When I was growing up, something inevitably happened every time my parents tried to organize a trip: either my brother or I got sick.
There was the strep throat I got during an Easter trip to Harper’s Ferry, W. Va., and the infection my brother developed hours before we set off on a cross country car trip to see my grandmother in Saint Louis. (He needed shots of antibiotics in his thighs. It was not a fun trip for anyone.) Then he broke his foot and needed surgery less than a week before we moved from Maine to Georgia.
But as an adult, I thought I had put all of that behind me.
Not so much.
Oh, I’m careful. I don’t drink the water in Mexico, for example, and because E. coli raced through Europe this summer a month before I was set to leave, I religiously checked the news. I wanted to make sure it was safe to feast on tomatoes, but by the time I boarded my flight at the end of June, everything looked fine.
I arrived in Florence, Italy, late on a Saturday, drank wine and feasted on Caprese salad and bruschetta and pasta and prosciutto and salami, and by that Tuesday evening, I was in pain. My bloated and distended stomach felt as though someone had stabbed it, my intestines as though they were tied in knots. And I ran to the bathroom. A lot. I’ll spare you the details, but I will say that I wasn’t throwing up.
I thought it was a plain, ordinary case food poisoning, or a result of walking miles and miles a day in a 100-plus degrees. But as the week went on, it didn’t get better. It got worse. I tried starving myself—in Italy of all places—tried sticking to plain bread, tried guzzling gallons of water to flush my system, tried popping Imodium like it was candy, but nothing worked. I still got sick within an hour of eating and practically . I still got sick without eating at all.
Worse, my expensive, exciting two-week graduate study trip had become something of a nightmare to be endured. I looked forward to going home and dreaded it at the same time. (Spending eight hours on an airplane with a handful of miniature bathrooms didn’t exactly sound like a good idea.) And my poor husband, John, got an urgent message to bring more stomach medication on what was supposed to be a romantic adventure. (He met me in Italy.)
“I think you should go to the doctor,” my mom emailed after day five. “Surely there have to be Italian doctors who speak English.”
There were. My master’s program had provided a list of local doctors approved by the American consulate, but…..
“I don’t think they take Blue Cross Blue Shield,” I wrote back.
“I also don’t want to experience whatever tests they’re going to have to run in a hospital in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. Think about it. How do doctors diagnose stomach problems?” I told John, willing him to understand, to not make me say colonoscopy. “There will be tubes and it will be painful. I’d rather just wait.”
Besides, it was embarrassing enough to constantly disappear in the bathroom, to avoid an entire tour in Sienna because I was going to be sick, to pray I’d make it back to my hotel first. There was no way I’d be able to live down an E.R. visit. And I didn’t want our trip to be completely ruined.
I started to feel a little better after about eight days—meaning I had to run to the bathroom three times a day instead of six—and managed to grit my teeth and curl into a ball on the flight home. But I could just as easily have gotten worse or collapsed from dehydration. I was lucky. And stupid.
It was another month before my stomach felt normal, but I never did find out what I had. My severe abdominal cramping suggests I had picked up E. coli after all, but I didn’t have all of the symptoms, and after we got home, John developed what seemed to be a much milder and shorter version of my illness, so maybe it was an infection.
And even worse? After all the walking, the dysentery-like illness and forced diet, I ended up gaining half a pound.