Solo travel & Illness: Not a match made in heaven #WeGoSolo

It seems that there’s a lot of talk out there these days about the dangers of women traveling solo. “Don’t do it!” many warn. “It’s fine!” others counter.

Many of my blogging friends have written articles with tips for staying safe, or the benefits of traveling solo, but I want to approach this from a different angle.

What happens if you’re traveling solo and you get sick?

 

pneumonia in Argentina

Being hospitalized with pneumonia in Argentina wasn’t fun, but it wouldn’t be fun at home either.

 

It’s a scary proposition to fall ill while traveling, and having nobody to take care of you. How will you get to the hospital? Who will give you the TLC you need during your recovery?

Even scarier still is the idea of getting really ill – to the point where you quite literally can’t take care of yourself.

And yet the universe has a way of stepping in when those situations arise.

As you might be able to guess, I’ve had quite a few experiences myself, and I’ve talked with many other travelers with stories to tell. Somehow, in every single case, people – many times random strangers – have seen the need and stepped in to fill it. Here we are back at that whole “the universe will conspire to help you” thing.

 

Typhoid in Peru

Perhaps the first time I had to rely on the universe was during the seven month backpacking adventure I took after leaving the Peace Corps. With the money the Peace Corps gave me to set up a place to live back home, I headed south to travel. It was while I was in Peru that I got sick. A doctor diagnosed it as typhoid and prescribed some medicine.

I felt fine for a few weeks, and then the disease came back with a vengeance. As it happened, he had given me the right medicine, but the wrong dosage. Words to remember: a dose designed for a tiny Peruvian woman simply isn’t enough for a woman twice that size.

I was feeling sick in La Paz, Bolivia, but was determined to meet a friend in Cuzco, Peru. I jumped on a bus, then climbed aboard the train. At some point in that journey, my fever started climbing. By the time I arrived in Cuzco, I was pretty much delirious.

I’m still not exactly sure how I arrived at a hotel – I don’t know if I get there by myself or if someone helped me – but I checked into a small hotel and collapsed into bed.

Throughout the night, the hotel staff periodically poked their head into my room, offering me water. I’m relatively certain they were concerned I might die.

To make a long story short, random strangers worked together to get me in a taxi and to the hospital. The correct dosage was prescribed. I got better. Somehow, the universe had done what it does best.

 

Fever in India

Fast forward a few years and I was riding my bike through India with John. I woke up one morning and was very, very cold. I rode on, not sure what was happening but sure that it wasn’t good.  I stopped on the side of the road, wrapped up in my shawl, and sat in the sun for fifteen minutes trying to get some of the sun’s warmth into my body.  It served no purpose and I was still just as cold as before.

rajasthani desert village

Medical care was pretty much non-existent in small desert village like this. My only hope was to hitch a ride into a larger town.

I pushed on until I arrived into the tiny town of Bap, where John was waiting for me. Using every ounce of energy I could muster, I climbed off my bike and collapsed onto a cot in the sun.  John, sensing that all was not well, sat down beside me.  “I’m just cold,” I mumbled through chattering teeth.  “I’m so cold.”

Together, we made the decision that I would hitch a ride in a truck to a hotel ninety kilometers away, while John pedaled in.  We flagged down a truck, loaded my bike in the back, and I climbed in the cab with the driver.

As it happened, that ninety kilometers was the longest ninety kilometers of my life. Almost immediately upon getting in the truck, I felt my temperature rising.  I kept getting hotter and hotter and it became harder and harder to hold my head up.

When the driver stopped for tea a short while later, I literally fell out of the truck and managed to stumble twenty feet to the nearest tree where I collapsed on the ground.  The driver brought me chai and hovered protectively over me until I had to climb back into the truck.

By now my temperature was around 106 degrees and my head weighed about three tons. After what seemed like centuries, the truck pulled up in front of a hotel.  The driver ran into the hotel and the entire hotel staff came out to greet me. While the driver and some of the hotel staff worked on getting my bike out of the truck, two other staff helped me into the hotel and to a bed.  I was totally beyond any semblance of control; even lifting my hand to get a drink of water was too much.

The manager of the hotel called a doctor, and then started putting cold cloths on my forehead, rotating them as my body quickly heated them up.  The doctor prescribed medicines and gave directions to the hotel manager.

We stayed at that hotel for a week, and the manager never did fully trust John with the directions for medication and happily took on the role of a protective father.  He continued to come to our room at all hours to make sure that I took my medicine.

It was a long month before I was well enough to continue on, but I will never forget the kindness of those random strangers who, when faced with a very ill woman, went above and beyond to take care of me. They could quite easily have robbed me blind, then left me on the side of the road, but they didn’t. I don’t think many would.

 

Helping others

walking with friend in India

When our newfound friend was well enough to venture out of the hotel, I spent many hours walking with her, exploring the area.

And then there was the time John and I had the opportunity to come to the rescue of another traveler. Shortly after my bout with the fever, we were on a train in India when we saw another woman desperately ill. We recognized it as the same thing I had had.

By the time we arrived in town, she was in the delirious stage, and there was no way she could have taken care of herself. We loaded her into a taxi and took her to a hotel. For the next week, we nursed her back to health, while not even knowing her name.

I am convinced that if we hadn’t stepped in, another person would have. It’s a basic tenet of humanity – when we see another in need, we do our best to help.

A stroke in Italy

A blogger friend of mine, Durant Imboden, wrote about the time he had a stroke in Italy and relied on the kindness of strangers to help him. “By the time I found the Pronto Soccorso sign, I was bouncing off parked cars in an effort to stay upright. An ambulance driver saw me, called for a colleague, and ran over to grab me until the other driver brought a wheelchair.”

They worked together to get him to the hospital, where the doctors and nurses cared for him for weeks. “It was clear that, because I was alone in Italy and had a long flight home, the doctors weren’t going to let me leave until they were sure that I was healthy enough to be on my own and to survive 12 hours or more in a crowded airplane.”

Food poisoning in Cuba

Val Dawson discovered the kindness of strangers when she fell desperately ill with food poisoning in Cuba. Janet, a woman she had barely met, “took one look at me and hysterically said that she had to get me to the clinic.  I was so weak that I could barely walk, but she and my friend held me up on either side and took me to the clinic.”

daryl hospital malaysia

Shortly after we arrived in Malaysia, Daryl broke his arm. Three weeks later, he came down with a mystery illness and was very ill for six weeks before finally being diagnosed with pneumonia and hospitalized.

The story gets better when Janet took her to a local clinic that wasn’t allowed to treat foreigners, and proceeded to yell at the doctor until he relented. “The staff hooked me up to an IV in a back room of the clinic where they explained that they had to hide me.  They told me that they could lose their jobs just for treating me.”

She sums up her experience by saying, “The care and concern of the people there reminded me that life sometimes means breaking the rules and going against what we are “supposed” to do, so that, instead,  we can do what the “right” thing is to do.

A sick single parent: Who will take care of the kids?

Talon Windwalker, who is a single father traveling the world with his son, succumbed to some sort of virus in a foreign country. Not only was he helpless to take care of himself, but his 10-year-old son was on his own as well.

“The hostel staff helped make sure he had food, offered to get me medicines, and brought local remedies by. A fellow traveler took my son under her wing and took him out with her when she went to run some errands and took him for ice cream, since I couldn’t get out of bed. There are just so many wonderful people in the world. It’s a shame that the stinkers get most of the attention.”

Theodora Sutcliffe is another single parent traveling with her son. When they were in a car crash in the deserts of Egypt, she at least had the presence of mind to ask her son to keep watch over her and, if she started doing weird things, get her to the hospital.  Read her account of the accident here.

 A laundry list of ailments

Jodi Ettenberg writes about “the fairly ridiculous laundry list of ailments and sicknesses from my travels.” Read her tales here – it really is a ridiculous laundry list of ailments. The best part is that she never died that horrible death in the middle of nowhere, but more importantly that she has continued traveling and experiencing the world despite these injuries.

Jodi notes that she would not have gotten through some of these injuries were it not for the kindness of strangers. In an email to me she said, “I was and remain very grateful for the help I’ve received on the road when things have gone awry. From the guesthouse owner who fed me soup when I had a blistering fever in South Africa to the new friends or fellow travelers who provided me with rehydration salts, stuff from their own first aid kits and – just this week in Vietnam – came with me to the hospital to translate for me if needed. I have done the same too, accompanying fellow travelers, some I just met, when they were ill or running out to buy them supplies.”

Illness helps us gain perspective

 Lillie Marshall found herself very ill a number of times, but realized her illnesses were a way of slowing down and gaining perception. I’ve often said that falling ill was Mother Nature’s way of making sure we took enough rest days – if we didn’t take them voluntarily, she forced them upon us.

Dengue fever in the jungle

nicaragua hospital

John injured his thumb in Nicaragua and needed x-rays. A Road Angel helped us navigate the local health care system.

Marina met her husband while camping in Tikal Maya Ruins in the heart of the jungle in Guatemala, a place known for it’s pesky mosquitoes. Before arriving there, she had been taking malaria pills for around three months.

“After hanging out with my new boyfriend for a couple of weeks in the rain forest, he wanted to introduce me to his parents. Within two hours of arriving to his parents house, I was struck down with a 104-degree fever, fainted, and then had cold sweats for two days. It turned out I had dengue.”

Two weeks after recovering, her side started hurting and her boyfriend (now husband) was back in the jungle for work, so she was alone. His family told me to come to their house when they found out I was sick.  It turned out my gallbladder was totally damaged and full of sand and had to be removed immediately. “I was operated on and his mother spent the night with me in the hospital.”

When solo travel sucks

And then there was the time Hilary Billings somehow hurt her foot. As she sat, all alone, in her hotel room, pondering her fate, she started thinking the same things so many of us feel at time.

“Sometimes solo travel SUCKS. The thought rolled around in my head, crashing into my ears like a wave over and over… I was alone.

“My chest started to tighten again. I felt the back of my throat catch and the tears building in the corners of my eyes. I couldn’t decide which hurt more, my foot or my heart.”

In her beautifully written article, Things Travelers Never Tell You: When Travel Bites, she summed up many lessons learned from the low times of travel.

 When we’re down, someone will rescue us

Jeannie Mark found herself very, very ill in India and wasn’t afraid to reach out for help. As expected, she found it in a taxi driver and hostel owner. She wraps up her delightfully written post about how, when we’re down, someone will rescue us, this way:

Solo travelers always gotta prove something.  That we’re indestructible.  That, golly gee, we don’t need anyone.

Sometimes we do.

It’s okay to ask for help.  To let a hand reach out or a smile reassure you.

It’s that feeling of being taken care of.

We all need it.  It shows keenly the interconnectedness of everyone on this planet, bucking culture or the strangeness of a place.

The world is truly small, the human heart big.

*****

Here are some other posts I’ve written about health issues while traveling:

Are concerns of medical care abroad holding you back?

What kind of travel insurance do I need?

A medical evacuation story

Travel disaster: Injured foot in Vietnam

 

 

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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17 Responses to Solo travel & Illness: Not a match made in heaven #WeGoSolo

  1. Living Outside of the Box February 13, 2013 at 12:39 am #

    Wow! What stories! How wonderful that the world is full of good people who are willing to help even strangers!

    Now I have a question for Marina…how in the world did you get a gallbladder full of SAND?!!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Living Outside of the Box, No kidding! I think that’s the thing that allows me to travel freely – I KNOW, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that people will help me if I need help. I won’t be left for dead on the side of some god-forsaken highway in the middle of nowhere.

    And yeah – the sand in the gallbladder is nasty, eh? She mentioned that the malaria medicine caused it.

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  2. Vera February 13, 2013 at 3:19 am #

    It’s funny how the advice to trust in the universe is the first one that actually makes sense to me when it comes to this topic. I am someone who gets concerned easily with health issues, wondering if an unusal headache puts me on the brink of death – well, I’m exaggerating, but you get the point:). Your post made me realise that someone will most likely always step in – as would I myself when it comes to others (have done, in fact), and that that is normal behaviour: people help each other, take care of each other, look out for each other – mostly:) I’ll remember your post the next time I start worrying about getting sick on my travels – thank you!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Vera, For some reason we tend to think that, although *WE* would help out, *THEY* would not. My belief is that they are really just like us.

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  3. Marina K. Villatoro February 13, 2013 at 8:25 pm #

    I have to say, when you’re traveling alone it’s horrible to get sick. But traveling with kids on your own, that is the true fear I have these days. Who will take care of them! My kids are much younger than Talon’s and Theodara’s. I have to say, that’s one main reason I don’t go with both kids traveling alone.

    I’ve done it with my 8 year old, but will wait until my 2 year old is bigger if I want to do just mama and the boys.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Marina K. Villatoro, It is scary to get sick while traveling with small kids. Heck – it’s scary to get sick at home with small kids!!

    [Reply]

  4. Nora - The Professional Hobo February 14, 2013 at 7:59 am #

    Yep. Being sick on the road is no fun, but it’s really nice when we can find a silver lining here and there!
    I’ve had my share….a former partner with a penchant for hospitals (including a week with Dengue fever in Thailand), my own fight with Dengue (solo) in Grenada, a few fevers and flus in the most inopportune places(!), and my most recent brisk turn of events – a head-on collision while riding a scooter! I’m currently alone recovering from a myriad of debilitating injuries, and my partner is in traction in the hospital for 2 months. Eek!

    But I’m not wallowing – because similar to what you said, the sense of community and fellowship you experience on the road is often strong, and if nothing else, it deepens the cultural experience.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Nora – The Professional Hobo, Oh no! I truly hope you both recover quickly.

    [Reply]

  5. Hansen Hunt February 19, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

    Great article, something a lot of people don’t think about in advance. Luckily, I have a story that worked out very well when it could have and should have taken a very nasty turn.
    I was traveling alone in southern Mexico and took a trip into the jungle. Suddenly became extremely ill and hardly could function. I made the bus trip back up the mountain to more comfortable accommodations in San Cristobal where I could try and sleep it off. Unfortunately, the sickness kept worsening and not only could I not function, I couldn’t sleep. Horrible fever, shakes, cough, entire body was in extreme pain. I couldn’t even muster the energy to ask for help form one of the 18 people sleeping in the shared hostel room. They probably hated me for the grunting and groaning I was doing all night long.

    Well after about five days of nothing but water and matters looking much worse, a gentleman woke up directly across from me in the hostel and started to stare. I couldn’t say anything, especially not in Spanish, so I just closed my eyes. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked a few things in broken English mostly depending on hand gestures. He eventually says that he is a doctor and whips out a piece of paper to write a prescription for me. He then shows me on a map that the pharmacy is less than one block away from the hostel. He had to go and that was the last I ever saw of him.

    I took every last ounce of energy and stumbled in a dizzying state to the pharmacy, handed them the piece of paper hoping they could save my life and that I wasn’t been duped by some guy. They use hand gestures to confirm some pains (I think) and sent me away with some pills I never got a chance to research. They sold me a bunch of Gatorade too (amazing for hangovers and dehydration) and I stumbled back to the hostel where the owners let me change into a private room (probably because I was bothering other guests).

    Two days later I arose out of my dim lit cave like room and managed to eat a couple meals. Being from Southern California, I knew I needed to get out of the high elevation to ever feel 100%. The next day, I popped some sleeping pills and rode a 10-12 hour bus to Puerto Escondido where, similar to how Superman and plant life function, I rejuvenated in the sunshine laying in hammocks and reading books.

    My life took a spin for the worse in the Jungle, and I had lost all hope being there by myself. Somehow a greater force told that man to help me right before he had to leave and I owe him everything.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Hansen Hunt, It’s amazing how that happens, eh? I swear, the universe conspires to help us. I think people genuinely WANT to help, and they will when they see a need that they can help. I’m so glad your doctor stepped in!!

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  6. Nomadic Chick February 23, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    Sorry to be late on replying to this. Thank you for including me. I kept pressuring myself to handle anything — which is the danger of solo travelling. We want to think we can deal with it, but it’s absolutely OK to ask for help! And the universe usually delivers! Great round up here, btw.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Nomadic Chick, Very true that we tend to try to do it all on our own, but really – we need to learn to ask for help.

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  7. ANGLO/Dale February 25, 2013 at 3:45 am #

    Reading your stories & the stories of others makes me realise how lucky I am that I’m travelling with my partner.

    I had a bit of a scare very recently with a lump I found in my breast & if it wasn’t for my partner telling me that it wasn’t going to sort itself out, I might have put it off & off & off in typical male fashion.

    [Reply]

  8. Mary @ Green Global Travel October 8, 2013 at 8:08 pm #

    Beautiful, beautiful post! I have seen so much kindness in my life and yet, reading your article took my breath away! Thank you so much for sharing these extraordinary acts of kindness!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Mary @ Green Global Travel, I love how good people are! It seems like we all live in so much fear, but we really shouldn’t – people out there have our backs.

    [Reply]

  9. Kellie Parry October 8, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

    I travel solo and have been really sick a couple of times. In New Zealand I had my drink spiked and became violently ill. The owner of the small hotel I was staying at carried me out to his car and drove me to the emergency room. I then had to spend the night in hospital. It was my first experience of being sick while I was travelling alone and it was terrifying. The second time was when I was leaving Italy for my flight home to Australia. I had been feeling really sick for the past week and it all hit when I got on the plane. The two ladies sitting next to me helped me until the air crew could call the ground medical team to get advice. It turned out I had a severe kidney infection and it was the longest flight home I have EVER had!!! It’s never fun being sick as a solo traveller but so far I have always been helped by the kindness of strangers :)

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Kellie Parry, It’s not fun being sick anywhere! The good news is that people really do step up to the plate and help out. I’m so glad you had the same experience with that that I did.

    [Reply]

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