My encounter with a brown recluse spider in Mexico
Whenever I go away to a far-flung place, often an unfortunate incident happens to me:
Thailand — broke my ribs rock climbing on the 1st week of my 6 week trip.
Colombia — got mugged on my 1st day, after I had taken a load of cash out
Costa Rica — caught a hookworm from living on a deserted island
India — 5 days of illness following food poisoning
This never stops me from planning more adventures, I tend to forget that anything ever goes wrong and live in eternal optimism that everything is going to turn out just fine. And I can’t help but see the silver lining of everything: getting mugged in Colombia meant I had a digital detox for 2 weeks with no phone, recovering from my ribs being broken in Thailand meant I had to embrace stillness, take in all the beauty around me and try out meditation.
I embarked on another adventure in November 2021, to go to Mexico. And boy, I was having a hell of a lot of fun. I got into the true vortex of travelling, when you meet exactly the right people who match you vibrationally, amazing opportunities present themselves to you, one thing flows effortlessly to the next, serendipity is off the scale, you get into that bliss state of being and experiencing, and everything simply looks beautiful around you. I was in a bubble of free spirited adventure, I felt invincible and was a whole world away from my life in London and any responsibilities. My friend Sofi loves an insta story and would take fun videos of us and tag me, whilst we were prancing around on the beach, dancing at parties, going to glamorous hotels and generally embracing having a whale of a time. Fascinating how I can land into a new space and forget all ties to the old me so effortlessly with new surroundings and new inspiration, totally dropping in the moment. As I was ecstatic about how incredible my travelling life was and my well was overflowing, I decided to skip Christmas with my family and extend my travels by 2 months, so I changed my return flight home…
However I had sort of intended to digital nomad it around Mexico… do a bit of work whilst I was away, develop and get clear on new ideas I could bring back home, spend time focusing on existing projects that could do with a sprinkling of attention, all away from the distractions of London. I did do a few paid virtual parties here and there, but in reality, I was just swimming deliciously in endless pleasure, excitement, parties and pure enjoyment. I saw so many dolphins swim alongside me on boat trips, they would do flips and grin at me, I felt they were telling me to turn up my fun dial to the max, expand my capacity for joy. Meanwhile my friend back home had sent me a voice note to firmly tell me I had not checked in with her and asked how she had been. I was so lost in my own version of heavenly reality that I was a world away from people I cared about back home. I could feel my brain frazzling a bit and I was starting to spin out into hedonism.
So I believe that what happened next was divine intervention. I needed something to stop me in my tracks with a THUD.
Something out of my control happened, which meant that coincidentally I ended up on the same return flight I had initially booked, and was back in the UK for Christmas.
It was all meant to be…
The story of the spider and ending up in a Mexican Hospital
On Monday 20th December, I climbed ‘Monkey Mountain’ in Nayarit, Mexico with 4 others. It was a pretty sketchy hike, we had dogs chasing us, we had to prod cows to move off our narrow path, we scrambled over boulders and took quite a few false turns (we should have taken a guide with us, there was not much signposting). But what an adventure and a stunning view at the top!
As we headed home, I noticed I had a circular red spot on my left ankle. I showed the others and we just thought, it must be a blister. Not that my skin was rubbing that part of my trainers so it couldn’t have been… but I didn’t want to worry about it being anything more sinister, just best to ignore it and it will all go away, I figured I’d just sleep on it.
I woke up at 6am in the morning the next day in pain, I couldn’t walk too well on it and I felt nauseous. I told the people I was sharing an airbnb with my symptoms, but didn’t want to bother them too much. One guy I joked with, I said if I died then can he make sure that people wear bright colours to my funeral. By this point I could see 2 fang marks in the ‘blister’, so I knew I had to get it looked at so I hobbled my way to the hospital. By myself. I actually stopped off to order a coffee on the way (ha), and fainted, then had a mini cry on the floor. People asked me in the coffee shop ‘are you ok?’ to which I replied, ‘Yeah I am fine. Actually on second thoughts, I won’t have that coffee’ then walked off. I made it to the hospital and they demanded that they needed a photocopy of my ID otherwise they wouldn’t see me. I obeyed and hobbled off to find somewhere that would do this. Walking was getting harder and harder, I was feeling dizzy, but I couldn’t find a taxi, and at this point all I could think was GET THE PHOTOCOPY, just entirely focused on that as my passport to help. At the photocopy place I fell to my knees in a mini-faint again. I somehow managed to get the strength to hobble my way back to hospital with the photocopy.
As soon as I got to the hospital, it was like I was finally allowed to surrender to it. I sprawled out onto the waiting room chairs and my body started trembling quite violently. I was uncontrollably shaking from head to toe, the poison was taking over me. At the time I wasn’t in any panic, I just entered into the process willingly… here we go. I was rushed onto a hospital bed and they looked at the bite and knew it was from a poisonous spider. I started retching, and then was sick over and over. I then became really cold and was shivering, and asked for a blanket. I was hosting at a virtual event 4 hours later so I called up my co-host Tom to explain I had to drop out and felt guilty for letting him down, as I continued to puke up and shake all over.
The next 2 days were a blur, entering in and out of fever, going hot and cold, trying to sleep it off but not really ever sleeping, watching the hours go by. I was on 24 hour IV antibiotics and painkillers, and my vital signs were checked regularly. At night I would just sweat and sweat into my hospital gown, would change sleeping positions often, never really finding a comfortable position and I was having vivid dreams. My body ached all over and my head pounded. In my delirium, I found it really hard to respond to messages and check my phone — I thought I was being lazy and rude, not responding to people quickly enough. I had enough energy to reach out to people I knew were in the area to tell them what had happened. So it was nice to get lots of visitors who came with food and smoothies, all of which went straight in the bin as I couldn’t face eating anything. It was a bit of a blur who came to visit and which nurses would talk to me, I would smile at them saying I was OK, and ask how their evening was last night, not wanting to reveal the pain I was in, or my fear about what was happening. Luckily I didn’t have the energy to google what was going on, I just had to experience it first hand.
What was worrying to me was that I didn’t really know what was happening. I have only minimal Spanish, and not all the doctors and nurses could speak English and if they did it was basic. I didn’t know what I was being injected with, I didn’t know why they were taking blood samples. I gathered that I was bitten by a brown recluse spider, but was quite frightened when they said in broken English that the venom was ‘eating my tissues’ and the bacterial infection was getting progressively worse. In my optimism, I was still thinking I would make a full recovery and make it to the Ecstatic Dance festival in Guatemala at New Year!
Being in a small Mexican hospital was an interesting experience. One male nurse was very cute and he would flirt with me, he would tell me I have a beautiful accent and lovely eyes, he would wiggle my toe (which has a smiley face tattoo on it) to cheer me up, and on the first day he left his number under my bedsheet… not knowing he would see me in hospital the next 3 days. Another young man conducted some sort of interview with me to gather all my details for a ‘form’, which I found hilariously interrogating. No I don’t have a husband (don’t look shocked), and no, not a girlfriend either, yes I am 38 thanks for saying I look 28, and how come you need to know how many sexual partners I have had?! I don’t know what my grandparents died of, and what has a spider bite got to do with if I have ever taken any “bad drugs” (he said using his fingers to make quotation marks) in my life. Very strange. He ended his interview saying he had never met a British person before, he loved my accent and it was an absolute pleasure to meet me. Meet me? Felt like the star of the week in the hospital.
On Day 3 in hospital, the fog in my brain was clearing and I was less confused, although my foot had started swelling up and the infection was spreading up my leg. Strangely I didn’t feel too weak, despite not eating anything and not sleeping properly. A doctor came to see me to say that my condition was getting worse and that they needed to transfer me to a bigger hospital in Mexico a few hours away. I knew people in the area nearby who I could call on for favours, and if I went elsewhere I would not know anyone, and my Spanish is so bad I would feel so alone and alienated. The doctor also suggested I could return home to the UK to continue my treatment there. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that my travels would come to an abrupt stop to be honest! I had thought I would be up and running in a few days, once the poison had left my system. This was my alternative Kambo ceremony, and I’ll feel just bloody brilliant and detoxed afterwards, surely? But in that moment I knew that this was way more serious that I had initially thought, and I felt in my body, without a single doubt, it was time to go home. I didn’t feel any sense of loss for my future travels, I knew I was going to lose lots of money on lost flights, events and accommodation, but it seemed sort of irrelevant. Homeward bound for me!
I rearranged my flight to the next available one that day, and coincidentally it was the SAME ONE as the one I was supposed to take initially, before I extended my travel. It was a sign that I had had enough adventure, fun and free-spiritedness, it was time to get back in alignment with who I am and what I am here on earth to do. My purpose is not to party. It is not to endlessly seek pleasure and enjoyment. It is to use my gifts and all that I have experienced to give back to the world and be the light that is needed in these times. My well was completely overflowing from all the joy I had already experienced the previous month, I did not need anymore. It was time to get back on my path.
I called my sister to tell her about the spider bite, and asked her to collect me from Gatwick airport and then everything just went into motion. I had to get my head into gear about Covid protocols with flying, who was going to pack my bag that was still in the airbnb, how was I going to be able to travel solo when I couldn’t walk, how was I going to cope without round the clock hospital care whilst on the plane? I realised I hadn’t showered and all I’d been doing was sweating into my dress for 3 days, so I did a quick armpit wash in the sink and washed my face. The doctors gave me my discharge papers (complete with all the inside information from my ridiculous interrogation), then wheeled me and waved me off in a taxi and wished me luck. It was time to fly!
I have to say, it is pretty awesome at airports that you have these people who look after you, I was wheeled everywhere in the wheelchair and got to the front of every queue. The man who looked after me in the airport asked to follow me on instagram, I mean… why not? The air hostesses were total angels and fussed over me — “Are you sure you are fit to fly, love?”, which I nodded “YEAH TOTALLY, I really am fine”. Although I don’t think I was fit to fly, but what can you do?! I wasn’t going to pay extra for some special service and it was important I just got on home soil. I managed to wangle 3 seats to myself so I could keep my foot raised and try to rest. Sleeping was impossible, I was so restless and no position was working, and I was still in pain. I got really really hot & sweaty, was down to shorts and t-shirt whilst everyone else was in jumpers and sleeping in their snug blankets. I must have had a temperature but I didn’t want to bother anyone and just thought I’ll be in London soon. Films were too bright to watch, I wasn’t connecting with any music I tried to listen to. I kept on looking at the ‘time to destination’ on the screen and felt time was going so slowly, it was a waiting game. I was so pleased to see cloudy, rainy London when we finally landed.
My foot and leg were really very inflamed after the flight, a gigantic cankle, and the rest of my body became puffy too. My sister picked me up and drove me to the Tropical Diseases Hospital in London. A specialist in insect bites was there who was knowledgeable about it, I was relieved to be able to hear about what was going on in fluent English. He was curious it was a brown recluse spider as they are, the clue is in the name, reclusive — they don’t go out of their way to bite you. But it made sense that, as I didn’t feel the bite, the symptoms kicked in 8 hours later, the red blister had distinctive fang marks in it and went white and eventually purple. Luckily the venom that had attacked my nervous system was out of my body now, and what I had to contend with next was the bacterial infection, the cellulitis.
I was checked into the Infectious Diseases Ward on Christmas Eve, so that they could administer intravenous antibiotics. I noticed so many differences between the Mexican and London hospitals. The Mexican beds I needed someone else to manually lift up the back support, the London beds I could electronically alter. I was never given a pillow in the Mexico hospital, but I felt the connection from everyone walking around and saying hola to me in the open ward, which was way more comforting than a physical pillow. I had to wave someone over to help me in Mexico, but in London I had a device I’d press a button for assistance. I had more comforts and it was more advanced care in London, I had an ensuite bathroom, a temperature controlled room, a gorgeous view. But there was way more warmth and time to care from Mexican nurses. Although slightly less professional in Mexico as they would have birthday cake celebrations in front of me in the ward, and what with the male nurses flirting with me and commenting on my age, looks, accent and relationship status. In London, I had imagined I would be on ward with 5 others, all wearing Christmas hats and pulling crackers with each other, exchanging stories and making new hospital friends. But actually I was in a room by myself, and all the nurses and doctors had masks on (no masks in Mexico), rushing around as they were so busy. Because of Covid, I wasn’t allowed any visitors.
So I was about to enter a lonely 3 days in a hospital room.
A bit of a crash from the highs from travelling.
I counted my blessings that I had survived the spider bite. That I had managed to fly back and get to the hospital, now I could relax in a comfy bed and finally my appetite had come back. I even got excited about my ‘story to tell’. I started writing down all about ‘my story’ and then realised OH MY GOD I am still IN this story, FFS Iona! My foot was getting progressively worse, this is far from over. And it is not a wild story, this is serious. Get serious for once! I posted a photo on social media so that I could tell more people I am back from my travels, had been bitten by a spider, but it is all OK as I am in good spirits and ‘on the mend’. But I was not on the mend… the doctors were trying to get the spreading infection under control by finding the right antibiotics for it.
I felt like a pin cushion, being injected with tetanus, a daily injection to prevent blood clots, a cannula for my antibiotic delivery, and daily blood samples were taken. I hadn’t really moved much in the last 6 days and the painkillers I’d been given had made me very constipated, which added to my discomfort. The NHS was so understaffed, esp over Christmas and with people sick from Covid, I could see everyone was rushed off their feet. I felt guilty requesting for things I needed, and when I did ask for things, I had to ask several times until I got it. It was frustrating that I had to fight to get basic things, such as I didn’t get bottled water for 6 hours after requesting several times, they had issues with the delivery of it… which made me dehydrated.
There was a moment around midnight on Christmas Day when suddenly what I had been through the last week just came to me all at once. How traumatic it had all been. The fevers, the delirium, the plane journey, the feeling of being a burden to others, what could have happened if I hadn’t made it to hospital, the not-knowing… the still not-knowing. Being alone in hospital and looking at the horror show that was my foot tipped me over my edge. I was drawing lines on my leg using a felt tip pen where the infection was growing, and every day it was increasing to a larger area. So I completely erupted and cried my eyes out. A nurse came in and I was completely irrational and couldn’t be settled. I screamed at her about my worst fears. ARRRGHHHH — amputation! Never being able to dance ever again! As I couldn’t feel pain in my foot anymore it must mean that my nerves have been destroyed by the venom through necrosis, meaning ‘death of body tissues’. My blood vessels, ligaments and cells were all dead! Cue full on panic attack and not going to sleep til 4am after lots of breathing to calm down. I told the nurse I wanted her to leave as I didn’t like her to see me in such distress. I was so embarrassed I had this panic attack on her… but I really couldn’t hold my composure anymore and I finally got 10 mins of her time for her to listen to me. The next day I apologised to the nurse and told her what an amazing job she is doing — I have the utmost respect for people in care jobs, having to see people suffering and in pain, I don’t think I could do it.
On the 4th day of being in London Hospital, the infection was finally showing signs of retreating, so I was released to continue oral antibiotics at home. After 5 days at home I erupted in an allergic rash as my whole body had had enough antibiotics! My body had been through a lot and I knew that although my hospital days were behind me, I still had a long way to full recovery.
I am writing this on 9th January, so 3 weeks after I was bitten, and I still can’t walk. In a follow up doctor’s appointment they couldn’t tell me how long it will be until I can, ‘how long is a piece of string?’ is the answer I got. Hopefully I get more info at my upcoming MRI scan. However, as strange as it may sound, I am so grateful for this episode in my life, it has been a test and all part of my destiny. What happened during the traumatic week brought up a lot about myself that I have been suppressing, which needs to be examined. The result is that now I am having some time to rest, do a lot of reflection and go inwards, which is what I really need. I was meant to be home at Christmas with my family, I was meant to get my career back on track, get serious, and not carry on travelling. I feel incredibly resilient and mentally strong as a result of the experience, and it has been a really meaningful time for me. I will write more about this in my next blog, not WHAT happened, but WHY it happened.
Just a shout out to all the amazing people in San Pancho who visited me in hospital, the doctors and nurses in both hospitals, and my wonderful 2 sisters Ailsa & Roisin who dropped everything to pick me up and look after me. Thank you!! And all the wonderful people in my life who got in touch to check in on me! When your world falls apart, knowing that there are people around you looking out for you is everything.