Our road trips always lead to…diarrhea

It never fails.  Every time we go on a road trip, it seems to happen – the worst thing to befall a child (and the parents) while on vacation: gastrointestinal illness (i.e. vomiting and/or diarrhea).   We were staying at a hotel the last couple of times it happened, so at least we had running water, plenty of clean towels and sheets, garbage service, etc.  But when it strikes, you would much rather be in the comfort of your own home.  I felt horrible asking the housekeeping staff for new towels and sheets every 2 hours and disposing of the toxic diapers in the main garbage can near the dining area.  I guess it could’ve been worse…we could have been camping.

On our last road trip a few months ago, we were in the middle of the Petrified National Forest near Holbrook, AZ.  I was carrying my then 14-month old girl on my back when she started hacking.  At first we thought the jostling in the Ergo carrier made her motion-sick, but she would not stop throwing up for the next 6 hours.  Then as quickly as it came, it left, replaced by diarrhea (not sure which is worse).  The vomiting curse then passed to my 3-year old son, who threw up all that night into the trash can.  Two nights later my husband was praying to the porcelain goddess.  At least they took turns and weren’t all hurling in unison.  (I suffered from nausea the day after but miraculously didn’t end up vomiting.  Amazing considering that I’m usually one of the first ones to go down in these situations.)

Last week, we went on a road trip to San Diego.  On the third night, my now 19-month old girl was rolling around and whimpering in her sleep.  I could tell she was uncomfortable so I held her, thinking she might vomit.  Then I heard the liquidy-fart sound and thought, Oh no.  We stayed in the hotel room the entire next day as she had her runs, slept, and cried.  We gave her water and Pedialyte, and for the first time in her life, she refused any food.  By the next day, she started to resemble the Sudanese kids that I worked with a few years ago.  Her eyes were wide and glassy with dark shadows underneath, her face was gaunt and pale, and her body lost all semblance to her former chubby self.

As I watched my poor little girl in misery, I asked myself, Why does this happen every time?  Well, I already know the answer.  Road trips mean being out of routine, familiar surroundings, our usual foods, etc.  On road trips I tend to be a bit lax about washing hands (ironically I used to organize hand-washing campaigns at the refugee camps in Thailand), keeping snacks at the right temperature, and de-germing in general.  The day before she got sick, we spent the whole day at the beach.  Not once did we wash our hands.  We ate snacks (yogurt and turkey wrap) that were stashed in an insulated lunchbox without an ice pack.  For dinner, we ate at an Italian restaurant where I shared my linguine del mar (shrimp & shellfish) with the kids.  Between all the sharing, sticking beach-sand hands in the mouth, and eating perishable (perished?!) food, it’s no wonder that some harmful bacteria found its way into my unsuspecting toddler’s gut.

Yep, diarrhea happens.  And while it’s a miserable process, I know that with a lot of water, Pedialyte, probiotics, and the BRAT (bananas, rice, apples, and toast) diet, this will pass within a few days.  We are blessed here in the U.S. to have a standard of living high enough that diarrhea is just a minor worry.  Sadly, this is not the case in developing countries, where diarrhea is one of the biggest killers of children under 5.  In parts of South Sudan where I worked, children suffered from diarrhea frequently due to poor hygiene and drinking from contaminated sources (swamps, the river where I once saw a dead cow floating, etc.).  Limited access to health care and low education increased the risk for the child, whom normally wasn’t given life-saving ORS (oral rehydration solution – water mixed with a bit of sugar and salt to replace the electrolytes lost).  In fact, the mother or caregiver oftentimes withholds all food and water, hoping that it will “dry up” the diarrhea.  Unfortunately, the child ends up dying of dehydration.

It’s tragic that so many children around the world die from diarrhea when it is preventable and treatable (if you are interested in learning more, I found a short and informative video on the subject at http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xg26pm_eliminating-child-diarrhea-in-developing-countries_people).  It really makes me appreciate the resources we have in this country that allow us to see diarrhea as a temporary nuisance rather than a real threat to our child’s life.

And for our next road trip, I’ll make sure to pack the antibacterial hand gel.