Emergency Abroad – Why you should be prepared for any situation.
When a dream weekend trip to Ireland turned into a nightmare.
For the St. Patrick’s Day festivities, my friend and I did what most tourists in Europe do: we packed up and headed to Ireland for the weekend. Our trip started out in Cobh, a beautiful town just outside of Cork, and from there we were going to spend St. Paddy’s in Cork then go to Galway and then ultimately, Dublin.
The trip started out with a 6 a.m. flight to Dublin, on reliable ol’ Ryanair, and from there we were going to take the bus to Cork and then the train to Cobh. From the very beginning of the trip, when we woke up at 3 a.m. to catch a taxi to the airport, my friend felt pretty ill. We both thought this was a product of staying up late and partying the night before. I bought her a VitaminWater at the airport and basically told her to suck it up. As the day wore on and the journey to Cobh continued, she got worse.
She was pale, complained of aching limbs and joints, and had no appetite. She also had started to develop little purple dots around her eyes, which neither of us could think of an explanation for. Eventually it got so bad that on our way to the Airbnb we had booked in Cobh she asked if I could go somewhere to find a phone to call a taxi to go the rest of the way (neither of us had a phone plan outside of the one we had for the U.K. so our phones were virtually useless).
I returned back to her, not having found a phone, lying on the sidewalk because she was so exhausted from walking. Pretty luckily for us, a taxi happened to drive by so we flagged it down and caught a ride up the hill. Margaret, the woman whose house we were staying at, welcomed us at the door and I explained to her that my friend wasn’t feeling well and could she lay down for awhile.
I went out and explored Cobh for a little while while she rested, fully expecting that when I returned she’d have had a nice rest, slept off her hangover, and be ready to join me in exploring. This was not the case.
When I returned, she was worse than she had been when I left- she hadn’t even taken off her coat or backpack. She was complaining of a bad headache so I went to talk to Margaret to ask if she had any painkillers. I gave her one of these, hoping it would help. It was then that I noticed the same purple spots that had been on her eyelids were now all over her forearms and thighs. When I told Margaret about this, she was very concerned. We phoned the clinic in the next town over, and they said to bring her in. By this time, my friend was in a lot of pain and could barely speak. We loaded her into the car and brought her into the Irish equivalent of a walk-in clinic. The doctors took one look at her and immediately began to put an IV in her, and phone an ambulance.
I asked the doctor what she thought was wrong and she said two words: “Bacterial meningitis”.
For those of you, like me, whose only familiarity with meningitis was being vaccinated for it back in elementary school, meningitis is an infection in the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. It is a very serious affliction, and what’s more is that bacterial is the most serious form. It’s just as rare as it is serious; about 3 in 1 million people get it, and the hospital in Cork hadn’t seen a case in over 3 years. My friend was rushed into emergency in Cork and I was left bewildered, scared, and in shock.
She spent the night in emergency and then was transferred to the ICU where she was put in an induced coma and placed on a ventilator to help her breathe. Her parents flew out the day after she was admitted and spent every minute with her in the hospital.
We were extremely fortunate to have been staying in an Airbnb that night, for the couple hosting us took me in, as I was essentially homeless, in a foreign country with my travel companion ill in the hospital. They fed me, drove me to Cork every day to see her, and were the sole reason that I had a place to call home for the 4 days I was stranded in Cobh.
My friend eventually woke up out of the coma, spent an additional week and a half in the hospital, was discharged, flew back to Leeds, finished the semester, and then spent 8 weeks travelling afterwards with me. It was a pretty miraculous outcome given how sick she was.
It turns out that meningitis is common in places where people are living in close quarters (such as university housing) yet there is very little knowledge about the symptoms and what to look for.
We were really lucky that my friend recovered, but this isn’t always the case. Meningitis is not something to take lightly- once you have it you deteriorate rapidly, and if we hand’t gotten her to medical attention as soon as we did, the outcome would have been very, very different.
As for the couple that took me in during that time, they have become like family to me. At the end of the semester my parents and I went to go stay with them for a couple of days and we are hoping that they’ll come visit us in Canada. I email them regularly, and ask how they’re doing after two silly Canadian girls invaded their home and turned their lives upside down.
To be honest, the whole debacle put me completely off travelling. We had gotten very lucky in the sense that we happened to be staying with a very caring and generous couple, we were in an English-speaking country, and that we were near enough to a major medical centre that my friend could get the help she desperately needed. I was scared to go anywhere else after that, because if something went wrong again, how could I possibly run into such luck again? I was set to head off to Portugal a couple of days later and instead of feeling excited, I felt extremely apprehensive. I had been living in a perfect bubble of health and safety which was violently popped.
The moral of this story is that the world is a scary place, and being a healthy 21 year old doesn’t mean anything. You aren’t invincible and you can be reduced to relying on a ventilator to breathe in no time at all. After some firm words of wisdom from my dad along the lines of, “you’ll just have to get over it” I decided he was right and that I could either let this experience dissuade me from enjoying the rest of my travels, or take it in stride. If anything, the situation showed me that life can be taken away from you in an instant, so enjoy what you can while you can.
Don’t let the scary possibilities of the world stop you from travelling, but be aware that they are out there and they could happen to you. Always, always, ALWAYS travel with insurance, make sure you have a working phone when you go to a new country, and familiarize yourself with emergency numbers.