On Doctors and Thru-Hikers

Since I had a doctor’s appointment today and am anxiously awaiting blood test results (Lyme-related, because life), I thought I’d write about my experiences with doctors as I walked from Georgia to Maine.

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I remember seeing these feet on a hiker I’d met during my first foray on the Appalachian Trail and being horrified. That was before I’d discovered the podiatric awesomeness of duct tape myself.

It seems that the modern medical community doesn’t really know what to do with thru-hikers.  The demands we choose to place on our bodies are extreme, our hygiene standards are rarely seen anywhere else in the developed world, and, while we look like ambition-less hippies, we have a (self-imposed) deadline of getting to Katahdin before Baxter State Park closes.

I will never forget the face of the doctor I saw at a walk-in clinic in western Vermont as he listened to my responses to his questions.  I’d gone to the clinic because I suspected that the wounds my hand had received during my fall on a road in Massachusetts had given me an ingrown fingernail.  (They had.)

“How long ago did you fall?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know.  A week or so ago.  Maybe two.  Sometime in Massachusetts.”

I got a similar response when I couldn’t tolerate an itchy rash any longer and had to see a doctor in New Hampshire:

“When did you first notice the rash?” he asked.

“Several hundred miles ago.  Whenever I was in southern Pennsylvania.  I think that puts it sometime in mid-July.”

After taking one look at me (before he even saw the rash), he assumed that it had to be Herpes.  He didn’t listen as I insisted that wasn’t possible and sent me out of his office with enough anti-virals and, luckily, antibiotics, to last the rest of my hike.

During much of my thru-hike, I was generally healthy.  There were a few days when I was under the weather, including one night during which I had the worst fever of my life (which is saying something), but, most of the time, I felt strong and healthy.  However, when I got to New England, I was perpetually exhausted — not that I ever visited doctors’ offices for my tiredness.  Instead, my first visit to an ER on trail was necessitated by a bruised and swollen foot.

I was near White River Junction in Vermont when my foot became terribly sore.  It had been cranky for a few hundred miles because it seemed to consider my second pair of boots (which were the same size as my first but not yet 1442-miles-worn-in) too small.  At a makeshift campsite I’d found during a night hike through a hemlock forest (more on that later), my foot’s whines gave way to screams.  The rain on my tent fly eventually lulled me to sleep, but I woke up still very much in pain.  The next morning, I loosely laced up my boot and limped several miles to the next road crossing.

When I got to the road, I breakfasted, dried my gear, and napped in the warm sun while trying to figure out what I should do.  I decided to keep walking to the next town, where I’d be able to get an easy hitch to a hospital.  In my mind, ten miles wasn’t a big deal; even with a limp, I’d be able to knock that out in half a day or so.  But, friends in New Hampshire (whom my mother contacted when I’d called her from my breakfast spot) would hear none of it.  They picked me up and drove me to the hospital, where I learned that I didn’t have a stress fracture but rather a bad case of tendonitis.

The doctor advised me to stay off my feet for a while.  I nodded politely to assuage him but set out two mornings later in Chacos, with my foot wrapped securely with athletic tape.

I would deal with tendonitis for the remainder of my hike — and then a stress fracture in my left foot.  The latter brought me to tears, but I didn’t get it diagnosed until I was back in Kentucky and frustrated that I couldn’t run without pain.

When I was a child, I remember watching the Olympics and thinking how crazy it was that the athletes would continue competing on injuries, competing to the point that they were doing permanent damage to their bodies, because competing in the Olympics was one of the things they wanted most to do in life.  Maybe it was the stubborn streak I’d inherited from my mother, or maybe it was that I’d channeled my inner Olympian.  All I know is that I was bound and determined to get to Maine.

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