Finally: I can breathe fresh air as my lips begin forming a smile and my eyebrows slowly loosen their squeeze on my forehead. I am sitting on the balcony of my little apartment on Boracay Island, in the Philippines, looking out at the full moon behind a palm tree and the crisply outlined white clouds against the navy blue sky. I just finished cooking up some rice and vegetables with my housemate Jose over our wood fire and now I am enjoying a cup of raspberry tea while embracing the cool breeze all around me.

This is the first day I could write such calm and pleasant words to describe my recent experiences; I’ve been mostly in an unpleasant fog since the day I arrived here.  It’s been nothing short of one hazy nightmare ever since I left Borneo two weeks ago, and I wasn’t sure when I would start feeling content again. But tonight, as I write this, listening to the peaceful croaks of the geckos all around me, I know things are back to good.  I have finally–suddenly–been reintroduced to normal, healthy, life, and my what a wonderful thing that is.

Let me explain:

This story starts two weeks ago. As I was traveling through three countries in one day to get from Brunei to the Philippines, I learned of my friend’s death back home. It devastated me completely. When I arrived at a little dive center on the island of Boracay in the Philippines, at 7 in the morning, I had been traveling for the past 24 hours through great sadness and confusion. I had tried to catch some sleep in a shabby ferry station after arriving at 3 in the morning, but with the blasting Philippino soap opera re-runs and the security guards “checking in on me” every hour, my efforts were futile. I could only lay there, think about my lovely friend Danielle, and shamelessly cry like no one was watching. I couldn’t fall asleep until I replayed in my mind every memory I had of her from only a couple of months ago when we were laughing about just about everything and sharing our hopes and apprehensions about the future.

I was pretty shapeless when I finally got to Boracay, unable to pull myself together, for lack of a better phrase.  I had made arrangements with a dive center here, and shortly after arriving, I was supposed to start training.  I put on the best face I could, and tried to just move on with my life, as something was telling me to just keep doing things. I’m all alone out here, so what else can I do?

The first day I got here, I slept.

The second day, I went diving.

I had arrived here with a time frame, and so I had very little time to just sit around and be sullen, although that is what I would have preferred to do, given the circumstances. But in my one month here, I have to complete my PADI divemaster training, which is quite a hefty task, considering how new I am to the whole diving world.  I arrived on the island with 10 logged dives, and in order to leave as a divemaster, I have to have at least 60. BUT I can’t even start the divemaster training until I have 40 logged dives, Emergency First Responder (EFR) certification, and rescue diver certification. So…it’s pretty intense.

I had the pressure of needing to dive a lot in a very short amount of time and so there was no time for me to wallow in my sorrows. I was on a very strict deadline, and I had to take it seriously. I did my best to save my sadness for the evenings, and just get through my daily demands as best I could.

For the first couple of nights, I did an OK job at getting through everything and still maintaining some personal time. But on day three, things changed dramatically.  Fast forward one week, through the foggy dazed diver’s life, and you’ll find me collapsed and not breathing on the filthy alley/street that leads from my home to the beach.

Here’s what happened:

It started on my second dive on Boracay. I jumped into the water above the shipwreck dive and swam out to the buoy to wait for the other two divers. As I clung to the line, I felt something burning my arm. I pulled my forearm out of the water, and saw a translucent pink tentacle wrapped around it. Pulling it off, I examined the damage to my arm: a couple of burns here and there. Nothing seemed too drastic, so we gave the “okay” and “go down” sign, and proceeded on to the dive, not even noticing that my legs had been burned as well.
We dove 30 meters down to the wreck, and had a lovely time swimming with big awkward flute fish and speckled groupers. It was my first deep dive in the Philippines, and the large schools of silver fish and yellow and black batfish feeding on the ship was spectacular.

After the dive, I had some welts and burns on my skin, but I tend to ignore such things and write them off as minor inconveniences. Even though my leg was red and bubbly, I figured it was no big deal. In an hour or so, the welts were pretty much gone. In their place, there were just little red scars, and something that looked like popped bubble wrap on my left leg.

When I woke up the next day, I felt awful. I figured I was dehydrated, so I got some rehydration packets and chugged water all day. I couldn’t accept that something else might be wrong, as there was really no time to rest and figure out what it might be. This kind of went on for the rest of the week. I was in a fog each day, completely just running through motions and getting what I needed to get done finished. I would wake up, go to the dive shop, go on 2 to 3 dives per day, and then go home around 5. But when I got home, I would collapse on the bed and was unable to do anything at all. I couldn’t read, write, or move. Every day, for a week, I would just pass out around 6 and wake up at 8 the next morning.

I knew something was wrong with me, but I imagined it was just that it was a combination of the recent news that had put me in a serious state of persistent sadness and a bit of “catching up” on sleep after weeks of tiresome traveling on Borneo. Plus, diving as much as I was is exhausting in itself. So I decided I must just be physically adjusting to the demands of such intense activity, and eventually, I would feel better.

But on the seventh day, something else started to feel just not quite right.  Forget the fatigue, the fog, and the physical aches, I started noticing some very serious signs that something was wrong. Having dinner with my friend Dave, I began to feel a squeeze in my chest that became increasingly uncomfortable.

“Hey, um, do you have any Benadryl?” I said, interrupting him mid-sentence. This was the first time it occurred to me that I might be having an allergic reaction to something. I have felt this squeeze in my chest before, when I was accidentally prescribed a medication that I am allergic to, so I knew–finally–that what was happening to me had to do with an allergic reaction. Not surprisingly, Dave didn’t have any drugs on hand, but we left shortly thereafter and went to a pharmacy where I bought a couple of antihistamines to take care of me for the night.

The next morning, I woke up feeling even worse. I had slept for almost 16 hours, and I still felt completely drained. I got in the shower, and noticed that I was having a hard time standing up straight. My vision was confusing me, and my head was light and felt unnatural.

I started walking down the street, towards the dive shop. I wanted to get there early so I could get them to help me find a doctor who might be able to help me. As I was walking, I knew something was really wrong, and I just wanted to get the the dive center as soon as I could. I felt like I might collapse; it was getting harder and harder to breathe. I scooted my watch down a little, as I put my fingers on my wrist to check my pulse. I could feel it was rapid and weak. I was walking, but not quickly, and my heart rate was over 130. My chest was so tight at this point, it was becoming painful to breathe in.

I stopped, taking my pulse once more to confirm my count, while trying to also lower my heart rate and just relax. I was getting scared, but I didn’t want to panic.

But then, I started wheezing. This embarrassingly loud sound suddenly came screaming out of me with every breath I tried to take, and as I looked down at my arms and legs, I realized they were swelling up like balloons. Fear overwhelmed me. I could literally feel my throat closing, and there was nothing I could do about it. Losing oxygen, I collapsed on the street, gasping now for air, but only getting a terribly strained breath in every 15 seconds or so.

A small crowd formed where I lay, and I could hear people shouting and coming over to me. I couldn’t do anything in this moment but lay there and listen to what was happening. It was horrifying.

Just before I stopped breathing entirely, I was lifted by my underarms and hoisted onto the back of a motorcycle. I don’t know how I possibly stayed upright on the thing, because that is the last thing I remember before I passed out.

I was having a nice dream about something pleasant, when I became aware of something very unpleasant happening on my arm. It felt like someone was punching me on a bruised area over and over again. I wanted them to stop, so I reluctantly opened my eyes.

I saw three ladies standing around me. One of them was rubbing my arm vigorously, in an area that felt horribly sore. The other two were shuffling around adjusting something on my face.

I didn’t understand what was going on at first, and it took a couple of seconds for me to really come out of my dream and start putting things together. The first thing I noticed, as I came too, was the tube in my nose. When I tried to move my head to see my surroundings better, I became incredibly dizzy, and almost puked. That’s when I remembered that I had just been on the street and had had the whole episode of not breathing and that whole scene. Ahh, I thought, I must be in a hospital.

The doctor was massaging my arm to facilitate the spread of the antihistamine epinephrine and steroid injection they had given me to open up my airways. I had gone into an anaphylactic episode, with respiratory arrest, which is a life-threatening situation that requires immediate medical care. I am so lucky I was only a minute drive from the hospital, and even more lucky that they were able to quickly figure out what was wrong. I guess it worked in my favor that I was wearing shorts and a tank top; the welts had suddenly resurfaced all over my arms and legs, as if I had just been stung! It was like invisible ink, reactivated. So it must have been obvious to the doctors that I was having an allergic reaction. In a matter of minutes, my situation would have turned to cardiac arrest or full-blown shock.

I lay there on the green little hospital bed so grateful that I had ended up here and that the doctors had figured out what was wrong with me fast enough to administer epinephrine so as to open my airways back up.
And after an hour on oxygen, the doctor came in to talk to me about the situation.

She told me, as I already knew, that I had gone into respiratory arrest, following anaphylaxis. She said that it is possible for anaphylaxis to occur weeks, even months, after exposure to an allergen. She also said that had I been exposed to the allergen again during the time that I had been ignoring the symptoms, I would have almost certainly snapped into anaphylactic shock at that moment of re-exposure…which, in the water, at depth, would have been a very bad situation. Not to mention, what can follow respiratory arrest? Cardiac arrest.

Lesson learned.

I will take jellyfish more seriously.

I will listen to my body more carefully.

I will not push myself unreasonably.

I spent the next couple of days on land, taking steroids and antihistamines regularly to get my chest to loosen up. It took another three days until breathing felt normal again. As the medicine slowly made me feel better physically, I became able to address my emotional state of health as well. I had kind of ignored everything in the utter fog that had enveloped me over the week, but with more hours in the evening where I wasn’t passed out, I began to normalize.

I thought about my friend Danielle and began celebrating her presence in my life more than devouring myself with the sadness of her passing. It’s easy to see how fragile life is, especially after my own little episode, and I’ve started to accept that death is something that can happen to anyone, at any time. We all look at death as something that has happened to others and will one day happen to us; I, for one, always imagine it as something far off in the future. But the reality is that any person, at any time, can simply stop living. Life is incredibly fragile. Danielle’s life ended when she was so young, and I think that’s what is most confusing and difficult about it all. But when I think about her, and the life she lived, I am actually filled with happiness. She had such a wonderful outlook on everything, and she was one of those people who actually marches to the beat of their own drum. Some nights this past summer, I would find her at three in the morning curled up on the picnic table in a blanket and her bear hat reading a book with a flashlight. When I asked her why she was sitting out in the cold, reading, she just said, “Because I like it,” with a big smile on her face. She did what she liked to do, which is something that is so admirable in a person. She inspires me to live my life the same way–to be unafraid to be completely myself and to enjoy the days I have.

Yesterday, I got back in the water with a refreshed spirit and the motivation to continue on with strength. I’ve regained my bearings and my health, and it’s so nice to be able to just breathe and be able to enjoy that feeling for the simple thing that it is. I can laugh again, and write again, and just be alive again. And finally I can be where I am…right here on Boracay. I feel like I just got here. Now it’s time to start living each day to the fullest, and not taking for granted the fact that I have my health. It is really such a gift.