How I'm Slowly Growing My Wings Back After Traveling Overseas With an Illness
Ever since I have been small, I’ve made it my personal endeavor to pull some kind of wisdom from each day. This wisdom doesn’t necessarily have to be that of intellectual nature, oftentimes I learn something about myself, about my belief system, or even something about the world at large.
The past few years I felt as though I was stagnating in my life. Shortly before I graduated with my associate degree from Savannah Tech in Savannah, Georgia, I began having bizarre physical symptoms. Sparing much detail, these symptoms added together to a diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), type three, from the Mayo Clinic.
EDS is a complicated chronic illness that can affect multiple body parts, joints, nerves, etc. It’s also extremely rare, affecting roughly a very small percent of the world’s population at large. Having no cure and only pain management, one can imagine how an illness like this affects an individual at any age, particularly that of an active and engaged college student.
It was at the nine-month mark post-diagnosis that I transferred my credits to Savannah State University (SSU), a local university which would allow me to live at home while still getting the degree I want. Through the treatments I was receiving from my team of healthcare professionals, family support, as well as personal strength, I plowed my way through a fantastic semester and made higher grades than I anticipated.
Before SSU, I had dreamed often of studying abroad, even for a short period, since I was born with the travel bug. Since my diagnosis, I had shelved most of my goals temporarily, hoping that one day I would accomplish everything I wanted to get done – since at the time of my diagnosis I was barely able to walk or do the basics required for daily life by myself, such as drive, shower, clean house, play my instruments, etc. At the counsel of several SSU faculty members and through the tentative blessing of my parents, I went forward with plans to join the team leaving for Panama in May. The plan for the trip was to visit Panama City, Panama and local areas, reporting on current events, attending a viewing party of Panama’s last futbol match against Norway before their first ever World Cup game. I fell in love with the online journalism major offered at my school earlier in the year, so as soon as I heard about the short-term study abroad opportunity, I began exploring my options.
While in country I had a fantastic time. The trip was been full of so many first experiences I barely know where to start:
1. I flew internationally without my parents and sat with people I didn’t know.
2. I tried chicken wings for the first time. Probably not going to happen again, but hey, I did try.
3. I went two weeks without needing the assistance of a medical professional to manage my pain, though I did take my usual pain medication and followed through with the self-care routine I already established before leaving the U.S.
4. I went salsa dancing and had an amazing time. I refused to allow my brain to get me all concerned with how people thought I was dancing.
5. I went out with friends to a Reggaeton club and had a blast.
6. I rode a horse on a beach along the Pacific Ocean…slowly, of course.
7. I got extremely close to two of my most favorite species — iguanas and two and three-toed sloths.
8. I tried Peruvian food…and lots of Panamanian foods.
9. I often spoke a language that I’ve been embarrassed to speak for a long time because I’ve been afraid of being judged by native speakers.
In short, I lived.
After two years of staying in the same place, doing the same things, just trying to function from day to day…I finally lived.
Leaving the U.S. was arguably the largest leap of faith I’ve ever made independently. As I packed my bags, I was acutely aware of how my health issues controlled so many aspects of my life and what a real gamble it was to even leave the United States, sleep in a strange bed, eat strange food, and have no doctors nearby that I trust. I was concerned I’d be sent home for medical reasons and have to face the embarrassment of returning home to recover, forced to walk away from an experience of a lifetime and dropping a class I love.
It would have been easy for me to get caught up in my personal limitations, therefore denying myself the opportunity of a lifetime. For those of us with a chronic illness, we spend so much of our lives managing pain and making needed accommodations for ourselves that we often forget to branch out and lean into things that may take us outside our comfort zone. As W.M. Paul Young once wrote, “Pain has a way of clipping our wings and keeping us from being able to fly and if it’s left unresolved for very long, you can almost forget that you were created to fly in the first place.” We are all meant to fly.
While on my trip, I surprised myself in more than one way. I wasn’t sent home from the trip. In fact, I flourished while I was out of country. I’ve now come home having had thrilling experiences I wouldn’t have had any other way, having pushed myself outside my comfort zone and having tested my body’s physical limitations in a variety of different capacities. I also experienced a culture that, though I had experienced it previously in high school during an extended trip to Bolivia, was a completely different kind of exposure since I was traveling with peers under the guidance of professors while working on my columns and projects while in country.
I would encourage anyone, especially if you’re a student, to study or travel abroad. When I was told that studying abroad changes you, I truly didn’t understand how much until returning home. While in Panama, I had the opportunity to fully immerse myself in most aspects of Panamanian life, speak a language that I was somewhat comfortable with but still have a lot to learn in, and walk in my chosen career path as a journalist. I expanded my horizons every day, essentially all we as humans can ever hope to do. There’s an infinite much of the world, and we’re here for a reason.
Thanks to my trip to Panama and the many life lessons I gleaned from its daily offerings and experiences, I believe I’m slowly growing my wings back, and I couldn’t be more excited to use them again.
In the words of poet C. JoyBell C., “…it is only when we are suspended in mid-air with no landing in sight, that we force our wings to unravel and alas begin our flight. And as we fly, we still may not know where we are going to. But the miracle is in the unfolding of the wings. You may not know where you’re going, but you know that so long as you spread your wings, the winds will carry you.”
Photo taken by Jessica Sparks