Adventures in Breathing

Ringtails

A month ago today, I returned home from a two week vacation on the island nation of Madagascar (off the southeast coast of Africa), an amazingly beautiful yet harsh land. I promise more on the actual trip in future blog posts. Do you love lemurs as much as I do? (I got pictures to share!)

Tonight, as I sit here near the end of my “self-imposed exile” from the office, I want to write about breathing. Any asthmatics out there? Raise your hands! Try not to wheeze or cough — you might make your co-workers think you’ve brought some horrific disease from overseas to infect them all. Got your rescue inhaler handy at all times? Good.

I’ve been pretty fortunate when it comes to my asthma. I’ve never suffered an acute attack (like you see in movies) and I’ve never landed myself in the hospital because of it. But in the last 15 or so years, I’ve experienced about a half dozen asthma “events” (as my doctor calls them) where, for a number of days, my asthma is not under control. The typical remedy has been a round of prednisone. (Only once before have I needed a second round.) Aside from needing to attend doctors’ appointments, I’ve never before missed work because of it.

Now, in the past four weeks, I’ve used a little more than 100 hours of my sick leave (yep – you read that number right – fortunately I’ve not been sick much these last few years and was able to accumulate a decent balance to draw from). I’ll see the final total when I get back to work on Monday. Browsing the internet, I saw a statistic that said asthma is the fourth leading cause of absenteeism from work for adults. Wow. I have now joined those ranks. Never thought I would. But it’s quite difficult to work when one can’t breathe, isn’t it?

You’re probably asking what this has to do with Madagascar. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. It was one of the harder trips I’ve taken and I was sick in the middle of the trip although that had more to do with sun, alcohol, and stupidity (more on that next time). Maybe that day’s illness set up my immune system for the later failure. Maybe my subsequent drop in appetite for the rest of the trip had an effect on me.

But there I was, four weeks ago, dropping onto my sofa exhausted and jet-lagged after 36 hours of travel (Antananarivo to Johannesburg to New York to Oakland). I’d spent the majority of the day sitting in La Guardia Airport waiting for my delayed flight west…sneezing and coughing. (Thanks to whichever fellow traveler gave me their cold!) It didn’t seem like such a bad cold at first, but then I was pretty much half-conscious throughout the following day. So much so that when one of my cats accidentally punctured my finger with a claw, I did not wash it. (Here’s a tip: even if you’re half-dead and barely mobile, if you get a cat scratch, WASH THE WOUND.)

You can guess where this is headed. That was late Tuesday/early Wednesday. By Friday, my finger was infected and the seemingly mild cold had morphed into a racking chest cough (the kind that hurts, making you cringe). Oh, and yes, I did attempt to go to work – I managed to get through a couple half days – then went to the doctor. She loaded me up with prednisone, some nice cough syrup, and antibiotics for the finger (tests showed it was just a common form of streptococcus something or other that my cat had gifted me with).

While the finger healed and the worst of the cough eased over the next week, my asthma symptoms did not. Back to the doctors the next Friday. More prednisone, change in asthma medications. And, yes, I did try to go to work. But I have to confess my memory is a little fuzzy. I can’t remember if I made it 4 days the first week and only 1 day the next (or if that was reversed). Hmm. I also discovered that some of my co-workers were very unhappy and complaining to my supervisor. (Somebody is apparently convinced I brought the plague back from Madagascar and was spreading it around the office with my hacking & coughing.) People don’t seem to listen when you say “it’s just asthma.”

So when I ended up back at the doctor’s during the third week, I mentioned those concerns. My doctor had already checked with an infectious disease specialist in the event that I’d picked up “an uncommon bug” – they said there was nothing to worry about. By that time I was on my third antibiotic, so not only was it pointless to test me for anything, I had long ago ceased being potentially contagious. (Fourth antibiotic if you count the anti-malaria medication I was on during the trip.) My lung x-rays were clear and all the blood tests (checking things like my thyroid, kidneys, heart, etc.) all came up average. Nothing that explained the extreme fatigue I still felt and the continued stubbornness of my asthma refusing to be reined in. So…more prednisone and a home nebulizer.

When I floated the idea of another week off work (a whole week of nothing – not even trying to do a half day or anything – just resting and recuperating)…yeah…you guessed it. My supervisor and co-workers were more than enthusiastic. Maybe I should say they were very supportive. (Either they really want me to get better or they are truly tired of listening to me cough.)

With one more day to go, I can say it’s been a successful respite. I’m no longer gasping for air when I climb the stairs, No more wheezing and coughing. I still sometimes run out of air when I’m talking and get a little hoarse, but it’s definitely not as pronounced. I think I’ve finally gotten enough sleep too. I know the cats have certainly enjoyed this week. They’ve spent most of it piled on top of me. (Yes, even the one who scratched me.)

So…when I return to work next Monday, if you hear me cough, “it’s just asthma, people” Sheesh. Let me breathe.

 

 

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Remember: always lift with your legs (not your back)!

SignAtLivingstone

(Maybe they should add “No heavy lifting” at the bottom of that sign,  eh?) It happened on Day 10 of our African safari, leaving me in excruciating pain for the last five days of my vacation. There I was, preparing to check out of the David Livingstone Safari Lodge Spa in Livingstone, Zambia,  before moving on to Mfuwe Lodge in the South Luangwa National Park. If you’ve traveled as part of a group, you know the drill: place your luggage near your door (outside or inside) for the porters to collect. My backpack was all ready and sitting on a chair. I picked it up, twisted to the left, and bent over to place the backpack on the floor. Pop! (Yes, I actually heard – and felt – a pop.) There went one of the discs in my back. Those of you who’ve suffered a herniated disc (aka bulging disc) know the pain, right? Wow. Never experienced that before.

I somehow made it through the day and the short airplane ride to Mfuwe, and even through the night, but only with the last of the painkillers that were supposed to be for my migraines. (I wouldn’t be able to lay on my back or on my left side for the next several weeks.) At first, though, I didn’t think it was too bad and went through a whole day of bumpy jeep rides that just made it worse. By the next morning, I couldn’t bear it any more and inquired with the lodge staff about acquiring more pain killers. Good news: there were volunteer doctors who serviced the area lodges; bad news: it would cost $200 for the “house” call (because the doctor must actually examine you in person). I balked at that, but realized if I was going to enjoy any more bumpy safari jeeps, I’d need more pills. So there went $200 of my spending money.

The doc’s name was Janet (yep – another Janet!) and if I remember right, she was also from California. She and her husband were on a six-month rotation where a medical charity pays for the trip to Africa in exchange for the doctors providing care to the local villagers and also to tourists. She diagnosed a herniated lumbar 4-5 disc (an MRI after I got home changed that to lumbar 2-3). And she gave me pain killers! Yippee. I can say that I most definitely would not have survived those very long plane rides back home to California without them.

VervetMonkeyBut before you begin to think this is all about the pills, no, this is about the most wonderful service provided by the staff at Mfuwe Lodge. While the rest of the group went off on a jeep ride, I tried to find a comfortable spot out in the common area just in case more elephants came wandering through. The staff got me water and some crackers to snack on so the pain killers wouldn’t upset my stomach. And then…the Vervet Monkeys who had free run of  the lodge got very interested in my crackers.  They tried to steal my crackers.

ManWithSlingshotI was positive I had his name written down in my trip notes, but I can’t find it. But here he is, my hero! He got out his slingshot and nobly defended me and my crackers. And he was a good shot too! I feel terrible that I can’t find his name – but I did give him a thank you hug before we checked out.

And before I forget, many thanks to Mike and his wife Pat, fellow members of my tour group, who gave me Pat’s orthopedic seat cushion to make my trip home more bearable.

 

 

Planes, trains, and automobiles…

Just kidding! There’s no trains or automobiles in this blog post. There’s barely even an airplane (well, two airplanes).

As our plucky little group packed our belongings to leave our first campsite in the Okavango Delta (Botswana) en route to Zimbabwe, the usual questions arose. (Usual, at least, for Americans familiar with our airport security). Are there restrictions on liquids? Will we have to take off our shoes? What about electronics? Andre, our tour leader, told us not to worry because there was no security. Airstrip1

As it turned out, there wasn’t even an airport. There was one “building” with fire extinguishers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and one sign. (That’s my friend Bobbie reading it.) Airstrip2

There was just an airstrip, a lonely little windsock indicating wind direction, and us waiting for our two airplanes that began as teeny dots in the sky and grew to be, well, somewhat bigger dots once they were on the ground. Would you like to fly in one of these?

TwoPlanes

Because there’s no airport staff either, that’s our guides Josh and Mike (and Andre, not seen in this picture) loading our luggage. On the right, you can see some of the gals walking to the other plane. LoadingLuggage

Before this, the smallest plane I’ve been on was a 20 (maybe 25) seater over the Gulf of Mexico between Cozumel and Cancun. The size of this plane? Here’s an inside shot. (The backs of those two heads closest to me? That’s Wendy [aka Windy] on the left and Andre on the right.) Guess which row I’m taking this photo from? Yep, the back row! InsidePlane

 

 

 

Meet the neighbors!

When you’re on a safari, or other wildlife-centered trip, you can spend lots of time in jeeps on bumpy roads searching for the animals.

But, then, sometimes you don’t have to. Because they come to you….maybe joining you for lunch….Elephant_Neighbor

Or you discover another visitor enjoying the open-air deck of the chalet next door. (Actually, this is why we were told to close and lock [yes, lock] the doors because the baboons know how to open them and they love helping themselves to anything that looks like fun…your camera, your shirt, your bra….) We saw one young guy scampering off with what looked like a turquoise pair of shorts, or maybe a skirt.

Baboon_Neighbor

And then there are the neighbors who “serenade” you at night. These guys and gals congregated in the lagoon at the far end of the lodge property, just outside Wendy’s chalet. (Remember Wendy aka Windy?) The hippos in this photo are looking very chill, but Wendy said their grunting was quite loud at bedtime. Sleeping was a bit difficult, but having a herd of hungry, hungry hippos munching on the grasses just yards away was worth it.

Hippo_Neighbors