-The Day I Thought I Was Going To Die-

As someone that suffers from general anxiety, there have been many times in my life that I thought, ‘I’m going to die’.  So far, and very thankfully, that thought has been 100% debunked by reality each and every time.   However, this one time, while traveling in Europe, there was no question in my mind, this time I was going to die!

In 2016, a good friend of mine and I decided to head out on a Euro tour.  We had purchased Euro rail passes, and had mapped out a plan to head from Ireland to Greece and potentially beyond.  I only made it so far, and this is a story explaining why.

I had been sick for weeks.  Battling an intense cold that had surfaced around Christmas time, in France.  We had successfully traveled Ireland, Scotland, England and the Netherlands up until this point.  Things were busy but going well.  When I became ill it was a couple of days into our stay in Paris. We had luckily planned to stay a few days in Paris and had booked an Air bnb, which was a welcome change from the hostel life we’d been living since November.  Because we had this quaint little apartment for a couple of days, I thankfully had a chance to lay low on a couch while trying to heal myself.  From France our next destination was Portugal.  Although I was not feeling well at all, I was so excited for Portugal and to finally see some beaches. I was still struggling a great deal and my throat was beyond sore by this point.   I was certain I had strep.  We made the trip down to Portugal and had a few long train nights along the way.  Once we arrived in Lagos and got settled at our hostel, I knew I had to seek medical attention for my illness.  I looked up the local hospital clinic and made the trek down there.  They had a look at my throat and handed over some antibiotics.  I was grateful and hopeful that this was the beginning of my healing process and that I’d be able to start enjoying the rest of our trip.  I was wrong.  Upon arrival back at the hostel, which felt like a million miles away up hill of course, I went to take my first round of antibiotics.  I had told the doctor that I could not have Penicillin due to allergies. The name on the box was in Portuguese but I assumed they were fine as we had just discussed this at the hospital. Of course, and again, thankfully, anxious me had to double check.  Google translate to the rescue.  They were not Penicillin, but they were a form of ‘cillin’, and I could not take them.  Back to the hospital, this time thankfully in a car.  I got replacement antibiotics and was even told these ones would probably not kill me, yay!

Traveling can be difficult, exhausting and stressful even in good health, but when struggling with an illness and always being on the go, it can be so much more trying.  This was not only becoming an awful experience for me, but it was causing a riff between my friend and I, as I was having trouble keeping up and generally not enjoying most of my days.  By this time, it was new years.  I did manage to head out with my friend and the hostel gang for the night.  We went down to the town and watched some epic fireworks down by the water. It was awesome, but again an experience that was overshadowed by my illness. 

I had been dragging ass since France, all the way through Portugal, and it was time to head off to Spain.  We spent a night or two in Saville, Valencia, and Barcelona.  There were so many places that were utterly amazing, but I just couldn’t enjoy myself.  It was so defeating to be in these beautiful places with the amazing opportunity for adventure, and I was just in constant survival mode. 

We were off to Ibiza, I was sooooooooooo excited to be on an island in Spain.  Beaches upon beaches and sunsets upon sunsets for days and days.  I wanted it all. I needed it all.   We rented a car for the first time throughout our trip so that we could venture around and see all of the amazing sites that Ibiza had to offer.  It was winter still so it wasn’t crazy party town times, which was ideal for us.  I was starting to feel better; my throat had cleared up and I was starting to feel like a real human again, well, almost.  I kept having these strange sensations in my chest.  It was like flutters, but also a bit like being winded.  They were short lived and unpredictable.  I chalked it up to just another fun new anxiety related sensation, I mean, why not right. 

This was the first time in our trip that we were staying in a hotel, vs hostel or the brief Air BnB experience we had in France.  Not only were we in a hotel, but for the first time since November we had our own separate rooms.  It was only for a couple of nights, but it was nice to have a space to myself for a minute, especially after all of the stress of traveling sick for the past weeks.  

The morning it happened had started off so chill and relaxing.  I had slept in, I was doing some drawing , listening to music and relaxing on my own little private balcony, at that time, in that moment, it was heaven. 

I had a ‘flutter’ only this time it didn’t stop after a second or so, in fact, it got ‘fluttery-er’. I went into a bit of a panic and ran into the washroom to look at myself, I could see the pulse in my neck, throbbing aggressively.  Immediate panic set in.  I messaged my friend and told her I needed to see a doctor and we needed to go get help.  The ‘fluttering’ continued and my heart was beating out of control, by this time, I’m sure at least partially fueled by anxiety but still not close to anything I had ever experienced before.  We went downstairs and started to walk to find a clinic or pharmacy or anywhere with a doctor, but within a few steps outside, I knew something was not right and said we need to get the car and I need to go to the hospital.  I was so thankful that we had a rental car, so so thankful.

We hopped in the car and started the drive across Ibiza to the hospital.  During the drive is when I started to realize that I may not make it there, and if I did, I may not make it out of there.  I was going into a spiral and with my heart rate at what it was, I felt light headed and that I was going to pass out before we got there.   My friend had some first aid training, and I kept asking her what she was going to do if/when I passed out and wanting her to assure me that she would ‘save me’ when that happened.  It even got to the point of me asking her to tell my family that I love them.  I was certain I was going to die that day.

We made it to the hospital.  My friend was checking me in, while I paced and panicked away in the waiting room.  Every minute felt like an hour.   Eventually, probably only actual minutes into my wait, I told them that someone needed to help me now!   My heart would not chill.  They took me back and did initial blood work.  At this time, I was immediately stereotyped.  An early thirty-year-old tattooed woman traveling through Ibiza with a wild heart rate.  Drugs.  It had to be drugs.  As someone who doesn’t do, and hadn’t done any drugs, this was very frustrating.  I assured them that I was certainly not on drugs and that I wanted answers just as much as they did, likely more.

They admitted me and got me into a bed.  This bed was in a large room with probably 6-8 other beds and patients.  My friend left shortly after I was admitted, and although there was 6-8 others in the room and doctors and nurses all around, I have never felt more alone in my life.  My lying-down ‘resting’ heart rate was consistently over 200 beats per minute and would not slow down.  They said that I was experiencing tachycardic arrythmia and that they needed to get my heart rate to slow down.  This was the start of the longest night of my life.

As I lay there in this bed, heart pounding and tears falling, I didn’t know what to do.  I had my phone, but for some reason which I can’t remember now, I couldn’t contact anyone.  They wanted to put in a catheter, I refused.  They told me that I had to eat, I could not.  They gave me drugs to help me rest and sleep, they wouldn’t work.  At one point they started to get frustrated that I was not responding to the drugs they gave me, but I strongly believe it was much more frustrating for me to not be able to rest than for them.  There was an older gentleman in the bed across from me, who kept coding all night.  They would come in and resuscitate him.  This was on repeat throughout the night and definitely added to my stress.  Between him dying every hour and my machine constantly panic beeping due to my heart rate, it was extremely difficult to even think about ‘relaxing’ not to mention, I was still fairly certain that I may be the next one coding.  It was about 5 or 6 am by the time my heart rate went down to about 160/bpm. This was a move in the right direction, but still wasn’t enough to get me out of there.  For reference, these days I typically have a resting heart rate of about 55/bpm.  This was not only terrifying but exhausting.  It was like running a marathon, but lying down, it didn’t make sense.  Within the coming hours my heart rate was low enough that they said I was able to leave.  As all of the paper work was in Spanish and most of the doctors only spoke minimal English, I still didn’t have any answers about what was happening, why it happened or if it was going to happen again.  I was released but wasn’t out of the weeds yet.

During the coming days I had some decisions to make.  Do I fly home?  My insurance covered this situation, but I would not be covered if anything else ‘chest’ related happened during my trip.  Not only would that be expensive but also my health in general at that time was a big question mark.  As much as my rational brain and my anxiety brain teamed up and said go home, my stubborn brain won the battle.  I had set out to make it to Greece, and felt so close to that goal and couldn’t ‘give up’ now.  That said, we still had a trip back to Valencia, then a long boat ride to Italy and a few days of traveling throughout there before we’d be heading to Greece, the final destination.  I was exhausted and couldn’t sleep well at all; naps were about all I was getting by on at this point.  My heart rate still felt elevated almost all the time and trudging around with a huge backpack was harder than it had been, even when I was sick sick.   We docked in Italy, spent a few nights in Pisa, Rome and Pompeii.  I saw a few of the sites, did a bit of touristy things, but for the most part was just pushing through and trying to breathe my way through the days. 

Finally, Greece.  We landed in Santorini and I was so thankful to be there.  It was postcard worthy beautiful, and I don’t know if it was the epic beauty of the island, or the fact that I knew I had ‘made it’ but I was feeling well enough to finally enjoy and experience what this magical place had to offer.  It was the off season, so very quiet and just oh so lovely.  We rented a car and traveled around to see all the things.  We saw the unique vineyards, lava rock beaches, stunning cliffside views, the blue roofs, and so much more. I was so grateful for my choice to stay and experience this, but still had a long journey ahead of me to finally get home.

We headed back to Athens, where I was going to fly home.   I was off to the airport and as bitter sweet as it all was, I was so ready to get home and healthy and sort out what had happened.   I arrived at the airport and there was a mix up with my insurance, and for some reason I didn’t have a flight home after all.  This was my breaking point.  I was sobbing in the Athens airport and didn’t know what to do.  I ended up purchasing a ticket with some of the last of my travel money that I had.  I had secured a ticket and was to fly out later that day.  One of the most turbulent flights I’ve ever experienced, but it was home at last. 

Once I arrived home, it was time to see my doctor.  I provided as much information as I could about the experience in Spain but only had Spanish paperwork and ecg’s to provide.  They sent me for bouts of blood work, which came back to determine that I had sever hyper thyroidism and was diagnosed with Grave’s disease.  In the coming weeks and months, I worked with my doctor, my naturopath and an endocrinologist to manage the symptoms.  The endocrinologist said that I was too sick and they needed to ‘nuke’ my thyroid, and or surgically remove it.  I was so exhausted and depressed by this point.  My thyroid was so over active that I couldn’t sleep, all I could ever feel, hear or concentrate on was my pounding heart.  It was exhausting.  I was feeling so defeated that I was fine with them ‘nuking’ or removing it, I just wanted it to be over.  I was taking upwards of 16 pills a day to combat my out-of-control thyroid.  On top of all of that, I was taking anxiety meds to stay calm during the day, beta blockers to chill my heart, and was even to the point of sleeping pills to get me some rest at night.  For those who know me, you would know that I don’t even like taking Tylenol, so this all felt, and was, very extreme for me.   My mom was strongly advocating for me to do everything I could to keep my thyroid. Honestly, up until this experience I didn’t really know or comprehend the importance of this little gland, but surely do now.  She did a ton of research, and at one point stopped by with 50 some odd pages of data relating to why I should keep fighting to keep my thyroid right where it was, inside me.  I was again so defeated, but decided that I would give it my best shot.  I spent the next months doing regular blood testing every 2-3 weeks, many many more days of many many pills, and eventually the numbers started to regulate, I started to be able to regulate, and the whole situation was becoming much more manageable.

I did a deep dive into Graves disease and what it was.   It occurred to me that I had likely had this condition for years and it was often masked as anxiety.  The episode in Ibiza was likely triggered by my being ill and run down and could have very well also been a ‘thyroid storm’, but that we will never know.  In the fall of 2018, my numbers came back normal, I was officially in remission and had weened my way down to minimal pills that I could now stop completely.  My blood work went from every few weeks to every few months and things rolled back into regular routine.   Since then, I can thankfully say that I have stayed in remission from Grave’s.   

I thought I was going to die that day in Ibiza. Although this situation was extremely difficult, I can see now how it has contributed in a positive way.  My ability to work through struggle is largely anchored in this experience, my ability to look at the positive side of things comes from being so deep in the negative side, my choices to fight when faced with hard times is based out of proof of success from pushing through.  I wish so much had gone differently during that trip, but I am thankful to have had the opportunity to learn about myself and to always know that eventually, in some way, the shit will pass.