—  Ken and Vesta  —

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A Deadly Killer

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A Couple Decades ago Vesta and I were going to pull up anchor and head for Venezuela as soon as she got back from the States. Her father had passed away and she’d gone back for the funeral. I was waiting at anchor in Chagauramas in Trinidad for her return when I woke at 4:30 in the morning.

Something was wrong. I was light headed, weak, nauseous. I stumbled out of bed, groped my way into the salon, fell on the starboard settee. I was covered in sweat, not thinking clearly. I felt diarrhea coming on. It was going to be fierce. I fought my way to the head, dropped my shorts, climbed on the toilet, grabbed the rails and went into rigors. I thought it was a seizure. My body was shaking, out of control. Blood poured out my rear even as I vomited it out my mouth.

Then it was over. I’d sprayed the bulkhead in front of me with black blood. I cleaned myself, went to the settee and collapsed. Every half hour or so the diarrhea came. Every half hour I stumbled back to the head. Every half hour I lost more blood.

The sun came up, the hours ticked by. The VHF was on. I heard people talking, but in my state I didn’t think about calling anyone until I heard the Trinidad Cruiser’s net. The controller asked if there were any medical emergencies. Yeah, I thought, there is, but I had to work it over in my mind before I called for help. I was delirious, not thinking right. It took me an hour to get to the mic, but when I finally did, help came straight away. Before I knew it, I was flat on my back in an emergency room.

A doctor took my blood pressure, temperature, studied my eyes, clammy skin. “What did you have for dinner last night?”

“Tinned stew.”

“You have food poisoning,” he said. “We’ll keep you overnight and let you go in the morning.” I’d been poisoned by food in the past. This didn’t seem like that, but I was weak and in no position to argue.

Another doctor came into my room upstairs. He was a short guy, cut two feet off him, give him the ears, paint him green and you’d have Yoda. And that’s how I thought of him. Dr. Yoda.

“Roll over.” Yoda got right down to business. “Nurse,” he called out and in came this doe-eyed, beauty. “I need gloves.”

“Yes, Doctor.” Bambi handed him the gloves.

“Not sterilized. You don’t feel feces with sterilized gloves,” Yoda said.

Yes, you do, I thought.

“Sorry, doctor.” She retreated, but came back with the non-sterile gloves. I wondered how many rectums they’d been up.

“Just remember next time.” Yoda gloved himself, then stuck a non-sterile finger up my rear. “Blood!” He pulled the finger out. “Red, too.” The stuff on his finger looked dark to me. “You have hemorrhoids.” Then he looked at the chart. It said food poisoning. “Yep,” he said. “Hemorrhoids, opened up by the bleeding from the food poisoning.”

I was pale as paper, weak as a newborn, and this guy says it’s hemorrhoids.

“Some suppositories and you’ll be fine. Maybe go home tomorrow. I’m going to get some more instruments and examine you further. He left. Bambi left. I was alone.

Nausea came. I pushed out of bed, made my way to the bathroom. I collapsed on the floor, where I vomited a bowl full of blood. I went into rigors again. “Help me!” I shouted.

Bambi burst into the room. “Oh, God!” She held me till the shaking stopped. “Coffee grounds!” she said. “Don’t flush!”

I misunderstood and flushed, but plenty of the vomit had hit the floor. The doctor would get a good look.

Yoda careened into the bathroom.” What’s going on?” He had what looked like a pool cue case in his hand. “Where’s the coffee grounds?” Coffee grounds is apparently a medical term for copious amounts of black blood vomited up.

“On the floor,” Bambi said. “He flushed the toilet.”

Yoda looked. “Not coffee grounds, plain vomit. Don’t you know anything, nurse?” Then to me, “These people don’t know coffee grounds. Don’t you worry.”

 Bambi rolled her eyes, then helped me back to bed.

“I’m going to look up there and see what I can see.” Yoda opened the case and pulled out a stainless steel tube that looked like a piccolo. “You won’t feel a thing. It’s thinner than my finger.” He held the scope next to his index finger. “Besides, it could be worse.” He took another scope out of the box. That baby looked like a flute. It was humongous.

He rolled me over. Stuck the scope in. He was wrong. It hurt. “Can’t see anything, not enough light.” He pulled out the scope. Black, sticky blood oozed of the end of it. He handed it to Bambi who cleaned it as he hefted up the big mama.

“No,” I croaked.

“Have to,” he said. And he stuck it up there. It was excruciating. “Ah ha,” he crowed. “I’m past the blood. Nurse come look.” Now it was humiliating. Bambi put her eye to the scope. “Do you see any blood?”

“No doctor.”

“That means the bleeding is low down. Not up in the stomach.”

I lost blood out my rear ever forty-five minutes or so during the night. Around midnight I started telling the nurses I wouldn’t make it till morning. Around three they started to believe me and around four I went into rigors again, vomiting coffee grounds all over my clean, white bed. Four nurses were witnesses. They all saw the dark blood. The head nurse called Yoda at home and convinced him. They gave me an IV with some clear stuff in it.

I was scheduled for surgery in the morning. They were going to look up my rear and check out those hemorrhoids. Another doctor came in to see me. The one that was going to do the procedure. He looked like the guy in grandma’s bed waiting to eat Red Riding Hood. He also looked like a Chinese version of Tom Skerritt, the guy who played Dolly Parton’s husband in “Steel Magnolias.” How he could look like both, I don’t know, but he did.

“How you doing this morning?” he said.

“Not good.” I told him about vomiting up the blood and how I didn’t think I had food poisoning or hemorrhoids.

“While I have you in surgery, I’ll check out your stomach as well.”

I remember them giving me a pill and some water. A nurse told me it was going to be fine. I woke back in my room. The Wolf was there. He told me how lucky I was, because he was just back from England and had learned about the H. pylori bacteria. If he’d’ve come back a week later, they’d’ve cut me open, because I had a perforated ulcer, caused by the bacteria. It was easily fixed, he said. A couple days of medication to stop the bleeding, then a week of antibiotics to kill the bacteria.

I guess nobody in Trinidad knew about this bacteria, till the Wolf got back. Lucky for me he returned when he did or they’d’ve sliced and diced their way into my tummy and somehow I don’t think that would’ve been a good thing.

So now the official diagnosis was an ulcer, brought about by bacteria, exacerbated by food poisoning, which opened up the hemorrhoids (because doctor’s can never be wrong). However from that point on, they only treated me for the ulcer.

Still, the antibiotics didn’t work straightaway and I kept bleeding, kept vomiting till I was so weak I could barely raise a hand. Then, in the middle of the night, when I thought I couldn’t vomit anymore, I heaved up a great glob of blood. That’s a lot, a great glob is. Somehow I buzzed the nurse. She called Yoda, who fortunately for me was in the hospital.

“I think you might need blood,” he said.

“Yeah, I know.”

“But you should know, our blood isn’t exactly screened like it is in the States.”

“So your telling me, if I get blood, I might die of AIDS in two or three years, but if I don’t get it, I’ll be dead by morning.”

“Basically, yes.”

“I’ll take the blood,” I said and they ordered six units.

Vesta showed up just as Bambi (whose real name was Ester) was hanging the sixth unit. Turns out a friend of mine called her, told her about my problem and she’d come back early. I was sorry she couldn’t stay the whole two weeks she’d planed on, but I was glad she was there, especially because I started having a reaction to that sixth unit of blood.

I broke out, felt like my body was on fire, itched all over. Ester stopped the transfusion, called Yoda and they decided I could survive on five and a half units. Turns out, they were right.

What I had was the Helicobactor pylori bacteria or H. pylori for short, or shorter still HP. A lot of people get it. Ayatollah Komheini died from intestinal bleeding, most Iranians have HP. Pope John Paul II had gastric bleeding in the ’80s, most Poles have HP. Imelda Marcos had gastric bleeding during her trial in New York, most Filipinos have HP, as do most people in Eastern Europe, Africa, India, South America, half the world and yes, the Caribbean.

HP was discovered by Australian Doctors, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren in 1983. Many who have it seem well, but all have gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining, which is a precursor to many digestive complaints from heartburn to ulcers to the worst case, stomach cancer.

HP is responsible for seventy-five percent of the ulcers in the United States. It is as contagious as the common cold. Kissing, unwashed food, dishes not cleaned well are some of the ways it likes to travel. I’ve met other cruisers in the Caribbean who have been infected. In fact, I’ve successfully diagnosed it twice. If you have heartburn, if you’re gobbling up the antacids, if you break wind and its smell is horrible, if you burp and it’s worse, if you’ve lost your appetite lately, it’s time to go to the doctor.

There is a breath test they’re using now in a lot of places, however, if they don’t have the equipment, there is a simple blood test, they only need a pinprick, it’s not expensive, the results are immediate. If you cruise the Caribbean, live in the third world or have any of the above symptoms you should get tested. If you have HP, get rid of it, because if you don’t, it just might get rid of you.

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