Crashing in a Desert Race, Motorbike Touring through Vietnam and How I lost 18kg (40lb) in Two Days and Barely Avoided Death
So with my face bleeding profusely, my nose and lips twice their original size, concussed and with a headache that would rival Kurt Cobain’s last moments, naturally I decided to keep on racing.
Are you holding on to your seat? This one’s a doozy and it’s long. Several years ago I had the experience of losing 18kgs in under two days and completely destroying my microbiotal (gut) health over the following 10 months. This is where travel meets health.
About 4 years ago, I was travelling in a part of Australia called the Gascoyne region which is a very remote, dry and arid part of the country as you can see below:
I was there for a desert race that was forming a part of a 3 race, state desert series and I was having an awesome time. I grew up in remote Northern Australia and I love anywhere that reminds me of those wonderful rugged landscapes.
To cut that story short, I had been racing for about four hours when my my motorbike and I came flying (literally) over a sand dune and I collected a tree with my head, only to find the bike still travelling at highway speed hitting me in the back of the head, and pushing me through the now broken tree. When I woke up, face down in the blood stained desert sand, feeling like my face had been torn off, I realised that miraculously my neck wasn’t broken (the bike had actually stopped my head from being pushed back) and that I was still alive. So with my face bleeding profusely, my nose and lips twice their original size, concussed and with a headache that would rival Kurt Cobain’s last moments, naturally I decided to keep on racing. When I awoke the next day for the last day of racing, I could barely get my head in my helmet but the day before, where I had been able to move my nose from side to side because the cartilage had been pulled off my skull, the swelling was now holding my nose firmly in place. So the day was very painful as I had what felt like an extra kilogram of fluid bouncing around in my broken face over every bump taken at 180km/h but we’ll leave it at that and keep the story moving along. The part of the Gascoyne where I was racing was about a 9 hour drive from where I lived in Perth and I had arranged to meet my best mate Jimbo in Carnarvon, only an hour away from where I was and because I had no mobile reception, I couldn’t let him know not to come because I needed to get to a hospital instead. So of course, when I got to Carnarvon I couldn’t turn him back after he had driven 12 hours (he lives on the other side of perth), I said “bugger the hospital, I’ll go in a week when we get back from camping.” You can see that this might not have been the wisest idea but shit we had some fun.
Three days later we wind up in a town called Denham which is a lovely little town with one pub and a pharmacy, situated about two hours up the Shark Bay peninsula. We had been sleeping in swags in a random part of the bush for the last couple of days and whenever I would wake up, the side of my face that had been the lowest would be completely swollen for about two hours until standing or sitting would make gravity do it’s work and my face would start to come back to normal. Now that we were in a town, I went to the chemist to get some painkillers as well as to get some anaesthetic mouthwash, because the inside of my mouth was still lacerated. We stunk of smoke and I had a giant scabby face, so I’m not surprised when the pharmacist told us of a homestead down the road where we could pay to use the showers there. It seemed like a good idea. This is where it gets a bit graphic Fast forward a few hours and I’m standing in a nice, hot shower which felt like heaven after not having one for six days and when I went to wash my face, I pulled off the scab that had formed above where my face had been cut and black, red and yellow shit just started pouring out of my face. Not gently leaking, god damn pouring. The drive back home took around 10 hours and not once was I able to take the paper towel away from my face. I used two whole rolls of it! The following medical conversations played out: Doctor: “You have a staph infection, you’ll need to take a high dose of antibiotic A” Doctor: “You have blood poisoning, you’ll need to take a high dose of antibiotic B” Doctor: “The CT scan doesn’t show any fractured bones, you’ll have to keep taking the antibiotics until the infection clears” Meanwhile, splinters were falling out of my leaking face, and if I put my fingers in my mouth and pushed on the swollen area, gelatinous chunks of flesh would depart the unsightly hole in my face. Four whole months later, I was on the other side of the country, up until 4 am pushing the swollen part of my face, realising there was a giant chunk of wood in there, cutting it open with a scalpel and trying to get tweezers in there. Unsuccessfully…
I went to the hospital in the morning and after a 5 hour wait, I went and saw one of the doctors who told me I would need to get another CT scan and an ultrasound and then maybe be scheduled in for surgery. Completely manic by this time, I pretty much held her hostage and demanded that she cut my face open and jam a pair of tweezers in there until she got something. Reluctantly, she got a syringe full of anaesthetic and injected it into my face but as soon as she put pressure on the area, it all came flowing back out of my “face hole” along with bloody yellow shit. She said she couldn’t do it without anaesthetic and I proceeded to bully her until she went ahead with it anyway. Desperate times you know.
This is how it went (all without anaesthetic):
She cut the hole wider using a scalpel and had to go very deep. By now the wound had formed a web of tract which was the only way that it could form tissue while still allowing fluid to come out. It felt like there were hundreds of tiny tendons going through there and I could feel as each was cut and “snapped”. I don’t know what the term is for tweezers that open outwards, used to make things wider is, but that’s what came next. When you think that you can’t experience much more pain than the scalpel in the face, just wait until that cross cut, fleshy wound is stretched open! She used them to stretch it wider and then wrestled (not even exaggerating, she bloody wrestled the things) into my face and with crossed eyes, I watched them go more than an inch into my face. You’d think that the pain from this and the giant surgical light that was making me see the blood vessels in my own eyes would be enough to make me zone out but alas, I was in supervision mode and needed to see what was happening. After maybe a minute of sliced open face hole tweezer wrestling, it seemed as though she had finally got a grip on something. At last! Just pull it out and everything will be fine. Not that simple… She literally had to use one hand against my chest, while she pulled as hard as she could with the tweezers in her other hand, all while I had to keep my head against the bed, pulling against the painful “snapping of tendons” feeling in my face as this part of a tree was removed from an area that was all the way down near my gums, inside my goddamn head. The piece of wood was about 6mm (¼ Inch) wide and about 20mm (~ ¾ Inch) long. “I’m glad that’s over” I thought. I was wrong. She then proceeded to use a small scalpel to scrape around the edges of my inch deep face hole to remove infected tissue and then she stuck another pair of tweezers in pulling at all the stringy bits of tissue, and kept pulling until it broke off from the rest of my flesh near my skull, because it needed to be clean. Fuck me it was painful. Excruciating, traumatising and very improper, but at least my nightmare would be over. So I thought… Doctor: “You’ll need to take very high amounts of antibiotic C as you’ve now had a procedure” Then I got back home. Two months laterDoctor: “Seeing as it still hasn’t healed, you’ll now need to take these anaerobic antibiotics as well, just incase it’s an anaerobic bacteria that’s stopping it from healing” Doctor: “Well if the heinous amount of antibiotics we’ve put you on is causing you reflux, we’ll just put you on prescription antacids” A month laterDoctor: “Your face can’t possibly still be leaking with this amount of antibiotics, what’s wrong with you, you disgusting person with a face hole, you’ll have to go to the hospital” Doctor: “Your ultrasound is showing that there may be something in there, we’ll have to put you in for surgery tonight” It was already about 11pm by this time and I had a flight to Darwin for 6 in the morning. Surgeon: “we’ve taken another piece of wood out the same size as the previous one you described and we’ve cauterized the inside of the wound to stop it from bleeding. You’ll now need to take these post surgical antibiotics for the next few weeks.” I made it to Perth (two hours away) in time for my flight and then proceeded to spend the next two weeks in Darwin, a tropical paradise in the middle of the wet season getting ready for my trip to Vietnam where I would spend several weeks, including doing the length of the country on a motorbike. All was going well until one day I broke into a rash. Later that night I had flu like symptoms, my kidneys were sore and my skin was very sensitive to any variation in temperature. The next day my knees were so swollen I couldn’t walk down the stairs properly and the following day my hands started blistering. Time for hospital number 3. I went in there, gave them my life story as described by the previous 1,700 words and then I waited. A team of 5 people from infectious diseases came down and started quizzing me on everything, and they then took what I’m convinced is an unethical amount of blood to take from a healthy person, let alone someone in my condition, resulting in an entire trolley covered in blood samples and blood cultures. They said they would call me when they got the results but I was flying to Vietnam in two days so I knew I probably wouldn’t hear from them in time. Never one to miss an adventure, I decided I was still going. By this stage, I was in quite a shabby condition. I don’t like taking pain medication and I would probably end up taking it about twice a year on average. I was taking 4 paracetamol (Acetaminophen for all you yanks) and four ibuprofen just to be able to get out of bed. I was still in bad shape but the swelling had gone down a little before I caught my plane, so that was a bonus considering I had a 30 hour stopover in the airport. It’s just a shame that it still felt like there were grains of sand between my joints as I moved them. This post is becoming quite lengthy so I’ll try and keep it to the point, but first, here’s a little story. For the first week in Vietnam, I was catching up with some friends who were also going and because we all got there on the same day, it seemed like a sensational idea to party hard. The next day I was now terribly hungover on top of having a staph infection, blood poisoning and this new mystery disease that seemed intent on killing me. This was also the same day that we would all catch a 48 hour train from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi. The 7 of us were sharing a 6 person sleeper cab with beds that were pretty much just yoga mats and they were also way too short for me, considering I’m 2 metres (6’7”). Travel is a whole lot of fun, but sometimes can be very wearisome. Skip to a week later, I’ve bought myself a dodgy little motorbike for $200 and before setting off for my big trip I’ve got a wedding to go to in Hai Phong which is about 6 hours away by motorbike. I save the route offline into Google maps and head out onto the world’s craziest highway on the world’s most under equipped bike. I nearly got blown off a damn bridge that was several miles long and built way too high and then I spent the rest of the trip avoiding death from trucks that were overloaded with granite boulders, that were swerving through traffic, getting some sideways drift action as they went. I was actually a little relieved when my chain came off. Half an hour later and with no tools, my chain is back on and I realise that I’m the only person on the road who isn’t wearing a breathing mask. “That’s strange” I think.
The eye opener of a journey finishes well into the night and I finally get to bed with a bit of a tickle in my throat.
The next day I also have the flu. It doesn’t take long to get sick when your immune system has gone down the shitter. So far we have:
Persistent staph infection not responding to antibiotics
Mystery tropical illness trying to kill me
I spent the next few days on the sensational Cat Ba island which is a wonderful and incredibly cheap place if you get there in the off season. I didn’t get much better, but at least I wasn’t getting any more sick. I put my bike trip on hold temporarily so I can fly to visit some people who were staying in Nha Trang so that I could catch them while they were there, and then fly back to resume my trip. That part went without a hitch and I was back on a plane, to fly back to my precious $200 motorbike.
It wasn’t a long flight but I fell asleep and when I woke up, the attendant had left my meal on my tray for me. I tucked into the (Western Australians say “polony”, the New South Welsh and other silly East coast Australians say “devon”, the English also correctly call it “polony” and once again, the Americans have to be different and so in an attempt not to be English (but therefore, still being defined by the English) they have called it “boloney”) I like Americans, I just can’t understand the need to change words that already exist. So anyway, I tucked into the polony sandwich and ate the chocolate bar shortly before landing and going to catch a taxi. It was about a 45 minute journey in the taxi and I was getting quite tired and wanted to go to bed. By the time I was in my Hostel room, I was throwing up so consistently, violently and loudly, it must have sounded like I was pretending. I have never been so sick in my life, nor do I intend to be ever again. By this time, after having spent so long on antibiotics and antacids, I went from being one of those guys who could eat anything and stay ripped, to packing on 20kg (44lb). Of those 20kg, I lost 18 of them within two days and had to be taken out of the country early, back to Australia costing thousands of dollars. Before leaving though, I gave my motorbike to the lady who ran the hostel as she had been super kind to me by bringing me up soup and rice to make sure I wasn’t dying. I managed to get my hands on some anti nausea medication, but even after taking 6 times the maximum dose, I was still throwing up non-stop. So I’m back in Australia, still taking my antibiotics,my damn face is still leaking like nobody’s business and I’ve put my 18kg back on. Another two months go by and as I’m seeing several specialists, one of them kindly offers to put me on the table, cut from one side of the inside of my mouth to the other and to pull the top of my mouth all the way back over my nose so he can cut whatever’s left, out from the inside. I take him up on this crazy offer and he proceeds to cut out a golf ball sized amount of flesh from between the top of my gum and the skin just below my nose (all from the inside) and then stitched it all back up.
Finally, I was given a few more antibiotics and sent on my way. It only took an entire year to get the chunks of wood out of my face. So there I was, finally back to having a beautiful face but I was fat, sluggish and bloated. Over the years, I’ve had great success with a ketogenic diet and intermittent fasting to lose weight effectively and quickly, but the fact is that with my body the way it was and my genetics, I should have been losing fat a lot faster and it should be far, far easier to keep it off. Here is an extract from an article on chriskresser.com, discussing several pieces of research on gut bacteria:
Unfortunately, even a single course of antibiotics can permanently alter the gut flora.Another study demonstrated that a short course of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin reduced the diversity of the intestinal microbiota, with significant effects on roughly one-third of the bacterial species. (5) This study also found that while much of the diversity eventually recovered, there were still several species that failed to recover after six months, suggesting that even a short course of antibiotics may cause permanent changes to the community of friendly flora in the gut.”“New research has linked changes in gut bacteria with obesity. One study found that the gut bacteria of obese subjects differs significantly in species type from lean subjects, and that low calorie diets, restricting either fat or carbohydrates, changed the gut flora and increased the abundance of the bacterial strains found more predominantly in the lean subjects. (19) Another study found that transplanting fecal bacteria from lean or obese mice into mice with sterile guts could affect whether these mice gained body fat, even when food intake was controlled. (20) Those mice implanted with fecal bacteria from obese mice gained a significantly larger percentage of body fat than those transplanted with bacteria from lean mice. The authors hypothesized that certain types of gut flora are associated with obesity due to the increased extraction of energy from the diet. I’ve written about this in more detail here.
These studies demonstrate the wide range of potential consequences caused by the improper development or destruction of the intestinal flora.
Though antibiotics may be necessary in certain situations, it’s important to weigh the benefits of using them with the potential risks that may come from the permanent alteration of the gut flora.
Going back to two years ago, (two years after it had all started) I had been “fat” for a while. Not massively overweight, but very fat compared to how I was usually and by my own standards. It was then that I tried heaps of different probiotic routines and various diets, until I eventually settled on a ketogenic diet realising it worked the best. As far as my mystery illness was concerned, it turned out to be Ross River which is a tropical mosquito borne disease similar in nature to Malaria or Dengue Fever and eventually runs it’s course with only one or two relapses in your lifetime. Ross River isn’t supposed to be anywhere near as bad as what I had but it was just due to my immune system being so run down at the time. That’s the reason it wasn’t diagnosed straight away or even tested for at first, because it was so uncharacteristic. I can actually recall the night where I was bitten by several mosquitoes, because the friend I was with also got it, and his wasn’t anywhere near as bad as what mine was. A strange thing to brag about, but the truth. I spent countless days trying different probiotics, fermenting my own Kombucha and Kefir, importing crazily potent probiotic capsules from the UK, trying all sorts of wonderful and horrible sauerkraut and spending silly amounts of money on Kimchi, all for little to no result.
How could it be that my problem, caused solely by having insufficient gut bacteria, could not be helped by adding good bacteria to the gut? I travelled 5,000kms to find out. On the other side of the country on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, I spoke to a lady who’s one of Australia’s leading experts on the subject of repairing the microbiome. As I was telling her my story, she seemed quite upset and then went on to tell me that there are three ways to do serious and sometimes permanent damage to your gut health:
Bad food poisoning or gastro
As you know from what you’ve read so far, I had managed to do all three with spectacular severity and I could now understand why she seemed upset. She then proceeded to give me a bit of advice, (Which I’m paraphrasing, probably inaccurately) and said that when people pull certain things from their diets, such as carbs like I had, the bad bacteria that thrive on carbs don’t die but instead form a biofilm over themselves in an almost hibernation until carbs, or whatever it is that you took from your diet, are re-introduced. She suggested that what I would probably need to do, is to rather counter intuitively, go on a binge eating heaps of sugar and carbs for several days and then once the bacteria is no longer protected by a biofilm, I should then take a course of antibiotics and antifungals to eliminate most of the bad bacteria and to then go on a very strict regime of probiotics and carefully selected prebiotics to recolonise my blank slate of a microbiome.
I have just requested a session with the doctor that she recommended and I plan to let you know how it goes. Hopefully I can just say that it went perfectly and won’t need to launch into another 4,000 word explanation.