A Cautionary Tale

Oct 9, 2019

About half-way through the flight from San Francisco to Chicago, I knew I was in trouble.

When I started having trouble focusing on the magazine I was browsing, I figured my eyes were just tired. Then I realized the seat back in front of me was moving. Not in the “look out I’m reclining” kind of move, the “why is everything moving” kind of moving that presages something worse.

Worse turned out to be a cold sweat, then cold chills and shivering closer to convulsions than I hope to ever get again. Uncontrollable. Unrelenting. And horrifying. I feared I was dying -and how that would ruin a vacation of epic proportions.

My heart rate flipped out my Apple watch and I was alternatively told “a minute of breathing can clear your mind and help your concentration” and “your blood pressure has been well above the alert number you set”. Neither was helpful. I knew something was going on.

Always the self-medic, I assured my now freaked-out wife it wasn’t a stroke or a heart attack. I knew and demonstrated the quick checks (smile, laugh, raise your arms, yada, yada) designed to make certain cognitive and motor functions were still in synch.

Based on that diagnosis -and a total unwillingness to be the cause of a plane chock full of people making an unscheduled stop - I told her I was obviously dehydrated and having a panic attack (don’t tell her, but I’ve never had a panic attack, and wouldn’t know one if I saw it). In my feverish brain, that was preferable to her effectively calling 911 with the attendant button.

Once the attendant saw the shape I was in, I knew it would be game over.

After gulping down two glasses of water and the last vestiges of a sports drink, the chills abated, the shaking slowed enough I could control the tremors and I got back to something at least resembling normal. Weak, but able to focus and convince her we’d be better off continuing than declaring a medical emergency.

In Chicago, I downed two bottles sports drink ($14-seriously?) and continued to recover. We flew on to Nashville. But when we got home, it was straight to bed. The luggage would wait until morning.

Morning, however, brought a second round of whatever happened on the plane, followed by a “brisk” drive to the emergency room. The ER staff took one look at me and assigned me a room.

What’s the point to this whole story?

When you’re afield, you need to be aware of all sorts of things, even minor ones, that can cause you bit problems later.

We’re all aware of the dangers of gunshot wounds, ticks, wasps, snake bites, poison ivy, you name it, and we’ve been taught to watch out for it. But some of us are more able to diagnose CWD in cervids than read the warning signs our body tries to give us on irritatingly frequent intervals.

In April, I broke four ribs in a (stupid) fishing accident.

At that time, my attention was so focused on trying to breathe or move without screaming, I completely ignored a deep scrape on my left shin. I had more immediate medical concerns.

That was a mistake I hope you don’t make.

Medical professionals always do a top-to-bottom check for other injuries- and treat them all. Unfortunately, I didn’t go directly to the hospital, I did the brave/stupid guy thing and tried to tough it out.

By now you’ve probably surmised where this is headed.

The scrape I’d ignored had been contaminated by good old Georgia pond water. And despite my cleaning it, I hadn’t properly disinfected it. The hospital didn’t treat it because they didn’t know it existed.

As a result, seven months later, I found myself on an airplane wondering what was up.

After a twenty-four hours of tests, my doctors determined I hadn’t suffered a blood clot (a concern for a stroke survivor when on long flights- and why I wear support socks-always), or heart-attack.

My temperature had spiked because of unchecked infection. Infection from my “minor” scrape in April.

In my defense, the scrape was on the leg that has given me fits since an auto accident in 1996. Soreness, discoloration and (some) swelling are long-established facts of life.

But ignoring basic first aid rules allowed a “minor” scrape to devolve into a serious infection.

Hospitals across the country know there’s no such thing as a minor staph infection. Mine, unfortunately, had passed minor some time during our vacation.

Today, I’m home, six days into a second relay of antibiotics. They’ve started to beat the infection, but have kept my temperature at a low boil. I feel miserable, look worse, and am suffering the effects of having been off my feet for a week.

That’s improving.

Later, it’s back to the doctor for more antibiotic injections. And to find out if my failure to follow basic first aid rules (debride/disinfect) in April will keep me from making a hunt I’ve been looking forward to for nearly a year. If the infection’s not in check, the doctors simply won’t clear me to fly, much less hunt in Wyoming. And at this point, shoes are a challenge, hunting boots are out of the question.

If you’re reading this while you’re scratching on a mosquito bite, worrying a scrape or wondering why your little cut’s still weepy, here’s a word of advice: don’t ignore it.

Dump in the disinfectant. Pour on the Polysporin.

Don’t let a minor thing become a major problem. Don’t learn from your own personal experience.

—Jim Shepherd