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Traveling to South Africa with a Chronic Illness

South Africa scenery along the coastline

Today’s guest writer is Brooke Yool, a college physiology professor and auto shop co-owner currently living in Seattle, Washington. Her love for exploring began during elementary school with cross-country family road trips. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2012, she refuses to use that as an excuse to stop traveling! Currently, she blogs on auto maintenance and repair and on getting out of the house and exploring.

travel community member Brooke with chronic illness multiple sclerosis travels to South Africa

Almost ten years ago, I was told that I had multiple sclerosis (MS), a potentially debilitating illness. At that moment, my life changed forever — but not right away. Initially, after I was diagnosed, it was just “a label” in my medical record. I started telling everyone that I had MS, but since I hardly noticed the symptoms, life went on as normal.

If you’re not familiar with it, MS is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks parts of the brain and spinal cord. Because these attacks can occur in random locations, symptoms can vary from loss of movement or loss of sensation to brain fog and vertigo. While there is currently no cure and the cause is unknown, there is a correlation between maintaining a healthy lifestyle and better disease outcomes. Thus, most of the time, I eat well and exercise not only for my general health but to keep the impact of MS on my life as minimal as possible. I want to be able to travel and live life on my own terms as long as possible!

In all honesty, I never thought that it would disrupt my life and love of travel — until it did back in 2017. Although I generally take care of my body, sometimes that’s not enough, and I’m thrown for a loop. Sometimes, though, despite my best efforts, life hits me out of the blue.

Below is a story about a time when I was knee-deep in my travels and got hit with an MS attack. I hope it provides people living with chronic illnesses some inspiration for traveling and hope for the future. After all, some things are out of our control, and we make the best of what we have.

Out of those tough times, we usually learn to appreciate what we have even more!

Our trip to South Africa & eSwatini

watching traditional dance on a trip to South Africa

My husband Bruce and I were on a typical summer trip in 2017, during which we spent about three weeks in South Africa and Swaziland (now eSwatini), with a final few days in Dubai on the way back to our current Seattle home.

There was nothing out of the ordinary during the first part of the trip. I was more than thrilled to explore a new (to me) continent! During our time, we went on our first-ever safari, during which we saw lions and elephants (which was amazing); took a walking/driving tour of Johannesburg led by a local (let me know if you want his name!); saw hippos on a river cruise; toured a cultural center in eSwatini; and spent evenings at our lodge’s firepit with other visitors from around the world (sometimes, our only common language was “travel” but that was OK 🙂 ). We stayed in a great Airbnb in Johannesburg, where we spent a great few days touring the area, and had a great tour through Soweto with a local, as well as another local village.

I was so in awe of the natural beauty that South Africa offered in the first week and a half of our journey.

The signs of trouble

beach bungalows scenery in South Africa

The next morning, however, my left leg felt like a noodle. I could walk, but the support was not fully there, and, with my MS diagnosis, I knew exactly what that meant. Immediately, I started doing research on where to get treatment locally in Jo’burg. Unfortunately, the closest neurologist I could find was on the other side of the country — in Cape Town!

Thankfully, we were going there the following day, but I had hoped to spend my last day in Johannesburg walking around. Instead, we changed our plans and took a city bus tour.

CHRONIC ILLNESS TRAVEL TIP: I advise anyone in a similar situation to have patience with yourself and be flexible.

We took the two-hour flight to Cape Town, which doesn’t seem like that far, but it was far enough. When we got there, I’ll admit to being in denial (though as a physiology instructor who really understands the human body, I knew what was happening). I didn’t seek treatment for a few days, because I hoped it was one of those cases where my symptoms would go away on their own after a day or so. But when they didn’t (spoiler alert: they didn’t), I asked the hosts of our inn where they take their family for medical treatment.

CHRONIC ILLNESS TRAVEL TIP: Your hosts don’t just provide information for sightseeing and restaurants. Ask them anything!

Treatment for my MS flare-up in Cape Town

hospital in cape town south africa

These gracious hosts put me in touch with their family practitioner, who eventually sent me to the neurology department at the hospital.

Without going into too much detail, I received treatment in Cape Town that mitigated the effects of that flare-up, reducing the inflammation in my body. Typically, an MS flare-up will mostly subside, but also leave some of its symptoms behind permanently.

travel community member Brooke with chronic illness multiple sclerosis

CHRONIC ILLNESS TRAVEL TIP: Know your condition backwards and forwards! While the neurologists in Cape Town were familiar with MS, it is very rare in that part of the world, and they were unfamiliar with treatments. I was able to inform them of typical protocols using specific names of medications, and I’d also gotten an email from my doctor in Seattle verifying everything.

Returning home to the US

rainbow over mountains in South Africa

When I came home and told everyone that I’d been hospitalized in South Africa, people were stunned and concerned. Why did I do it? My answer: What other choice did I have? After all, the locals go to the hospitals. Plus, the facility was clean and organized, and the quality of care was equivalent to, or better than, what I’d experienced here in the US.

On the way back to Seattle, we had a great few days in Dubai. I was feeling slightly stronger, and I thought that things were on the upswing. Yet right after getting home, my body hit a serious downward spiral. My whole left side dragged. It felt like my whole body was being weighed down by a pile of bricks. Occasionally, I had slurred speech and trouble swallowing. What was going on? Why wasn’t that treatment I got in South Africa mitigating my remaining symptoms?

Honestly, I’ll never know what actually happened.

All I know is that my disease pushed through the treatment. I was rehospitalized at the University of Washington for a few more weeks, receiving more intensive treatment that might work.

The neurology team noticed marginal improvements during my stay, but it wasn’t looking hopeful. While I was lying in the hospital bed, Bruce and I speculated about our future if my MS stayed strong. How would our lives be affected? Would we be able to travel the way we always had?

We decided that we would still continue to explore, no matter what. There is a significant demand for “adaptive travel” these days. Even wheelchair-bound people get around the globe pretty easily compared to a few decades ago. I was happy to think that even if my disease took over, I’d be able to see a lot of the world.

Those weeks in the hospital were among the hardest of my entire life. Through a lot of hard work, I ended up beating the odds. It took a while, but the treatments I received eventually took effect, and I can thankfully say that it worked! The only remaining side effect is that I’ve lost a little walking endurance, and have a few other tiny symptoms not even worth mentioning — but that’s all!

I consider myself very lucky.

How MS will affect my travel planning

women holding pumpkins on their heads in South Africa

Have I been concerned about traveling again after that incident? Yes and no.

I’m lucky to have a doctor who also believes in international travel, so I have been switched to a stronger preventive medication. But I have to keep in mind that anything can happen at any time — so I have to be prepared for that.

Still, would I rather have something happen to me at home — or while experiencing life overseas, exploring a foreign country? Nine times out of ten, I’d go with the travel experience!

But I was lucky to have my flare-up in a major country and a major city, where I could access qualified doctors and treatment options. That, I’ll admit, plays into my travel planning. I have to consider that if I get really sick again, I would not want to be in a remote environment. I’d want to have access to reliable, comprehensive healthcare. So that means no multiday on-foot safaris, and remote or jungle locations are off the table. No wilderness treks deep in the Amazon jungles (especially since I can’t get a yellow fever vaccine with my MS treatment). No visit to remote islands with little connection to the mainland.

Still, this leaves me with a lot of places to travel to! I could even do another safari if the conditions were favorable.

Throughout my years of travel, people have often asked me if I’m afraid. They tell me to “be safe out there.” Friends are scared because I live with a chronic illness. (Although others don’t even know I’m sick and are still warning me against traveling!)

While I generally appreciate their concern, I have not stopped my journeying — and I’m not going to stop any time soon. In fact, my illness has given me more inspiration to do things now, in case it does limit me in the future.

And if I (fingers crossed) never experience limitations from MS? Well, I’ll just have gotten that much more traveling under my belt earlier — no big deal at all.

If anything, I think that having a chronic illness like MS has given me a better perspective on life. (Not that I would wish it upon anyone.) It has taught me to live in the moment and appreciate everything that I can do. I no longer put off things I want to experience someday (which, FYI, never comes)! It’s today or bust for me!

“Life is short” often sounds clichéd, but isn’t it so true?

Today’s guest writer is Brooke Yool, a college physiology professor and auto shop co-owner currently living in Seattle, Washington. Her love for exploring began during elementary school with cross-country family road trips. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2012, she refuses to use that as an excuse to stop traveling! Currently, she blogs on auto maintenance and repair and on getting out of the house and exploring.

Note: We love featuring our travel-loving members. If you’d like to write a guest post for this blog, send us an email at info @ thenomadicnetwork . com with the subject line “TNN Blog Guest Post.”

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