I Got Zika. This Is My Story.

Thanksgiving dinner was going great: good food, excellent company. Then, I dropped the Z-bomb.

Winter 2018

“Goodnight, Auntie Zika!” My friend Lisi chided. “I’m kidding,” she immediately qualified. I smiled wanly, taking a big inhale.

A few hours ago over Thanksgiving dinner with friends old and new, we discovered that we were all avid globetrotters; an enthusiastic cacophony of travel stories ensued.

Most of us agreed that the Mediterranean Sea was our favorite in the world.

But the man sitting across from me just shook his head. “I loved the Mediterranean,” he said, “but Tulum kinda ruined it for me.” He sighed with contentment. “It’s just…exquisite.” I nodded slowly, picturing the beach like it was yesterday.

Tulum Beach Post-Storm, Summer 2016. Photo by Katie Schuessler/Inner Visions

Summer 2016

So we finally dragged ourselves out of our rustic-chic-eco-retreat-in-the-middle-of-the-jungle and made it to Tulum beach. It took us forever to find a place to park, my friend flipping u-turns in our rental car, kicking up dust on the small road.

And of course, just after we nestled into our towels on the warm sand — right after I had jammed my feet under the surface to the cool layer below — a storm rolled in.

The clouds came together from two directions like a mammoth caricature of a squall, an animated rendering of colliding forces. The usually-turquoise Caribbean Sea became midnight blue. Small waves gathered into whitecaps, dotting the seascape so that it resembled a galaxy. Only one stripe of light remained, slicing exactly across the horizon and reminding me that the sun was still up in the sky.

Even then, shrouded in inclement weather, Tulum beach was stunningly gorgeous.

When the rain started, it pounded onto our bathing-suit-clad bodies. Half of my friends ran for shelter; the rest of us opened our arms to the downpour with glee, relishing the needling drops against our sunned skin.

The water falling from the sky washed the salt out of my hair; it flushed the sweat caked onto my browned and freckled face. It poured down my belly and legs, coolness soothing the smattering of mosquito bites across both feet. For the first time in days, I felt cold; goose bumps pushed out from my flesh. The sensation was so unexpected that I thought I might be imagining it.

Eventually, we conceded to chills: it was time to leave.

After gathering our waterlogged possessions, the sun came back out and the clouds broke into a million pieces. I shivered as I attempted to dry my body with a towel covered with sand and rain, and we headed back to the car, to the remainder of our vacation.

Back in the U.S. a couple of days later, I woke up in my sister’s house in Seattle with a sore throat. Oh, no, I said to myself, annoyed that I might be getting sick before traveling to Alaska to visit friends, my final big trip of the summer.

I lured myself out of bed with the promise of a hot shower and a cup of tea. I figured the warmth of both incentives would help me feel better, and I could get on with my packing. My flight was scheduled for 8pm.

In the bathroom, I disrobed, distracted by my plans and still feeling drowsy. I stepped into the shower and let the water pour over my face, its gentle pressure lulling me into wakefulness.

I grabbed some soap, looking down. I did a double take and gasped in surprise, raking my eyes over my arms and legs.

My entire body was covered a blotchy pink rash. I touched my arm, alarmed. My skin still felt smooth. Flummoxed, I desperately grasped to make sense of it: maybe it was that new sunscreen I tried during my last few days in Mexico? Or could it be the sudden shift in climate, and my body trying to adjust? Or a reaction to the motion sickness medication I took when we went snorkeling on our last day?

Don’t panic, I told myself. It could be anything.

Once I was out of the shower, dressed, and drinking the afore-promised cup of tea, I hatched a plan: I would schedule a doctor’s visit for later that same day, but if my rash disappeared, I would cancel the appointment. In the meantime, I’d finish preparing for my trip while taking extra vitamin C to knock out this cold.

Yeah, I convinced myself. It’s a good plan.

I swung by my parents’ house to grab a couple of items I’d left there. “Can I see it?” Mom asked, fascinated by my condition. I lifted my shirt in the kitchen and she bent over to examine my skin, squinting. “That does not look good,” she concluded bluntly. “I think you oughta go to the doctor.”

“Yeah,” I conceded, my shoulders drooping. It had been two hours since I noticed the rash, and it remained unchanged, stalwart in its pink psychedelic poignancy. “Hopefully it’s nothing,” I added, thinking of my friends in Alaska, the fresh air and good company awaiting.

Mom raised an eyebrow, looking skeptical.

An hour later, I sat on an examination table in Dr. Brown’s office, donning a paper gown. “I’m going to take a look at your skin, okay?” She asked. I nodded and she lifted a corner of the gown around my midriff.

I launched into a deluge of questions: “Do you think it’s a heat rash? Could it be from sunscreen? What about the change in climate?” She stared at my skin for another moment before peering up at me. Wordlessly, she shook her head, lowering the gown back into place and adjusting her glasses. She reached over to her desk, procuring a laptop and opening it on a small rolling table.

“Where exactly were you in Mexico? The Caribbean side?” she asked. I nodded as she turned the computer so we could both see the screen. The website for the Center for Disease Control was loading, and Dr. Brown began navigating the site with adept swiftness, asking me increasingly specific questions about my whereabouts and symptoms. Finally, she narrowed it down to three possibilities of mosquito-borne illnesses: dengue fever, Zika, and chikungunya (chicken what?).

“We can test you for all three, but the results won’t be ready for a few weeks. In the meantime, you’ll just have to let it run its course. The only thing we’d really want to be concerned about is if it’s dengue fever, but I’m betting on Zika,” Dr. Brown concluded.

The blood drained from my face. “Well — what does that mean?” I asked, suddenly feeling like a bit of a freak.

Dr. Brown sighed. “Look,” she said matter-of-factly. “Zika is just the latest in what will probably become a whole spate of illnesses related to climate change. The mosquitoes up here and in Alaska can’t carry it, so you don’t have to worry about spreading it. If I were you, I would be more concerned with whether you have the energy to make the trip.”

I nodded, thinking about the global catastrophe known as climate change. My basic understanding of it had always included forest fires, drought, melting ice, rising sea levels, and extreme weather. Outbreaks of mysterious mosquito-borne illnesses had never entered my mind as a symptom of the earth’s temperature increasing. Now that Dr. Brown had mentioned it, though, it completely made sense.

As for traveling, I considered the alternative. I was between houses (ahem…I didn’t have a place to live) after just having taught overseas for a year. I was planning on finding a place as soon as I got back from Alaska. So what could I do? Stay in my sister’s basement while she politely avoided me and my weird unidentified illness? Crash at my parents’ house where I knew Mom would dote on me too much while Dad kept a skeptical distance? I could practically feel the old family triggers before I even made up my mind.

“I think I’m going to go to Alaska,” I said slowly to Dr. Brown.

She looked at me through her thick-rimmed glasses and nodded. “Okay,” she said.

“But, should I like, be careful about anything while I’m up there? I really don’t want to be the person who brings Zika to Alaska.”

“No,” she said, standing to leave. “It’s truly not a possibility. Just…don’t have sex with a pregnant woman,” she blurted out as she exited to tend to her next appointment, leaving me there with my mouth hanging open.

Although the research is still new and inconclusive, it seems that in some instances, Zika is sexually transmittable. And while the method of intimacy by which I would transmit Zika to a pregnant woman remained a conundrum, I definitely got the message to be careful. I even told my boyfriend that he was at-risk, imploring him to remain vigilant about symptoms. “I seriously doubt I will get it,” he quipped with typical cynicism, unaffected by the news.

And to this day, as far as we know, he never did contract Zika. Still, up to 80% of those infected never show symptoms, so it is certainly possible that he had it, too.

My friends in Alaska were saints. “Just rest,” they told me. “Take all the time you need.” And I did. I was one of the apparently few people on the planet who seemed to exhibit all of the textbook symptoms of Zika.

After the mottled rash disappeared one morning and I thought the worst was over, my joints began to ache. It was hard for me to grip things in my hands, and my ankles couldn’t take much walking.

We were camping and I didn’t have a clock, so I have no idea how much I was sleeping. It was light when I fell asleep and light when I woke up. Each time I awakened, bundled and warm in my sleeping bag cocoon, I felt my energy returning.

One morning, the joint pain was gone and I figured I was definitely out of the woods (ha ha, no pun intended). Then yet another symptom surfaced: eye aches. It was like the muscles of my eyes had been overworked. It took extraordinary effort to look around without craning my neck or twisting my torso. I took to softening my focus like we do in yoga, breathing into the discomfort, the disorientation.

Then, magically, I woke up on my second to last day, and like the clouds that had just broken for the first time since my arrival, I felt fine.

I headed back to the lower 48 without a hitch, and when my flight landed in Seattle, my phone was buzzing with a call from the Department of Health. “We just need to ask you a few questions about your condition,” the woman said matter-of-factly on the phone, and I complied.

A few weeks later, the results were in. Dr. Brown had been right: I’d had Zika.

Winter 2018

“Goodnight,” I replied to my friend Lisi by way of accepting my new nickname of Auntie Zika. Acquiring the virus had been my only complaint about Tulum.

I boarded the subway home, enthralled with the latest novel I was reading, belly bursting with the holiday meal.

As I turned page after engaging page, my eye started to ache like a cramped muscle, once again taking me back to the Summer of Zika. Like an arrow, the pain was sharp with the reminder that I’d been infected with this strange virus that was highly likely linked to climate change.

I took a deep breath, looking around the subway car and out the dark windows of the underground tunnel, wondering for the millionth time if it was too late to restore the planet’s health.

Our bodies are remarkable, and so is our planet. So here’s my idea: if my very own body can recover from Zika — strange aches and all — then maybe, with the right strategies for care and recovery, the earth has a shot too.

It’s definitely worth a try.

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