In my heart, I’m anti-antibiotics, yet as someone who used to suffer from recurring urinary tract infections (UTIs), I was forced to embrace them. Until now.
Antibiotics are a double-edged sword. Yes, they save lives, but they also wreak havoc on your health. Personally, at some point or other they’ve destroyed my immune system and gastrointestinal tract, spurred year-long hemorrhoids, eroded my bladder strength, ravaged my gut flora, given me yeast infections, and prompted my mouth and throat to erupt in a lesion of canker sores. I would even say they’ve contributed to my fibromyalgia symptoms.
And more importantly Antimicrobial Resistance has been steadily on the rise for the last decade. Bacteria and other pathogens are constantly adapting to the antibiotics we use to combat them, rendering them ineffective.
Editor’s Note: Since writing this story, I have discovered that our silver ointment can reverse a urinary tract infection. I have tried several things and this the only thing that works other than taking antibiotics and further creating resistance! I a finger tip full of some directly on my urethra and surrounding areas three times a day while drinking a lot of water to flush bacteria out.
Costa Rica Circa Y2K
It’s 1999. I’m 26 and visiting Costa Rica with my then boyfriend. During our three weeks there, we travel to the capital of San Jose to visit his uncle. We decide to visit more distant relatives in Limón on the outer tip of the Caribbean Coast. To get there, we drive three long hours in a serious jungle monkey, tropical downpour.
It’s not long before the seats of his uncle’s beat-up Corolla are wet, creating the perfect environment for bacteria to fester in. When we arrive to the Afro-Caribbean community of golden honey skin and ocean blue eyes, I’m possessed by an overwhelming urge to pee. I also suspect I’m about to have the runs.
I go straight to the bathroom.
When I try to pee, it’s like chards of glass are trying to make their way out of my urethra. When drops of urine finally dribble out, there’s blood too. I freak out.
When I try to flush, it’s like I’m in a bad comedy movie. I later learn that the town shuts off everyone’s water in times of heavy precipitation. So here I am meeting my ex’s great abuelita (grandma) for the first time, moments after desecrating el baño with my diarrhea and blood.
Feeling miserable and deeply embarrassed, I summon the courage to blurt out, “Lo siento todos [I am sorry everyone], but I am peeing blood and I need to go to a hospital.”
One of his cousins knows someone at the region’s only hospital, Dr. Tony Facio Castro. Once there, a nurse hands me a recycled Gerber baby jar and asks for a urine sample.
A huge rat crawls across the floor as I wait in agony, staring at posters that warn against malaria and tuberculosis, in between frequent trips to the toilet. I’m diagnosed with a UTI, which is brought on by things like dampness and long periods of sitting down. They give me antibiotics and presto chango, I feel better the next day.
Recurrences are common with UTIs. The risk factors include female anatomy, sexual intercourse, and family history (my grandma’s UTIs were legendary).
In the United States, urinary tract infections account for nearly seven million office visits, a million emergency department visits, and one hundred thousand hospitalizations every year. Direct cost of treatment is estimated at 1.6 billion USD yearly. Incidentally, antibiotics are the mainstay treatment.
I, too, join the ranks of the Regularly Afflicted.
It’s 2002. Only six months since I was outside walking, smashed by a Ford Explorer and dragged 50 feet in a crosswalk. Naturally, I decide to take a solo vacation to Hawaii: just me and my cane.
“Are you crazy?” my mom and then-boyfriend ask.
Yes, yes I am. I’m not well in the head or the body. In retrospect, I realize that I must’ve been subconsciously trying to take a vacation from myself and the accident. How silly of me.
The night before my flight, my boyfriend and I attempt anal sex for the first time. Love making since the accident had been reduced to the missionary position, with me lying still while periodically yelping—way more from pain than pleasure. This is my way of trying to add spice.
He barely penetrates before I tell him to stop. My tailbone is still broken, after all. He abandons the spice and we start having “normal” sex, which leads to a flurry of thoughts.
Oh my God, what if I get an infection? Don’t they say never go from back to front? Should I tell him to go wash up? He’ll just call me paranoid, again. And then I’ll get upset and then it’ll ruin the moment and then we won’t have any sex. We already barely have sex because of the accident. But what if I get an infection? Especially while I’m in Hawaii… that’s all I need. Stop! Breathe. Okay I’m just being paranoid. Everything’s fine. Stop.
The next day a friendly airport employee wheels me to the gate. Me, the person who refuses to even use an escalator. But with my severe limp, I can’t tote my inflatable donut (pillow for broken tailbone), computer, and newly acquired wooden cane there by myself.
As soon as I get to the hotel in Waikiki, I want to go back home. It’s tourist-icky like Disneyland but with caged parrots and leis and parents asking their children to say aloha into the camera.
I wake up the next day in paradise… and it burns when I pee. Mahalo!
Did I manifest my fears? Am I a witch? Or do I simply know my own body?
I burst into tears. Couldn’t life give me a break? I’d been hit by hulking metal, was outfitted with a titanium rod in my femur like Bionic woman but without the bionics, and now I was peeing chards of glass and blood in Hawaii.
I hobble to the hotel clinic and ask for some antibiotics. The nurse insists I pay $275 for an exam, despite the fact that I know what’s wrong with me. I grab my cane and head out into the sunshine to find a free clinic.
“Are you allergic to any antibiotics?” the Hawaiian young woman at the clinic asks as she hands me my meds and a $15 bill.
“Uh, no,” I answer. “What a weird question,” I think in the cab ride back to my hotel.
Finally, the beach! My leg is too weak to navigate the wavy sea, but I lie on the sand and eat a tuna sandwich (I still ate gluten back then) while trying to practice a then-foreign concept: gratitude. An hour later, I start to itch.
It turns out, I am allergic to an antibiotic—the one they gave me. By the time I finish the slow trip back to my room, my naturally poufy lips are swollen like I’d OD’d on Botox. It feels like mosquitoes have literally bitten my now bloodshot eyeballs. My joints ache and I’m sure I have a fever.
The cab ride from the hotel to the hospital is free. Mahalo! I add The Kohala to my list of hospitals I’ve visited while on vacation. My urethra is starting an unwanted tradition. Granted, the Kohala is cleaner and more modern than Dr. Tony Facio Castro.
I’m in hysterics. I’m certain I’m going blind. When the ER nurse spots me, my cane, and my crying, she asks where my family is. When I say I’m visiting Hawaii alone after a near-death accident, she sends in a social worker. I laugh (on the inside). They think I have issues.
I convince them I’m sane and stable. They figure out I’m allergic to the Ciprofloxacin that the free clinic gave me. So they pump me with antihistamines and hand me another bladder-friendly, E. coli-fighting antibiotic.
One pill later, my mouth and throat erupt in a fleet of canker sores. The Kohala staff gave me another sulfa-based drug. My top lip now touches my nose. Literally. And since the instructions warn against staying out in the sun, I am confined to my tourist-icky hotel room. I want to kill the infection. I want to kill myself. I decide to continue taking the noxious antibiotic so I can pee in peace again.
Four days later I return to Los Angeles. My boyfriend finds me in a wheelchair, gaunt and quiet. In the following days, I learn three things:
I’m still under severe shock from being hit by a car.
I’m allergic to all sulfa-based antibiotics.
It’s never a good idea to go back to the front after going back.
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire AKA Who Wants Walking Pneumonia?
It’s 2006. The BBC hires me to develop a reality show called Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say that the concept is as shallow as a puddle. ABC is producing it, but we are strangely ensconced at CBS near the Dancing With the Stars’ production office.
Our team consists of a few production assistants, another producer and my boss (a mad manipulative Scorpio who has climbed the ranks of London’s East End) haven’t yet arrived. Due to lack of space we’re moved to another room.
It’s a mildew-scented editing suite that hasn’t been used in ages, maybe as far back as the days of Rhoda or Joker’s Wild. There are no windows. Repeat: no windows! Just four once-upon-a time white walls and a smelly and toxic cheap-ass carpet.
In corporate American fashion, the room is also freezing, so much so that I order a space heater. It’s central air, which gives us no ability to turn the AC down. I buy a pothos plant that supposedly survives in low light. But under the fluorescents, she dies.
Are my standards too high? How does everyone else work in these conditions? Am I just being difficult? Yes and no!
I ask the others how they can handle a windowless room for three months. I try to stop myself but I need to know. My boss asks me to stop complaining.
Three weeks later, I’m not doing too much speaking. Mostly nasty coughing. A visit to my good friend Cedars Sinai reveals I have walking pneumonia in one lung. My then-doctor, who reminds me of a neurotic Woody Allen, hands me some non-sulfa antibiotics and sends me on my way.
But two days after that, I am not improving. In fact, I feel worse. Since I don’t really want to ask anyone to take me to the doctor and I’m not really up for driving, I call 911 and order an ambulance. FYI: The cost of first class door-to-door ambulance service is higher than asking a friend for a ride.
The pneumonia has spread to the other lung. I’d developed resistance to the prescribed antibiotics.
When my doctor arrives, he shrugs at my theory and says there’s no way that mold in an old AC duct could have given me pneumonia. He insists I need to be hospitalized and continue taking the useless antibiotics, in addition to two others he prescribes.
I refuse to take medicine that doesn’t work and spend the weekend at Chez Cedars. In front of the on-call ER physician, I tell my doc that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He prints my medical records and announces— in a neurotic rage—that I’m an unstable, depressed victim of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“May I remind everyone that we are not here to question my mental health!” I shout, standing in the middle of the emergency room wearing a gown and holding one of those roll-me-anywhere IVs.
This prompts an order for a psychiatric evaluation, even though I’m dying of pneumonia. I imagine next I’ll be wrapped up in a strait jacket and taken away.
Of course, I set the record straight with the 23-year-old freshly graduated psychiatrist who enters the waiting room to see me. I accomplish this despite the delusional thinking that comes with my 103 degree fever.
I spend a miserable weekend in the hospital on two intravenous antibiotics. I cough incessantly in between bouts of diarrhea and vomiting caused by the strength of these medications.
But the following Monday I bravely return to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I need the dough. And there’s a reason why I’ve been called a persistent bitch. The antibiotics cause me to develop hemorrhoids that will flare up for an entire year, until I travel to Italy with my mom where it’s healed with herbs, a bidet, and the salty sea.
Antibiotic [-bī·ot′ik]: Gk, anti, Against + bios, Life
Of course there are good reasons to use antibiotics. They’ve saved countless lives and served as a major line of defense against plagues and infectious diseases. They’ve saved me from UTIs and pneumonia.
Back in 1940 through 1960, the Golden Age of Antibiotics, germs couldn’t catch up with the new variations. But that was short-lived. Antibiotics have only existed since the 20th century, whereas bacteria have been around for millions of years. They’re smart mofos; they mutate. They are what you could call ancient alien intelligence.
Unfortunately people believed that antibiotics were harmless and popped them like candy. Plagues turned into minor ear infections. Antibiotics began to be misused and overused. In the early 50s, the FDA approved their use in animal feed, based on studies showing they helped chickens, pigs and livestock put on extra weight. Guess who else they can fatten?
For some reason it took another 20 years to realize that antibiotic use in animals contributes to its resistance in humans. We truly are what we eat. By the 70s, Big Ag was using antibiotics to prevent infection in animals so they could survive in cramped, filthy feedlots teeming with feces, bacteria and deadly microorganisms. Antibiotics as preventative medicine? Really?
In the 80s Americans created a task force that included scientists from the FDA who “suggested” that antibiotics used by humans be banned from use in animals.
Yet the abuse and misuse continued. Why? Monetary gain, negligence, stupidity, greed, and an FDA-commissioned report by the National Academy of Sciences that said there was little scientific data on antibiotic resistance caused by feeding drugs to animals. [I recommend reading a report by the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, Antibiotics in Food Animal Production: A Forty Year Debate. It will likely make you think otherwise.]
Today, 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in this country go to factory farms, according to the nonprofit FixFood. From 1935 to 1968, 13 classes of antibiotics were created; but since 1968, there have been only two, according to the Pew Health Group.
Why is the pipeline virtually dry?
Surprise! Creating antibiotics isn’t profitable. Few drug makers are willing to invest in antibiotics because, unlike antidepressants or medications for high blood pressure, doctors can’t prescribe them for the remainder of a patient’s life. But discovering new antibiotics is also inherently difficult. Finding novel agents that successfully target bacteria is scientifically challenging.
Regulatory complexities specific to antibiotics also compound the situation. For example, late-stage clinical trials investigating antibiotics against resistant infections require an excess number of trial participants, as not all of those enrolled will be infected with the resistant strain of bacteria being targeted. This significantly impacts the practicalities and cost of running large trials, which produce more reliable results than small trials.
Its 2010. I’m at a Natural Foods Expo in Anaheim, California. I gorge on samples of raw cacao and within an hour I’m peeing blood. Later I learn that too much raw chocolate can irritate the bladder.
It’s time to do the math: I’ve taken eight rounds of antibiotics for UTIs in the past two years. It’s a vicious cycle. I have to take them to wipe out the infection (bad bacteria), yet taking them kills the good bacteria needed for a robust immune system, making me susceptible to future infections.
It’s 2011. While house sitting in Vieques, Puerto Rico, I develop strep throat. My boyfriend bribes the one pharmacist on the island to sell him antibiotics since I refuse to wake up at 5 a.m. in my feverish condition (or in any condition) to suffer in a cramped waiting room with other sickos in line to see the one doctor.
Slowly but surely antibiotics obliterate my gut flora. I have fibromyalgia-like aches all over my body. Researching information on the Internet tells me that yeast overgrowth caused by antibiotic overuse can contribute to fibromyalgia.
Fast forward to January 2012. I vow, “No more!” But in May, I feel a familiar burn at the end of peeing. I believe this UTI is caused by long hours of love making coupled with some chocolate eating. Instead of antibiotics I drink massive amounts of organic cranberry juice. I down an entire bottle of colloidal silver, eat garlic, and gobble supplements like uva ursi, D-mannose, horsetail and dandelion—herbs that create acidity in the urethra, help detox the body and prevent bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall.
I also use a friend’s alternative-therapy high-frequency Rife machine and pay hundreds of dollars for IV ozone treatments that I’m told will kill the bacteria. I manage to keep the blood at bay but the infection persists.
I live in excruciating pain for two weeks. I’m a very persistent… until I speak to a few women who tried to avoid taking antibiotics but ended up on dialysis. They encourage me to take the drugs and I do.
A new culture concludes I have Staphylococcus Saprophyticus, a bacteria that can easily spread into the urethra through sex or even normal touching. The immune system can usually fight it, but mine isn’t strong enough—probably because of my autoimmune condition, lupus.
The urologist at Cedars suggests I take the antispasm drug methenamine.
“It basically makes your pee formaldehyde so that nothing can live in it,” she says nonchalantly.
Uh, no thanks Doc.
Next she recommends I take an antibiotic preventatively, like every time I have sex. WTF?
By now, I’d hope that most physicians and healthcare professionals understand the dangers of antibiotic overuse. Don’t they know about the scary antibiotic-resistant superbugs that get into the air, water, and our food?
The evolution of antibiotic resistance has rendered original antibiotics and most of their successors largely ineffective. Experts say that if replacements are not found, antibiotics will soon be dead. Moreover it could bring about “the end of modern medicine as we know it,” according to Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization. “[And] things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.”
Resistant infections are emerging faster than new antibiotics. Gonorrhea is on its way to making the available antibiotics obsolete, joining the list of many worrisome bacterial strains such as total-drug-resistant tuberculosis and MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus.
So in my opinion, taking an antibiotic every time you have sex is not only a major disservice to your body but to the entire planet. It’s ludicrous and irresponsible.
I start a self-directed course of action to improve my health. I take high-end probiotics and it rebuilds my guts. I also eat fermented foods and kombucha, and I followed Donna Gate’s Body Ecology Diet for several months. I take vitamin C instead of formaldehyde, and I don’t eat cacao near my period when progesterone dips and the bladder is more sensitive. I also pee before and after sex, and soak in salt water. Whenever I am sexually active, I take Cran-Max and the green super food Vibrant Health. I haven’t had a UTI since. Sure, I follow an entire preventative UTI regime. But it sure beats taking antibiotics. And now I pee in peace.
The Bright Side, Sort Of
Bills were introduced last year in both the House and Senate to encourage more pharmaceutical-company research on antibiotics. They would extend patent protection for new antibiotics by five years and streamline FDA approval.
Innovative research programs like NewDrugs4BadBugs intend to boost the currently faltering discovery and development of new antibiotics. And this past April 2012, the FDA outlined plans to phase out nonmedical uses of more than 200 antibiotics in animals over three years. The “voluntary” plan requires cooperation by drug makers and farmers. Good luck with that one!
Our entire healthcare system needs to recognize that it has a serious responsibility to be prudent in its use of antibiotics and to prescribe them only to people who are genuinely in need.
Other Related Stories:
- American Meat Is Pumped Up With More Antibiotics Than Ever Before
- Could Antibiotics Be Contributing To Childhood Obesity?
- 4 Reasons Silver Is One Of The Best Natural Antibiotics
- The Meat Industry Now Consumes 4/5 Of All Antibiotics
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.
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