Parasite Treatment with Ambisome

May 25, 2011 – June 14, 2011

In order to treat my Leishmaniasis Brazilienses parasite, I had to begin a 21 day, daily, infusion of a toxic anti-protozoal anti-fungal medicine called Ambisome. The day after I got the official results from the CDC I went in to the hospital to get a PICC line inserted into my arm so I could get the medicine pumped into my body and rapidly diffused by my heart. I didn’t know that the process would be so involving: I had to get surgery to put the PICC line in! I was quite surprised when I went into the hospital and they told me to take off all my clothes and put on the patient’s gown. A nurse came in and spent an hour sterilizing the room and her operating area, then began sliding a purple tube through my veins. It reminded me of trying to guide a bent hanger wire through a crack in the window to get the keys off of the front seat. She checked her progress with an ultrasound. Her ultimate goal was to snake the tube into the opening of my heart, so that when I am injected with the toxic chemical, it goes through the heart and immediately disperses throughout the body and does not spend time concentrated in any one area. She once took the wrong fork in the crossroads between going down to the ventricle and up into the jugular. She gave me Novocane but the pressure still hurt. My arm had also been bent flat for three hours without moving, and then I felt the bizarre sensation of pressure inside my veins. It is not pain, but uncomfortable awareness. A chest X-ray verified the PICC line was placed in the right spot. A game of Frisbee ten days later kinked the line and it had to be pulled out anyway. In the interim the PICC line had really limited my activity, and I could feel the pressure of the extra wiring with each heartbeat.

To receive the medicine I went to the Ambulatory Infusion Center. Each day I would check in as a patient, take the drugs, and head home. The treatment took 4 hours every day, starting with an injection of Benadryl to prevent any allergic reaction to the toxins and that would put me out. Then they would rinse the PICC line with a saline solution and pump in another liter to hydrate me. After I hydrated, they pumped in the Ambisome over a period of two hours to not overload my system. We got it down to 3 hours total by the end, pumping the Ambizome faster, but some days I needed a potassium or calcium supplement and it would take longer. After the random Frisbee game it took us 5 hours to figure out the PICC line was kinked, so they had to remove it and give me an IV injection every day. The nurses were great and I got a lot of reading, computer work, naps, and watched a few movies while getting a toxic anti-protozoal drug sent through me. I couldn’t drink alcohol at all since my creatinin levels, which measure remnants of what your kidneys don’t filter, tripled. I could have permanent kidney damage.

Within 5 days the swelling of my baseball-sized face decreased dramatically. Even better, my throat had pretty much healed already! And having the treatments made me feel progress. Life was moving again and it wasn’t all about Leishlie. Shalynn came with me for the first week of treatment, but soon I was using bringing my own Benadryl so I could stay awake and get some things done. By the end of the treatment I rode my bike to the hospital. Other than my kidneys testing poorly, I was not affected by the side effects.

Since the parasite was on the retreat, I started covering the wound again. The thick, black scab sloughed off. I began a wound care treatment that involved an ultrasonic misting; the agitating frequencies stimulated blood flow, thereby bringing in nutrients and fresh immunological aid to the lesion. The three weeks of the treatment drudged on, but with earlier appointments I had the whole afternoon and evening to celebrate a rejuvenated passion for life. I had finally beaten Leishlie! I could get on with my life!

 

Leishmaniasis: Inception

A winter in the jungle leading to a fateful January 8, 2011

After struggling with an open wound on my face for nearly three months, I found out that I had a flesh-eating parasite called Leishmaniasis. I had visited several doctors, contemplated empty theories, had chunks ripped off of my face in biopsies, and in the face of the growing realization of the situation I was in, I was actually relieved to learn I had Leishmaniasis. At least I knew what I had. I knew what I needed to do. I had known about Leishmaniasis and should not have denied the idea when the Bolivian doctor said she thought it could have been Leishmaniasis. While we were living in the jungle I knew to avoid the river banks and getting bitten by the sand flies because they can carry Leishmaniasis. I had even seen Leishmaniasis on one of the workers at the lodge; our friend Ruben had a wound on his leg and Shalynn – being the most medically adept with experience working in a veterinary clinic – gave Ruben his daily, twenty minute injections to heal his Leishmaniasis.

With all this thinking about Leishmaniasis, I finally figured out how I got Leishmaniasis: I jinxed myself.

Shalynn and I went on this trip through South America primarily as a volunteer expedition. I had just graduated with a desire to make documentaries, and so I wanted to help people tell their stories of how they were fighting to make the world a better place. Shay had just graduated with a degree in Zoology and wanted to become one of the people fighting to make the world a better place. She choose a volunteer position in the Peruvian Amazon in the Manu Biosphere – world renown for its pristine, primary rain forest and its high biodiversity. While there I was filming and photographing the lodge, the animals, the environment. I produced media to promote the work of the lodge, the Manu Wildlife Center, and their mission: by bringing in tourists they were to buy land and protect it against the logging and gold mining that are destroying the Amazon and leeching thousands of tons of mercury into the rivers.

My time in Manu was the most exciting period of my life. I had always dreamed about being a wildlife cinematographer. Growing up watching Steve Irwin, Animal Planet, and then the Planet Earth Series, I felt my true calling was to explore the natural world with a lens. In Manu, right after Shalynn and I got engaged at Machu Picchu, I found myself living in the most beautiful place in the world with my only prerogative to film animals. Beyond this amazing situation, the lodge was hosting a film crew from National Geographic. Working on the upcoming NatGeo show “Wild Americas,” world-class wildlife photographer Alistair MacEwan was filming Black Spider Monkeys and Brazilian Tapir. I stumbled over myself in offering help to carry gear, and within a week I was helping Alistair set up his camera and wade through the mud to put up the infrared lights in the trees. Some of his gear broke down, too, so I ended up hiking back to the lodge every morning to correspond with his producers while he filmed the spider monkeys during the day and then hiked out with dinner to help set up for the night shoots and stay awake to watch for wildlife. It was the most exhilarating experience of my life! We ended up getting a couple of great shots of tapir entering the clay lick.

His wildlife guide Marlene (Mar-lay-nay) gave me tips to filming some smaller animals. One trick is to set a sort of “pee trap,” in which you pee on the mud by the river that’s exposed to direct sunlight. The heat evaporates the moisture and the remaining salts and nutrients of the urine attract butterflies. Salt is hard to get in the jungle so far away from the oceans, so many animals eat mud and sweat to get sodium.

It took me a while to actually set up such a simple trap. Mostly I was just distracted by hikes and seeing animals. After staying at Manu Wildlife Center for 6 weeks, we moved on to another wildlife lodge operated by InkaNatura: Sandoval Lake Lodge. I got some shots of the lake’s resident Giant River Otters, took some clips of the lodge, rooms, trails and food, and then moved on to another lodge to make a promotional video about that one as well. The Heath River Wildlife Center is on the Bolivian side of the river that divides Bolivia and Peru. On the Peruvian side of the river is a large clay lick for Red-and-green Macaws. When coming back from a morning on a floating blind to film these birds, I set a “pee trap” on the shore at the lodge.

I finally decided to set this trap because we would leave the jungle in two days. In two days I would regret not having done this simple trick to see a bunch of butterflies, so after our group disembarked from the boat I hung back by the shore. After they left I let loose, then went to shower. I came back twenty minutes later to check the trap – there were swarms of neon yellow, bright orange, and phosphorescent green butterflies! I ran back to get my camera and lied down on my stomach to get some shots level with the butterflies. I set my tripod as low as I could to get videos of them flurrying around. I had Shalynn drop a rock nearby the thickest concentration so I could get shots of hundreds of wings scattering together up into the blue sky, above the brown river and the green plants. This was the shot, I thought, that could end a highlight video about the abundance of beauty in this region.

I spent about ten minutes photographing this urine-induced salt frenzy. Since I had just gotten out of the shower, I was only wearing a T-shirt and soccer shorts. As I focused on focusing, as I was distracted by the dozens of butterflies, I ignored the bites I felt on my legs. With the camera rolling on my tripod I rubbed my legs free of bugs, but while taking photos I just let them bite to get the shot. Each shot looked better, so each time that I thought “well this will be the last one and then I’ll get out of here,” I was excited by the results to take another photo, and another. I brushed off my legs. Some flies were on my hands and arms. I took more photos.

Shay admonished me for my carelessness; my legs looked like they had chicken pox from the sandfly bites. I agreed that it was dumb, but decreed, enthusiastically, sarcastically, confidently, stupidly, ignorantly, and the words I wished I’d eaten before it ate me”
“Well I hope I don’t get Leishmaniasis!”

We never noticed the small bite on my cheek.

Our Inglorious Return from the Trip of a Lifetime

March 15-25, 2011

We finished our trip in Chile, contemplating how fast time had gone by and how many amazing things we had seen in six months. Chile is incredibly developed compared to Bolivia; what really made me appreciate the difference between the infrastructure of Chile and the flims-frastructure of Bolivia was the realization in the bathroom on our first Chilean bus that I had missed the scent of chemical cleaning products.

In Chile we visited Bernardita, Shalynn’s sponsored child through Children International. We saw Pablo Neruda’s house and a few soccer games. We were anxious and ready to get home and to resume our normal lives again, to rest, and to share our wonderful stories and experiences. When we got back, however, all that people could hear us say is that we were robbed and then they’d interrupt to ask what happened to my face. My sister and brother-in-law picked us up from the airport. As we walked up to them at the luggage return, wearing our alpaca sweaters, the worn jeans that had been our daily pair for the journey, and me with a large hat and a large bandage on my face, Kyle turned to Shalynn and said, “Well its good we recognize you because he looks like a crazy man!”

 

As we visited family members to catch up and to show our photos and share our adventures, we encountered the normal apathy we were used to when coming back from a trip. No matter how long you leave for a trip, someone will ask you how it was, and you respond, “Great!” Then you have one sentence to sum it up before the topic changes to a TV show somebody recently watched. We were used to this from previous trips, but the only thing people would initiate or ask to hear about were the robbery and the infection. It seemed it was easier to give sympathy than excitement.

My family is not discreet, so I heard from everyone what everybody else thought about my infected state. One aunt asked me if it had any mental effects from the wound and asked why I had been acting weird. My aunt said my mom said I was goofier than usual, my mom said my aunt was worried about me… No matter if I smiled, laughed, winked or whatever, the only thing they saw about my face was this infection. In the end they were rightly concerned. I kept reassuring everybody that I would have it looked at again as soon as I got settled, and in the end I think their interest encouraged me to approach the infliction more seriously.

La Paz Again: The long low point in a long adventure.

March 8-12, 2011

After getting robbed in Carnaval, after exposing an infection on my face to booze, cold, crowds, and open air at Carnaval, after having the time of my life at Carnaval, the repercussions of our blended fortunes fell heavily upon us. We had all of our traveling gear with us in Oruro and decided that night to head back to Cochabamba to regroup. All the embassies were closed to celebrate Carnaval, so we decided to take a bus to La Paz to be there in the morning when the US Embassy opened up. I had never been to an embassy before. I was somewhat surprised, then proud, to encounter that the embassy was mostly run by Bolivians. Even though we are US citizens we were still carefully scrutinized before allowed entry. Shalynn began putting on her “distressed poor me” act to beseech for a rush order passport, and the embassy official could only encourage her that if it were a life and death situation, like any family who is sick that you have to get back to…

Thanks to her Uncle Earnest’s recent diagnosis of terminal cancer, Shay got a brand new passport the next day.

In the meantime we filled our days with dreary errands; we had to plan our route, buy some replacement items, restore our sense of adventure. More importantly, I finally resolved to find a doctor who could look at my infection. We found a public health center near our hostel and didn’t wait too long to talk with a doctor. She asked where we had been, when the wound appeared, if I’d had any contact with other people. We told her that we lived in the jungle for two months and she asked if I had heard of leishmaniasis – we both firmly negated the idea since it had been over two months now since leaving the jungle…

I understood most of what the doctor said and she ended up diagnosing me with some bacterial or fungal infection. She gave me a prescription for a cream, and then had me wait for something else. Soon another nurse took me back and had me pull down my pants. She stuck me in the flank and told me to come back two more days. All told, my first experience with foreign, free health care cost me 15 Bolivianos for the doctor’s visit and 80 Bolivianos for the medicine. Not bad treatment for $14!

After Shay got her passport the real battle began with trying to get the Bolivian customs office to give her a new visa stamp. Even through we had proof of us flying into Ecuador together and our flights leaving Santiago in 10 days, even though we showed them my passport and the date and location which it was stamped upon entering Bolivia via Lake Titicaca, and even though we had the official police report that we were together and that Shalynn Pack had her passport stolen, the customs officials said they would be unable to verify that she had entered the country legally. Despite having been in the country for over two months, their records of our presence had not yet been entered into any sort of computerized database. The only proof of our entering the country was a small stamp on our passports and a sheet of paper in a file cabinet somewhere in the one-room annex to a convenience store that serves as the Bolivian immigration office.

We returned daily for our punishments; I had a shot in the butt and then painful work of La Paz’s hilly streets, and Shay had to beg every day to get her passport back with a stamp. We wandered the streets looking at the markets, found our way to the bus stop to check on dates and the cheapest rides to Chile. We were cynical of Bolivia’s problems of corruption and a lack of infrastructure. Why couldn’t they spend ten seconds and sign a stamp on her passport? How difficult could it be? Did they want us to openly bribe them? We kept running into an Australian who overstayed his visa because he spent two months in the hospital due to a severe intestinal bacteria. He had the hospital records, letters from the doctors, letters from his employer back home, and letters from Bolivian and Australian lawyers. I translated for him. The customs official said he was unlikely able to help him.

Our will finally broke. We started arguing about whose fault it was that we were where we were. Why didn’t you wear your travel wallet? Why did you pick up his keys? We were drained from the daily errands, agitated, cold in the high altitude, disillusioned with our experience of an incredible country, and I had to get shots for an open wound on my face that had gotten worse for a month straight. At our lowest point we started drinking, then went to a crappy movie theater and watched Toy Story 3 and bragged loudly in English about how we’ve actually been to Disneyland, but then spent the rest of the night homesick for our old toys and home.

On Friday I got my second-to-last shot and we went to the Migration office. They said to come back before they closed at 5 to get her passport. We were really worried that if we couldn’t get it that day that we’d have to wait over the weekend and then would only have a week to get the 2500 miles to Santiago. We came back at 4:30 and I yelled and begged and Shay held me back and begged. We went up to the desk every 5 minutes to ask why it was so difficult. At one point they said they couldn’t find her passport. Five o’clock passed. By five-thirty they were asking us to leave, but we wouldn’t. At this point we just wanted her passport back and would maybe just bribe the official at the border.

Finally at 5:40 they read off a few names. Shay was called and they handed her the passport with its stamp. We hopped a bus the next morning after Shay gave me the last shot. She had food poisoning and had a miserable trip to Chile. I had a bandage on and hope that the injections I had gotten would finally get rid of this infection.

¡Carnaval! Party! Parasite! Purloined! The Open Wounds of Parasites and Vultures

March 5 & 6, 2011

Carnaval in Oruro is THE Place to be for the beginning of Lent in Bolivia. After we finished our volunteer projects, we went with 50 others from Sustainable Bolivia to the gem of Bolivia. Oruro is a beat up town of 240,000 people that hosts another 200,000 or so for 22 hours straight of dancing and drinking. After we past through an immigration checkpoint where we had to leave our trip organizer, Erik, behind for some BS Bolivian bullying, we all piled into an office building we rented out to sleep in. 50 people, one bathroom, CARNAVAL!

My face still bothered me, but we figured that we’d be on the move and home in no time, so I’d stick it out until we flew home on March 21st. We left Cochabamba on March 4. In three weeks, what could go wrong?

We woke up early on Saturday and found our seats. We had prime real estate in Oruro’s central square, a section of the parade known for being rowdy, loud, and very encouraging for the dancers. It´s so crowded and people started drinking before we got up. The parade starts around 8 am and the dancers dance a 4 mile track up to the church on the hill, which has an entrance to a mine shaft. A portrait of the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared in the shaft one year and so they changed the ceremony from honoring Pachamama (Quechuan “Mother Earth”) and el Tío (the demon of the mines) to honoring La Virgin del Sacavon (Mary of the Mine) and her battle with the devil.

Shay and I had an INCREDIBLE time watching the dances of Carnaval.

We had to get to our seats by going through a restaurant and crawling below the bleachers and pushing our way through the crowd. Then we joined the party. From 10am to 5:30am Shay and I danced and watched the incredible costumes. Morenadas DancersMy favorite were the Morenadas, which are dancers dressed with golden and silver masks of old men with large, multi-colored beards and rings of skirts. There is also Tinku from the jungle regions, la Diablada celebrating the angel and devil´s eternal battle, and everyone´s favorite dance Caporales, which is very high energy and has up to hundreds of men and women with bells on their legs jumping and kicking and spinning in unison. When the Caporales dancers make their run, everybody is cheering. The lead dancer blows his whistle to silence the crowd, then in a powerful charge, the hundreds of the dance troupe leap in unison.

Tinku Dancers representing traditional dance and dress of the jungleGringas from Sustainable Bolivia watch the dances, Paceña in hand.

There are also children dressed up in the same costumes, cars decorated with blankets and silver and coca leaves, fireworks all day long set off right in front of you, and smoke bombs. From the stands you can give the dancers high fives or – more commonly – pass off your beer or bottle of Singani for them to take a swig. One Caporales dancer fell several blocks behind indulging in this tradition, and as he wandered down our street, alone and stumbling, he accepted a few more offerings and then snapped into a singular charge with bells raging until he ended the dance with a leap, landing on his face, and a policeman carrying him off to the boos of the crowd.

At Carnaval everyone shares their drinks and their cheers. In the stands another tradition is to throw water balloons mercilessly. A guy in our group would have soaked a pair of old ladies across the street had they not blocked with their umbrella. Within our section bottles and bottles of foam spray met my face, shay´s face, everybody once or twice in the face at some point. Our bottle of mixer fell below the bleachers but there are children below selling cans of beer, and they´ll hand you your stuff that falls below. A group next to us was chanting for us one by one to try their beer bong. Eventually we were locked in by the restaurant and had to climb fences to get in and out. The street food was always good and always cheap, and we watched most of the 50000 dancers and 10000 musicians for 20 hours.

Then we joined the parade around 4am and followed it all towards the church at the top. We didn´t make it. Around 5 am we were sitting in another stand trying to decline glass after glass of Singani with warm milk from some bolivian guys who were hitting on both of us, and we decided to call it a night.

On the next day, Sunday, I truly reaped the consequences of my conviviality. I woke up after a couple hours of sleep, and the wound on my face seemed to have blown open. It went from being a small scab to a full open wound. It was still small (relative to how bad it would get eventually) but I could no longer deny the affliction. I resolved to get it checked out as soon as I could stay in a place for a few days. We had planned to go to Sucre, Potosí, and Tupiza on our way down to Argentina, then head across to Valparaíso to meet Shalynn’s sponsored child. We soon lost control of all our plans…

I hoped the foam didn't worsen the infection on my cheek, but still had too much fun.

We wandered around the city to where the water wars were much fiercer. Near the church on the hill every ten yards up there was another bastion of water ballooners. It looked too fun to me to miss out on, so we bought a bunch and climbed as high as we could, running the gauntlet of foam sprayers and water bombs. Right as we reached the top we were attacked by a bunch of kinds with super soakers. We made peace and threw water balloons hundreds of yards down the hill into the crowds. How glorious.

Except for it started to rain right after we got soaked. At 4000m, Oruro gets cold when you´re wet and it´s raining. We lost our will to fight, and when every little kid has a squirt gun and a bottle of spray foam CARNAVAL is a dangerous place. So we lied low until our bus for Sucre.

While a few other girls whom we were traveling with changed their tickets, a kid walked by Shay and me. We were exhausted from the partying and lack of sleep. She was slumped down next to our two big backpacks and our two small backpacks, and this kid dropped his keys right next to me. It seemed to happen in slow motion; I reached down, picked up his keys, and met his eyes as I came up. He smiled – in retrospect I can only describe it as a sly smile – and then said “gracias” and bowed. Shay woke up from the entrancing interaction before I did: “Where’s my backpack?! Shit someone stole my backpack!” She ran off looking for the culprit and I was stuck with the stuff. When she came back I ran around the station in every direction, checking the bathroom stalls, running around the loading bays, peeking into open doorways on the blocks surrounding the bus station. How could we have been so dumb?! We let down our guard at the worst time, in the most crowded tourist attraction in the country. We began to take inventory of what we lost: My laptop, camera, the engagement ring I had just given Shalynn at Machu Picchu. More problematically, we realized Shay had left her travel wallet in the bag. Bye bye passport, cash, credit cards. Suddenly our adventure would become much, much more difficult.

I left Shay in the security office of the bus station with our bags and headed into the traffic to find a Taxi. I sat in a car for a minute and quickly realized we would never make it to the Tourism Police station before they closed in 30 minutes in the gridlock of everybody leaving town after the weekend’s festivities. I got out and had to run 20 blocks to the main plaza, feeling my way by the cheers of people still watching the dancing. Here I was, totally gringoed out in my Felt hat and alpaca sweater, frantically running to the police. I fought through the parade (they stop from 6am to 8 am and then hit it hard again) and quickly explained to a Policía that I needed to get in. He took me along the parade route – I glared hard at anyone in the crowd with a can of spray foam. I submitted a police report with the BOOM BOOM BOOM of good times and flowing booze marching by through the wall. I had to cross the street through the Tinku dance to buy paper for them to print a report, and couldn’t resist dancing a little bit to get through the feathers of the costumes. I couldn’t believe our day’s fate. After the craziest party I could ever imagine, I wake up with an open wound on my face and end the day wondering how we are going to get out of Bolivia without Shay’s passport. All I could do was laugh and dance and trust that we’d figure it out.