Posted by: Staff | 03.07.2008

College Essay XI: Laura

LAURA BULKELEY ‘08

With supplies for four days on my back, thick mud underneath my feet, and impossibly tall, lush trees clouding the Costa Rican sky, I started on my first backpacking trip with fourteen strangers from all over the world—the first segment of a three-week adventure tour. The trip would open my mind to other points of view and teach me how to enjoy the moment in ways I never would have predicted.

A few weeks after I got back from my trip I noticed pimples on my chin. The pimples went away, but one large bump stayed. I was diagnosed with a staph infection and given medication. As my bump got larger it turned into what looked like a scab. One hospital visit and two prescriptions later I was diagnosed with a drug-resistant staph infection, even though every confused doctor knew that was not what I had.

The confusion that surrounded me in hospitals, school, and my job was evident. No one understood why I had such a disgusting abnormality on my face. Everyone asked what was wrong with me; some feared they’d catch it too. Unfortunately, I could not give anyone answers to their questions or their fears. The embarrassment became who I was, not just a part of me. All conversations led to my chin, and it was all I could think about, especially since it was starting to spread to other parts of my body. Being in school was almost unbearable.

After a month of perplexity, I had my annual appointment with my dermatologist. I was finally told I should get a biopsy to test for Leishmaniasis. Leishmaniasis is caused by a parasite that is found in some female sand flies. It can inflame the organs and lead to death. This disease affects many countries around the world daily, but the United States only sees about a dozen cases a year.

The only place that can test for Leishmaniasis is the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. It took a week for my biopsy results to come back. I had cutaneous Leishmaniasis, which is only on the skin, but my case was bad and I needed to start treatment immediately. I missed parts of days of school meeting with doctors and getting tubes in my left arm for the infusions I would need every day for twenty days. Walking around with tubes in my arm made me feel even more self-conscious than I had before. However, I was relieved to be able to tell people what I had.

But instead of people being more understanding and sympathizing with me, I found myself defending my condition. Since no one had ever heard of this obscure disease, they did not know what to say or how it actually affected me. My peers knew it affected my appearance, but they did not know that I was also achy, tired, and had lost my appetite from my medicine, that I could not take showers and had to wrap my arm in saran wrap every night when I bathed so I did not infect my bloodstream through my tubes; and that many nights I could not go to sleep because my lesions caused an icy hot pain. I made frequent trips to the nurse’s office to change the band-aid on my chin, and I had strange fluid coming out of my lesion that neither the doctor nor I could explain.

Once my schoolmates became accustomed to my condition, I still had to deal with it in the hospitals. In my endless hours in the ER, doctors constantly came in to look at my disease. I was an object of curiosity, not a human being, but a picture out of a medical textbook. I was asked to take off my band-aids and my shirt, and a couple doctors took pictures. One doctor that I had never met before left the ER saying, “I wish I had brought my camera.”

After the initial shock of being diagnosed with this strange disease, I started to gain my confidence back. The infusion center at the hospital became my own little community where I knew I was safe. I felt myself maturing among the adults I was constantly around. My doctor became my “best friend,” and I grew comfortable around sick adults who needed to get blood and chemo transfusions. I became more accepting of people who were not entirely like me, but were like me because we were in the hospital together.

In one of John Steinbeck’s books he states, “People don’t take trips. Trips take people.” He was certainly right. Leishmaniasis was not a reason for me to regret my Costa Rica experience, but only to appreciate it more. My experiences and memories in both life-changing journeys will stay with me forever.

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