Opening my eyes, I looked around at the stark white room. As a heart monitor beeped beside me, I realised I was covered in wires and tubes.
What was going on?
Looking over, I spotted my husband, Pete, 62, sitting beside my bed. I tried to talk to him but I felt so groggy and confused that I wasn’t able to.
‘You’re in hospital,’ he leant over and told me gently.
My mind was in a whirl as I tried to understand.
‘How had I ended up here after our recent health kick?’ I wondered.
The last thing I could remember was that Pete and I had just started a 14-day detox plan. We’d done a few such cleanses in the past and had always felt great afterwards.
Purchasing a program online, I was very excited to get started on it.
Maybe I’ll even lose a kilo or two, I had thought hopefully.
But this plan was much stricter than others I’d tried. Each hour, we had to drink a different soluble powder and consume one litre of water.
I started at 8am, with a powder that tasted like clay. Then the next one I tried had a distinct birdseed flavour.
‘These are awful!’ I joked to Pete.
But we knew that doing the cleanse would make us feel better in the end, so we decided to persevere.
After a few hours though, Pete said he was going to stop.
‘I’m struggling to drink so much,’ he told me, sitting down to watch the rugby for the afternoon. I didn’t blame him.
It definitely was a lot tougher than I’d expected, but I figured I just had to get used to it.
Drinking so much water surely had to be good for us.
But now here I was in hospital. And the last thing I could remember doing was sitting down at the computer at around lunchtime to chat to my son, Ian, 39.
How on earth could I have ended up here?
As I came round, Pete told me the horrifying truth about what had happened to me while we were at home.
‘You were feeling dizzy so you went to rest,’ Pete said. ‘But then I heard a sound like a grizzly bear coming from the direction of the bedroom.’
I listened in horror as Pete explained that when he went to check on me, he found me unconscious and having a seizure.
He raced me to the Gold Coast Hospital, where I had to be restrained as the doctors ran scans.
I was in a coma and spent three days in intensive care. I'd also broken five vertebrae during the seizures.
I was stunned and still trying to comprehend it all, when Ian came racing into the room. He looked so relieved when he saw that I was awake.
‘We thought you weren’t going to make it,’ he told me.
‘Sometimes you’d open your eyes, but it was as if you weren’t there.’
I couldn’t believe just how close I had come to death.
But what had caused it?
When my doctor came to explain, I was in disbelief.
‘You had hyponatremia,’ he told me, saying it was an extremely rare and potentially fatal condition that is more commonly known as water intoxication.
It’s caused by drinking too much water.
Water? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
The doctor explained that being over-hydrated meant my body’s sodium levels had become extremely low, which had caused my brain to swell.
I was put on a drip to replace the electrolytes in my system, but the doctors warned Pete and Ian that it was possible I could be left with severe brain damage.
‘If you hadn’t been found so quickly, you probably wouldn’t have survived,’ the doctor continued. I was in shock.
Four days later when my electrolyte levels were back to normal, I was allowed to go home, but doctors said it would still be some time before my brain function returned to normal.
For weeks, I felt like I’d had a stroke. Even basic tasks like walking were a challenge and I had trouble stringing a sentence together. But slowly, I began improving and eventually I was able to return to work.
Six months on, I was almost completely back to my old self, but I’m now very cautious about my water intake and only drink it when I really feel thirsty.
I want to share my story so that people can understand having too much of anything – even water – can be dangerous. I feel incredibly lucky to be alive!
Helen’s son, Ian, 39, says:
A message popped up on my computer screen from Mum.
As her only child, we’re really close and often chat online.
My 14-day cleanse started today, she wrote.
I knew this would make her feel great but Mum seemed to be struggling.
Feeling weird in the head already, she continued. Had about five litres of water as well. I think I might have a little snooze.
But a few hours later, another message popped up.
‘Wow, really feeling bad right now. I hope I feel better tomorrow,’ she typed. ‘Off to bed now. I've asked Pete to check on me. I shouldn’t die overnight at least. I had plenty of water. Mum xxx.’
I thought Mum was just joking around. But a few hours later I was finishing up at work when I got a call from her husband, Pete.
‘Your mum’s being rushed to hospital,’ he told me.
I had no idea just how much danger Mum was in. As Pete and I were allowed into the emergency room, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Mum was writhing around as she was strapped down to the bed. When doctors took us aside and told us she was suffering from water intoxication, I was shocked and felt so helpless.
‘Can you hear me?’ I asked her. But when she opened her eyes, she just stared straight through me. I couldn’t believe I might lose my mum all because of a detox!
After three agonising days, Mum finally started to recover.
I was so relieved she’d pulled through, but I was shocked to discover she had no memory of our conversation at all.
I hope her story can stop another person going through the same thing.
Needless to say, none of us will be doing another detox at any time soon.
Originally published in Issue 15 - April 16, 2015