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.

Proof that I ate on trail.

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.

Celebratory dinner in Millinocket.

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.

That chic, pale, death-look on point.

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.

I came for the free socks.

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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Comments 7

  • Zach : Sep 26th

    Yowza. Glad you’re feeling better now. Thanks for sharing your story- it’s important for aspiring ld backpackers to learn of the importance of proper nutrition on trail.

    Reply
  • Chris Guynn : Sep 26th

    I experienced some of the same symptoms(getting tired when I shouldn’t have on climbs) on the PCT although they were much milder. Its interesting to know a lack of iron contributed to the condition. I’ll have to remember that for my next hike. Glad you are doing ok.

    Reply
  • firehound : Sep 26th

    Great job finishing, Take Care and rest up.

    Reply
  • mike : Sep 27th

    Congrats Tidewalker for finishing. I just want to add that blood sugar fluctations, as well as yoyoing weight gains and losses put longdistance hikers at risk for diabeties. I did alot of thruhiking 30yrs ago and face the possibility of Type 2 diabeties. The management of blood sugar is important all the time and can be regulated w ell w informed diet decisions. There is evidence that body weight gains of 12-16 lbs just 4 or 5 times in a lifetime can impact blood sugar homostasis. This can occur just inbetween doing the trails of the Triple Crown. The positive psychological insights gained from hiking are priceless and I am mentioning some of the possible longterm impacts from a preventive/harm reductive perspective. Also, protect your footarches , if they fall, you may be unable to hike or walk comfortably. Get professionally fitted supports and use them. The newer trailshoes may not have enough support for longmile use. It would be interesting to follow the long term health of distance hikers. Take care of your body, mind and soul and it will help you endure and bounce back from the stress of everyday life. 2 Spirits

    Reply
  • protondecay123 : Oct 1st

    Premenopausal women should consider iron supplementation on a through hike. A daily multi-vitamin with iron should usually suffice.

    Reply
  • Cindy : Oct 2nd

    Wow! So glad you are ok. Thanks for sharing. Is a good reminder to pay close attention to what our bodies try to tell us and to pay attention to nutrition. Congrats on finishing!

    Reply
  • Tim Andrew : Nov 24th

    nice st0ry

    Reply

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