Vanlife is not what AAA would have you believe. Sure the ads they post on Facebook with the shirtless guy and the woman who is always inexplicably holding on to her big, floppy hat make it look like something from a glamor shoot. They drink coffee from mugs and he has a little teak tray where he keeps his watch at night. It’s all bullshit. And it’s never more apparent than when you get sick.
Illness and traveling unfortunately go hand-in-hand. The change in environments and hyper exposure to lots of people make contracting a case of this or that nearly inevitable along a long enough timeline. You can take vitamins and supplements and keep an exercise routine to stave off the chances of contracting some sort of illness. But, eventually you will come down with something. For Miracle and I that was West Nile Virus.
We likely contracted West Nile before leaving home and it didn’t come into full manifestation until we were in the hottest parts of New England back in September. Here we were at a Rhode Island campground, dousing each other’s weeping sores with rubbing alcohol while the couple in the next site over loudly ended their marriage. (“You’re a horrible person!” “I am who I am!”) We drove to the urgent care the next morning to get covid tests, which came back negative… which also meant that the doctors no longer were concerned.
West Nile takes a bit to recover from and by the time we entered Canada, I was mostly fine. Miracle, on the other hand, had some swelling around the heart that persisted for some months yet.
Yes, we have moments where we lay in bed near a beautiful sunrise. I am shirtless, though not tan and I certainly don’t have washboard ads. We drink our coffee from stainless steel cups because ceramic and glass is a liability in a bus. We had such a moment in Key West this last week. Only I woke up with a headache. And a backache. And chills.
This must be covid, I thought. As we googled where the nearest urgent care was located, I looked over the back fence of the yard where we were staying and saw a sign that read urgent care. We walked to the urgent care, located in an old Pizza Hut. Nearly 40 people were gathered outside in the trash strewn parking lot. There was a collection of chairs—the old fashioned lawn chairs with the nylon straps, some broken kitchen chairs, a rolly office chair and some metal folding chairs.
We decided to drive north, maybe to a less popular urgent care. Only with each passing minute the pain redoubled and I soon realized I wasn’t paying attention to the traffic at all. (No worries though; it’s Florida so no one is paying attention.) There was a Walgreens and Miracle walked in to see if I could get a test. No testing on Sundays, they said, but we could sign up online for a test tomorrow. So we resolved to grab a hotel room (and successfully nabbed the last one at a cheap motel across the street). Only Walgreens was booked out for a week solid—at all of the 25 nearest locations.
The next morning I went to the nearest urgent care, located on the second floor of an 80s style condo. People lined up along the aluminum railing and a cheerful and very busy nurse ran up and down the line collecting paperwork, answering questions, and collecting nasal swabs. After 2 hours I got my swab. An hour later and I was called inside. I showed the doctor a weird rash about the size of a quarter on my knuckle and said I didn’t know if it was related or not, but it really itched. “Probably got into something,” he said. Then the doctor told me I was negative for covid and I asked for a strep test. Another hour and I learned I was negative for strep.
“It’s covid,” the doctor said. “Everyone’s getting it. Your symptoms line up too much. So it’s covid.” Only I didn’t think it was. I wasn’t going to argue because this urgent care in the middle of the Keys looked like it was beating back the tide of covid with a broom. He gave me a xerox sheet of vitamins to take and sent me packing.
“I can drive a bit farther,” I said. The rash on my hand now spread to my other fingers and I had two blisters welling up on my palm. My throat hurt every time I swallowed, but at least my back didn’t hurt as much.
Some hours later, as my hand became completely engulfed in a rash with white pustules and my other hands became discolored, we received a text from a previous driveway host. They had a confirmed case of coxsackievirus—or, as it is colloquially known, Hand Foot and Mouth Disease. The pustules on my hand are also in my mouth, making swallowing very painful. At this moment, my fingers are leaking on the keyboard as I type. Each letter hurts a little bit. My feet are starting to blister and swell as well.
And yet. Yet, we are still better off than many of the other real-life van lifers. Why? Because we have health care, provided through the generosity of the Jan Michalski Foundation in Switzerland while we are on the road. For many other folks living in their vans or buses, a trip to urgent care would be out of the question.
The other thing to take away here: As a country, nearly two years after the start of the pandemic, we are woefully ill-equipped to handle large-scale sickness. It says something about a society that has invested heavily in myriad ways to end human lives all over the world, but has no real interest in keeping its people healthy. I’m glad I don’t have covid and this rash is merely a catastrophic annoyance, but I’m also thankful Switzerland cares enough about our health to take care of us.