Jess Fears for her Life

For Halloween this year I was supposed to be Jess with Cape, but instead I ended up being Jess Fears for her Life.

That night Jesse woke up in the middle of the night puking. I’d never seen him puke before. It looked pretty bad.

We were in a tent on the beautiful Isla del Sol, near Copacabana, Bolivia.


That evening we had stopped at a restaurant/hostel to ask about their menu and to see if we could fill up our water bottles. The guy working there told us the taps there had potable water. He assured us that it was fine to drink, that all the hostels there had drinkable water. I thought he said they were all filtered for the tourists. Jesse thought he said it was from a pristine pool of water nearby. Either way, he told us three times it was good.

Watching Jesse groaning and shaking while hanging out of our tent door, I wished that he wasn’t sick. I hoped that after he threw up he’d get better. But I was also pretty happy that it wasn’t me.


I’ve been sick my fair share since coming to South America. I seem to wake up every few nights sick to my stomach, and I’m not sure what’s been causing it. But not tonight!

Of course, we both drank the water. I usually drink much less than Jesse though – something I need to change, but also something I was glad for in that moment. Of course, my lack of sickness didn’t last. But it’s not what caused me to fear for my life.

I was trying to take care of Jesse, getting him water and whatnot, when it slowly came on. It started as an upset stomach, and eventually formed into us both rolling around the tent groaning and trying not to puke.

I wonder if they make him drink the water.
I wonder if they make him drink the water.

That night, before getting sick, and after four hours of searching and a day of hiking and not eating, we had finally found a restaurant we could eat at. The owner and chef was very kind to us and after dinner offered for us to camp next door in the trees and use his bathroom. Seeing us sick the next day, he brought us in for special tea as I watched the two of them play cards – “Mathematicos”, he called it.

Chef Pablo!

I went back to lay down in the tent, and soon after Jesse joined me. We continued our rolling about, this time with full water bottles and tea dangerously close to our flailing arms.

My stomach hurt more than ever. Jesse offers me some ibuprofen and I take it. I try to lay still and sleep but the tent feels warm and stuffy. My hands start to tingle. I want nothing more than to lay outside the tent in the cool breeze but I’m having a hard time moving out of weakness. I decide to just do it. I need to bring my sleeping pad, and I need to find my skirt because sometimes people walk by.

My hands gets tinglier and odd looking. I can’t find my skirt. I start to panic. I finally find the bag my skirt is in but I’m having a hard time holding it. My hands have started to curl in on themselves.

I stick my head out the door, wanting oxygen so badly. I call out to Jesse and show him my hands. He thinks I’m faking it at first. We don’t understand what’s happening.

Huffing and puffing, I make it halfway out the tent and lie on the ground. My arms start to curl in too. I can no longer feel my fingers, and my toes start to go numb. My legs are now tingling. The process is quite painful.

Jesse tries to stop me from panicking, but it doesn’t work. He tells me I’ll be fine but I don’t believe him. I’m not sure he believed him. It’s spreading to my core and I have no idea how to get to a doctor. What happens when it reaches my heart, my brain? Why is it moving so rapidly?

I fear that I’m about to die. I tell him I don’t want to. I think about the things I worry about normally in case something were to happen to me, mainly about if my purse would make it safely to the hospital with me, or what would happen to my things if I died, and note with interest that I don’t care about any of that anymore. However I do care that I’m not wearing pants.

I worry it’s the tea or the medicine, so I tell him I want to throw up. But I can’t control my fingers. He helps me do it, and it works. I make him put my pants on me, then he runs to get the chef.

They come back to find me lying half way out of the tent, pants half on, next to my own puke, crying. I’ve managed to wedge my hands between my legs to uncurl them a bit.

The chef simply tells me to be calm and it’ll go away. “How useless!” I think. But I notice it’s no longer getting worse. My feet stop curling. He says it’s altitude sickness, which doesn’t make sense at first because we’ve been acclimatized for some time. Then I think about the blood thinners I took and how I probably threw them back up.

I start to calm down. I breathe in the crisp outside air. Slowly, my body returns to normal, though it takes my hands over an hour. I wonder what we’re doing here, in this crazy place that keeps making us sick. But I know we’ll continue on and keep hoping that that’s the last time it’ll happen.

We go back to the tent, still nauseous and sick, take a four hour nap, and decide that we don’t really need to be here on this island, after all.

Goodbye, Isla del Sickness

I found out later that the curling of my limbs is called tetany and it was induced by hyperventilating. The blood doesn’t get enough carbon dioxide, raising the pH. So when you slow your breathing (or even hold you breath for a few seconds) it allows carbon dioxide to build up and your blood to return to a normal pH. Breathing into a bag has a similar effect. According to the very reliable internet, it is not life threatening. The altitude, lack of oxygen in the tent, blood thinners, being sick, not having eaten, and not having drank much, probably didn’t help either.


2 thoughts on “Jess Fears for her Life

  1. Jess,

    Passing out also interrupts the hyperventilating loop. This can be so scary and then people can just breath into a bag and feel better which creates an added layer of weirdness. Sorry you had this experience, but it is pretty common when people are under stress / lots of change etc.



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