The human body is an astonishing machine. It can adapt to many different climates, conditions and situations, no doubt the reason humans have endured for tens of thousands of years. Combined with modern science, the limits of the body have been extended. Modern fabrics allow us to thrive from the equator to the poles of the planet. Medical advances give us the tools to fight infections and overcome disease that easily took the lives of our ancestors.
Living in the comfort of America, it is easy to take these concepts for granted. Part of the allure of trekking through the rain forests of Central America is to push and test these decidedly human limits to remind ourselves that we are still part of the wild ecosystem of the Earth - in fact, a rather small and weak part.
Expedition Central America was primarily a scientific and filmmaking expedition. This is distinct from an exotic eco-vacation in several ways. Not only were we going far off the grid, our tasks demanded we support a crew of people, hundreds of pounds of equipment, plus the bulk and weight of medical supplies and instruments to deploy the medical clinic at the end of the journey. Our route forced us to carry this equipment literally from day one.
With the temperature consistently in triple digits, we determined it necessary to add a skilled emergency doctor to our crew to ensure the safety of our young hosts and crew. Dr. Paul “Shotgun” Schonbrun is a veteran of over a decade of combat in the U.S. Army and has deployed to hostile situations around the globe. Currently an emergency room doctor in Louisiana, he was looking forward to supporting the expedition and agreed to provide any needed medical support during the fourteen day trek.
While the rest of the medical team would be flying in towards the end of the trip specifically to deploy the clinic, Dr. Schonbrun would be embedded in our crew for the duration. And, it turned out, we were very lucky to have him.
April 10th was a schedule day off from shooting and travel. We settled into the Rio Indio Lodge, a jungle lodge in Nicaragua for a day of rest and relaxation. The night before, I was worried about the teenage hosts and made sure they drank plenty of fluids and got to bed early. After dinner, we sat on the deck, swatting mosquitos and joking about the adventure thus far. I was tired and went to bed early.
My mother had a saying when things were going wrong that goes “Well, at least you have your health.” Unfortunately, for me, this is not the case. I have an advanced stage of Crohn’s Disease, a chronic, incurable inflammatory disease. My immune system attacks my digestive system, joints and muscles resulting in malnutrition, exhaustion and chronic pain. Over 750,000 people in the U.S. suffer from this disease.
During the trip, there is no doubt I was pushing to my physical limit. That night it caught up with me. I awoke with severe abdominal pain and bloating. We would learn later that the combination of heat exhaustion and Crohn’s Disease had caused severe inflammation of my stomach lining, blocking any food or liquid from passing through my system.
By morning, I was in and out of consciousness and the crew summoned Dr. Schonbrun. I had stopped sweating (there is no air conditioning at the Rio Indio) and was repeatedly vomiting. As my body temperature rose, I started going into shock.
Ironically, I had put myself in the same position as the indigenous people we came to help. We were many hours from medical treatment - hours I didn’t have. Dr. Schonbrun brought his medical kit but this situation was going to require more supplies than we had available. He conferred with our Special Forces team and, is their nature, developed an executed a plan. Dispatching a team up river to a nearby village to search for saline, Shotgun Schonbrun used his only bag of fluids to start rehydrating my failing body.
At one point, I vaguely remember being forced out of bed and tossed into the shower to reduce my temperature. The Army doctors are not known for their bedside manner. As the team prepared to “pop smoke” :(Med-evac me by helicopter) to a Managua hospital, I insisted to wait one more day. I wasn’t going to give up on the mission after we had come so far. There were people depending on us to deliver care and failure was not an option.
Special Forces veteran Sam Coffman delivered some horrible tasting natural remedies for stomach inflammation and Dr. Schonbrun pumped four more bags of fluid the team secured from a far flung medical post and a shot of corticosteroids into my veins. Finally, my temperature started coming down and I could keep small amounts of fluid down.
That night, the film crew from Exploration Nation came to my room expecting to scrap the next day’s shooting. Instead, they were surprised that I trusted them to handle it. I would stay at the Lodge to recover, and they would film “Jungle Survival”. With my director, Loren Gilley in charge (9 year combat veteran and Director Fellow from the American Film Institute) and senior producer Lou Doros, producer Timon Behan and Special Forces veteran survival expert “Shiva” on the team, I knew they would handle it with aplomb.
Overall, I was down for two days. As the sun rose over the Indian River on April 12th, I was ready to finally deploy the medical clinic in San Juan. The team of surgeons had arrived the night before and knew little of the drama that preceded them.
I find the incident an apt reminder of why I do what I do. I believe the person that cures cancer, solves the energy crisis or invents the next insanely great thing is in elementary school right now. Innovation is what makes modern life possible.
For me, I have access to the best medicines, physicians and innovative technology on the planet, literally four minutes from my home. Every eight weeks, I receive an infusion of a biological drug that allows me to continue living as if I was not ill. My revelation is that science is the path to ensuring that all people have access to this innovation.
If were not for the men of science on my crew, I would not be writing this article today. If Dr. Sandoval didn’t have enough saline, if someone didn’t invent plastic or steroid injections, if Dr. Schonbrun became a janitor instead of physician, where would I be? More importantly, where would we be as a nation? As a people?
America is ranked 25th in innovation. We are losing our position as a leading, global innovator. My goal is to show our youngest innovators that science improves the human condition. I didn’t mean to become the poster boy for this message, but I believe everything happens for a reason. Those two days were rough. But at least I have my health.
Previously in this series: