How Volunteering Abroad Changed my Life Forever

Field work in Iceland
Field work in Iceland

I was 19. Fresh out of school and not really sure what to do with myself.

I wanted to join the Marines, it was my life’s ambition.

I figured I would take a year out, travel the world, have a gap year before I came back home and rocked up to bootcamp.

I didn’t feel quite ready to just go travelling by myself and so I signed up for a ten week ‘life changing trip’ with Raleigh International, a charity which sends volunteers abroad on youth expeditions with project, adventure and environmental elements.

The plan was that once I had done the expedition with Raleigh, I would spend time travelling on my own. Raleigh seemed like a great way to ease me into the travelling lifestyle.

I raised over £3000 which helped pay for my placement. I attended a training weekend and met the other venturers, a whole range of people from all over the UK.

In my spare time, I trained excessively – I hiked with a full pack in the green hills overlooking my home, I sunbathed in the cold English sun reasoning that a base tan would give me a 0.5% advantage, I packed and unpacked my rucksack over and over again.

I was excited, perhaps a little afraid (I was a shy kid) but excited nonetheless.

The first week in Costa Rica breezed by, I made firm friends with the other volunteers, met the project leaders and wolfed down meal after meal in the canteen. Within a few days, we were all split into teams and sent off on our respective adventures.

My team would be completing a three week adventure phase to start with – we would be trekking from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean ocean, crossing the entire length of Costa Rica.

We would be traversing steaming jungle, tumbling rivers and pesky language barriers – it seemed like the adventure of a lifetime.

As a wannabe marine, I was absolutely thrilled about the potential challenge. I started strong, I was the assistant leader on the first day and I carried the lion’s share of the equipment.

It was a long day, nearly 9 hours of trekking but finally, we made it to a small village hall where we spent the night tossing and turning on the hard wooden floor as we were eaten alive by insects.

A few days later and I was flagging, I felt distinctly weak.

My famous appetite was nowhere to be found. I started the day at the head of the column and quickly fell to the back. My pack dragged me down and I was forced to relinquish the heavy radio batteries to another volunteer, I felt ashamed.

We stopped for a break and I instantly fell asleep on my pack. My left leg was killing me, it felt like it was burning, I rolled up my trousers to take a look. It was bright red and seemed swollen.

“I think I have a problem with my leg”, I told the leader.

I was waved to my feet and told they would check it out in the evening. I was satisfied with the answer, why wouldn’t I be? I was a hard-case, I was going to be a marine, nothing could touch me.

It began to rain, the water quickly gathered into torrents and turned the jungle paths into rivers. I fell further and further behind as I struggled up paths that seemed like waterfalls. My leg was hurting, I ignored it, I pushed through.

I remember chanting to myself under my breath – “keep fucking going, it doesn’t hurt”. It did fucking hurt.

Up ahead, one of the team leaders waited, irritable and soaked. “Come on Will, you can do it!” I could tell they were pissed off.

“It’s my leg, it genuinely hurts, I think we need to look at it”, I said.

Yet again I was told that it would have to wait. Two kilometres away was a ranger hut and that was where we were to spend the night. I held myself together for another hour, slogging up muddy paths. We eventually arrived.

I instantly told the group leader about my leg “I need someone to look at this, now” I said.

They sighed, busy preparing dinner and pointed towards a team leader with another group, a friendly guy who was a British nurse. I wandered over and introduced myself. He was busy but friendly enough and got me to take off my shoe, I peeled off my soaked sock.

My foot was not white and shrivelled, which was what I expected, it had been soaked for hours after all. Instead, it was an angry red, hot to the touch and practically throbbing.

The angry red lines snaked up my leg and onto my shin.

“Shit” the medic whispered under his breath. I don’t think I was supposed to have heard him.

The next few hours are a blur. I lie stretched out upon a table. There is a needle in my arm, for fluids I suppose. I finally have the team leaders attention, they keep saying how sorry they are but I cannot piece together their words. Keeping myself in one piece for so long has drained me and I am delirious. I am left to my own devices.

I awake, in a cold sweat and alone. I stumble out of the room, I need a bathroom. Too late, I vomit over the wooden railing and onto the forest floor. I stand there, utterly alone in the darkness as I vomit again and again. Finally, I crawl back into the room and fall asleep on the floor.

The next day, I am bundled into the back of a jeep and driven out of the forest. Every bump and there are many, jars my leg and awakens me with a fresh jolt of pain.

I have a raging fever by this point and I feel like shit. Finally, I was handed over to another member of staff, another nurse, and taken to the local hospital. I had never seen anything like it. People stretched out on the dirty floor, the smell of urine in the air, cockroaches everywhere.

I am placed in a wheelchair and taken inside. The Raleigh staff member, let’s call him Jim, asks me if I need someone to stay with me. I awaken from my pain-killer induced stupor and look at him to gauge if he is being serious.

They want to leave me here, by myself. I speak no Spanish whatsoever and the doctor does not speak English. This is about the time that I start to suspect I was in for a truly unpleasant experience.

I did not know what the Spanish doctor said to Jim but obviously, my condition was not serious enough to warrant further action. I am taken back to Raleigh’s HQ and assured that after a couple of days rest I can rejoin my team. I am given oral antibiotics, which do fuck all.

A couple of days pass, I still feel very sick. The red lines seem to be moving up my leg but Jim assures me they are not. The HQ team keep me busy, I am instructed to help out with the radio and given 101 shitty little jobs – from shining battery plates to mending sleeping bags.

I must have spent three days at HQ before I got drastically more sick. I kept vomiting, broke out in cold sweats and could not keep food down. Jim gave me something to stop me being sick and I was bundled into a taxi headed for the private hospital in San Jose.

The drive was not fun. The sickness tablets had a side effect – hallucinations. As a straight laced kid who had never even smoked a joint, I was hit hard and wasn’t particularly sure what to make of them. I struggled to hold it together.

Jim said nothing to me the whole journey. Eventually, we arrived at the hospital, he left almost straight away. I was now alone. I drifted into an uneasy sleep.

A week passed.

Cellulitus, in my lymph nodes, this is serious.

The doctor charted the course of the infection, as it spread further and further up my leg by drawing on me with a pen. I had injections four times every day and fluid IVs twice a day.

My arm was a mess of needle-holes.

I slept fitfully and often. Once, determined to make it to the bathroom rather than piss in a cup again, I swung my legs over the bed and tried to walk. The second my foot touched the floor, I passed out from the pain and pissed myself.

Besides the odd conversation with my doctor, who spoke English, I talked to nobody face to face, I felt totally alone. The hospital itself was nice, my insurance paid for it, but my mental condition by this point was very poor.

I felt shell-shocked.

When I was eventually discharged, the worst of the infection being over, and collected by Raleigh I was told, in no uncertain terms, that they recommended I go home. I punched a wall until my knuckles bled.

It had all been for nothing.

This whole time I had imagined I would swiftly recover and that the adventure could begin afresh. I was wrong.

Returning home, I met my parents at the airport. It was an emotional moment.

It took me a few months to realise just how incredibly close I had come to dying. The trouble was not yet over, my left leg kept acting up – aching and swelling to twice its normal size. After a year, I finally went to a specialist who confirmed the worst.

The infection had permanently damaged my leg and induced full blown lymphodoema. My leg was now prone to painful swelling every time I ran. I would never be a marine.

There is currently no cure for lymphodoema, it can only be managed. I would probably have to wear a tight compression stocking for rest of my life.

What followed I can only describe as an ascent into full-blown mental illness.

I was depressed, suicidal and difficult to be around.

It took me over a year to get over it. I was in pieces, and desperately lonely, much of the time. Every now and again photos of the expedition from the friends I made on Raleigh would pop up on Facebook, they broke my heart.

I was eventually prescribed antibiotics (for life) to stop the infection ever returning and tight, black, compression stockings to stop my leg from swelling. They are hot and uncomfortable but I am wearing them even now, sat upon a bus as it races across Nicaragua and on to Costa Rica, where it all started.

All in all, volunteering for Raleigh International did change my life. It changed me irreparably. It still hurts to think about what happened, maybe that’s why it’s taken seven years to write about my experiences, but I do now see it as a positive change.

The only thing I truly mourn is the chance to be in the marines. The pain, humiliation and loneliness that I endured on my expedition have helped me to become a stronger, kinder and more patient person.

One of my first thoughts whilst lying in the hospital bed, expecting to lose my leg, was that I would probably never get to travel again. I clung to that whilst recovering in the UK: I vowed that I would travel again, I would prove my own pessimistic thoughts to be wrong.

Since then, I have travelled to over seventy countries and have begun to make a name for myself in travel blogging.

I have found a new way of proving myself physically; Crossfit throwdowns (competitions).

My mental health is better than ever and I have helped play a small role in inspiring others to travel, something that continues to bring me pride.

It is hard for me to end this story, especially as I did not know I planned to tell it until I started to write, but if I leave you with one thought, let it be this – I have managed to overcome my fears.

Through perseverance, I have realised my dream of continuing to travel despite my bad experiences. If I can do it, so can you.

At some point on your travels, something will go wrong, I hope it is not serious but even if it is – see it as a learning curve, buckle up, strap in and prepare to hit the road again.

You can achieve anything you put your mind to. Now, when I look back on this event, it does still hurt but I am able to recognise it as one of the most important things that ever happened to me. It put me on my current path and, without this injury, I doubt I would be who I am today. Sometimes the greatest adversities present the greatest challenges.

Peace, out.

16 Comments

  • Claire says:

    Wow, that was not what I expected at all.

    I came here thinking that I would find another glowing account of how amazing it feels to volunteer and why that would (of course) change you. This story though was much better and much more humbling.

    Well done to you sir, you are an inspiration.

    • Will Hatton says:

      Hi Claire, thanks very much – I really appreciate that; it makes writing the article worthwhile 🙂 I guess I wanted to show that volunteering abroad is not always what you think it’s going to be and it doesn’t really matter how much these big companies charge, ultimately, there isn’t much of a safety net. Thanks again for reading 🙂

  • Hey will, interestingly enough I had a similar experience when I went to South Africa with ICS- an offspring of Raleigh! I was going to write a blog post about my experience too!

  • Amanda says:

    Hi Will,
    Thank you for sharing that story; it’s truly eye opening!
    It’s important to share stories like this that show that traveling isn’t always sunshine. I’m glad you are able to push through and continue to overcome your fear – that is the best remedy in a situation like that.
    All the best, and safe travels!

  • Roxanne says:

    Hi Will! Oh my gosh, I am REALLY glad you posted this! I’m so sorry that happened to you! I’ve always wanted to sign up for trips like these but I’m always scared of falling sick (I have a super weak immune system) and not having adequate medical care – your story confirms my fears! I was worried that I was being paranoid, but now I know I’m not. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

    • Will Hatton says:

      Although my experience was a bad one, overall I am glad it happened to me… The chances of getting sick are pretty low, I really was just terribly unlucky. You should totally be on the eye out for stuff like this but don’t let it dissuade you – travel, it’s so worth the risk 🙂

  • Lucas Rodrigues says:

    Wow man seriously you are the man. Thanks a lot for sharing this, I’m really glad I decided to read this whole post. I’m really happy for you for overcoming this period of your life. Great read and life lesson!

  • Mark C. says:

    Thanks for sharing an incredibly fascinating and amazing part of your life. You have a gift. I too would like to travel but now only vicariously through ones as you. Cheers!

  • Alice Gilson says:

    So I went to Borneo in 2013 & also ended up in hospital with cellulitis. Sounds identical to your experience …on trek and repeatedly kept saying how much agony I was in with this leg & I actually said that at one point that I wanted to be Medivac out but it was disregarded. Completed the whole expedition & then spent 5 days in hospital when everyone else had gone home on IV antibiotics!

  • Richard Andrew Field says:

    Hi Will, it was again so interesting to read your so well written details and feeling finished and abandoned with the leg lymphoedema. Again I can relate my near identical situation which may indicate the cause. My situation was being severely scratched by coral reef in East coast Malaysia, my whole leg was like yours but luckily I had hospital close by and diagnosis was Strep or Staphylococcal infection, and after 50 years I still get swollen.

    • Will Hatton says:

      Hey Rich! Aw man, still swelling ey? Mine is doing the same. I exercise often to keep it down and it seems to work! Best of luck to you dude, as one man with lymphodoema to another, keep on trucking dude.

  • Xiaohui Liu says:

    I was thinking about signing up for Raleigh International in Borneo, and I found many reviews saying how great their experiences were. Your blog makes me have a second thought…Now I am reading news articles about some very unfortunate volunteers who actually died.
    I am happy for you that you overcame your challenges.

    • Will Hatton says:

      Hey Xiaohui, Raleigh is still a potentially epic experience… but in my opinion, you’ll have a better more meaningful time on a solo backpacking adventure.

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