On any given school day, close to 20 or 30 high school students are out of school for sicknesses. Take that same population of 1200 high schoolers and scatter them all over the globe for a week-long interim trip, and it is inevitable that students will fall ill. While only around 20 students picked up significant illnesses during this year’s interim semester, some of the more serious cases made for stressful situations.
Junior Emma Gordon chose to go on a service trip to Bhutan for her week abroad. But on Day 6, Gordon and several other students woke up feeling very sick and nauseous. During the long bus ride through the mountains, her condition worsened as she threw up continuously.
“Once we reached the capital city Thimphu, our sponsor Mr. Williams and our guide Tin-Tin took me to the hospital where I saw a doctor,” Gordon said. “They put me on an IV drip and gave me medicine for the puking. During this time I also fainted from dehydration.”
Gordon was able to contact her parents after coming home from the hospital to update them on her situation. Her illness was believed to have been food poisoning. Thankfully, after spending the next two days resting and sleeping, Gordon recovered fully, and felt positively about her whole interim experience.
“I think the sponsors did all they could, and the guides gave me constant advice. Getting sick made me feel really uncomfortable in the moment, but afterwards I was fine and it really didn’t affect me,” Gordon said.
However, other sick students were not so lucky. Senior Kaelan Cuozzo saw the onset of her illness coming from the very first day of her Fiji interim trip.
Cuozzo knew that germs would start to spread when her trip members took turns drinking from a communal bowl of kava, a locally grown traditional crop with sedative and anesthetic properties. This question of “culture vs. hygiene” is a challenge that many others have encountered on their interim trips. Students feel the need to respect the traditions of their hosts, but at the same time may worry about hygiene and health issues. Cuozzo also had doubts about the drinking water coming from their bucket filtration system, and when their water tank broke, there was even a risk of running out of water. Still, her real symptoms only began to show a few days into the trip.
“On Monday, my stomach started to hurt and I made the unwise decision of going nuts on kava. Usually we just have one cup, but that night I had 11 cups, so I admit this could have contributed to the cause of the sickness,” Cuozzo said.
By Tuesday morning, Cuozzo’s minor discomforts had manifested into a 100 degree fever. As the day progressed, her temperature rose to 103.8 degrees Fahrenheit, accompanied by intense stomach pains and other side effects.
“At this point, my sponsors Mr. Crawford and Mrs. Began were really worried about me and were considering the possibility of a helicopter evacuation,” Cuozzo said. “They had also already gotten an ISOS representative online.”
ISOS, which stands for International SOS, is a group that SAS contracts with for the Interim Semester period. The organization provides a 24/7 hotline of doctors, nurses, and security officials that can speak the languages of all the countries where students travel. They can do anything from giving sponsors feedback about appropriate medical attention to immediately medically evacuating a person.
During her virtual consultation with ISOS, Cuozzo was given several possibilities as to what was causing her symptoms: overflow, a hemorrhoid explosion, appendicitis, or just normal constipation. Meanwhile, a lot of communication was being passed back and forth between Cuozzo, her parents, the sponsors, and High School Principal Dr. Darin Fahrney.
“I’m the point person for any emergency situation. No matter what time of the day it is, if there’s something out on an Interim course that the advisor needs assistance with, he/she calls my number,” Fahrney said.
Dr. Fahrney plays a crucial role in the case of any Interim sickness – whether it is major or minor. Not only does he receive and connect people to important updates, but he also acts as emotional support.
“I think the first thing is just understanding that it’s really stressful for parents to have their kids sick and a long way away,” Fahrney said. “The second thing is figuring out how to get status reports back to them about their child.”
After many more phone calls, emails, and texts, it was finally decided that Cuozzo would stay in Fiji for the rest of her trip and see a doctor immediately after she landed in Singapore. While her illness caused her a lot of stress, it also led to a very positive learning experience.
“Getting sick allowed me to see how happy I am; even though I missed out on half the trip, the culture and the people in Fiji made me really happy. I realized how lucky I am and how, even though I felt really unwell, I wouldn’t want to change lives with anybody else,” Cuozzo concluded.
The administration also sees Interim as a week of learning and growth for students. Dr. Fahrney especially appreciates how these trips help improve cultural competence, build relationships, and make a big school feel small. Interim Coordinator Dan Skimin describes Interim as a time “to give students an opportunity to take themselves out of their normal environment and push them to experience new experiences.”
Every year there will likely be a few extreme cases of ill students, but Interim as a whole is extremely fun for students and very safe. There is also a great deal of behind-the-scenes work that goes on to ensure the safety of all the trips.
“We work with the embassy and watch government alerts as to what countries are safe, and what countries aren’t. If there are outbreaks or terrorist situations, those trips don’t even make the list,” Fahrney said.
The school also has a new Risk Mitigation Specialist, Sebastian Wong, who makes sure that vendors provide top-notch safe trips.
It is clear that policies and procedures are in place to ensure that Interim is secure and students are protected, but just as at home, there will always be the risk of illness or accidents.
“Interim tends to be more rustic than family vacations, and that’s good. There could have been a bit more communication as to what to expect, and some precautions could have been taken. But in general, Interim is really safe, and I felt like I was in good hands,” Cuozzo concluded.