Along with the other Hands-On Explorer Challenge winners during our expedition to South America, I experienced some of the most beautiful, most amazing wonders of the breathtaking country of Peru. But, four days into the trip, something happened to me that took me away from the planned expedition itinerary and the team, and lead me to a unique adventure of a very different kind. My explorations took me to the grand cities of Lima and Cusco, the beautiful landscapes and countrysides of Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, and the wondrous and lush Amazon rain forest–but I also had the unexpected and vivid opportunity to experience first-hand what it is like to be a patient in a Peruvian hospital.
This was an experience that made me love Peru in a way that possibly nothing else could ever have. Even though I became very sick, this was an experience I never, ever want to forget. Why? Because it brought me very close to some very special people in Peru, and it taught me about the compassionate heart of the Peruvian people.
Early one morning, as our group packed our bags and readied to depart by bus and plane from Lima to Cusco, I became very nauseated, literally right before we loaded the buses. (Trust me, it is not fun to be sick at your stomach and have to get on a bus with 30 or so people from your team on it.) As nauseated as I was, though, I managed to make it through the long and winding bus ride, the hour flight to Cusco, and the rest of the day. I felt pretty lousy, but faked it the best I could. I participated in the day’s activities with the rest of the group, ending the day with a fun bonfire and dinner by the Urubamba River.
After we finished eating and all checked into our hotel in Cusco for the night, though, I had reached the end of my rope. Without going into great detail, it was a horrible night, to say the least, and the next morning wasn’t an improvement. In fact, it was even worse. Every time I stood up, I got dizzy, my eyesight would fog, I’d hear a loud, annoying buzzing in my ears, and I got sick to my stomach. It got pretty scary, especially for my mom.
I was “as sick as a dog,” as people often say. We later found out that I had a combination of illnesses that converged and made me sick at the same time. Turns out I had a food-borne illness they think I may have contracted from something I ate in Lima. You have to be extremely careful of what you eat and drink in Peru. Tourists are cautioned to be careful when eating salads or cut vegetables or fruits.
I am a vegetarian, so this made eating in Peru very complicated as you can imagine. Also, tourists and visitors should not drink the water in South America. We were told to order drinks straight from a bottle and not to ask for ice in our glasses. We were even told not to brush our teeth with water from the faucet (we had to use bottled water instead). Drinking and eating in Peru was definitely an adventure!
Another problem that I was having was with the high altitudes. Cusco is more than 12,000 feet high up in the Andes Mountains and we learned very quickly that many guests to the area experience symptoms from high altitude sickness. As a matter of fact, as soon as we arrived in Cusco, we were taken to a hotel, given a special drink called coca tea (which is supposed to help prevent altitude sickness), and introduced to a doctor named Dr. Dante Valdivia, who is a specialist in the study of altitude sickness, medicine, and treatment. Dr. Dante, along with an English translator, told us all about high altitude troubles we might
encounter and cautioned us about the symptoms we should watch for. He told us to drink lots of water and coca tea (some people even chewed on coca leaves like tobacco–you would chew them on the side of your mouth for awhile, then spit them out. You definitely didn’t want to swallow them! Mainly it was the adults who chewed the leaves, though. Even though many of the kids, including me, tried the leaves, we didn’t keep them in our mouths for long because they tasted terrible and tiny bits of green, crunchy leaves got stuck in our teeth. Dr. Dante also told us to move slowly and try to take it easy for the first day or so. But moving slowly and taking it easy wasn’t on the agenda! There was so much to see and so much to do, that Team Peru only had time to rest only a few short hours of sleep at night–that is, if we were lucky enough to get a few short hours!
As hard as we tried, however, over the next several days (for as long as we were in the high altitudes of Cusco), many of us experienced the symptoms Dr. Dante had told us about as well as other symptoms from food and exhaustion. About 10 of us needed some kind of medical attention during our stay in Cusco. The second day in Cusco is when the altitude hit most people the hardest. After my long night of being sick, the morning, like I’ve already mentioned, became even worse.
Our group was scheduled to catch yet another bus and travel 2,000 feet higher in the Andes to visit a local Peruvian school (one of the planned activities that I had really looked forward to participating in). I had 30 minutes tops to get my act together after my horrible night, get ready for the day’s activities, and to prep myself for the fact that we were getting ready to travel even higher up the mountain to the school.
My mom and Ms. Elizabeth (from National Geographic) helped me stumble down the stairs and finally got me to the hotel’s courtyard to hopefully board the bus. Some of the National Geographic Kids staff and our tour guides came over to see if they could figure out what exactly was wrong with me, and to comfort me and my mom the best that they could. They couldn’t quite pinpoint my illness, although they all expected it had something to do with either my malaria medicine, altitude sickness, or something I had eaten. Time was swiftly running out, though, and it was nearly time to board the bus and travel to the school. Traveling even higher up the Andes definitely didn’t sound appealing to me, but we didn’t know any other
options. And I definitely didn’t want to get left behind.
At that moment, though, to both my mom’s and my surprise (and most likely many of our group’s surprise), an ambulance pulled up behind the buses and Dr. Donte climbed out of it. I was
quickly taken to the ambulance, where Dr. Donte took my temperature and checked my heart rate and oxygen level. Since I had a fever and was very dehydrated, he immediately determined that my illness was more than simply altitude sickness, and he decided that I should ride in the ambulance instead of in the bus. The plan was that we would follow the group and that I would rejoin them as soon as I could get better (which we all thought would be very soon).
Dr. Donte grabbed his medical equipment, loaded me and my mom into the ambulance, and to our surprise, slid into the driver’s seat. Never, ever had we heard of a doctor being the one to drive the ambulance, and yet Dr. Donte was at the wheel and quickly headed off
for…well, we still don’t know where exactly we drove to. It was a bumpy ride, though. That’s for sure!
It was a pretty horrible ride lying down on the ambulance bed, staring at the windows covered in light green padding, feeling utterly sick in the pit of my stomach, and trying in vain not to get carsick as we sped down the sickening turns and twists of the narrow roads of the mountain. It is not fun to be nauseated while in a vehicle that is twisting back and forth around each and every curve of a mountain. Have you ever eaten a big meal and then taken a ride on a roller coaster? If you have, you know the horrible feeling I am talking about. That pretty much sums it up.
The ambulance ride didn’t do me much good. In fact, it managed to increase my illness by quite a few degrees. And when Dr. Donte glanced at his rearview mirror, and saw me in the back of
his ambulance, white as a sheet, he quickly decided that it would be best if we stayed with him for awhile instead of attempting to join up with the group at the school.
He drove us down increasingly narrow streets and stopped at a nearby, beautiful hotel called The Hotel Royal Inka Pisac in the middle of…well, we still aren’t quite sure where exactly the hotel was. We learned later that it is somewhere near the market town of Pisac, but our exact location remains a mystery to my mom and me.
All we know is that we were by ourselves in the middle of Peru with me sicker than I have ever been, with a Peruvian doctor who is still practicing his English, and without any way to contact my family who was back in the United States. Stepping awkwardly out of the door of the ambulance, I found myself in the main square of a beautiful hotel laden with blossoming flowers, surrounded by peaks of the Andes Mountains that soared high into the foggy white wisps of clouds. If I hadn’t been so sick, I would have truly enjoyed the moment. Dr. Donte rushed over to the hotel manager and spoke a few short words with him in Spanish. Then, pivoting on his heel and gesturing to me, he said in the clearest words he could muster, “We stay here. Get room
for her until better.” Without hesitating, the manager spoke rapidly in Spanish, grabbed his keys, mentioned something kind about the “prestigious doctor,” and led us quickly to a room.
With anxious glances at each other, Mom and I followed Dr. Donte into one of the hotel’s vacant rooms. The small, cozy room consisted of two queen-size beds, a flat screen TV, a small bathroom, a short wooden table with two wooden chairs, and a few bright Peruvian decorations. It was a quaint room, one that was comforting, welcoming, and warm. Exhaustion suddenly overwhelmed me. In a flood of relief, I slumped down on the bed, pulled the blankets over me, and that’s the last thing I remember.
When I awoke, Dr. Donte was standing near the other bed fumbling with his medical equipment. When he saw that “Sleeping Beauty” had finally awakened, he smiled, sat down on the foot of my bed, and we chatted for a long time. He told me a little bit about what town we were in and explained a little about how I was doing. He told me, with a large smile on his face, about his two children–his 16-year-old son and his daughter in her 20s–and I told him a little about my family back in the U.S. He also described how my mom was anxiously pacing the hotel and
attempting to eat a decent breakfast. I remember giggling when he said laughingly, “Your mom is overly stressed!”
I couldn’t believe it. Dr. Donte stayed by my side the entire morning and afternoon. And although the hotel’s restaurant was closed, Dr. Donte asked the chef if he would open the kitchen to make me a special soup, laden with spices and ingredients that would help my uneasy stomach. The chef was more than generous and made me a huge bowl of wonderful-tasting soup, prepared just as the doctor had ordered. After sitting at the short wooden table by the door and trying in vain to eat as much of the soup as possible, both my mom and I climbed into the beds and fell asleep for a few more hours. To our astonishment, Dr. Donte patiently let us rest as he waited on a bench outside our door.
After we finally woke up, Dr. Donte loaded me and my mom back in his ambulance. The details are a little fuzzy to me…I was pretty out of it the entire time. But, from what I remember, while
driving farther down the mountain (I actually slept nearly the entire drive), Mom and Dr. Donte talked about the plan of action that would be best to take. They decided that because my condition was not improving, it would be better if I went to Dr. Donte’s clinic–a hospital called CIMA – Centro de Investigacion de Medicina de Altitud, in a friendly and quaint little part of Cusco.
I was rolled into the clinic in a wheel chair, and was taken by the doctor and one of the nurses straight to a room. I have never been in a hospital before, and here I found myself in Peru being rolled into one by an attendant and nurse who spoke very little English at all! But by this time, I had come to trust Dr. Dante, who had taken such good care of me (and of my mom) throughout the day, and I knew that everything would be OK.
After having a huge IV needle painfully pierced deep into my arm (I still have the scar to prove it), and being hooked up to an oxygen machine, I relaxed on the clinic bed and sleep overcame me again. It’s really hard for me to remember all of the details of that afternoon and evening as I was waking up and falling asleep much of the time. My condition seemed to improve after a couple of hours, although not by much. One look at food, and I was ill. The mere thought of food or getting out of bed and walking around made me sick to my stomach and extremely dizzy.
Both my mom and I were absolutely astonished by the hospital and the clinic staff. The hospital was literally spotless and was extremely relaxing and quiet. And the nurses were unbelievably generous, understanding, and kind. They checked up on me often, with huge, friendly smiles on their faces, but never woke me when I was asleep. Dr. Donte and the nurses’ hospitality were absolutely amazing.
Mom and I couldn’t help but giggle, though, after the nurses would come give me a check-up. (And I am sure the nurses would giggle at us, too.) All of them spoke Spanish, and only a handful knew a few very simple English words (which they would repeat continuously if we ever asked them any questions). It was very interesting to have people come into the room and talk with us in another language, hardly able to communicate back with them. It was a lot of fun, actually. And there were very neat moments when the little Spanish I know, and the little English they know, made a connection, and we were able to have brief conversations. Some of the clinic staff even gave me a nickname! They started calling me Rapunzel (because I have
very long hair). As if that wasn’t funny enough, the way they said it was even funnier…in their Spanish accents they called me Raw-pun-ZEL!
I also had quite a few visitors from our Hands-On Explorer group that comforted both my mom and me a million times over. Ms. Elizabeth came to the hospital and was a huge comfort to the both of us (Mom started crying when she saw her!). Ms. Heddy, our group’s main tour organizer, and Mr. Edgar, one of our tour guides, also came to visit and offered us lots of encouragement. The way I was treated and the kindness I was shown was an amazing experience.
My condition slowly improved. After more than six hours in the clinic and after several liters of IV fluids and antibiotics, Dr. Donte came once again to check up on me. He was considering letting me out of the hospital and taking me to the hotel where our group was staying for the night… if only I could “pass the test.” Meaning, I could go to the hotel if I could actually stay awake for more than a mere few minutes, keep food down, and walk without getting dizzy or sick at my stomach.
Well, I didn’t quite pass the test, falling asleep within a few minutes after Dr. Donte left the room. When I awoke quite a few hours later, I was surprised to see that I was still in the clinic and it was almost midnight. Mom explained to me that she and Dr. Donte both decided it was best for me if I spent the entire night in the clinic and continued to get IV fluid and oxygen.
Spend the night?! I thought to myself, a little horrified.
But I thought over my options. Everybody–the National Geographic staff, our tour guides, my mom, Dr. Donte, the nurses, and me–made it our goal to ensure that I was healthy and strong enough to be able to make it to Machu Picchu, and that I would be able to continue on with the group for the rest of the expedition. And if that took spending a night at the clinic, then I would be willing to do that.
So, as disappointed as I was to miss out on meeting the kids at the Peruvian school, shopping at the Pisac market, and taking a walking tour up the mountain, I was certainly willing to take a day and a night to build my health back up in order to be strong enough to experience the wonders of “The Lost City of the Incas” and the largest rain forest in the world.
And I made it!
With all of the encouragement of the Hands-On Explorer group, our tour guides, the doctor and clinic staff, and my mom, my adventure in Peru continued and I found myself back with the group the next evening, enjoying a local Peruvian play and dinner, and dancing on stage with actors, dancers, and my friends.
The next day, I was exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu and then I headed off with the rest of the team to the rain forest!