Perhaps the only thing scarier than being jailed or kidnapped while traveling overseas is becoming deathly ill, especially in a place where one doesn’t speak the language.
That happened to Charleston resident Caryn Victoria Antos on New Year’s Eve, her wedding day.
Instead of nuptials, Antos endured two life-saving surgeries and nine days in the intensive-care unit in a hospital in Spain.
She remained hospitalized Friday with the hopes of flying back to Charleston later this week. But doctors make no promises.
The family has become familiar with the oft-repeated term, “poco a poco,” or little by little, used by physicians not wanting to commit to any release date.
The past weeks have been described by Antos, fiance Matt O’Hara and their families as riding the gamut of emotions that have deeply bonded their relationships.
The experience also was a study in the difference in socialized medicine in Spain and practices in the United States.
“It’s been a memorable 2013, already,” said the 34-year-old Antos in a phone call from her hospital room near Garraf, Spain, on Thursday. “The outpouring of support from my family and friends, from the doctors, nurses and total strangers in Spain and my friends back in Charleston has been overwhelming.”
Honeymoon to hospital
Last month, Antos and O’Hara had just finished a pre-wedding honeymoon in Italy and were in the scenic seaside town of Sitges, Spain, preparing for their New Year’s Eve wedding. About 25 family members and close friends had flown in to share a week of joy and celebration in what some describe as “the Saint-Tropez of Spain.”
Antos, a local yoga instructor and founder of the Yoga Benefits Kids nonprofit, had started feeling abdominal pain and bloating while in Italy.
Normally a healthy eater, the fitness buff chalked up the symptoms to the irregularities of traveling, namely eating more meat and cheese than she was accustomed.
Then her symptoms got worse.
On the night of Dec. 29, as the celebrants went out for a tapas and wine tour in nearby Barcelona, Antos went home early. The following day, she went to the emergency room. Doctors sent her home with medications for pain, stomach acid and constipation.
On Dec. 31, her condition worsened. Her stomach had expanded to the point where, according to her sister, Heather Antos, she looked “three months pregnant.” Antos went back to the ER and was admitted to the hospital.
The family postponed the wedding a day, promising wedding vendors that it would take place. But it wouldn’t. A CT scan identified a blockage in her large intestine. On Jan. 2, doctors operated five hours — twice as long as expected — to remove a mass.
“We were freaking out,” said sister Heather, noting that the length of the surgery was due to a decision not to perform a colostomy after removing the mass. Instead, the doctors, taking Antos’ relative youth and fitness into account, decided to stitch up her intestines instead.
The family says the surgical decision was an attempt to avoid the need for a pouch and follow-up surgery. And for a while, it seemed like the right move.
Meanwhile, back in Charleston, friends created a Facebook page, Team Caryn, to offer words of support. As of last week, the page had nearly 700 members. Another site was created on www.youcaring.com to help raise the expected $50,000 in medical expenses.
Antos was growing stronger in the intensive care unit as relatives and friends shuttled back and forth for one-hour visits twice a day. Three days later, Antos took a turn for the worse. Another scan showed an infection, or peritonitis.
O’Hara recalled a new doctor saying he had to operate or her life would be in jeopardy. On Jan. 5, surgeons cleaned out the infection and patched a perforation in her intestinal sutures.
Since then, she was moved out of ICU and started a slow progression of healing.
Antos, O’Hara, sister Heather and mother Mallory Antos all say that the medical care in Spain, while different from the United States, was superb.
Frequently, two to three doctors met with them bedside, talked and discussed options in front of them — in “perfect English.”
Heather notes, “Their bedside manner is incredible.”
Meanwhile, the doctors in Spain have been in touch with Caryn’s colorectal surgeon in Charleston, Dr. Jorge Lagares-Garcia, who happened to be trained at the University of Barcelona and works at Roper St. Francis Charleston Colorectal Surgery.
Antos and O’Hara admit that they face more hurdles in the months ahead. A lingering question, for example, is the pathology of the removed tumor. She also may require future surgeries. Those are issues they must face together after getting her strong enough to return to Charleston.
“We’re over the first hump,” Antos says. “There will probably be a couple of more and some unexpected turns ahead.”
For such an unfortunate event, the couple and their families have found reason for gratitude.
First, doctor friends have told them that if Caryn’s problem happened in the United States, the bill would run about $500,000. In Spain, the expected bill will be one-tenth of that cost, about $50,000.
Second, having family members and friends gathered in one location and not working offered Antos and O’Hara a strong support system.
Antos says, “If there was going to be a catastrophe in my life, this was the time to have it because we had so much family around us.” O’Hara adds, “Everyone picked a role and ran with it. ... Everyone was exceptionally strong.”
As a result of the experience, already close families got even closer.
“In the past few weeks, we’ve grown together as families as if we’d been together for a decade,” Antos says,
The event, combined with her convalescence, also has inspired Antos to follow through on a long-held goal: write a children’s book. She finished a draft while in the hospital and will look for an artist to illustrate it when she returns.
Finally, Antos says she is surprised and humbled at the outpouring of support from friends, acquaintances, long-lost friends and strangers from Charleston on Facebook and on youcaring.com.
“I’ve cried so many times reading Facebook posts,” Antos says.
“In a weird way, I’m going to miss leaving here. We’ve created a nest here (in the hospital room), ... but it’s going to be great to be back home.”
Both Caryn Antos and her doctors were relieved when she managed to leave the intensive care unit and get a room with a view. Antos and fiance Matt O’Hara say Spanish doctors seem to be in tune with the mind-body connection.×
Caryn Victoria Antos (foreground), founder of the Yoga Benefits Kids nonprofit and a local yoga instructor, is seen leading a previous class.×
Caryn Victoria Antos×