Listening to your body: when things don’t quite go to plan

Stopping your journey to seek help can sometimes be the hardest thing to do. But that’s exactly what we’ve had to do this past week. When we arrived in Lodwar we were exhausted and, once again, I was not feeling well at all – the symptoms that I experienced in Sudan had come back and I was not happy with how I was feeling. I felt broken and needed some help.

I got in touch with Paddy, who we met in Sudan, who is currently driving from Cornwall to Cape Town with his wife Libby and their two lovely kids Elsie and Hal. Paddy is a doctor and expedition medic and had kindly agreed to support us on our cycle from Cairo to Cape Town should we have any medical issues.

After a few emails from the road and a long telephone conversation, it was clear that he was not happy with the situation and was keen for me to go to a hospital to get checked out sooner rather than later. I explained that we were in the middle of nowhere but were due to get to Kampala in Uganda in just over a week. However, Paddy was clear that I should get to hospital sooner than that.

We were in a remote town called Lodwar in North West Kenya where we found a hospital.  However, I soon discovered that they did not even have an ECG machine (or much at all) so this was not going to be good enough. After a number of phone calls and help from some incredibly kind and helpful contacts here on the ground, we were on a flight to Nairobi from Lodwar the first thing the next morning and by 11am I was sat in the waiting room at the Aga Khan University Hospital.

It’s sometimes hard to admit that there is something not quite right.  By now I’d rested for a few days and was feeling much better but you have to take a deep breath from time to time and allow yourself to stop what you are doing and get some help. And I’m pretty glad that I did.

After three days in and out of the hospital, hours of waiting around and some incredibly painful conversations with insurance companies, we think we now know what’s been going on.

It turns out my body has not been receiving what it’s needed to cope with cycling (or pushing!) such long distances in the heat and, combined with a hydration, calorie, and chemical deficit, it has caused me to become unwell.

On the plus side, I do not have malaria or any strange tropical disease and having had my heart thoroughly investigated and all my bodily functions checked I do not have any problems with the important vitals, which is great. What I did have was an electrolyte imbalance in my body but little did I know that, if left untreated, it can be pretty dangerous.

Having done a fair amount of exercise back home, I’ve always been aware of how important electrolytes are but no one ever seems to tell you why and what they do. It transpires that I was about to learn the hard way how important they are to the normal functioning of your body, let alone when you are cycling a 70kg bike across Africa.

Sodium, chloride, calcium, magnesium and potassium are the most common electrolytes in our bodies. They are essential for many important body functions in your muscles, nerves and muscle functions (including the heart) and also to keep fluid levels regulated. It turns out that if the balance is wrong it causes all sorts of issues and I had most of the symptoms (heart palpitations, dizziness, nausea, cramp, irritability (sorry James!), fatigue) and I generally felt utterly dreadful.

From reading more about the importance of electrolytes in the proper functioning of your body, I’m so glad we stopped, rested properly and had that I had a thorough medical check.

More specifically, I’ve learnt that electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium) are all involved in the contraction and relaxation of the heart and an imbalance of these electrolytes is a common cause of palpitations and arrhythmias (iregular heartbeat). In particular, potassium levels are incredibly important and we found my potassium levels had dropped well below the normal range. Without these vital ingredients the heart cannot contract or relax properly – I don’t think you need to be a doctor to realise that this is not ideal, especially when you are miles from home (and civilisation) cycling to Cape Town.

Paddy had also worked out my calorie intake and outlay and it seems that there was definitely not a good balance with a lot more energy being burnt then replaced. Despite us doing our very best, it seems that we are just not putting enough fuel into the engine. Combine that with temperatures well over 40 degrees Celsius, a lot of sweating and a repeated upset stomach – you can see why I have had a few problems.

The hospital we visited was exceptional. I have never received such great treatment. What’s more, they are a teaching hospital and at every stage the more junior doctors were allowed to examine me and give their opinions before the consultants. It was all done in such an organised, calm way that I could not help but be impressed. I’ve tried out some cool kit too and had an ultrasound of my heart and a stress ECG which is when they put you on a running machine plugged into an ECG machine and keep making it harder until you crack. It’s the sort of thing that I’ve always wanted to do for a fitness test, but when you are in a cardiology department it seems to have a different meaning. James, however, seemed to forget where we were and I think was enjoying it a little too much shouting at me to keep going and seemed thoroughly disappointed when I called an end to the test!

Watching my heart beat while doing a Stress ECG

Watching my heart beat while doing a Stress ECG

I now need to work out how to keep my electrolytes balanced to stop me from getting sick.

So now I will take potassium, magnesium and calcium supplements every day to try to stop levels from dropping so low again. We’ll also be making an electrolyte mixture every day (sugar and salt in water) and hope to pick up some more High 5 Zero tabs as quickly as we can as they contain a good balance of electrolytes in them to keep us going.

I’ll be listening more closely to my body and how it is feeling. We all think that we can just keep on going but we simply cannot do this without the correct fuel and chemical balance inside. I’ve learnt the hard way about the importance of electrolytes and I’m ashamed to think that previously I just thought that you took electrolytes to help you go faster. I now know that without them your body will stop functioning and can have lethal consequences.

Paddy, thank you for your help and for making me stop and come and get checked out. We are so grateful for your help and for letting us stay with you all for a few days in Nairobi.

Tomorrow we fly back to Lodwar and continue our journey on Tuesday morning and look forward to sharing our experiences of Western Kenya and into Uganda!

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, please donate to World Bicycle Relief. Every penny goes to the great work the charity does in Africa – not to fund our expedition in any way.

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