God Wants You Dead.- A Summer on the Camino de Santiago: Part 4

Over the summer of 2016 I walked across Spain. After 350 miles of walking I came down with an infection that landed me in the hospital. Looking back I realize that my time in the hospital was probably more of an adventure than anything I could have walked in those last few days. This is that adventure...

See Part 1: How to Find Happiness: A Summer on the Camino de Santiago
See Part 2: Maybe a dog fight near a cheese farm is simply a dog fight near a cheese farm.
See Part 3: It's a sign that we've all gone inside.

The last few days have been complete Hell. It started with a fever that left me shivering in 25c weather, wearing a sweater and covered in a blanket. Then my right foot swelled, lost circulation, developing pockets of blood and bruising my toes and lower leg. I had stopped eating at this point (sort of forgot). Between the swarm of mosquitoes following me and complete physical exhaustion I'm convinced they should change the name of the Camino de Santiago to God Wants You Dead.

It's the only conclusion I've come to out here or in reality. If this is really a religious pilgrimage then where is the miraculous intervention? All I see is deadly mountain ledges  and loose rocks through my mosquito swarm that blinds my views. The bugs now reside permanently on my nose and forehead. I've been contemplating quiting these last few day considering the real risk of amputation should I proceed. My head hurts from the infection, I can't breath, I have blisters within blisters and though I've walked 600k, the last 200 seem insurmountable. Despite all this, I want to finish. I've been sucked into it all despite my original intentions of not setting expectations for this journey. I'm not ready for it to be over but considering the state of my health, I suspect continuing may lead to something much worse.

The Camino is lined with crosses and memorials of individuals who have died out here. The young, the old, a lot of people die in this place. It's a constant reminder of exactly what can happen should you make a single mistake. As a pilgrim, if you haven't thought about your own mortality while walking then you've missed the entire point of the Camino. I contemplate that dying out here isn't the worst thing in the world. I could leave this life at my peak. I've had an amazing last few years and my life has turned out well despite now being crippled in student debt and having a hard time finding a job. What's left after this? A cubicle, flipping hamburgers or dying from a rabid infection in the next few days? Do I do this or die trying?

Spain can be both Heaven and Hell, but you cannot spell Spain without pain.  Perhaps this is my Hell? I could be in India right now if I hadn't turned down that job last fall. However, I'm here with a silent God whose only sign of his goodness is pain, sickness and heartache. Did I choose wrong?

A few days later...

...and just like that, something that was supposed to be amazing ended. The fever had returned after a torturous 23k walk that day and I knew it was about to get worse. My leg throbbed with each step due to the infection. My right foot was now about four-times  the size of its partner to the left and black and blue. People are starting to make comments about the seriousness of my health. I have the walk of death now. Two days ago I stopped at a bar in Cacabelos. The owner who spoke in perfect English practically demanded I go to S.O.S. (the E.R. here). I've put it off till morning, but after another night of sweating and chills I can no longer physically fit my foot in my shoe. I'm barely able to stand.

When I finally arrived at Centro Medico (a 24 hour urgent-care clinic), they were closed for the holiday (Festivo). I pressed the button on the door and this long haired, burly older gentleman arrived at the door who may have been asleep upstairs. The language barrier proved difficult and initially he wanted to dismiss me as having sunburn. Eventually, I was able to communicate my condition in its entirety: a fever, my heart racing and exhaustion. While my French (and some Spanish) helped a lot (still Basque country), the accents here make comprehension difficult for me. It's as though everyone here has a lisp of inebriation that's difficult on my ears. Alas, an EMS worker showed up and took my vitals and then decided I needed to return to the city of Ponferrada to go to the hospital. Luckily, they called me a cheap taxi and I made my way back to Ponferrada for only 12 Euros. At this point I felt horrible about going backwards on the Camino and I was still hoping that some magic pills would fix me and get me on my way. Yet after four hours in the emergency room receiving a blood analysis it was apparent that something was very wrong. Seven markers on the blood test were out of range. My white blood count was through the roof. I had no blood pressure. As I was carted off to the ICU I wondered why I ever came to Spain. At this point, I was just ready to go home. That's when I passed out.

But there's no going home. I was wheeled down a hall to a room where the whaling of an individual screamed out in pain with each breath. Their raspy tone, a billy-goat death moan, the sounds of what I imagine Hell sounds like still scars my soul. I knew those screams were from someone near the end. My western ethnocentrism wonders why they were  doing nothing about this person's pain but in some cultures it is more dignified to die awake without drugs then asleep like we do in the U.S. - The contrast is overwhelming to me. I've never heard anything as horrible except maybe in a horror movie. These sounds of anguish would persist for the next few days in the hospital until eventually they grew to a whisper and then were no more present. On the last day, I awoke to the sounds of birds and a quiet ward. I cried a bit, never knowing the identity of the soul who left this world that day.

This is when I forgave myself. When I leave the hospital I will take a bus to Santiago and I'm okay with it. I had walked 600 kilometers and had gone beyond where many had gone. It's bitter sweet but here I am feeling a bit better, getting my appetite back. I went toe-to-toe with the fight of my life and there is no Compostela that is a greater accomplish than walking out of this place alive. The Camino doesn't always end in Santiago, it ends when it knocks you down so hard that you question if you should get back up. It ends, face down in the mud having to decide to lay there or continue on. It's time to forget India, forget Cardiff, forget Spain and close this chapter of my life and move on.

Spending these last few days in the hospital has been an interesting experience. I've been immersed in Spanish since arriving. I'm quickly picking up on new words like duele (pain) or how they say "fiesta" when ever they finish a job. My height has become a topic of gossip among the nurses who were stunned that I was an Americana not a German. I'm starting to understand how those who go to jail or rehab might feel. The first days are fear, loneliness, anger and loss. Now by the third day, things are easier and we're all laughing together despite the language barriers. One nurse with bright red hair and black nails approached me with her phone set on Google translate. It read, "You are high, we are little tots".  It took me a moment to work it all out before I visualized myself as a giant storming though Spain while itsy bitsy Spainard tots ran in fear. We both broke out laughing.
As I prepared to leave the hospital I wondered how my body would respond having not stood in the last three days. I made my way to the mirror where I saw my reflection. Parts of me are nothing but bones yet somehow I retained my stomach. I'm still not eating much and the flavorless hospital food has gotten old. I'm dying for a diet coke, a glass of wine and getting to Santiago.

I'm undecided whether to share this journey when I get home. As a writer I continue to ask myself if there's actually a story here. The ending isn't what I expected. The fire inside of me is extinguished and all that's left is to board a half of dozen planes home. When I get home will I once again find myself ready to run again or is this truly the end? I'm unlikely to be content to simply make it to my couch. For now, there's still a long road home. It begins by tearing off this hospital gown, putting on my clothes and walking out of this hospital. One step at a time.

Read Part 5: Never say Goodbye


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