When death starts flirting with you and you realize how impermanent and short life is

Diana Gutierrez
22 min readJun 15, 2023

Short story written by Diana Gutierrez, Co-founder & CEO EQUILIBRIUM BMS

I promised a three-part blog a couple of weeks ago after returning from a business trip to the US, in which I had many situations that really tested my ability as a savvy traveler. However, today I feel forced to write a short story that started four years ago and that I hope will give you, a relative, sibling, friend or loved one a piece of advice.

Most of you know that I’ve been struggling with health issues for over four years now. It all started back then in January 2019 with a corvina ceviche poisoning. A long-term exposure, in a sick building in City of Knowledge, to a poor quality of the air, mold, humidity, fiberglass, lead and a fungus called Aspergilus Niger, has shifted dramatically the functioning of my immune system. And the ceviche was just a trigger of a myriad of symptoms that have come and go for four long years now.

After the first poisoning with the ceviche I was diagnosed with a reactive arthritis, I got a sleeping disorder and gastrically I started to suffer acute pain every time I ate anything, even the most simple things such as a garden salad, a piece of cheese or an aubergine.

The lethal combination of high work-related stress, plus workplace bullying, plus the long-term exposure created a deadly cocktail that has tested me in so many ways.

I have jumped from doctor to doctor, both allopathic and homeopathic in Panama and Colombia, looking for answers and I finally got diagnosed with a fibromyalgia and a multiple chemical sensitivity.

I thought all this was over back in December 2022, just because I had the last crisis in October, and I was feeling super good from all points of view — gastrically, sleep pattern, articular pains, arms stiffness, swollen ankles, abdominal pain and bloating.

But as you may already know I traveled to the US three weeks ago, and that trip that initially was supposed to last five days, ended being a two weeks business trip.

To give you a bit more context so you can understand why I have started a deadly spiral that is taking a toll on my physical, mental and emotional health, consider that in January 2023 I had a conversation with my boss about the end of my appointment with the Gender Team in UNDP.

I was holding a TA or temporary position for two years, and those contracts cannot be renewed. This was coupled with a sharp reduction in the institutional core budget for all teams across the organization and there was no more money to fund my current position under the same type of contract.

It took me by surprise to be honest, just because after having worked for the United Nations for 16 years with UNODC, FAO and UNDP; and to be honest although there has been always a sense of uncertainty, I have always worked uninterruptedly regardless of the contract modality.

Last year was a plain and boring year, let’s say. Not much happened from a work-related standpoint. The only thrilling and refreshing thing was working with Mike Rios and his team to launch the women economic catalyst for the Digital X Programme.

I truly believe that we need to harness the power of digital to achieve the aspirations set by the 2030 Agenda, namely: zero poverty, equality, zero hunger, universal education, inclusive growth, decent and fair jobs, responsible production and consumption, clean energy for all, gender equality, protected biodiversity and coastal and marine life, and more.

I’m a believer of digital as a force for good!

And in some sort of way I have opened my own space in the organization to be acknowledged as UNDP’s global lead on gender and digital.

After a very professional conversation with my boss about my future in the team I decided to step aside, just because I didn’t want to keep working in the same areas I’ve been working for the last 6.5 years.

I felt a bit scared, but excited, about upcoming opportunities. I was asking to the universe this shift and the moment finally came.

So I started to apply to a bunch of UN staff positions, more aligned to the change in direction I want to take for my UN career. But, it takes time, the first application I made was back in August 2022 and only when I was hospitalized two weeks ago I started having the first interviews.

I was feeling perfectly fine, as said, my last immune crisis was laying behind back in October 2022. But my physical, emotional and mental health train started to derail progressively.

The sleeping disorder came back — so I’ve been sleeping just 2 to 4 hours a day for the last four months now; the articular pains have increased dramatically as well as the arms stiffness — especially when I wake up even after a quick nap; my knees have started to feel soared and hurt; my tongue feels like a dry sponge eager to drink every piece of beverage that crosses before me and sometimes it feels asleep; my eyes are super dry — I haven’t used my contacts for four months now after using contact lenses for over two decades, just because it feels like a thousand knives inside the eyeball.

I was perfectly fine from the gastric standpoint. But it wasn’t for too long.

When I traveled to New York I got a parasite called Cyclospora Cayetenensis, apparently and endemic parasite in the US and in tropical countries, that is also opportunist in the sense that it takes advantage of immune compromised persons and people with HIV.

On Friday, 26th May after having the most wonderful night, I felt recharged, loved, surrounded and supported by like-minded souls that really cared about my health and well-being. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to a bizarre and super productive week. I went to bed at midnight, and slept like a baby.

But half past one I woke up drenched in sweat, short of breath and super thirsty.

I started my Pranayama practice, which is a technique used to breathe and bring air to your lungs and belly, and normalize an accelerated heartbeat. I kept doing the breathing exercise but it seems like I was lacking enough oxygen to fill in my lungs. I also woke up super bloated and with a stomach ache.

I got out of bed to look for a pill of simethicone to find some way to ease my gastric pain, but I took the last pill the night before.

I got dressed and walked for four blocks until I found a 24-hours CVS pharmacy. The wind at 2:00 am in New York City felt just great. Soothing, refreshing and wonderful. I got the simethicone, bought a bottle of water and took the pill.

I felt like it was pointless to go back to my place, even though I had a very good reason to come back, but then I thought that my hubby wanted a pair of underwater AirPods, so I took and UBER and went to the Apple Cube. It’s open 24 hours a day and I was there for about 20 to 25 minutes, and got only a multi-charger, just because there were no submersible earphones.

I left the cube and went straight back to my place.

We had a deadline the 26th for the submission of a proposal to the American Government for a newly launched fund for the inclusion of women in the digital economy. That’s the reason why I stayed longer than originally planned in New York. So I started working on the budget estimation at 3:00 am, so that I had enough time to coordinate with our sister agencies and also catch a 10:00 am flight from Newark International Airport.

I worked through to 6:30 am, got a fantastic shower — one of those that really recharge you. And since I had a bit of time after the shower I got into bed and indeed it was repairing and powerful.

I grabbed an UBER I guess at 8:30 am, put all my things in my bags and headed to the airport. In the meantime, in my 40 minutes ride I had an internal coordination meeting to negotiate the budget of the proposal with our sister agencies, distribute each share and the “overhead rate”.

At 9:20 am I arrived to Newark, right after the start of the inter-agency meeting. Once I got to the counter, I fully concentrated on my trip so I left the call.

The customs process was really smooth and in a matter of 20 minutes or so I was in the assigned gate.

I always wait until the final boarding call to get on the plane, and as said in my last blog, I prefer to be seated very close to any restroom and in the aisle so I can go easily and quickly.

So, the flight was about to be closed when I lined up and the check in counter lady says to me “Miss we need to tag your carry-on because there’s no space available to keep it in the plane”, and I replied “No way…I’m not tagging my carry on, I have my laptop, Ipad, crystals, jewelry and valuables there”.

She replied then “You have to tag your bag, otherwise we can’t onboard you.”

I said “OK fine, I’ll stay here, but you have to ensure that I won’t miss my connecting flight to Panama which is at 4:00 PM.”

She replied “Well, you definitely can’t board the plane unless you tag your bag”.

And in the end she didn’t allow me to come in and then she changed my flight to one at noon. Fortunately, I had enough time to catch that flight and move between terminals in Atlanta to catch the connecting flight.

Once again I thought, “Diana don’t fight with the universe’s will. If you’re staying here, there’s a reason why and you will discover it soon”.

After that, I went to buy something to eat, since I didn’t have enough time to eat back at my friend’s flat. A chicken wrap and a snack to take with me on the plane with hummus and pretzels.

Newark terminal for national flights is quite nice, some of the gates are connected by this rounded plaza with nice tables and chairs. So I sat there, to re-organize my belongings, because I only could take with me two pieces: my purse and my carry-on. And I had an extra bag with the box and the guarantee of my new IPad Pro.

Yes, I also had the opportunity to upgrade my IPad and this is an amazing piece of technology — I’m seated here writing this blog with it. So in the end, I re-organized my belongings between the purse and the suitcase, except for the box of the IPad and got rid of the Apple bag and that was it.

Now I was ready to take my flight!

So then I stayed there, very close to the new gate.

But after I ate half of the wrap I started to feel weird. Nauseated, I wanted to vomit, I was super bloated — with a pregnant woman-like belly, super dry and thirsty.

So I contacted my family doctor — A wonderful internist and nephrologist, most likely the best in town and super respected by his colleagues and the health community; and the most humane doctor I have ever found in my entire journey. Someone that really cares about his patients, a physician that listens to his patients, that takes the time to let you know what’s wrong and what you’re feeling or about to feel, and that tries to get to the root cause of your disease.

He didn’t reply back then, but right after he told me to take Dramamine for the nausea and dizziness, and increase the dose of the anti-histamine to contain the massive allergic and immune reaction I was having.

I stayed there in the waiting room, as said close to the gate. When finally they started to call the different groups to board the plane. As always there are priority groups with the premium status. It was one of the first times I was flying with Delta so I had to wait to board in Group 7…ufff…at risk of staying there once again.

But finally, I boarded, seated in the last row of the plane, very close to the restroom, I put on my Airpods Max — which by the way is another great piece of technology for frequent travelers, because it has this noise canceling function, where you actually can’t hear the noises of the plane and its passengers.

Once again the plane took-off and I got online with the free Wi-Fi connection offered by Delta, which is great for business travelers. I coordinated a couple of things with my colleague from UNCDF, because we moved some budget items and we had something like US$400 hundred thousand dollars floating around. We needed to reach the cap of US$60 Million, included the overhead.

I was completely stucked. Probably it was the fatigue I was feeling, and I started to move the numbers, but the difference just was there.

When I got to Atlanta, I took this speed train to find the gate of my connection in Terminal 8. Finally there I found the ear buds you can use underwater — yeyyy. Then I saw this wonderful exposition of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life with great pics of the fight he led against racial discrimination back in the fifties and sixties.

Then I headed to Terminal 6 to find the Priority Pass lounge but it was super crowded, so that they put me on a waiting list.

On a side note, this is a huge airport, with eight terminals, lots of shops and restaurants. You actually can’t feel you’re in an airport unless you find a gate and you start to realize that you’re not in a mall. It also has a speed train for travelers to move between terminals easily. Each train moves on a constant basis with stops every three to five minutes.

I found a table to keep working. The deadline was approaching and it was 2:30 pm, and remember that my flight was supposed to leave at 4:30 pm. I opened the hummus with pretzels snack and once again I tried to include the US$400K+overhead. What a nightmare! And I have done it like a thousand times. But my brain was super tired and I couldn’t see clearly what I was doing wrong. By the way, the budget of the other two agencies was also off and they were doing the same to try to add the budget or reduce it to bring the difference to zero.

I was there moving numbers around for half-n-hour, when I thought why don’t you call to a wonderful friend in Colombia, which was also my M&E and financial planning officer when I was project manager back then in Colombia for 7 years. She still works for UNDP in Colombia and I called her and told her “Caro, I need your wisdom, please help me with this budget, discount the overhead and reach the cap of US$60M.”

She replied “Of course Dianita, just call me via Teams and share your screen”.

Then I called her and then I started to see the light, by just having her on other side of the screen and that was it. Then she just guided me so easily, she saw clearly what was wrong.

Finally my budget had zero differences to equal the US$60M cap. It was the aha moment! Angelic bells started to ring in my head! I was absolutely thrilled.

My colleague Cate was still proof-reading the concept note and I finally told her “Ok you can include now the budget to the proposal.”

It was 4:05 PM back then, and remember I was supposed to leave at 4:30 PM and that I was in a different terminal. I started tu run like crazy to take the speed train and moved very quickly to Terminal 8 and got to the Gate like 7 mins later.

I queued with my boarding pass and passport at hand. But once again, the customer service culture in Delta took me by surprise. The check-in counter lady yelled a bit and told me “Not yet, step aside and wait there until I call you”.

I said “Ok no problem, no need to yell, but ok…And I said to myself just breathe”.

She started to call people on waiting list, despite I was already checked-in and with my boarding pass. Like 7 or 8 minutes passed when I moved again to approach the queue and then she again yelled at me “Not yet miss, until I call you”.

I stayed there in front of the counter, staring at her directly to the eyes and she kept typing, calling people in the waiting list one by one. It was just 5 people. And finally, she asked my last name, looked into the system and told me “As a precautionary measure we have to tag your carry-on because we might be running out of space in the cabin”.

OMG I started to flip out and said “Look miss, I’m not going to tag my carry-on because I have all my valuables there, including a brand new IPad and laptop and I can’t bring all those with me because I have no space left in my purse”.

Then she replied “So if you don’t tag your bag, and if there’s no space we will have take you off the plane”.

I said “Fine by me, but you have to rebook my flight and ensure that I arrive today in Panama City”.

I was trying my best to keep calmed, she raised once again her voice and said “Look if you tag my bag and there’s no space on the plane, I will come off the plane, because I’m not putting this bag on the airplane hold”.

Finally the flight was about to close, she didn’t tag me the bag and in the end there was plenty of space in the cabin.

But look what happened next. Since they allowed people in the waiting list to board, my original seat was assigned twice. This lady was already there in row 17 in the middle of other two passengers, and I said to the flight attendant “I don’t care to seat somewhere else..please put me in the back of the plane, even last row very close to the restrooms”.

The flight was full, and there was only one seat available in the middle of two women. The worst seat that you can use! The middle of the row!

Then I though “WTF the check-in counter lady back in Newark Airport put me in the middle seat”.

Once again I tried to chill and have my Zeniest attitude in place to start my four-hour flight. I slept at least for one hour, listened to some music, went to the restroom at least three times and kept working on the website of a retreat for the body, mind and soul I’m organizing with other four great friends in Bocas del Toro by the end of the year.

I finally got to Panama, used the fast track lane for UN officials and diplomats and a few minutes later I had my bags with me, got out and met my husband who was waiting for me with a bouquet of flowers and we kissed slowly and hugged each other.

Since I didn’t have the time to have a proper lunch nor a decent dinner, we went to this nice restaurant called Petit Paris in Punta Pacifica, with a great view of the sea. We ordered a fondue and left the place at 11:00 pm.

When I got home I took a shower, a sleeping pill and antihistamine and went to bed.

The next day, Saturday the 27th I woke up at 4:00 am sweat, fatigued and bloated and with lots of gastric pain. My hubby told me that he had this activity with the Colombian consulate that I could stay at home or come with him.

I decided to go with him and it was a very cool event with a micro-business fair and I found some hidden gems, especially women entrepreneurs that are designing great jewelry, artisanal soap and vegan skin care products like aloe scrubs, body mouse and butters, deodorant, candles and even shoes. I talked to some of them and offered my help to help them boost their businesses.

I lunched lechona — a typical Colombian dish originally from the Tolima region that only has pork, rice and yellow beans, a complete delicacy. But I guess in the end it was a big mistake, I started to bloat even more, the gastric pain was even more acute.

For the closure of the fair the Colombian consulate brought Luna Llena de Tambores. A great immersive experience where everyone gets involved producing music with just two sticks and an empty big bucket where paint is storaged.

We stayed there for about 30 minutes and then I told him, “Let’s go home. I’m not feeling well at all.”

I got home and vomited all the lunch and started to feel super off, sick, the pain was growing bigger and I told my hubby “Please take me to the hospital, I’m not feeling well, I guess I’m poisoned”.

He took me quickly to Pacifica Salud, one of the best hospitals in town. They brought me quickly to a cubicle in the ER, put me some fluids, took some blood and urine to run some tests. A wonderful doctor took my case, I was with a regular blood pressure, no fever, just the gastric pain, nauseous and the bloating. He released me at 4:00 am, headed home and slept like a baby.

On Sunday the 28th I woke up at 2:30 am feeling off, super bloated and with an acute gastric pain. I meditated for a bit, made Pranayama breathing and tried to relax. But the pain kept growing bigger, I started to feel nauseated again and bloated all day long.

At 4:00 pm I asked my hubby to take me back to the hospital, we got there, they made me a magnetic resonance and found a couple of things. First, that the small intestine was swollen and second, that I have a cyst in one of my ovaries — the last one is probably the smallest problem that I had back then, and to be honest even now.

I stayed in a private room in the ER, then I was hospitalized at 10:30 pm in this private suite, with a great view of Panama’s skyline, and touch screen with access to Netflix, YouTube and other apps.

I just felt like I was in a five stars hotel room!

At midnight I was instructed to be ready to drink four glasses of contrast dye — one per hour, that tasted just awful, super bitter — up until the contrast magnetic resonance — that was scheduled at 8:00 am — took place.

At 7:30 am a male nurse picked me up in a wheelchair and took me to the radiology section. When I got to the magnetic resonance room, they gave me an additional glass of contrast dye. Then they asked me to lie down in the machine, she connected a device to my catheter and made a test passing me just a saline solution through my bloodstream.

When the scan started to do its work, the nurse injected me with the contrast dye. I felt this metallic flavor in my mouth and then a burning sensation in my pelvic area. It wasn’t nice at all!

The same day I had a whole new bunch of labs and they found that I’m invaded by a parasite called Cyclospora Cayetenensis, an opportunistic parasite that affects especially immune compromised people like me and people with HIV.

Long story short, I spent 5 days and 4 nights in the hospital with fluids, antibiotic, gastric protector feeling really bad, nauseated and dizzy almost the whole time, with diarrhea and vomit.

My physician and the infection specialist told me that the antibiotic helped to kill 500K parasites a day and that I needed a 14-day treatment. So you can imagine how many parasites I have in my belly? Yes, 7 million parasites living inside me. Gross!

Back home I’m taking close to 10 different pills a day — for the dizziness and nausea, vomit, to kill the parasites, to protect my stomach, to re-built the gut flora, to sleep, to relax and to treat my allergies. And on top of that, also an antidepressant and anxiolytic.

The last few days have been very difficult for me, painful and like a roller coaster ride with many physical, mental and emotional ups and downs.

Last Wednesday, the 7th June, I went to a medical appointment, then I got some lab tests and to avoid the traffic jam we crossed the street and went to a shopping mall.

I was feeling awful that day. Super bloated, fatigued, weak. We headed home at 8:30 pm, picked up my hubby and went to this Asian fusion restaurant. Since I have many food restrictions right now — no fish or sea food, nor irritating foods, nothing raw or spicy food — I ordered a vegetarian sushi wrapped in soy paper.

We left the restaurant behind and went home in a matter of 3 minutes. When I got home I started to vomit the whole meal, then I took a shower and started to feel dizzy, short of breath, and super fatigued, like I was losing control of my movements.

I thought “OMG something’s wrong with me”.

My father tested my blood pressure and pulse and both were off the charts.

I asked my husband to call an ambulance right away, when I started to feel weaker, and my left arm started to feel numb, then the right arm and then both legs.

My husband was a bit hesitant about calling for an ambulance, he told me that he could take me to the hospital, but crying I said to him “What would you do if I have a heart attack in our car?…please call 911 and ask for an ambulance now!”.

There was so much chaos and confusion.

My mom was crying, my husband didn’t know what to do and my father was just staring at me super concerned. I felt sorry for them at the same time while I was trying to fill my lungs with oxygen.

I asked my mom to blow me in the face, and it was a wonderful sensation, it was “mummy’s blow”.

In the meantime I asked Oscar, my husband to dress me to go to the ER with comfy cloth, then I asked him to prepare a bag with our belongings in case I was hospitalized; and while he was preparing the bag something rang in my head and I remembered that back then in 2021 when I had Covid-19, I experienced blood pressure peaks, and that my internist Dr. Calvo prescribed me a medicine called Amlodipino to regulate the blood pressure.

I asked my husband to pass me a pouch that I always keep with me in my purse with a suite of essential medicines, including Amlodipino. I took one pill and I guess that saved my life in the end.

The paramedics arrived 10 minutes later and then tested my blood pressure again, put me a heart rate monitor, tested my glucose levels and they realized that I was having a fever.

I was starting to feel like my hands, feet, ankles and chest were on fire. A horrible burning sensation.

Twenty minutes later I asked them “Please take me to the hospital right now!”.

They put me in a wheelchair and when I entered the elevator I lost full control of my movements, I felt like a “dead body”.

When we got to the ambulance, one of the paramedics asked me if I could walk and jump into the ambulance gurney. I said feeling short of breath and fatigued “I can’t.”

Then I started to feel so much pain that I just screamed loudly in the parking lot.

The paramedic, my husband and a security guard lifted me and put me in the gurney. I started to relax once the paramedic put on a mask with oxygen and Oscar, my husband grabbed my hand.

I entered into some sort of shock.

I saw lights tingling, I saw some passed relatives, I even saw angels surrounding me.

I started to smile at them and felt more secure.

After a 20 minutes ride we arrived at the hospital, they stabilized me, put me some fluids because I was super dehydrated, gave me medicine to slow down the heart beat and the blood pressure, and slept for 3 hours.

At 3:30 am I started to feel like myself again, I re-gained the control of my movements including legs and arms. And then at 4:30 am we went home.

Two days ago when I was waiting for a control appointment with my physician I started to feel short of breath, dizzy, I was super bloated and once again I was repeating a similar episode to the one I lived last week as a I was close to have a heart attack with my blood pressure and heart beat off the charts.

This was a near death experience that I never lived before, so close to a heart attack that it feels surreal and horrifying.

I don’t have a particularly difficult relationship with death, I guess thanks to the absorption of Buddhist teachings and to the “Tibetan Book of Life and Death”.

I have learned that all is impermanent, everything is in motion even when we don’t realize it; and the actions you do today will have an impact in your future.

Now I’m preparing my will to leave everything in place and order. I’m not saying that I will die tomorrow, but life is short and unexpectedly you can have your last breath. When a loved one dies your relatives have to take the burden of fixing your affairs on their shoulders, and I really want to smooth the process for them in case of need.

I finished the antibiotic yesterday, but I still will have to take a whole bunch of pills that are killing my gut, in addition to my sleeping disorder. And most likely that’s the reason why I’m waking up fatigued, nauseated, bloated and sweaty.

I went to bed last night at 11:00 pm and woke up today at 1:00 am. I just had a 2-hour sleep in spite of the sleeping pill and the anti-histamines that I´m taking.

I’m here writing this blog not only to share my story and make catharsis, but also to give you a piece of advice.

Prioritize your own health and well-being overall!

I know quite well why I am experiencing this, and a big share is taken by work-related stress, major life changes and broken emotions and heart.

But in spite of all the pain and deep emotions, I feel fortunate for being so supported and loved by my family, including my parents, sisters, aunties, uncles and cousins, as well as my friends that are fighting this battle with me from the distance. Thank you to you all for making my life easier and for all the love I have received.

Today I don’t want to tell you to enjoy this reading, but to encourage you to take whatever resonates with you in case you, a relative, sibling, friend or loved one is going through a similar experience.

With love,

Diana

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Diana Gutierrez

Passionate about finding innovative ways to tackle poverty and inequality, traveler, animal lover and a very spiritual person