The Tough Spanish Sickle Cell Lesson

Dunstan Nicol-Wilson avatar

by Dunstan Nicol-Wilson |

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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.

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How to Prepare Ahead of Time for Sudden Hospitalizations

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.


Note: Sickle Cell Disease News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Sickle Cell Disease News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to sickle cell disease.


David Isichei avatar

David Isichei

I think you were incredible brave in that situation. It could have ended far worse. I was hospitalised with a crisis in Thailand during working secondment. Luckily, there are many private hospitals there where staff speak English. They didn't understand what was wrong either which is why I never leave home without a medical protocol on official headed paper from my consultant detailing my condition and what doses should be administered in the event of a crisis. I simply requested the staff call my consultant's secretary to confirm the details, the rest was easy. Never ever leave home without a medical protocol to explain the countless painkillers and medication in my possession especially in countries where it may be illegal to carry.

Mr David Isichei avatar

Mr David Isichei

Also, having a full transfusion before any trip lasting more than a week is an absolute must.

Dunstan Nicol-Wilson avatar

Dunstan Nicol-Wilson

Thanks, David! That sounds really scary too but shows why it's important to carry this information. It's a great tip, thanks for sharing!

Stephanie Baker avatar

Stephanie Baker

Love the article! I totally understand b/c I had a similar incident only it was just a visit to Chicago, IL by flight to see my sister & her kids. It was a warm & comfortable 78 degrees in Memphis. I had packed a sweater & light jacket b/c my sister informed me that the temp in Chicago was in the mid 50s and it was windy. All I did was get off the flight and head to baggage claim when my legs, lower back & chest began to ache. OMG is what I thought, I was about to panic but I had to calm myself b/c I didn't want to worsen it. My sister knew immediately from my pause that I was hurting. Luckily I had my pain meds in my purse and I took it. That saved me from having to go to the ER. It was a valuable lesson still b/c I realized just how quickly I can go from feeling absolutely fine to being in pain. Thank you for your story!

Dunstan Nicol-Wilson avatar

Dunstan Nicol-Wilson

Hi Stephanie, thank you! Wow, this sounds like a crazy experience but so relatable, a crisis is truly unpredictable. I hope you still had a good time visiting your sister & her kids, thanks for sharing!


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