Post-Trail Life…. Hospital Edition
Three days after summiting Katahdin and completing my thru-hike, I found myself admitted to a hospital with profound anemia. This came as a surprise, as I felt that I had eaten decently during my thru-hike. Or as decent as a thru-hiker who is hiking 25 miles a day and not eating nearly enough calories. Or one who has been known to eat leftover frosting out of a Styrofoam cooler sitting on the side of a highway. But hey—what thru-hiker hasn’t? And when I was in town I pigged out and participated in all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts, Chinese buffets, and the half-gallon challenge. My body had been telling me something was off for hundreds of miles, I just had ignored it.
Starting back in Pennsylvania I began to notice a pain in my chest. In the White Mountains I struggled to keep up with my hiking partner. Then by the time the 100-Mile Wilderness came around, I noticed my heart would race as soon as I started up an incline. I remember the night before the hike up Katahdin I couldn’t sleep. I stayed awake for hours at the Birches shelter, thinking my insomnia was due to nerves and excitement over finishing my four-month long journey from Georgia. I didn’t realize until later that restlessness is a symptom of anemia. I was the first to start that morning because I knew it would take me forever to climb the peak. I had to pause constantly to rein in my hyper-speed racing heart with every step. I remember that climb as the hardest one on the whole trail. Eventually I made it to the top and enjoyed a celebratory Snickers and took the mandatory photos, to which I now notice my paleness and purple-tinged lips. I looked like death, but isn’t that the thru-hiker look? After a short break I sped down the mountain, arriving at the bottom nearly nine hours after starting. Even comfortable in a motel room later that night I still couldn’t sleep. By the time I hitched out, took two buses and two planes to arrive home the next day, I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept in days.
It all went down two days later when I got nauseous and light-headed at a store. I sat down and my vision started to go all staticky. I was cold and my skin was clammy. I was losing my ability to see, and I threw up. My dad took me to a nearby urgent care—my lips were blue and I was really pale. I tried to explain to the nurse that I had recently returned from an arduous, four-month long hike where I wasn’t eating enough calories, lost about 20 pounds, and was all around not nutritious. They tried to take a blood sample but couldn’t get much, which I thought was odd as I am a frequent blood donor. I could tell they couldn’t comprehend the physical toll I had been through on the AT when they had me take chest X-rays because they thought there might be internal bleeding. With the blood test results in his hand the doctor told my dad to take me to the ER. My hemoglobin level was 6.2 when it should be around 14 to 16. He said most people with that low of a blood count wouldn’t be able to talk… they’d be passed out.
Once admitted to the hospital, the doctor said I was a classic case of anemia, more often seen in older patients. I didn’t have enough iron in my body to produce blood, which then didn’t allow enough oxygen to flow through my body to the point that I had a heart murmur. I attribute the only way that I wasn’t unconscious is because I was in such great shape from hiking for months. I then proceeded to get three pints of blood transfused as well as two big shots of black iron over the course of two days. I left the hospital with a low hemoglobin level, but an iron pill prescription to bring it up. Two days later I flew back to my job in Alaska, where my employer proceeded to iron me up with Alaskan Amber beer.
Going forward, I try to do better with trail nutrition on my backpacking trips and thru-hikes, especially now that I eat a mostly vegetarian diet. I use protein powders, take iron supplements, and have removed nutrition-less ramen from my resupply list. From one hiker to another—please pay attention to your body and if you feel like something is off go get it checked out, before you end up with only half the blood in your body and you’re crawling up Katahdin.
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