Ever since I rafted through the Grand Canyon in 1993, I have wanted to see it again from the rim and the comfort of a hotel with hot showers, flush toilets, and a real bed. (See the previous post.) I was invited to visit dear friends who live in Utah near Bryce and Zion National Parks. After spending several days with them and touring these beautiful parks, I returned on the shuttle to the Las Vegas airport where I met my friend, Dee. We picked up a rental car and drove several hours to within two miles of the rim where we had reservations at a hotel. For the following two nights, I had booked a hotel right on the rim through the National Park Service months ago so we could see beautiful views from our room.
The next morning after breakfast, as we waited for the elevator, I became lightheaded, weak, and started to blackout. Thankfully, the elevator came then and I made it to the lobby where I quickly sat down. I told Dee I needed to go to the closest emergency room (ER) as I had a headache also and was afraid I was going to faint from low blood pressure. I have done this several times in the past, so I knew the feeling. A few years ago, I had a concussion from fainting and hitting my head and was out of work for three months, so I certainly did not want to repeat that. The desk attendant told her to take me to the clinic inside the park since the closest ER was 80 miles away in Flagstaff. Dee quickly loaded our luggage in our rental car, drove through the park entrance to the clinic, and let me out at the door.
I walked in, told the desk person my symptoms, and weakly sat down to wait. Within 30 seconds, a male nurse came over to me, put me in a wheelchair, wheeled me into the triage room, and put me on a stretcher. He checked my vital signs, gave me three baby aspirin to chew and swallow, put me on the EKG monitor and oxygen in rapid succession. My blood pressure was high at 160/100 and my oxygen saturation was low at 85%. As I breathed the oxygen, I began to feel better. The MD came to see me next. When he heard that I had sleep apnea and a clotting disorder, he suspected that I was having a heart attack or developing a blood clot in my lungs. They began sticking me to try and get an IV in me, but couldn’t because my veins had collapsed. The doctor pulled Dee aside and said they might have to send me by helicopter to Flagstaff hospital. They brought one more nurse in, and she was finally able to insert the IV. They called the ambulance and loaded me in. I told Dee to go see the canyon from the rim and take some pictures for me, and then drive to the Flagstaff ER. I knew I would be in the ER for many hours, and I didn’t want both of us to miss seeing one of the greatest wonders of the world.
The paramedics were great guys who told me all about the region during our 80-mile journey. At least I got to see the countryside through the rear window of the ambulance as we traveled. I was so grateful that they gave me IV Zofran to prevent motion sickness, which I’m prone to, especially when riding backward. We arrived after about an hour, and they wheeled me into the modern huge ER. The ER doctor took over and immediately sent me for a CT scan and ran blood work. They also put another IV in me using the ultrasound machine. We were still at 7000 feet altitude. Dee then arrived and reported she was able to take some nice photos of the canyon.
Thankfully, all the tests came back negative for a heart attack or a blood clot in my lungs. The doctor gave me copies of the tests and said I had altitude sickness. Since I live at sea level on the East coast and have sleep apnea, my body could not adjust to this dramatic change. I used my CPAP machine the night before to prevent me from stopping breathing, but it was not enough. The only cure for altitude sickness is to go to a lower altitude as quickly as possible. Dee had already canceled our room at the rim for the
next two nights. We quickly climbed into the car and Dee began driving us to Sedona, Arizona, only 4300 feet in altitude. Initially, I was short of breath without the oxygen, but as we winded our way down the curvy road through the beautiful red rocks, I began to breathe more easily. By the time we arrived at our hotel in picturesque Sedona, I was relieved to feel normal again. We enjoyed a lovely dinner that night at one of the many restaurants. The hot apple pie sure hit the spot.
How I thank the Lord for the excellent rapid medical care I received at the Grand Canyon clinic, for the ambulance staff, and the staff at the Flagstaff hospital. I also thank the Lord for the peace He gave me in the midst of feeling awful from the lack of oxygen.
He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honor him. Psalm 91:15 (KJV)
We enjoyed seeing the sights in Sedona over the next few days, and then I attended a two-day violin seminar, the original reason I chose this time of year to come West. I met another lady at the seminar who was a professional violinist in our local symphony. When I returned to New England, she became my new violin teacher.
After I returned home, I did some research on altitude sickness. The experts advise sleeping at lower altitudes, going up high during the day, and then returning to the lower altitude. In retrospect, I should have acclimated in Sedona for a few days, made a day trip to the rim, and then returned to Sedona at night. But I will always have trouble with altitude because of my sleep apnea.
Later that year, I attended a medical seminar and met two Nurse Practitioners from Colorado. I asked if they had any suggestions to prevent altitude sickness? They said to take ibuprofen an hour before going up high, and every four hours while up high. It is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication and decreases swelling in the lungs.
The next spring, I tried it out in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I took ibuprofen and then took the ski lift to the top of Cannon Mountain at 4000 feet. I strolled around for an hour and felt fine. I came back down and drove to Mount Washington. I enjoyed the van ride to the top where it was cool and windy at 6300 feet. I stayed thirty minutes, caught all the views and then rode back down. I was elated that I felt fine, so now I know that ibuprofen helps me short term.
When I flew to Ecuador several years ago, carefully planned my flight so I didn’t land in Quito (10,000 ft) or La Paz, Bolivia (13,000 ft). I flew through El Salvador and landed on the coast in Guayaquil. I also had to forego seeing Cuenca, Ecuador in the Andes Mountains at 8000 feet. Now I am even more thankful that I rafted through the Grand Canyon while in my thirties before I developed sleep apnea and needed electricity to run my CPAP machine.