This story involves blood and pain and a near death experience and even some petty crime, but in the middle of it all is a nasty case of the shits.
They began on a fairly recent morning in Southeast Montana while filming the mule deer episode of MeatEater. I was standing around with the crew in the predawn darkness and I got this horrible feeling that something wasn’t right in the ‘ol gut. This was particularly distressing, as having such problems are compounded in the woods by rudimentary facilities, a finite supply of toilet paper, and usually a less-than-ideal climate. Still, there’s little you can do besides take it as it comes. So I snuck off behind a juniper and kicked a hole in the freshly fallen powder snow and then dropped my britches as the skin on my legs goosefleshed in the 8 degree air. What happened next verified my suspicions: Indeed, something was not right in the ol’ gut.
Back up the calendar about two weeks and you’ll find me and the MeatEater crew in the bottom of an Arizona canyon in the Galiuro Mountains of southern Arizona while packing out a coues whitetail deer. We’d run out of water early that morning, while gutting the buck, and now we were parched. I sat down and filled my water bottle from a pool. We’d already seen tracks from black bear, coyote, and javelina in the canyon bottom, but for some reason I still made a stupid remark about how we probably didn’t need to purify it. After all, the water was cold and clear and had some flow to it. One of the guys, Dan, quickly put the nix on this idea. In desert country, he said, the limited water sources attract just about every critter around. (And, in turn, those critter’s droppings). He said I’d be a moron to drink that without treating it first. Seeing as how Dan was probably right and I was definitely thirsty, I struck a compromise. Rather than giving the iodine tablets a full thirty minutes to work their magic, I waited about ten minutes before drinking a quart.
I realize that this story is turning into a chaotic mash of dates and places, but now please jump ahead a week or so to the oak-covered hills of north-central California. We’d come here between the shoots in Arizona and Montana in order to film a wild hog episode on a friend’s sprawling cattle ranch. At this moment, we were in the middle of gutting a good-sized boar that had apparently been rolling in poison oak. I didn’t know this at the time, of course, but it was quite obvious about a day later when my forearms, face, and neck broke out in a mosaic of raised red rashes. I took a break in order to drive into Willows to visit an emergency room. They wrote me a prescription for a hard-hitting ten-day regimen of a steroid called Prednisone. I took my first tablet just around the time that the rash spread around my waistline and down into all areas of my groin. A day later, and the poison oak had firmly established itself in my bloodstream. I was now getting chills and feverish spells. At night, I’d wake up to the sound of my own scratching. I wore cuts into my arms, and the cuts bled.
A week later came that moment in Montana, when I was crouched in the snow thinking that something was definitely not right with my gut. Over the following couple days, I tried to ignore it. I’d hunt as best as I could, then find a quiet place out of the wind behind a tree. Then I’d hunt some more. But within a few days I could no longer ignore the increasingly severe cramps. At the end of the trip, while the guys loaded the pack llamas for a hike out the hills, I laid on the ground in the fetal position. I cradled my stomach with one hand; with the other hand, I scratched poison oak on lower portions of my body.
I got back home on a Tuesday night, after twenty days in the field. I still had the cramps and associated problems, but not to the point that I couldn’t hack it. The next morning I hung out with son, Jim, while my wife went to work. I put him down for a nap around noon and then lay on the couch to catch a little sleep. A half-hour later I woke up to some the worst cramps I’d ever felt in my life. I packed Jim up, and he and I went to my doctor. My doctor gave me a bottle to collect a stool sample, should the condition worsen, and sent me away with a prescription for a cramp reliever. I walked down the street to the pharmacy. While I was waiting for the drug, I was hit by such a wave of nausea that I knew I couldn’t make it home. I called my wife, who came to rescue me.
I spent the evening on the couch, writing in pain and scratching and cradling my stomach. Around 9 p.m. I knew I had to get myself to the emergency room. We found someone to watch our kid, and then my wife and I headed for the hospital. I’m not ashamed to say that I was literally crying (with tears and everything) by the time they hit me with morphine. A blood test revealed a very high white blood cell count, indicating a severe infection. A CAT scan honed in on its location: my colon. With the mystery resolved, I opted to head home despite the doctor’s suggestion that I be admitted for treatment. Armed with a deck of prescriptions, I walked out into the predawn darkness of Thanksgiving Day.
Twelve hours later I began passing blood. At first it was just sort of bloody, but soon it was real live actual blood. Pure blood. Then, around 4 a.m., I puked up a good quart of liquid – including my medication. We found a friend who could come over to watch the kid, and then we went back to the emergency room.
After serving up some more morphine, the doctors were in no mood to consult about home treatment vs. hospital treatment. They wheeled me up and admitted me into my hospital room and put another squirt of morphine into my I.V. tube. As I faded from consciousness, my wife explained that she was going to go home to check on the boy. She’d leave my phone on the bedstand; I should call as soon as I woke up.
When I did wake up, a couple hours later, some asshole who works at the hospital had stolen my phone. A cop came up and took a statement and made a report. I got more morphine. A night passed. Then another night passed. On my fourth morning there, I woke up feeling somewhat passable. I used the courtesy phone to call a doctor to say that I had to get out of there. I was dismissed that night at 6 p.m., not knowing that I had a new and growing infection at my I.V. point. During my final conversation with the infectious disease doctor, it was explained to me that such things as heavy steroid treatments and poison oak infections can immunize your immune system to the point that otherwise mild cases of Giardia (Arizona creek water) and e Coli (California hogs) can be crippling and potentially deadly.
Right now, at least, I’m feeling better by the second. We leave in a week to film in Texas. So, in a few months, if you’re watching MeatEater and wondering why I look about as thin as a skeleton, please remember this letter.