How the hell did this happen to me, is the first thought that came to my mind as I stared at the ceiling from my hospital bed with an in IV in each arm being wheeled off to surgery.
This was not what I had signed up for.
When people hear the words "international travel", they often conjure up images of beautiful people smiling and sauntering through sun-drenched locales, wearing white bikinis while nursing an exotic primary-colored drink in their hand. What people don't consider is that sometimes things go horribly wrong and instead of languorously lounging on a beautiful beach, you find yourself like me.
Sick and confused.
Don't get me wrong. I'm no international travel rookie. I've lived and/or worked in over 30 countries and traveled for fun to even more. As part of my job in international development and relations, I'm overly familiar with all of the precautions that one must take for their health, as I've certainly had my share of shots.
Through all of this, there is nothing that could have prepared me for what I was now experiencing as so many questions flooded my mind (unless you count the time I had food poisoning so bad in the Caribbean, I begged to die. Luckily, my request was denied). As the questions flooded my mind, I began to evaluate the decisions I had made over the last several weeks.
You see, a few weeks earlier my job sent me to Indonesia for a series of meetings and presentations. After just a few days, I started to feel strange (you know the feeling where you know something is off but you're not willing to pay the co-pay to go because you can't quite describe how you feel? Yes, that feeling).
I should have just went to the doctor when I first started feeling bad.
After much contemplation and fear that I was going to die in a country where the only people I knew were my co-workers, I ended up in an emergency clinic in Bali where I had to very nicely remind my doctor to put on gloves before removing my contact lenses. Major red flag, right? Well, when you're in another country, you don't have the option of being picky. I just needed to make sure that I wasn't going to die.
As a result, I was relegated to wearing my glasses in a humid tropical climate and could barely see because my glasses were almost constantly fogged because of the humidity. Eat, Pray, Love this was not.
Soon, it was time to go back home. Midway through my second flight (out of a total of four), my lower back started to feel strained. I chalked it up to having to sit in a tiny seat for a long period of time. By the time I arrived back in NYC, my back was hosting its own small internal bonfire. I got a heating pad and went to sleep and made an appointment with a doctor for the next day who gave me antibiotics and casually misdiagnosed me in a five-minutes-or-less examination. #Goingtothedoctorwhileblack.
The next morning, I woke up and could not move without excruciating pain and my pain tolerance is actually extremely high, given that I survive violent menstrual cramps every month. If I can survive that, I should be able to survive anything, right?
Boy, was I wrong.
I looked in the mirror and saw swelling that was so bad, it looked like I was hosting a tiny alien in the small of my lower back. The pain was so intense that it took me about 45 minutes of tears and biting pillows just to get out of bed. It was at this point that I decided I had to go to the emergency room. There was no way in hell that first or second doctor had gotten my diagnosis right and I needed a third or even fourth opinion because I knew something wasn't right.
After realizing that both my blood pressure and temperature were abnormally high, I was sent straight to the surgical unit. This was bad. Very bad. Before I knew it, I had an IV in each arm and a woman standing over me whilst I writhed in pain.
Pain meds are not my thing so when I'm asking for meds, you know it's real.
The nurse practitioner, a Black woman like myself, told me that because I was a "strong Black woman," I didn't need all those pain meds. If I had the strength, I would have drop kicked her right there. Even in my pain-induced fugue state, I did have the wherewithal to tell her that what she said was tantamount to medical racism, and if I was blonde and blue eyes and 5'3'' instead of Black and 5'10'' with braids, she would have never questioned how much pain I was in, which spoke to her own self-hating issues. I had a morphine drip and another doctor shortly thereafter.
Thank God, I'm vocal. If I hadn't been, I would have never known I had contracted a serious illness in Indonesia that might have killed me if I waited a few days longer.
So here I am now and, although I survived this ordeal of #travelingwhileblack, I hope I can educate other women to not ignore the warning signs of being ill. Especially when traveling internationally. I've also learned a lot about going to the doctor while black:
If something hurts, go see about it immediately.
I was lucky in that I had medical insurance and travel insurance that allowed me to be seen, both in Indonesia and at home in NYC. Do not travel without it. Your life literally depends on it.
It's not enough to just have travel insurance.
You've got to be bold about advocating for yourself. After all, it's YOUR body and you know it best. Every medical professional failed me to varying degrees in some way. From the Indonesian doctor who forgot to put on gloves, to the doctor in New York that initially saw me and casually misdiagnosed me, to the nurse practitioner in the ER who essentially said that because of my race I should feign imperviousness to pain. And had I not spoken up, I likely would have been sicker or dead.
Advocate for yourself.
Your health matters and it is up to you to advocate for it. Ask questions, demand the basic standard of care and comfort, and if you are not satisfied, say why. Additionally, when you know something is amiss, call it out. Too often as women, we try not to rock the boat and, as a result, end up drowning under it. Don't let it happen to you.
The most important part of your recovery process is you.
Would I travel to Indonesia again? In a heartbeat. This could have happened anywhere. In fact, I'm looking forward to it. And I'll make sure I have great health insurance and my spirit of self-advocacy when I do return, just in case.
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