My Stubborn Approach to Life With Hemiplegic Migraine

Determination to live a life of adventure proves stronger than migraine for Sunny

Patient Expert
Sunny in Jordan with Ahmad Alomari, a local she interviewed for a BBC piece.
Sunny Fitzgerald

“Whoa! You have a lot of power,” I heard a day hiker exclaim, as I bounded over trailside boulders, swiftly navigating around him.

He laughed and flexed his biceps at me. Suddenly self-conscious of my petite 100-pound body as it passed by his much larger athletic one, I couldn’t be sure if he was mocking me, complimenting me, or just trying to make conversation.

I had no desire to stop and ask for clarification. I was on Day 29 of a 44-day trek across Jordan, and—at that very moment—ascending one of the steepest mountains of my 400+-mile journey. This was the exact incline well-meaning friends had warned might be too challenging, “considering your condition.”

I have hemiplegic migraines, a rare and chronic neurological condition with symptoms that mimic a stroke and triggers that include typically benign everyday things like bright light, too much or too little sleep, stress, and hunger.

What those well-meaning friends—and most people—don’t realize is that on some days, simply opening my eyes in sunlight is a challenge. If I made all my decisions “considering my condition,” I might not ever leave my bed at all.

The world awaits me

But fortunately, I have much more than a medical condition. I have something perhaps equally powerful: an inherent stubbornness, a fondness for adventure, and a family that taught me that strength isn’t limited by my size, status, circumstances, bank account, or other perceived obstacles. “Study and work hard, and you can achieve anything you put your mind to,” my parents told me from the time they sent me to preschool. That belief became the foundation I built my dreams upon and the inspiration that propelled me from my rural, mountain town in northern New York to a prestigious college and far beyond.

But fortunately, I have much more than a medical condition. I have something perhaps equally powerful: an inherent stubbornness, a fondness for adventure.

I surfed and snorkeled the heavenly waters of Hawaii and learned to cook Cuban cuisine in Havana. I sailed under the stars while sea lions splashed by our boat in the Galapagos Islands and held my breath as a pair of land-dwelling lions approached our jeep on safari in South Africa. I watched sunsets from a cliffside bungalow on a tiny island in southern Thailand and was stunned to silence at Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal. I spotted sloths and toucans in the rainforests of Costa Rica and sampled fresh catch at Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market, in Japan.

Despite my sometimes debilitating condition, I was determined to transform my adoration for adventure into a career in which I could help others experience both the bliss and challenges of traveling this big beautiful world.

The adventures continue

And, most recently, I completed that 400-mile Jordan Trail. My own two legs, my love of adventure, and arguably a good deal of stubbornness carried me across an entire country — for 44 days, through 52 towns and villages and a variety of terrains, trials, weather conditions, and ultimately, celebrations.

Of course, in everything I do and no matter where I go, I have to plan ahead and prepare as much as possible in order to avoid triggers and prevent a hemiplegic migraine attack. I have to “consider my condition.” But I also have to live my life.

Sunny Fitzgerald (thisissunny.com), a freelance writer and travel specialist, lives in Amman, Jordan, with her equally adventurous husband. Her work has been published in National Geographic, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a piece of autobiographical fiction inspired by memory, love, trauma, and of course, travel.