“You went through the ‘acute phase’,” the student health physician told me. I stared in disbelief. “And you’ll never be able to donate blood again.”
Rewind two weeks. Things were going along quite smoothly, and just in the nick of time: It was Spring Break during my first year as a PhD student at the University of Vermont. My then-boyfriend, along with three more gals and one more guy, were off to a wonderful adventure for 8 days at a beautiful hotel in the Dominican Republic. Sunshine, rest, friends, food, and alcohol were included in the weekend package, so what could be better, right?
We were six PhD students on Spring Break from an incredibly cold and unpopulated state. We were all over-worked in the incredibly harsh and unforgiving Biomedical research field by a group of incredibly competitive workaholic Professors who longed to squeeze the life out of the Graduate students the same way had been done to them.
This to say nothing of the fact that because so few ever deign to live in the frozen tundra of Vermont, combined with everyone working/studying in one small area all the time and being young, fit, single, and mildly bored with what little life lay outside school, the drama unfolding even by Spring Break of Year 1 was already enough for a diagram. During the Spring Break trip to the Dominican, one of the most dramatic girls of all was with us, and she summed it up nicely: “I cancelled my subscription to People Weekly. Real life is enough.”
Desperate as I and everyone else was to get out of town and onto the white sandy beaches for some school-free, drama-free drinking, dining, kayaking, and scuba diving, we ignored the fact that we were headed to the Third-World tropics during the Spring rainy season. Yes, there were a plethora of mosquitoes in Vermont, but those were considered a Summer affair; and anyway, who was thinking about that NOW?
Luckily for us, the week started out cloudy and with a few showers, but it was warm and had cleared up quickly. Mosquito beds had caused some of the pools and hot tubs at the resort to close down, but a few were still buzzing about, especially in the lively evening time. During the first day or two, I sustained a few bites, but the fun escape full of other people our age who were there to dance and explore and play on the beach washed away the memory of those bites as quickly as they’d been sustained.
Never mind the flight delays and plane re-routes caused by the late-Spring snow storms in Vermont: I felt feverish, faint, and dizzy leaving Dominican Republic, darkening an ever-more-tedious return trip that I never wanted to happen anyway. My knees were so weak I could barely walk from one airport gate to another. The night before, I had been vomiting and nauseated all night, which I attributed to accidentally drinking the local water. When my nose was bleeding mid-flight, I thought for sure it was caused by the air pressure change; and I assumed my headache was the air pressure and possibly dehydration from throwing up so much. I powered through.
For the next two days, at home in my apartment in Burlington, I was delirious and unable to move. My back and knees were so weak I couldn’t even walk into the living room, which for me was huge, since I have always been athletic. Fits of feverish waking were marked by bloody noses, and I didn’t urinate once during the entire episode.
Finally able to take the bus into school, I went to the health clinic. I was afraid the shock of being back in 18-degree weather had brought on the flu somehow and needed treatment. They took a blood test, and told me to come back in two weeks.
The result? “You have Yellow Fever,” the physician said. I went through acute phase, but more bites left untreated could have pushed me into the deadly ‘toxic phase’. I could never donate blood again, she said, and forever will be more susceptible to Yellow fever and other tropical diseases transmittable via mosquito, such as malaria. “There is an effective vaccine that would have prevented this,” she told me.
The horror is over, but lesson learned: Careful planning and preparation is always best, no matter how badly you need to get away from it all.