fear displacing any outward signs of encouragement I could have offered him, and then tumbled back into my hammock. I didn’t dare to hope that one of the pills might be useful and do something to help with the pounding headache or fever. I leaned back and gradually fell asleep in spite of Sou’s kind-hearted but ultimately creepy rocking of my hammock while making ocean sounds and quietly murmuring “sleeeeeeep. Sleeeeeeeeeeeep.”

When I awoke half or an hour later I felt…better! I couldn’t quite believe it, but I actually felt better. I was still sopping wet from cold sweats, however, the headache and fever were suppressed. I don’t say gone because I could still feel a dull throb at my temples and my temperature had not so much broken as had been turned down from a boil to a simmer. But this state was…manageable. I peered out over the lip of my hammock to see the sun on the cusp of disappearing over the green green mountains. I had the briefest moment where I could enjoy the Veal, and the fields of gold set ablaze before evening descended. I waxed poetic and waned lyrical, it was as though a spark of joy had been rekindled in the back of my brain somewhere. It was a moment of beauty that almost justified the preceding ordeal…and then I reminded myself that I was still in the middle of the jungle and “that ordeal” I had just referred to as though it was a thing of the past and had been effectively dealt with was still far from over. And then I reminded myself further that I don’t feel “joy”, I’m a depressed misanthrope whose state of being is just barely positive enough to propel myself forward…and this is when I’m not in a sickly state bordering on death. That’s when my thoughts turned back to the mystery pills.

When I awoke I had felt better than my feverish, headachy, sweaty, semi-conscious state to whose hellish depths I had spiralled in the past few days. However now that some more time had elapsed I felt better than better. I felt good, no…I felt great. I stepped out of my hammock with a light and giddy step. There was energy and even a bit of a spring in my step. With my mind revving up it was hard to focus and concentrate on, on, on, on…Fuck, what was it? Oh yeah, the pills! My hands shook visibly with suppressed energy and the inability to be idle. “I bet it was the one that said POWER on the side”, I couldn’t help but think to myself. Fortunately (or not) I had a fair guess at the identity of one of the mystery pills. I’d felt these effects before and I didn’t have to cudgel my memory to find out when or where as it had been a rather salient point in one of my previous trips (it was in Costa Rica immediately after my hip surgery when I was climbing to a hilltop ranger station with a 30kg pack. I was in enough discomfort that I went to the local medicine man who gave me a “topical analgesic” which it turns out happened to be cocaine. But that’s a story for another time). I sat back down, my heart pounding and I wasn’t sure if my current crop of sweating could be attributed to the medications, the unknown illness or my steadily rising state of anxiety at having ingested an unknown quantity of amphetamines…

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About pbertner

Studied cell biology and genetics at UBC in Canada with a focus in microbiology. However, have gravitated more recently towards ecology and biodiversity. Have traveled the rainforests of Peru, Ecuador, Guyana, Malaysia, Brunei, and Thailand with plans to visit many more.
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3 Responses to From bad to worse to “it could only happen to you”

  1. Jude says:

    Like I said before, your stories are riveting, Paul. I could picture perfectly –
    “Sou’s kind-hearted but ultimately creepy rocking of my hammock while making ocean sounds and quietly murmuring “sleeeeeeep. Sleeeeeeeeeeeep.””
    Or “I don’t feel “joy”, I’m a depressed misanthrope whose state of being is just barely positive enough to propel myself forward…and this is when I’m not in a sickly state bordering on death.”

    I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment of your experiences. Pretty sure if you still were as sick as previously, you’d be worse off once your high is over and you crash. Funny that while you described your illness, both malaria and meningitis came to my mind too. Medical writings interest me a lot and I like reading case Files and trying to figure out the diseases or syndromes before they’re revealed. Sure hope for your sake it’s neither but something else, that while acute, isn’t so serious.

    • pbertner says:

      Cheers Jude! Hopefully I’ll get some time to write after next week that I’ll be spending in another national park. I need to put those long bus rides to good use! The disadvantage of that medical knowledge is that it can lead you down a rabbit hole of worry without any proper diagnostic tools at your disposal. So perhaps a little more ignorance would have been bliss! Best wishes in the new year.

      Paul

  2. Deborah says:

    Hi Paul
    Trust you are feeling better and got through the mini scare! I see that you use the Canon mpe-65mm and MT-24EX twin flash combination a lot in your Macro shots. How do you manage to stay steady with a heavy set-up and fine focusing required. Is it all free hand or with a mono or tri-pod. Do you also keep it on a set focus of 5:1 or vary? I am off to Costa Rica for Macro Photography and wondered if the Canon mpe-65mm would work there as I usually concentrate on using my 100mm Macro.
    Thanks for the interesting blogs and tips

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