There are hundreds of things that can cause ataxia, a form of paralysis. With ataxia, you lose control of certain muscles or muscle groups. It’s not like you’re frozen, incapable of moving, although it might seem that way. You can feel everything – you simply can’t make your muscles behave the way they normally behave. It happened to me twice during the hot summer months of the Philippines in 2013, so I know exactly what it’s like. I don’t really know what caused it, but I can make some pretty good guesses.
My Two Episodes of Ataxia
The first time was in March of 2013. I’m not even sure it was ataxia that time around. I got up during the middle of the night and I had hard time walking to the bathroom. My left leg didn’t want to obey me. I still managed to do what needed to be done and headed back to bed.
The second time was a month later (or at least two weeks later, in the following month). I was sitting outside my house, on the opposite side of the creek, with a glass of rum and Coke. When I got up to walk away, the left side of my body refused to do what it was supposed to do. Some of my relatives were nearby and one of my nephews helped me walk back to my house. I sat inside at the bottom of the stairwell until I could make my left foot move again. That entire ordeal lasted no more than 30 minutes.
I haven’t had any more episodes of ataxia and nearly a year has passed since the second occurrence.
What caused the Ataxia?
I’ll probably never be sure what happened. My wife, Josie, seems to think it had something to do with the heat. March and April are two of the hottest months in the Philippines. Combined with the high humidity of the tropics, the heat can be suffocating. I know what the symptoms of heat stroke are and the number one symptom is when you stop perspiring. Well, I was perspiring plenty.
After it happened, millions of things went through my mind. I have an older sister who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago, but I doubt my episodes of ataxia had anything to do with MS. I have four sisters and four brothers and she’s the only one who was ever diagnosed with it.
Could it have been a stroke or heart attack? I’m inclined to say no. Strokes and heart attacks tend to have residual effects and I didn’t have any residual effects at all.
It was probably something I ate or drank. Ethanol, which is one ingredient in alcoholic beverages, can cause ataxia. I doubt that’s what caused it, at least not by itself, since I only finished one drink that day. It could have contributed to my condition, but I’ll never know if it did.
More than likely, it was caused by eating something like cassava (kamoteng kahoy in Tagalog or balinghoy in Waray Bisayan), which I’d eaten both times before the ataxia took place. Cassava is a tuber similar to a yam or a sweet potato, but far more dangerous. If you’ve ever had tapioca pudding or tapioca ice cream, you’ve consumed some cassava. If it isn’t prepared correctly, or isn’t fully cooked, it can cause ataxia and it can even kill you. Cassava contains toxins and poisons like cyanide. This is something I didn’t even know until I was doing some research on tubers yesterday.
How I Responded to Ataxia
Well, I didn’t do much. I refrained from drinking any kind of alcoholic beverage for several months, just to be sure it wasn’t the cause. Since I’ve been in the United States since July of 2013, I haven’t had any cassava at all. I didn’t even have sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day, something I would normally eat a lot of.
I’m really grasping at straws. Although I think cassava was the cause of my problems, it could well have been an allergic reaction to something else. Like I said earlier, ataxia can be caused by hundreds of things. I think it’s important to be surrounded by friends and relatives all the time when you start advancing in age, when things like this can happen. It’s so much easier to survive when you’re not alone all the time.
Other than scaring me out of my wits for about an hour, my incidents of ataxia haven’t had any lasting effects on me. That’s a good thing because I want to outlive my father, who made it to 84 years of age. I haven’t seen a doctor since 2006 and I hope I never have to see one again.