Thursday, January 1, 2009

Just When You Think It Couldn't (Readers Beware)

I’m going to warn people ahead of time NOT to keep reading if they don’t want to hear the absolute frankness of my most recent illness. I haven’t ever filtered myself in other subjects, and feel like there might actually be people who are curious to know what it’s really like out here, not just the Hollywood version.

So, that is your warning. Apologies for disgustingness, but just remember, I had to live through it!

There is nothing more humbling ... or terrifying... than being deathly ill, far from home and in the middle of a third world country.

This past week I came as close to feelings of death as I have in nearly 10 years -- the last time being when I had appendicitis at age 12 and was in the hospital, fading in and out of consciousness - and woke up in the room in the hospital with all of the lights off and only the shaft of light coming in through the window and I couldn’t see anything and was sure I had died. At least then I was in a hospital.

As many of you might have read, my illness was already apparent on Christmas Day -- and we almost thought it was kind of funny.

While I laughed with Rachel, she told me that the traditional cure for worms was to sit over a bucket of milk and the smell of milk... lured... the worms out of you. And that, of course, you COULD put the bucket by your mouth, but of course the worms follow the milk. Euch!

And I wasn’t really all that worried. Adam and I had managed my illness with relative facility at that point -- though I’d been really sick on Wednesday, by Thursday I’d already seemed better and was well enough to lie around and internet and talk on the phone.

But when I seemed to be considerably worse on Friday than I’d even been on Wednesday, we wondered whether I’d “pushed it too hard” on Christmas.

Yet the same medicines I’d taken on Wednesday and Thursday that seemed to have done the trick did nothing. If anything, the struggle to keep any medicine down at all was more brutal and the medicines only seemed to exacerbate my illness.

We were running out of options, evidenced by the increased lines on Adam’s face and my continued inability to get out of bed. Desperate, late on Friday, we cracked open our very last package of Tylenol: Severe Cold -- our benchmark for malaria. For, typically, if it works, the person does NOT have malaria. Of course, this study was “verified” in an amazing study group of 1.

Though the possibility of malaria medicine always loomed, the side effects are so awful that quite honestly I did not want to take it until I was absolutely sure I had malaria.

So, I took the Tylenol and Adam and I chanted, he told me stories, rubbed my stomach in a downward direction ... anything to get me NOT to throw up for an hour to ensure that the medicine could have a chance at efficacy.

The stomach pain was dizzying, though I’d eaten nothing but a spoonful of poondoo for 4 days. Perhaps that’s why it hurt, but Adam cried as I cried, in pain.

When I started to sweat profusely and my fever finally started dipping below 103º, we realized that it was working. What I didn’t realize is how far it would knock me through to the other side -- while, before, clearly sick, I could still shuffle to the toilet and speak coherently -- now I was panting, hardly able to breathe, sticky with sweat, unable to walk without toppling and so weak and feeling so heavy that the end of the day found me sprawled across our concrete floor, mostly unconscious and sweaty but, at the very least, less feverish.

The night, however, found me equally breathless and weak and mostly unaware of what was going on. All of the various medicines had ripped through my intestines, and the dull thud of pain that had been constant right under my ribs and diaphragm had faded into a fully rumbling, angry, twisting pain in my lower intestines.

I was vaguely aware in the night of passing gas, and feeling sticky, and of being in pain, but imagine my horror when, upon waking up on the floor, I discovered myself not covered in sweat, but diarrhea.

Adam should be considered the champion of this tale, as he cleaned me up where I lay: crying, sweating, and hurting. He sponged me down because I couldn’t, and wrapped me in a towel and put me back to bed. He carried me to the bathroom when I just couldn’t even stand up straight and waited after I crawled onto the bathroom floor to rest before returning to the room. It was simply too far to go. But I could not have gone any distance at all without him.

When I woke up on Saturday, things seemed to have improved! And in fact, I spent Saturday resting in bed, but my fever seemed not to go over 100º and we were convinced that we had finally licked that bug! It was a joyous feeling, and I felt very well taken care of! I was still woozy and short of breath, but we figured it was because I’d been so sick and hadn’t really eaten much.

I was still, however, extremely odor-sensitive and the slightest bad odor would send me reeling towards my faithful bucket. Again, a side effect, I thought. I could get a little tomato salad down (and some up), and life felt good.

Imagine our horror when, for apparently no reason at all, my fever started to climb on Saturday night. It was still very low, so we weren’t too worried, but it didn’t seem to have a cause. And diseases don’t just rear their ugly heads again for a sequel because Lucas or Spielberg tells them to.

The night continued like that, but halfway through Sunday, my fever was up to past 104º -- higher than it had been during the whole duration of my illness thus far.
Even worse, my consciousness seemed to fade in and out, and I wasn’t quite sure where I was when I awoke from naps and kept confusing the real world for the world of Harry Potter (which I’d been listening to in Audiobook form).

I kept telling myself everything would be alright and that, because it was Sunday, that my mom would call and that she would make everything better because she was my mom. But she didn’t call, and I only got worse.

I was at a point of desperation I’ve rarely known, where I was ready to call for 100 powdered milk packets to put into a bucket and get ready to hover, or do really anything someone told me to.

Which was when Polycarpe told me to take malaria medicine -- he had the same look of consternation he’d been sporting for the last week, watching me deterioriate slowly, and thought that it must be malaria.

I was skeptical, one because malaria is always the answer here. Whether someone has a cold or a bruise, it’s always “malaria” as the first option (it is practically like the common cold here).

But additionally, I was still afraid of the side effects of the medicine. When Adam said to me, “Could it really be worse than how you feel right now?”

And really, it couldn’t.

So I took the Artemod. I spent the next few hours in a delirious haze of fever and medicine. The medicine doesn’t eradicate the fever right away, so I still burned hot.

I recall waking up at one point, and having a voice in my head say “8 out of 10 doctors have already declared you dead.” and I screamed, in my head, “No, I am not dead, I just need to cool down my body!”

So I crawled, pulling myself like a cripple, onto the floor to try and leech its coolness (it’s concrete). And there I lay, mumbling to myself, for most of the night, sweating out my fever and convinced that, if I were to live, I had to solve this “puzzle” of malaria and unlock things in the right order.

When I awoke needing to use the toilet, Adam tells me I asked him lots of strange questions about puzzle pieces and then I think it probably took us an hour to get to the bathroom for a 10 second pee.

I could barely stand, and had to rest 3 times on the way to our bathroom (which is, by the way, maybe 50 feet from our room) and needed to lie on the floor of the bathroom afterwards and rest.

But I made it there, and made it back, though I’ll admit it was too difficult to do more than once during the night and I used the bucket in the room instead (I am officially the Queen of Gross).

HOWEVER, all of this night suffering yielded a very diminished temperature on Monday morning and a clear-headedness I had not experienced in days! I was still extremely weak and extremely fatigued ... in fact, I still am, but I am up, eating, and haven’t had a fever since that Sunday night.

My mother is, of course, relieved, having called me Monday AND Tuesday (she didn’t call Sunday because of an out of town guest, but had sent me an email I didn’t get at the time, not checking email and what-not).

Honestly, I am relieved too. Relieved that something did, in fact, finally work because I was definitely starting to panic and lose hope! Adam is glad that he will not have to cart my dead body back home and have a Corpse Bride.

But really, the overall moral of this story is: Congo is tough.

Next time you’re sick and you go to the doctor and get well in 2 days, remember this tale!

1 comment:

Jen said...

First of all, thank you so much for writing this blog! I've never commented, but I check for updates every day! I'm glad you're feeling better, and hope that you continue to get well.
I'm currently a senior in high school and am planning on becoming a primatologist specializing in great ape cognition and behavior - it's been my dream for as long as I can remember! I also hope to do field work in the next few years (I'm a senior in high school), and I've always wanted the chance to volunteer at a sanctuary in either Africa or Indonesia. So, this may seem like a stupid question, but I figured I'd ask anyway;O)...are scary illnesses incredibly common in Africa? It's not going to stop me from going because I've dreamed of it for so long, but I've read of some really frightening things, including this!