Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Attack of the Arthropods

About three weeks ago, I went on a small hiking adventure in the evergreen forest at the northern part of Sakaerat. The high point (literally) of this little excursion was trekking to the top of another canopy tower. This one arguably had an even better outlook on the surrounding scenery than the tower I had previously climbed with Francesca back in mid-July. As I slowly clambered to the top, I examined the woods around me - observing the highest branches of the neighboring trees at eye level. I was hoping to stare into the face of an exotic tropical bird or perhaps a cute arboreal mammalian, but alas- the jungle was still and quiet that afternoon. Nonetheless, I was in awe as I looked around to see the foliage disappearing below me as I ascended up the tower. “Surely I must be nearing the summit,” I thought. But as I glanced upward I saw that there were still many flights of stairs left to scale. Eventually, I reached the peak of the tower and was richly rewarded with spectacular views of the vast wooded area that comprises Sakaerat.
The pinnacle of the tower soars above the crest of the canopy, and the trees that had loomed over me on the forest floor seemed like little bunches of broccoli from up here. As the tower and I swayed slightly with the wind, I gazed out upon the hazy blue mountains in the distance and took a huge breath of fresh air. There’s nothing like standing 40 meters (132 ft) above the soil and feeling the tropical breeze blowing in your face to make you truly feel alive. This was the top of the roller coaster.
In the zenith zone
 Of course, as with all marvelous moments – this one had to come to an end, and when I saw dark clouds on the horizon and felt a few drops of rain on my face... I knew it was time to head back down to earth. I scampered down the stairs, dodging rain drops as I went and praying a sudden thunderstorm didn't cause the tower to get stuck by lighting… bringing this escapade to a shocking end. Fortunately that didn't happen, and I was able to return safely to solid ground.
A very vonderful view of the vegetation
I followed the trail to the road, hopped on our trusty scooter, and cruised back down the hill to our house. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that would be one of the last few times that I rode that particular bike. I’ve grown awfully fond of our two-wheeled transportation and I try to take it out for a spin daily. Zipping through the forest on the windy wooded road with the wind in your face is a real rush. But about a week or so ago, one of the workers pulled up to our house in a brand new, shiny, sleek, jet black Honda scooter. He parked it and then sped off with our old ride, smiling and waving while I watched him roll away – utterly bewildered. Clearly we had gotten a new bike, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. The old one definitely had its fair share of bumps and bruises, but that gave it character… and it worked just fine. As it turns out, the snake team had requested a new bike so that they didn’t have to use their truck as much and would therefore save gas. Thus, Taksin decided to buy us a new bike instead and give them our old one. Works for me! The new cycle is super smooth, and I love riding it even more. I do miss my mountain bike though…
Tesco and I toolin' around on our two new tires
That evening we made dinner as usual and then I went out with Sara to search the pond for frogs at night. This was my first time on the evening shift… for the two weeks prior I had been going out at dawn. We headed down around 9 pm, scanned the lower dam pond thoroughly (can’t remember if we found any frogs) then went to bed around 11ish. It was a very normal evening (for us).
Our beloved study subject - "Hanz"
The next morning, I woke up with a MASSIVE hangover. Now, wait a second… I didn’t say anything about partying, what’s going on here? Your guess is (well, was) as good as mine. No, we weren’t popping bottles while looking for frogs. Although… that could probably result in some pretty entertaining experiments… (I’m just kidding Mom. And Sheila, if you read this…) but I digress.
It ain't easy being green...
I didn't actually have a hangover (unlike Kermit) but I could feel a throbbing pressure behind my eyes, and I was extraordinarily groggy. My head was aching and I didn't feel like being asleep or awake. I drank a bunch of water, thinking perhaps I was simply dehydrated… and then I tried to rest in my hammock to allow this uncomfortable headache to pass. Unfortunately, I had no such luck. I spent the rest of the day feeling weak and lethargic, for no known reason.
This is what I did... and felt like, all day
That evening, we headed up to the station for dinner and I noticed that I was a bit chilly, which was odd considering it’s really never cold here. I didn’t eat much; I mostly just felt like cuddling up with some warm blankets and sleeping this thing off. I dreaded having to go into the pond that night. Mercifully, Sheila could sense something was wrong and told me to go get some rest for a bit before my shift. She didn’t have to tell me twice, and I shuffled down the road… anxious to get under the covers. While lying there pathetically, I was trying to think of how to inform Sheila that I really didn’t feel up to going in the pond that night. Just as I was starting to drift off to sleep, she came in to the room and told me that she would go out in my place so I could rest and hopefully feel better. Talk about a huge relief!
The cat saw the whole thing

At this point, I need to bring up how exceptionally thankful I am to be working for someone so thoughtful and perceptive. Not to mention fun, smart, and just generally a pleasure to be around. Sheila is always going out of her way to make sure everybody is happy. In fact – everyone I’m working with here is really great, which is super lucky considering one way or the other we are stuck with each other for four months. So needless to say, I’m extremely glad to be surrounded by cool people.
Here's Sheila getting excited about one of the clutches. Clearly she is awesome
I didn’t sleep well at all that night, shifting between being overly hot and cold… all while continuously suffering from this agonizing strain behind my eyes. The next morning I woke up feeling a little better, but not by much. The excessive force behind my eyes persisted, and overall I was rather sluggish throughout the day. I tried sleeping a lot, and basically did nothing all afternoon… again. Luckily my stomach was fine and I could eat plenty with no problem… but all I really felt like doing was resting. Sheila went out again for me that evening, and I headed to bed early hoping to put this awful headache/fever to rest for good. She kindly left some Nyquil out for me, which I gratefully took advantage of later while restlessly heading to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Thankfully, I slept a bit better than the night before.
How I imagine I looked
The following day I arose feeling noticeably better, slightly less groggy, and very hopeful that I was nearing the end of this inconvenient illness. I put on my pants just like the King does… one leg at a time, and then headed out to join the others at the breakfast table. Yuki, a visiting research student from Japan, was there along with Taksin and they were chatting with Sara and Francesca. I poured myself some cereal and then sat down to join them. Or at least, I tried to sit down… but as soon as I bent my knees, I suddenly felt an extremely sharp and painful prick – directly in the middle of my right butt cheek. OUCH! I didn’t actually yell though, so as to avoid raising alarm about this awkward issue before I knew exactly what was going on. I just sprung up and made what Sara later described as a tremendously amusing expression of uncomfortable surprise… and then quickly retired to my room. I was tempted to drop my drawers right then and there at the table to figure out what was going on, but I didn’t want to be lookin’ like a fool with my pants on the ground in front of our guests.
After all we're not in Key West...
As I swiftly shut the door behind me, I was slightly anxious and very confused. My first thought was that perhaps a large thorn had gotten caught in my pants… since it felt kind of like getting pierced with something spiky. So I tried simply pulling the seat of my pants away from my bum and awkwardly twisting my neck to see if I could notice anything stuck there. Then all of a sudden I felt another prick, this time on my thigh. At this point (pun intended) my worst fears were confirmed… Something was in my pants and it wanted out! I stripped down as fast as possible and stepped away from the britches hastily. After making sure I had nothing on me… I carefully picked up my pants and peered inside, apprehensive about what I might find. At first I couldn’t see anything, but as I shifted the fabric a bit… this little guy stared up at me from the folds.
Isn't he beautiful?
Just kidding! That’s actually a poison dart frog that I helped raise while interning at the Reptile House in the National Zoo. His species (Dendrobates azureus) is originally from South America and thanks to not being fed his native diet of rainforest ants – he is completely harmless. Here’s the real culprit: 
The terrible trouser tenant
Yikes! On the list of things I want in my pants, this guy is pretty much at the bottom. To be honest, it wasn't this exact specimen… this is one we found in our room earlier in the season, but it was the same species. I put on some shorts (after checking them very thoroughly for unwanted visitors) and then walked out to the dining area to calmly let everyone know that I had just gotten stung by a scorpion. It hurt pretty badly… the closest thing I can compare it to is getting stung by wasp. Talk about adding insult to injury. Of course this happened as soon as I was starting to feel a little better too, that’s just my luck.

Taksin assured me my antibodies would kick in and take care of everything, so I wouldn't need to go to the hospital. Yuki was fascinated by this phenomenon and took many pictures of the scorpion waltzing around proudly within my pants… which I had brought out to show everybody. Sara went to get me some Benadryl and in the process woke up Sheila, who came down to congratulate me for being the first of any of her field assistants to get stung by a scorpion. Woo hoo! I took some of the Bendaryl and then talked and laughed with the others about the whole thing, and luckily the pain was fading quickly. Likewise my ability to stay awake was fading quickly, thanks to the drowsy side effects of medicine. Before long I was back in bed, sleeping the day away again.
Some days, it really is better to just not get up
I got back up later that afternoon, weary from sleeping so much. I did feel much better though, all things considered. I decided I would go out in the pond that evening if I was able to maintain my energy level. After dinner I was still feeling much stronger than the previous days and although I wasn't back to 100% yet, I went out with Sara in the pond that night anyhow.
I missed my froggy friends
Unfortunately, we returned empty-handed again. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that we still haven’t gotten much rain. Every once in a while it sprinkles for a short period, and we've had one or two good downpours, but nothing close to what you would expect from a rainy season. In fact, the upper dam pond – our other study site, is currently completely dry. This is a major bummer, and is severely limiting the amount of work we've been able to do. I’m sure climate change has something to do with this…
Where the upper dam pond used to be

The next morning, I woke up feeling pretty good… but the stress on the back of my eyes was still there. I figured it had to go away soon, and didn’t think much of it. Later that afternoon Sheila asked me how I was feeling, and I told her I was doing much better – minus the fact that my eyes were still bothering me. Then she recalled that pain behind the eyes is a symptom of dengue fever, and showed me the list of other symptoms to see if possibly that could be the cause of all this agony. Dengue is transmitted by mosquitoes (nasty buggers) and is famous for causing pain in your muscles and joints. I did experience a bit of soreness in my calves, but I figured that was because I hadn’t been walking. I was never nauseous and I only had a legit fever for a very short time. I was skeptical, but Sheila suggested we go to the local hospital to take a blood test, since it would be very easy for them to determine if I had it or not. Unluckily, Mike happened to be feeling sick at the same time… except he was suffering from food poisoning and had a whole different set of problems. So, he came along to see if he could get any medicines to settle his stomach.

An administrative worker from the station drove us there and accompanied us while we were in the hospital to help explain what was happening with us to the employees there. She didn't speak too much English, but she knew what we were suffering from thanks to Taksin informing her before we left, so she was a big help. We waited on a concrete outdoor patio to get looked at, and while we were waiting I saw a lot of old people being pushed around in wheel chairs with huge patches over their eyes. I thought to myself that I wouldn't mention that my eyes were bothering me, in case they tried to pop one out or do whatever they were doing to these poor old people. Finally we were called, and I went with the Sakaerat worker to the second floor to get the blood sample taken, while Sheila went with Mike to another area so he could be examined. On the way there, I snapped a picture of this little gem.

Who needs a yoga mat anyways?
The blood draw went smoothly, and then we returned back to the waiting area to hang around while they processed the sample, which would take approximately half an hour. I dozed off while we were sitting there, partly because I was tired and partly because I didn’t want to see any more old people without eyeballs. Sheila told me that they were just getting their retinas cut or something, but I was unconvinced. 

Finally someone came out and called for us, and Sheila prodded me awake. We walked into an adjacent room and then two doctors, or at least medical personnel, showed me a chart with lots of numbers on it. I sat down in a chair while Sheila looked over my shoulder. They pointed to my white blood cell levels and then my platelet count and then said some things I couldn’t understand, followed by the word “Dengue.” I still didn’t know whether I had it or not, but Sheila had gathered that thanks to my low white blood cell count and decreased platelet levels…. I was in fact, infected.

At this time, I will admit that this has been lengthy blog post to simply let you all know that I got stung by a scorpion and infected with Dengue fever. Sorry ‘bout it. I enjoy embellishing, and hopefully you benefit from it by having something entertaining to read. However, I will now do my best to wrap up this story swiftly. 

Standard procedure when you’re infected is to be held in a hospital for a week, according to Sheila. That allows them to monitor your condition and make sure you don’t infect anyone else. Thankfully, I wasn’t going to have to have to stay with the eyeball-seizing people… instead Sheila took me to the hospital in Korat. First though, we returned to Sakaerat so I could pack a bag with clothes for the next week and entertainment, etc. Sheila packed a bag for a couple nights too; she was going to stay with me for the beginning of my tenure there to make sure everything went smoothly. Told ya she was awesome.

This was going to leave the rest of our team in a tough spot… Mike was still suffering from his food poisoning, and Tesco’s knee was not yet healed enough that she felt comfortable doing a pond search. So that just left Sara to survey the pond, but sensibly Sheila said she only had to survey at night… rather than trying to do both shifts (night and dawn) by herself. 

Then, Sheila and I got in the truck and started off on the hour drive to Bangkok Hospital in Korat. When we got there I was very impressed. It’s quite a large building, with a fancy lobby and a large front wall/window of glass. The nicely dressed woman that greeted us when we walked in spoke a bit of English and directed us to the second floor for international check-in. 

We waited around a bit, and then were eventually addressed by a nice nurse that spoke English quite well. They took my passport and basic information, and asked me questions about how I was feeling. One of her first questions was, “Are you tired?” I was in fact very tired, having been riding in the car and waiting around almost all afternoon. At this point it was about 8 pm, and I was ready for bed. So I told her, “Yes.”

I didn’t expect that answer to accomplish much, but she immediately summoned some guy that must have been waiting around the corner… and he rolled up with a wheel chair for me to sit in. This made me feel kind of ridiculous, I could still walk just fine… but I took them up on the offer anyhow. And it was definitely a nice break from standing around. 
This is how I roll

Then they rolled me down the hall where a nurse took my temperature and blood pressure, and found them both to be normal. After that I just had to wait a bit more to be seen by a doctor. 

Eventually, I was wheeled into his office… and he talked with us for a bit. The conversation was brief and it basically boiled down to this: I didn’t need to stay in the hospital since I didn’t have a fever and could eat fine, which meant that the worst of the disease had already run its course. Sweetness! Sheila asked some questions about what would happen if I contacted Dengue again, and he told us that it would be much worse… but that it would be impossible for me to get it again this year. Not sure how that makes sense, but whatever… I was just happy to be going home. He also said I would be able to transmit the disease for a week. So I was going to have to be very careful not to get bitten by any mosquitoes.

Then we headed to the check out desk, where I had to pay some small fees for the Tylenol that he prescribed me and the excellent service I had received while being wheeled around. I filed a claim with DAN, the company that I had gotten travel insurance through… but they were only going to reimburse me, so I paid out of pocket. The whole cost was only about 540 baht, (less than $20) but I was thankful I didn’t stay there for a whole week and then have to fork up the funds for it. 

Finally, we headed home… both of us very relieved. I hopped in bed immediately when we got back, and slept all night and most of the next day. The following week I recovered quickly, and was careful to wear long pants and sleeves in order to protect myself from the skeeters and everyone else from the fever. After that week, I was totally fine. Just in time too, as Sheila’s sister came to visit and we went on another field trip to check out some awesome Khmer ruins. That’s the next story. Until then, Peace Out!

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