The Tough Spanish Sickle Cell Lesson
Once a sickle cell crisis surpasses my manageable pain threshold, it sadly becomes time for me to go to the hospital.
Hospitalizations always fill me with despair and anxiety due to past experiences, so I reject the notion unless I’m facing dire circumstances. My past experiences have not been limited to the U.K., where I live.
In 2010, I suffered a severe crisis and hospitalization in a little town called Avila, Spain, which is north of Madrid. I was there as part of a Spanish exchange program with my school. The goal was to be immersed in a different culture and improve my Spanish. Unfortunately, as a teenager wanting to be like everyone else, I made several mistakes, resulting in my hospitalization.
I was very excited to be in a different country and enjoy new experiences, including drinking alcohol socially outside. I’d never had much alcohol before, but I took advantage of being away from home. The exchange was in February, so the weather was very cold at night. Nevertheless, I stayed outside drinking with a group of people.
Alcohol can cause dehydration, which may trigger a crisis in people with sickle cell. It’s important to speak with your doctor about how alcohol may affect you, and practice safe and moderate consumption if you do drink.
On this trip, I exceeded my limits. Combined with the cold weather and a lack of rest, it was a recipe for disaster, and my first mistake. Toward the end of the night, I felt the pain circulate through my body before settling in my lower back. Panic set in as I realized I was having a full-blown sickle cell crisis in a foreign country.
One of my classmates noticed my discomfort and believed the issue was gallstones, even though I explained it was sickle cell. After this interaction, I felt truly alone, and concluded that none of my classmates would understand. My thoughts spiraled, and I assumed no one in Avila would be familiar with sickle cell. My rising panic worsened my temperament.
I rushed back to my accommodation to try and treat myself by taking what little medication I had with me. But I wasn’t prepared to have a crisis in a different country, and I didn’t have enough. That was my next mistake. As a result, I had to accept that the pain wasn’t subsiding, and going to the hospital would be best for me.
When I arrived at the hospital, I only had a paperback Spanish dictionary. I explained my condition using the literal Spanish translation of sickle cell: “hoz celda.” This didn’t work at all, as translating the words individually meant nothing in Spanish. Another mistake. My exasperated gaze was met with blank stares and confusion from the medical team. I kept thinking, “How can I be treated if they don’t know what I’m saying?”
I spent many hours in the emergency room, with medical staff poking and prodding at me to try and figure out what was wrong. Thankfully, they eventually found a doctor who understood. Between my teacher, the doctor, and my worried mother on the phone, I was able to be treated correctly. To this day, I still have scars from the incorrect cannula insertions on my hand, and vivid memories of a forced nasogastric tube.
I made several mistakes that led to my crisis in Spain, but the experience exposed me to the dangers of not being prepared or thinking about my condition. It was a tough but necessary lesson to learn. I’ve since discovered several tips for traveling with sickle cell, and have realized that poor care and lack of understanding aren’t exclusive to my trips abroad. It’s critical that I am prepared, no matter where I am.
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