Intrepid researcher foiled by microscopic beings.

This is the first time I’ve been able to sit up for more than 2 minutes in the past 2 days.  My head is still too woozy to focus on anything of consequence.

Portrait of me over the past 2 days

So, I’m going to take this opportunity to write about an oft-overlooked aspect of fieldwork: Getting. Sick.

It’s not something that I pencil into my calendar (“So, I have 4 weeks at this field site, and need 90 of these interviews, and maybe 60 of those interviews, plus 4 days of boat time, so…yes, a stomach bug during the first weekend will do nicely”).  But it happens to many who do research in the tropics, what with the various exotic microbeings, changes in diet, long work hours, and stress.

It’s hard to fight the feeling that you have to make the absolute MOST out of your time and funding dollars, especially when you’ve flown thousands of miles and when you need the data for your dissertation.  I used to really overwork myself in the field, until I lost almost a week of work during a 6-week field season in 2010 to a bacterial infection. It brought upon me a high fever, a throbbing headache, and such intense muscle pains that my prescription included anti-pain meds.  Then I realized, “Hey, Tara. You’re not saving lives or anything out here, ok?  Running on 4 hours of sleep a night might make you feel like you’re doing important stuff, but it just makes you useless.”

Later that field season, I met another grad student who had mysterious and severe pains in her head that the local hospitals could not diagnose.  She was struggling to decide whether to return to Australia to get fully checked out, and even after making the correct decision to do so, was having a bit of a hard time justifying it to herself.  I understood the pressure, and reflected on how skewed our perspectives tend to be – she, and no other researcher, should ever have to second-guess a potentially life-saving decision.

Since then, I’ve tried to plan things out better so that I don’t feel so time-crunched, and to prioritize and make multiple contingency plans should something unpredictable like a serious illness come up.  I’ve tried to take time to relax, and I’ve tried to sleep more (with some success).  My advisor has told me multiple times, “Don’t forget to take some time for yourself to enjoy this experience. You’ll look back someday and realize what an amazing time you had.”  Being less type-A in the field has probably actually improved my fieldwork, as I can think more clearly about my research when I’m not constantly exhausted.

But, illness found me despite my best efforts.  It is awful to have the stress of lost work hours adding to your general feeling of blerghness while you’re stricken down by some malevolent bacterial or viral infection.  It wasn’t until my 4th round of vomiting this past Friday that I decided, “Maybe we won’t go into the field tomorrow…”

You also don't want to make everyone else sick...

And not only do you lose actual days of work, but you can also just fall out of whatever productive groove you’d made for yourself.  After I was finally able to walk without passing out following the 2010 bacterial fiesta, I was still drained and unable to fully focus on fieldwork (I had to sleep in the middle of one day; a very nice fisher allowed me to nap at his house after an interview, providing me with a pillow and blanket while he and one of my field assistants chatted away over coffee).  I was too exhausted after each day to keep up with organizing my data and simple life logistics.  Things just became messy, and stressful, and I was starting to forget to sleep again.

During bouts of illness in the field in subsequent seasons, I found that slowly but surely returning to a routine was the best way to go.  That’s part of the reason why I’m just typing things now.  I want to do something that feels somewhat related to work, even if only tenuously.  I’ve already (feebly) stapled all of the questionnaires we’ll be using tomorrow, gathered all of the other materials I’ll need, written out a tentative workplan in my fieldbook…now it’s time to sit down and focus on something not too complicated for a few minutes.

So, if I had any wise words to offer for fellow tropical research students, it would be:

  • Accept that things like this will very likely happen (I’m grateful that I’ve only been bed-ridden for 2 days), and have several alternate research plans mapped out just in case.  If you are confident that your field assistants, if you have any, can collect data without you, consider that as an option.
  • Have your routine organized enough so that, if and when you do fall victim to unfriendly microorganisms, you can pick it up with a minimum of confusion once you’re able to stand up again.
  • Know what the local nasty bugs might be, and be vigilant about fevers – have a thermometer and do not feel silly about going to a hospital if you have a high temperature…much, much better to be judged as a weak and paranoid foreigner than to get diagnosed late, especially if you live in the realm of dengue fever and other such serious diseases.
  • Have someone who can look out for you, be it getting you drinking water from the market or taking you to the nearest hospital. (My sister, currently working with me, was filling the caretaker role until she also fell ill…but we have neighbors and field assistants here who could tend to us if needed).
  • If possible, have a loved one phone you and listen to your pitiful whimpering.
  • Don’t stress out too much about work.  It accomplishes nothing except making you feel worse.  I still need to work on this one.
  • When recovering, don’t rush back into work full-speed.  Be kind to yourself.  I also need to work on this one.

I know that at least one person reading this will laugh because they’d spent time earlier today tellilng me not to feel bad about missing work, and to not rush back into work if I still felt weak, and I stubbornly replied, “But I only have 3 more full weeks at this site, and each day counts for so much, and I can handle going back to work tomorrow!”  Maybe I’ll decide to do a half-day tomorrow.  Especially since I am now considering going back to bed…this 10 minutes of sitting up has been a little too exciting.