Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Sickness & Travel: How to Deal

My ultimate low in travel-related illness came when Stylish was three years old.  The two of us were on our way back to Canada from Spain, and we both had rotavirus.  Every ounce of liquid I forced into her came right back out.  Waiting for a connecting flight in Philadelphia, Stylish went Exorcist on our last clean clothes.  As I stood in the airport bathroom in my underwear, washing my preschooler in the sink and wondering what shirt I could rinse well enough to wear home, I knew I had hit bottom.  Parenthood is a humbling reminder that even the most elegant and cool among us will smell of baby vomit from time to time.

We are on our way home from holidays, and, once again, we are one man down.  When we booked, I was annoyed that our flight schedule would force us to stay an extra night in Cairns.  Now, I am grateful that we have an extra day to chase the bugs away before getting back on a plane.

Illness happens.  Anyone with a school-age child or a family member who travels understands that viruses invade with depressing regularity.  And cruisers, moving from place to place, joining one community after another, understand this as well as anyone.  Sometimes there is a clinic nearby - sometimes not.  So, what do you do to stay healthy on the water, and to fight sickness when it comes?

Watch your water
If you've ever been on vacation, chances are you've experienced the fun of Montezuma's Revenge.  You can avoid the typical culprits: don't accept ice cubes or untreated tap water.  But, my cruising friend, you are going to have to fill those water tanks somehow.  Before you fill, check and double-check where that water comes from and how it is treated.  We chose to collect rainwater throughout the Caribbean.  Before crossing the Pacific, we installed a second-hand watermaker because we knew we wouldn't be able to rely on the water sources between Panama and New Zealand.  You can't live without clean water, so don't neglect your supply.

Prep your pharmacy
Every cruiser should have an emergency kit aboard.  Antibiotics for everyone, burn pads, a suture kit, gauze pads, medical tape... make a master list, assemble it, and replace items as they expire/are used.  You can't pop down to CVS on passage.  We've visited islands with no doctor - just a nurse and a quickly-diminishing supply of acetaminophen.  For kids, ask your pharmacist to leave the antibiotics in powder form, with clear instructions how to mix them yourself.

The rule is: if you might need it, you have to bring it yourself.  Be ready.

Do your homework
Some of your health strategy will depend on where you are going.  Look ahead.  If you are heading into a malaria-prone area, act accordingly.  Planning to fish?  Check for ciguatera before you cast your line.  Wherever you go, take the time to find out about local health issues, and make a plan.

Eat your veggies
This is no time to be picky.  Branch out, kids.  Nobody can live forever on tinned peas, so get used to trying whatever fruits and veggies grow locally.  You need the vitamins.

Take a course
Before we set out back in the day, Erik and I took an offshore medicine course with St John Ambulance.  It didn't make us into doctors, but we did learn first responder techniques.  Let's face it: when you are on passage, you are going to have to do the heavy lifting yourself when it comes to assessing and stabilizing an injury or illness.  Even under best-case circumstances, it will take time for expert medical help to reach you.  So educate yourself, and, if nothing else, learn how to stay calm and help as best you can when disaster strikes.

Sometimes, you just get sick
Everyone gets regular ol' sick sometimes.  Don't make a mountain out of a stomachache.  Yes, keep an eye on symptoms, especially in kids and in people with other health issues, but you don't need to go into a panic at every headache.  Keep cool, cruiser.

Keep your sense of humour
Whether the kids have worms or you just got a migraine from that low passing overhead, try not to take it to heart.  Like I said, even the most health-conscious of landlubbers get sick, too.  Remind yourself that this too shall pass.  If you can joke about it, it may not feel as painful.

All of this can distill down to the classic travel advice bestowed on us by Douglas Adams: Don't Panic.  Stay calm, assess what is really happening and how serious it is, and react accordingly. Illness doesn't have to ruin your trip.  And I say this as a chronic seasickness-sufferer.  Think ahead, deal with problems as they arise, and move on.  Trust me - not even the most dedicated child can throw up forever.  You'll come out the other side, I promise.

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