As much as I intended to disappear for the summer, my recent events well let’s say, have been rather unpredictable. I feel as though it’s necessary to write about my experience and warn others who are also planning on travelling to Peru, or anywhere with a high altitude. The potential severity of altitude sickness is a frightening matter and raising awareness is the best way to prevent others from danger.
When I planned on spending half of my summer in South America, altitude sickness was nothing I had considered with great importance. I assumed if I was sick, it would be nothing serious to worry about and would have near enough no effect on my plans, just like most people would assume. But what must be made clear is altitude sickness isn’t always something to brush off; it can be fatal.
I planned on spending most of my time in Cusco, a city 11,000 ft above sea level (around 3,400 m) which is considered very high altitude. Most people will certainly have a headache and feel a little sick for a few days, it’s normal when there’s such little oxygen, and with most people it does pass. But what should be kept in mind is that it isn’t the case for everyone, and people should go with the knowledge that it can potentially kill. Symptoms should be monitored by a doctor if you’re not adjusting to the environment, and can develop into serious conditions such as HACE (which I will talk about later). My experience was extreme – if I didn’t have my phone with me/access to internet I really dread to think what could have happened.
After three airplanes and over 24 hours of travelling, I made it to Cusco more or less on my knees. I was greeted at the airport with open arms by my host family who I planned to stay with. They lovingly took me back to their home with kisses, and cooked me a traditional meal with fresh juice, they were so lovable. The Peruvian people have a way of making you feel so welcome, and I was ecstatic to have finally made it there. I let a sigh of relief as I believed the lengthy journey would be the most unbearable part of my trip -but I could not have been more wrong.
Within an hour of landing my head began to thump an unbearable amount that I simply could no longer ignore the pain. I can only describe it as if someone had tightly wrapped wire around the inside of my head. I began to feel nauseous too, so badly that I had to excuse myself from the dinner table. I was sick, and convinced myself and the family it was over exhaustion and I would soon be able to eat after a nap. So they showed me to my room, where I decided to sleep it all off.
Except I couldn’t sleep, lights out and under the covers (it gets dark and cold in Cusco fast). I logically knew I was exhausted but the pain of my headache could not allow me to rest. Two minutes later, I threw up again. And again, until the point I had thrown up violently six times within 20 minutes. The mother came rushing in, and by the state of my health after I’d thrown up for the sixth time, she was aware my altitude sickness came on strong, telephoned a doctor and took me to hospital within 10 minutes.
It was a nightmare at the hospital. I had been learning Spanish for weeks, and enough to feel confident to communicate, but not about this. Not when I was feeling so ill. The people at reception simply wouldn’t do anything until they had all kinds of evidence about my insurance, paid them money, approved of my passport. They wanted my insurance company to contact them to confirm that I had insurance, even though I already had evidence, and explained it would be closed due to the time difference. The service was poor, slow, far too laid back and I began to lose patience, especially as I was still vomiting and out of breath when I spoke.
But thankfully stepping into my bossy self, in time all of my papers were approved. I was soon safe in a hospital bed on oxygen, no longer vomiting and my headache vanished. So comfortable I was finally able to fall asleep, despite the freezing cold conditions. A few hours later I awoke by a doctor loudly shouting ‘Sophia’ repeatedly which sure snapped me out of my relaxed state. He said I would be perfectly fine by tomorrow, as long as I took all the correct medication I’d be back to a normal and healthy state. Everyone was so kind, and assured me it’s perfectly normal. Myself and the host family were relieved I’d be okay. All I wanted was to begin my trip with a positive attitude and venture out into Peru, so badly I didn’t care about being overly exhausted now. When I left the hospital my oxygen levels were still low – I wondered if it was really safe for me to be leaving so soon, but the hospital approved so I trusted them. I should have listened to my instinct.
The next morning, it’s safe to say I awoke feeling like absolute death. I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse. But I pushed on, I went downstairs for breakfast, dosed myself with 101 tablets and food, ignoring my body completely. I was due to go to a Spanish school where I’d teach English, but even the wonderfully optimistic mother knew I wasn’t well enough for that, so I called in sick. All of the family told me to rest, so I did and I kept pushing my symptoms to the back of my mind waiting for the tablets to kick in.
I really began to feel unwell, my nausea was back but I felt there was nothing to throw up. My headache had stepped up a notch and as the hours passed I was in pain and unbearably dizzy. I felt as though my body was shutting down as I was weaker and weaker by the minute. I could barely move, and as time went on things only got worse. At this point I was alone in the house on the third floor, except for a Spanish grandmother downstairs, and truthfully I could not bring myself to move downstairs to inform anyone.
Time passed and I was more and more breathless, I started to develop a really harsh cough which didn’t help with my breathing. I felt as though I was trapped in a room living on a minuscule amount of air, suffocating, it hurt to breathe. My nose then began to bleed, which lead to my face feeling numb and an unusual amount of pressure. I actually questioned if I was really dying. I had barely moved all day, but decided to reach for my phone and talk to people back home. I was in desperate need for comfort, I knew deep down I was seriously ill but I felt like I hadn’t even the strength to turn to anyone.
By this point I couldn’t really distinguish the difference between reality and the dream world I’m so often in. My head was spinning more and more. Time seemed to have passed by so quickly and I was unaware of the serious state of my deterioration. When I spoke to friends on Whatsapp, some questioned if I was drunk. People kept telling me I’m just not my normal self – my mum later described it as talking to a 10 year old version of myself. I wasn’t making sense, and my behavior was somewhat illogical, out of character and irrational. I have probably been more logical when inebriated truthfully. At the time I was so unaware of how truly strange my actions were. It all was so blurry and I felt I was in such a drowsy weak haze.
When I was finally in touch with my family in England it shook them. They were aware that I had been to hospital but things had gotten serious in such a short space of time. You only have to research stories of young people who have died whilst travelling to Peru, or even look at the symptoms of altitude sickness to see the level of severity it had developed to. When on the phone to my mum she completely broke down in tears. I was clearly rambling nonsense and everything she was saying wasn’t going in. I was so far from my usual self and also heavily breathless and slurring my words when I spoke – it was obvious to my family things had gotten dangerous. They instructed me to go to a hospital immediately as I couldn’t rationally think for myself.
By the time I went to the hospital I couldn’t even walk in a straight line or put my shoes on. Looking at my symptoms if I didn’t seek any help I would have developed HACE, which involves swelling of the brain and death (when your body fails to adjust to such high altitude). Although this isn’t common and will not happen to everyone, the symptoms creep in so quickly it can kill within hours. Thank goodness this all happened whilst I was in Cusco where I could get to a hospital – as I was planning on staying in Lake Titicaca which is even higher altitude and would be far out of reach from any help. My oxygen levels were dangerously low by the time I got to the hospital, and I was informed I had to stay on a drip and oxygen for 24 hours before leaving.
My poor family (Peruvian hosts and English). They were put under a lot of stress, my Peruvian mother broke down in tears too. Even after being on oxygen for 24 hours, as soon as I was off I began to deteriorate again. Some Doctors told me to stay, or trek with oxygen, or that if I felt bad just come back to hospital again. As wonderful and positive as the Spanish attitude is, sometimes you really need to be logical and honest about the situation as you can’t ignore the fact of the symptoms. Anyone’s life can be at risk and mine most certainly was.
It soon became evident I had to leave Cusco. I along with my parents agreed it was the wisest thing to do. The medical advice for severe altitude sickness is to descend immediately, which is what I did – so I flew over to the Capital Lima. Even at the airport, after having been on oxygen for 24 hours previously, I became breathless and dizzy again so thank heavens that I did leave. It was truly eye opening to see how well I felt again at sea level, and look back at my irrational behavior, I really was in a dangerous position. I still can’t move my arms from the ruthless injections, but it has made me appreciate home. I never thought I would be dreaming of England’s damp green and pleasant land or singing ‘brown paper packages tied up with string…’. I won’t abandon England forever, I’ve never been happier to be home.
If you are travelling anywhere with high altitude don’t hesitate to seek medical help. Don’t be fooled with ‘you’ll be fine’ if you’re clearly not suited to the environment. Don’t assume you’re over reacting, it’s safe to check your oxygen levels anyway, even if it’s for reassurance that everything is okay. If anything, over react and be cautious. Gradually ascend to a high altitude, rather than immediately fly in. If you’re headed to Peru start off at The Sacred Valley, then Cusco, and then finally Lake Titicaca when your body has acclimatised. More importantly, if you are unwell it really is better to descend – It wasn’t until I was in Lima I realised just how irrational my thinking had become in Cusco. I really did lose myself, and all control of my logical thinking. Oxygen is certainly is a temporary solution, but descending as soon as possible is the real treatment.
If you have reacted badly and quickly, (symptoms usually take 6-24 hours, mine was one hour), don’t ride on the fact you might be okay later. Be treated professionally, go with your instincts. Also watch out for friends and be quick to diagnose symptoms.
Paramonte.org is a charity set up by a family who lost their son to altitude sickness in Cusco. The information is very useful, including the Lake Louise test where you can monitor if your symptoms are mild/moderate/severe. This was so helpful for my family when they tried to judge how serious things were.
Yes it is rare, most people will adjust. But if you’re not adjusting after two days it really is best to leave. I’m ever so grateful for all of the kind strangers I met on my trip to South America. It’s strange how people you’ve just met can treat you like family.
Happy travelling everyone…
(And a huge thank you to my father who came and saved me too).