06 May 2015

Meet Petra....My Parasite

A few months ago I shared a brutally honest blog with you about how, despite appearances, my trip to Thailand was not "just the best thing ever".

It took a lot for me to share that story, but I am so glad I wrote it. The way you responded really floored me: telling me about your own failed trips or mismanaged expectations, and offering your support for my situation. I so appreciate every single comment or share, and your taking the time to read my little blog. Thank you.

And now I'm going to do it again: get personal and, yes,  probably over-share. The story I have now is one of a four-month struggle wherein I battled deeply personal things - things like feelings of self-doubt and self-worth - and explored thoughts which have never before crossed my mind. Dark alleyways. Twisting staircases. Lots of dead ends. Then, finally, a light to find my way back home - to myself. Here we go --

Let me start at the end: I have a parasite. Her name is Petra and she lives in my belly. She is the worst.

Street food. Was this the cause?

Likely contracted when I got Tonsai Tummy (ahh Thailand, the gift that keeps on giving), Petra has wreaked havoc on my digestive and immune systems for the last five months.  

The symptoms started off harmless enough. I came home from Thailand and had digestive issues - but, who doesn't have poop irregularities after international travel? "No big deal, I just need a few weeks to readjust," I thought. Then, I was hit with another really bad head cold. My second in two months after contracting a terrible bronchial infection just as I was leaving for Thailand. I was so sick I actually considered cancelling the trip...which, in hindsight, might have been a good idea....

I recovered from cold #2 in time to head off to the British Virgin Islands. On this (phenomenal) week-long sailing trip I continued to experience more digestive issues: gas, bloating, other not-so-fun stuff...you get the drift. No big deal though: I was on a boat for 7-days straight and many of us struggled to adjust to the constantly changing tides.

Dining in the BVIs
Then things got weird. I came back from the BVIs and struggled to regain my sea legs. I couldn't run any more - or rather I could run but never as fast or as far as I had been able to before. My regular 4-mile loop suddenly felt overwhelming. I couldn't run the hill back up to my house. I could never match my old pace. I needed 3-4 days to recover every time I forced myself to exercise. My focus and energy was completely lacking, and worst of all I no longer felt better after a run. Normally running always sets things right in my life, but suddenly I had lost my personal form of meditation. 

I thought a trip to Montana was just the ticket; that some time at home in the fresh air would do me good. I landed in Bozeman, then spiked a fever and came down with the flu. Committed to my plans, I powered through to ski three (super-fun!) days at Big Sky, but it completely wiped me out.

Determined to put this behind me (I'm an Irish-Italian Taurus after all), I returned to Seattle and set off on a two-day attempt to summit Mt. Shasta. We made it safely to the top and back down, but I suffered so badly from Acute Mountain Sickness that Theresa had to pack my bag for me before we could ski down from camp. Something was definitely off, but I just chalked it up to being so sick with the two head-colds, then going from being on the boat for a week to 14,000' with very little fitness training.

Climbing near 12,000' on Mt. Shasta.

Back in Seattle, my brain started to feel fuzzy. I felt lethargic and apathetic. I began to suffer from even more extreme fatigue - regular activity left me exhausted for days. I lacked motivation to plan any of my normal things. My birthday, about which I am normally very excited, had become this big, looming date haunting me when all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and forget about all of it. My stomach still didn't feel right and, looking back, this is the first time I realized something might actually be very wrong.

The downward spiral continued when I started bailing on other people's plans. I cancelled a girls ski day - ME! Canceling SKIING! - to lay in bed all day and watch Project Runway. Heidi Klum is pretty hot, but let's get real people, I don't even own a TV and here I was signing up for Hulu Plus.

Then there were other things. Smaller and less noticeable, but getting worse over time. I was experiencing joint pain, bleeding gums, trouble concentrating, and over-dramatic reactions to normal situations. For a long time I thought maybe I was just going through a few bad bouts of PMS. 

Great. My fingers are molting now.
I've come to learn that the life-cycle of a parasite is about 3-weeks. Meaning you'll have bad symptoms but they'll subside for a while, only to flare up again (just like PMS). This explains why it was so hard to keep track of what was going on, or why I felt like I was finally getting better only to be thrown back on my ass again a week later.

Eventually I came to wonder if I was depressed. "Is this what depression feels like? Maybe this is just what happens when you hit 30," I thought.

I kept most of this from my friends and family. I tried to stay professional and devoted at work. I have a great job, am in a happy relationship, and am surrounded by amazing friends who would do anything for me. I have no reason to be depressed, and was frankly ashamed about all of my inner turmoil. "Why aren't I happy? Why does life seem so damn hard all of the sudden?" 

Nothing made sense.

Then one conversation became my saving grace - a light at the end of the tunnel. Enter Kristi - my climbing partner and friend of seven years. She had succeeded in dragging me to the climbing gym where I told her what was going on. She mentioned our friend Lisa, who has also done a lot of traveling and had a similar post-Thailand experience. A light bulb went off. I came home and wrote Lisa my story. About what I'd been going through and how I felt. About how it seemed to get better only to get worse again. I told her I felt hopeless and depressed. 

And then she wrote back. I read her words as if they were coming out of my mouth with tears of joy streaming down my face. "I'm NOT crazy! Lisa understands me!" Lisa told me her own story and in it she gave me answers, gave my life direction again, gave me hope. I will forever owe her a debt of gratitude.

Answers?! Excuse us while we jump for joy!

A parasite survives by hijacking another organism (in this case that organism is me) and living off of it's nutrients (again, me), then leaving behind toxic waste in it's wake (my aforementioned symptoms). Over 100 different types of parasites can live in human hosts, and they're transmitted most often through undercooked or contaminated food. In some cases the symptoms are mild to undetectable. In others they are bordering on severe. I would say Petra was somewhere in the middle. 

When infected, your body uses resources to fight the parasite, leaving you more susceptible to other ailments (see: bronchial infection, cold #2, flu in Montana). The parasitic life is cyclical, meaning symptoms come and go, making it difficult to diagnose. Doctors in America won't typically test for parasites as they're less common in this part of the world, and again, none of the symptoms really make sense together. But armed with Lisa's story and documentation for my own symptoms, I got on a seven-day antibiotic treatment plan.

After just 24-hours, I felt a complete, amazing, life-altering difference! My brain wasn't foggy! My joints didn't hurt! I could get out of bed in the morning without struggle! I wanted to plan my birthday!!! I was me again =D

Glacier Peak Wilderness. Where I belong.

As an outsider, it's hard to understand just how profound of a difference this was for me. I can tell you all about how I felt different and it was like a "cloud was lifted", but here's further, more tangible evidence: before Thailand I was running consistently at about an 8:20 pace (for you non-runners that means I could run a mile in 8 mins and 20 seconds on average). When I got back, I struggled to do anything from an 8:45-9:00 pace. And I couldn't run up the hill by my house, nor could I ever even fathom the thought of running two days in a row. Well, 48-hours into the antibiotics I ran 6 miles (the longest run in over a month) at an 8:21 pace. Then the next night I ran 4 miles around Greenlake and ran all the way up the hill to get home. Long run, good pace, two days in a row. 

If that weren't solid enough proof, I took this last weekend to travel 34 miles on foot over two days to attempt a summit ski of Glacier Peak. We were turned around 800' short of the summit, but I loved every minute of the trip, and suffered none of the same fatigue or altitude issues as before.

I'm happy to report that things are improving, but my struggles aren't over. I'll have to restore the good bacteria in my stomach which were wiped out by antibiotics, and I'll likely have other forms of fallout as my body fully recovers. Just this morning I went to the dentist for some tooth pain. Eight years ago I had a root canal on this top-rear molar, and this morning I learned that 10% of root canals fail within 10 years, most often due to a crack in the tooth caused by tooth grinding. I know I'm a tooth grinder because my dentist told me back in February so I got a bite guard (sexy). 

What's the going rate for molars these days?
Well, you know what causes people to grind their teeth? Parasites. Yup. Petra strikes again. So long story short - this morning I went to my dentist who discovered an infection caused by a crack in the tooth, which ultimately resulted in a full tooth extraction. The infection was likely there to begin with, but having Petra in my body resulted in a loss of resources to fight the infection. Meaning - the tooth problem manifesting so quickly is a direct result of the Petra's uninvited squatting in my belly.

Which means I'm now down a tooth. But I should also be down a parasite. And while I'm not back to 100%, I feel hopeful that I'll be back to normal soon. It's amazing now to look back and realize just how much this affected me - just how important having good physical health is to mental wellness

I've also realized just how afraid I am to show weakness or suffering - to really open up to people when I need to do so the most. This has served as a good lesson for me in asking for help, and in being honest about things even when it's not all rainbows and unicorns. I will carry that forward as I continue my recovery, and I hope that in sharing this story I can inspire you to take stock of what you have and appreciate it, and fight like hell when you deserve better.

It feels so good to be back.
Thanks for reading. 

Kristina and Petra


MJ said...

Hi Kristina,

My name is Mary-Jo Robinson, and I felt the same sort of relief that you expressed after reading this blog post. I returned from Kenya in December, and have had the same exact issues you expressed. I couldn't help but tear up from reading this. And it gave me hope, which I haven't felt so much of recently in terms of health. Is there any way I could contact you to learn more about your experience and how you're doing now? I would love to know about what kinds of tests your doctor's ran, etc., to get to the bottom of it and finally figure out that it indeed WAS a parasite. Thank you for sharing your story - it made me feel less crazy than I have for months now!

Thank You,
Mary-Jo Robinson

Kristina said...

Hi MJ - I'm sorry to hear you are suffering as well. Your experience reading my blog mirrors my experience reading my friend's advice to me, so I completely understand where you are coming from. In terms of advice, you are welcome to contact me. You can find my email on my "about" page. I would tell you to insist on a stool sample - that's the only way to find the little guys. If you can get your hands on some strong probiotics I recommend that as well. And keep in mind it will take a long time to recover. I was sick for about 5 months, and it took another year to recover. I'm STILL recovering actually, but the good news is I feel better and better every single day.