What is the value of an hour? How much time does it contain, how much potential? Can anything be accomplished in such an amount of time? I’ve seen both sides of the coin in my life – of having an hour last forever and almost nothing at all. I must have been around eight when my Grandpa came to visit us once. I cannot recall exactly what I did, but I must have acted up real good since Mom’s punishment for me was to go and sit on my bed for an hour. I remember watching my old radio clock slowly inch along in what seems like the longest hour of my life. Conversely, I can remember the last hour leading up to class in college where we had to turn in a group report. Needless to say, there did not seem to be enough minutes for the task in that one.
The following are my memories of what happened to me during the week I arrived in Cusco. It was a scary experience for all involved. The question of time became paramount for me during these events. Had Rachel not acted when she did and drug me to the hospital, this post would likely never have been written. To have delayed even one more hour would have been catastrophic. I strongly caution anyone who may not want to know the details of my near death to abstain from reading this post.
Gary, Barton, Ryan, and I landed in Cusco Saturday, October 7. The four of us had just returned from a Latin American Missionaries’ Retreat near Sao Paulo, Brazil the week prior. The week had been relaxing and renewing, but I had been tired during the course of it. I took a nap during each free period we had. I didn’t feel sick during that time; so I just chalked it up to staying up too late to dominate at spades with Barton. Looking back now, I would guess that I had a mild infection of some sort that my body was fighting.
Anyhow, that first night I slept great. It was probably the best first night at altitude sleep that I had ever had. It probably helped that I took an Aleve before retiring. I had learned my body over the years, and the first week at altitude is usually riddled with frontal lobe headaches that love to disrupt my sleep patterns. I had found that drinking an insane amount of water and pre-emptively taking something for the headaches allowed me to adjust more smoothly.
Sunday and Monday went about as well as I could have hoped. I felt winded a bit – especially after long walks, but I was up and functioning. My sleep Monday into Tuesday was disrupted however. I awoke at around 2 with a headache that I couldn’t shake. No worries at this point, though, it’s only the altitude.
Ryan and Sarah left shortly after lunch to head back stateside for Furlough on Tuesday. It was later that afternoon I noticed a low grade fever and a persistent cough starting to hit me. The fever wasn’t entirely unexpected. For whatever reason, my body decides to do this right at about the 72 hour mark into being at altitude. I had always come out of it fine before. My body just needed to rest and figure out nothing is wrong. As for the cough, well colds happen, right?
I took another Aleve and attempted to sleep Tuesday night. That was never meant to be. The cough was constantly applying mucus to the back of my throat causing me to cough repeatedly. It didn’t seem as though I could go more than a minute or two without coughing. This definitely prevented me from falling into sleep. I moved to the living room, turned on Netflix, propped my head up higher with lots of pillows in an attempt to not let the mucus settle on my throat. It was a vain attempt. I doubt I slept much longer than 30 consecutive minutes that night. What was more was my headache seemed to be intensifying. Where was that Aleve in my system?
I had been downing incredible amounts of water in an attempt to combat the altitude sickness, but here is where even my body’s hydration came under attack. Shortly before Rachel woke, I threw up for the first time. I would do so again three more times. I lay on the couch most of the day. I had chill like muscle aches pulsing through me that morning. What was this, the flu? I had Ken Burn’s WWII documentary playing in the background. It was impossible to concentrate. Hours passed slowly, but early Wednesday afternoon, I made some progress. The chills left, the cough lessened, and the headaches subsided. I was convinced that with some much needed sleep, I would overcome whatever this was.
Rachel seemed less sure of my state of being. It could have been my inability to hold down an ounce of banana for more than fifteen seconds or what she described as “my graying complexion”, but she had a couple teammates take a look at me too. Rachel had been reading up online on altitude sickness and discovered that in severe cases fluid and pressure can build up in the lungs or brain. I was exhibiting many of the symptoms listed for the severe case, but we both hate self-diagnosing. The team-mates assured Rachel that in their many years here they hadn’t seen anyone ever have the severe case. They gave me an anti-vomiting pill that allowed me drink a Gatorade – at last some electrolytes back in me.
It was right around this point that my memories begin to falter. I was at last able to sleep, but it was in an odd state. By breathing was strained when asleep. Rachel says that it would sound as though I would stop breathing entirely for a few seconds before resuming into a strained snore. Along with my worsening complexion, she decided to wake me up.
I remember her waking me, and being angry at her. However I was not mad at her for waking me, but rather because she wasn’t following the proper strategy. I was convinced that we were playing a card game similar to spades and she was my partner. I have no clue what the exact rules were, but I do recall that the way Rachel was laying her cards down was making it impossible for me to react correctly and win any tricks. I let her know as much when she woke me.
She was baffled to say the least. What cards? What people? What game? She asked me many questions about who was in the room with us and what we were doing? I remained convinced she was loony and determined to make us lose the game. However, after I got up and went and used the restroom, she says I seemed much more “normal”. So she let me fall back asleep again.
An hour later, Rachel woke me again when she saw me twitching under the covers. My twitching was me scratching my left hand with my right. When she asked what I was doing, I told her I was “scoring”. Apparently I was tallying up the scores from the card game, and we were not winning. When I refused to stop, she asked if I was writing on paper or on my hand. What a silly question, I told her obviously I was writing on paper. I was trapped in my own hallucinations.
Rachel then noticed my tongue. It had gone purple grey. The front portions looked as though they were receding, dying even. She made brush my teeth; at this point I don’t remember any of this. Whatever was happening to my tongue didn’t come off with brushing. She then saw my fingers and lips. I was losing color and quickly.
Around eleven at night, Rachel called Barton’s cell. Thankfully they live just across the hall from where we are staying. “Are you awake? Actually, it doesn’t matter – I need you to drive us to the hospital”, these were the words Rachel told Barton that late Wednesday night. Rachel dressed me and made me take some breaths off the oxy-shot (an aerosol like can that has oxygen in it and a breath mask attached).
Barton, having been kept in the loop to my condition the entire day before, knew exactly what was happening and what needed to happen. He helped me down the elevator – motor function had ceased working – and drove us to MacSalud Hospital. The team had heard that this new place in Cusco actually had the medical equipment to handle emergencies. Upon arrival they got me into a wheel chair. I was acting as though I had come off anesthesia. Barton asked if I wanted to pop some wheelies to which I joyfully affirmed the idea.
From what I am told, they did a preliminary exam on me on the first floor. They had me on a table, but I was too far up on it to lay my head. I also couldn’t scoot myself down, hence Rachel held my head while they poked and prodded me. It was determined that I needed to be taken to ICU, but the system here in Peru works differently than in the States. Here you have to go purchase your IV bags and supplies from the pharmacy before going up to the ICU. Rachel wasn’t about to leave me. Thankfully Barton was able to take care of procuring the needed items while Rachel stayed with me. This was probably some of the scariest moments for her. I was unresponsive and deteriorating quickly, and here we are wasting time when in her opinion I really need to be hooked onto life support.
Eventually we did get everything. I can remember Rachel helping me take my boots off. I remember them saying that they needed to shave my chest so they can attach the heart monitor pads. Apparently I yelled, “Por que!?!?” in response to this. All I remember is Rachel saying “Esta bien”, me thinking that if Rachel says it’s ok then it must be, and going “ok”.
They hooked up the heart monitor, a blood pressure cuff, and a pulse oximeter. It was around this point that we – or rather they – found out how bad I was. Blood oxygen percent levels need to be high. Chances are that as you are reading this, yours is hovering around 95%. Most people that live at sea level ish and come to Cusco will drop down to 85-90%. Once you get below 80% things start to turn bad. Once you get below 60% muscle paralysis sets in. Once you get below 40%, you should probably pull out your invisibility cloak because death is about to come looking for you.
Mine was low enough that had we waited another hour or so, there would likely be no more Mitchel. They immediately started giving me oxygen. They also wanted to get me on an IV. However, be it because of the vomiting or who knows what, my normally easy to hit veins were not cooperating. It took them many attempts to get a needle in me. When I regained cognitive thought the next day, I remember looking at the many cotton balls taped to my hands and arms from their unsuccessful attempts and wondering what had happened to me.
Over the course of the next 90 minutes or so, everyone watched my oxygen levels climb. I can recall coming more to and everyone seeming to relax a bit when I breached the 80% mark. It was at this point that they informed me that they wanted to move me to a more permanent bed in the ICU and out of the emergency room area they initially took me up to. I thought this was ridiculous. I still didn’t understand the severity of my condition. In my mind, I had been in the hospital maybe 15 minutes, given some oxygen, and all was ok now. I thought their proposition was extortion. Barton convinced me that it was already 2:30 in the morning, and I might as well stay the one night. They provided Rachel a bed in a room upstairs, and I fell back asleep on a heavy dose of oxygen.
Around 5:00 I woke up really needing to empty my bladder. Problem was A) I have no idea where I am, B) I have no idea what is connected to me, and C) I see no one else to help me. After progressively yelling, “hola” for about 5 minutes, a nurse appeared. I told her of my need in Spanish, and she unhooked me from all the machines. However, my blood oxygen level must have collapsed during this event because she looked concerned when I returned and got rehooked in. From there on out, they brought me a “pato” which is more or less a bed pan for me to use. Oddly enough “pato” also means “duck” – a fact my nurses found hilarious when I brought it to their attention.
The next day consisted of sleep and tests. I found that while on oxygen, I was able to get the first REM sleep I had had in days. They woke me up to x-ray my chest and take a brain scan. The brain scan was normal (I know surprisingly), but my right lung looked to have an atypical infection in it. It wasn’t localized at all but spread out. A CAT scan on my chest cavity later that day revealed that nearly two thirds of my right lung was consumed. No wonder I couldn’t breathe. They took blood vials and phlegm samples of stuff I would cough up. It was found to be pneumonia. I was immediately started on antibiotics.
The next several days involved much sleep as I fought the infection. I was on two antibiotics, a stomach settler, a clot buster shot since I wasn’t moving much, a lung enhancer similar to what asthma patients get, and oxygen. They gradually reduced how much oxygen I got until around day 5 I didn’t use it in the daytime at all. I was incredibly weak, only able to stay awake for about 6 hours or so before I needed a nap. Granted the hospital cooking in Peru is nothing to write about, so I won’t. I lost fifteen pounds in six days. If you ever want to lose weight and master your Spanish in a hurry, I might have the plan for you.
Eventually on day 6, new X rays revealed that the infection had cleared up enough to allow me to go home. I would still need to take oral antibiotics for the next week, but I could walk again and no longer needed oxygen. What had started in my mind as a quick trip to stabilize my oxygen had turned into 4 days in the ICU and another 2 in the hospital.
All in all, I can honestly say that Rachel saved my life. She saw my condition and took action. She didn’t care what others may have thought or said, she knew something was not right with me. As I mentioned earlier, all it would have taken was probably another hour of doing nothing, and everything would have ended much differently. I never expected this to happen to me. I never saw it coming. I thought I had plenty of time. And yet as I reflect on it, I was powerless to save myself.
There is too much symbolism and metaphor with what happened to me to not be mentioned. Everything I have written – my helplessness, my rapid decay to a depraved state, my need for someone to save me – it can all be seen as a counter image to our lives as humans. My youth minister’s favorite verse growing up was James 4:14. In it we read that our lives are but a vapor, and they could be gone before we even know it. I came much closer to death than I ever wanted to be these past few weeks, but my plea is to everyone reading this. We are all much closer to death than we realize, and no amount of oxygen or antibiotics can stop that. When the end does come, what will wish you had done with that last hour? Upon whose name will you call for help? How will others remember your life? Don’t wait for a near brush with death to be able to answer these questions in the way you desire.