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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

As I write this post I am sitting in my mother’s living room overlooking Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island. My step-father Peter is practicing a new song on an acoustic guitar. This is quite a contrast from where I wrote my last post. I will explain why I am home over a month earlier than planned. This trip didn’t turn out as expected, most of my time was spent sick in bed. I did however manage to finish 3 books over this period (The Alchemist, The flight of the Hummingbird and the Quran). Life does throw you a curve ball every now and then, but you have to adapt and move on. In my last post on Dec 8th I noted not feeling well and explained having a fever. I failed to mention an ear infection too. I thought the fever was a symptom of the ear infection and perhaps it was. Some days were good, some days I didn’t leave my bed; I lost my appetite over this period.

I still managed to get four runs in. Running over there is hard. The heat is almost unbearable making breathing quite difficult. I couldn’t sleep on the night of the 15th, so decided to go for a 5 km jog. It didn’t help that during the past week my neighbours decided it would be a good idea to blast the same song over and over again starting at 5am. Not to mention the fireworks being set off right in front of my door at 6am. This was happening every morning. They were loud enough to startle me every time one went off. Does no one else complain about this? I didn’t feel comfortable saying anything about it, being a guest in their country. One day I had enough courage to walk by my neighbour’s house with the intention of projecting a death stare. As I walked by I only noticed a little old lady jamming out to the exact same song. She waved at me, so I saluted her back feeling defeated.

The next day symptoms were getting worse. Ranny would be visiting in a few days so I decided to wait for her. She came on the 18th. I told her about the fever, other symptoms at the time included fatigue, loss of sleep, chills, headache and loss of coordination. This was the first time I heard the word malaria. She mentioned it, and suggested we go to the clinic for testing. It’s a very simple test. A nurse pricks your finger and examines the drops of blood under a microscope. It was confirmed 15 minutes later that I had malaria. They advised it was a mild strain. I was given 7 days of medication and told if I was better after 3 days to stop taking them and sent home. No one seemed too concerned so neither was I. I went home and took my first set of pills before going to sleep. I woke up the next day feeling quite ill. I ended up vomiting within 2 hours of being awake.

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I told Ranny that my symptoms had got worse overnight. She contacted a friend that was happy to take me into their home and look after me. She was a pastor, had a husband and 5 kids living with her – two of which were her sister’s. They provided me with a private room, fan and unlimited food and drink. I was very happy and thankful for their generous hospitality. We even managed to form a foundation between the local church community and the Friendly Drifter program. I will teach the kids about the harmful effects of plastic waste, and they can join us when visiting villages and help with clean ups.

Over the next two days I became progressively worse. I ran out of data on my phone so I wasn’t able to update friends and family on my condition. Everyone just kept telling me to eat more and take medication. It wasn’t quite that simple. Eating made me want to vomit. In fact the thought of food was sufficient enough. Keeping down the medicine was in my opinion the most important thing to do. It was a balancing act.

Locals contract malaria often. Their immune systems have adapted to it. I was told by one person they get malaria once a month. I’m unsure how true this actually is, but I found it interesting. As soon as a local gets a fever they get tested right away and given medication if confirmed. It’s gone within 3 days. For visitors, our immune systems haven’t had the chance to adapt, the experience is quite different. I felt as if people were treating me as a local. Things were getting progressively worse during my stay. I started getting a nasty headache on day two. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Sleep was very important for me. At this point my symptoms included a high fever, severe fatigue, anemia, headache, vomiting, very fast and shallow breathing and chills. Sleeping helped me recover from exhausting my energy during the day. I asked whether there was any headache medicine in the house. There was, but I wanted to contact a doctor first to make sure it was compatible with the malaria medication, it wasn’t; so one of the children got the correct type from the drug store. I had the pill around 8pm. Within minutes of taking it I knew I was in trouble. My eyes became wide and I had this unusual amount of energy. I hoped it would wear off as the night went on but it didn’t.

I lay in my bed all night. No headache though so that was a relief. I experienced crazy thoughts, as vivid as dreams. They came rushing through my head, completely unrelated thoughts every few seconds. They were however all dark, sad and unwelcome. This lasted throughout the night. The medication never wore off.

Around 8 am I started feeling the effects of being awake all night. My body was tired, my mind was tired; I had never been this sick in my life. I had to vomit again so off I went to the bathroom. It was relentless; I puked 10-15 times. Nothing was really coming out except water. With what energy I had left I slowly made it back to my bed and collapsed. My breathing became very fast, I couldn’t talk anymore. Speaking a word was too much effort.

It was time to get to the hospital. A friend of the Pastor gave me a ride – it was hard; I couldn’t lift my head. Once we got to the hospital I was put in a wheelchair and taken to the nearest bed – right by the entrance. It was an effort even to open my eyes at this point. They set me up with an IV and about 10 minutes later I had stabilized. I looked around the room to notice a lot of people looking at me. I gave everyone a thumbs up which garnered some smiles. They took some blood soon after I lay down. They told me I didn’t have malaria. It seemed as though they were questioning whether I even had it to begin with as I no longer had my medical diagnosis paper from the clinic. They did inform me that I had an infection somewhere so they started giving me antibiotics. I was a bit confused. Even though I had stabilized, I didn’t feel much better. My fever was 105 degrees. However since I was told the malaria was gone, I believed the medication worked.

I was moved me to a room once I was able and given some lunch. Lunch included rice, hard-boiled egg, an apple and bread. I only managed to eat half of it. Unfortunately they never took my plate away until dinner which became a magnet for mosquitoes. There must have been at least 30-40 surrounding my bed at one point. I tried to ask for a mosquito net but it was lost in translation. I asked for someone who speaks English but perhaps that was lost in translation too as no one came for a long time. To get attention one basically has to yell with hopes a nurse who isn’t sleeping will hear you. Usually there were visitors in the hospital, who went to fetch a nurse for me.

Medical care here obviously isn’t up to western standards, which I understand. It’s the common sense stuff that frustrated me. As I waited for someone to come, I started killing mosquitoes and putting them in a pile so I could better explain what I wanted. Finally someone that spoke a little English came. She was able to supply me with some repellent and a sheet to cover myself. Overnight, one person stays at the hospital near the front. This was nearly 200 meters from my bed. By morning I had communications with family, who thought it was best to move to a larger city. It was important to get to the bottom of this continued illness. Something wasn’t quite right.

The daily ferry left at 3pm, it was my goal to get on it. I felt strong enough now to walk. I figured once I got on the ferry I would be able to sit and regroup for the walk off the ferry. Sitting or lying down was okay. Moving however was exhausting. The ferry ended up being sold out when I got there. Someone can still get on but getting a seat was impossible. Once on, I managed to find a spot on a narrow metal staircase. The ferry is 2 hours long including both docking maneuvers.

Someone close to me noticed I wasn’t doing too well and struck up a conversation. She spoke English but I couldn’t hold much of a conversation. I just told her I was sick and on my way to a hospital. She told me her sister was picking her up from the ferry; she works at the hospital and offered to give me a ride. I couldn’t refuse. Getting off the ferry was difficult; the dock runs about 400 meters. My balance and coordination were off. There were a lot of people including scooters. I stumbled and lost my balance a couple of times and almost went in the water.

Once we got to the hospital, I could lie down near the entrance while they took my blood. The results came back, not only did I still have malaria, but I had the most serious strain possible (malaria falciparum OR tropical). I started taking medication right away. I lay there for 3-4 hours waiting for a private room. At this point I was very anemic and breathing very fast and shallow. I remember almost passing out once by focusing on a discolouration in the ceiling, this slowed my breathing, but luckily I snapped out of it. I finally got into my room around 11pm, and they hooked up an IV. I felt the worst was over and hopefully we could tackle this now and get it over with.

I woke up around 5am to find my IV bag empty. I had enough energy to get up, so I continued to the door. I opened to yell for help. The yells became louder and louder as I didn’t see anyone coming to my aid. I am two blocks from the hospital at a private one story building with a courtyard situated in the middle. The rooms enclose the courtyard. The nurses stay in a room across from mine. After 5 mins of yelling, finally someone came. They were apparently all sleeping. The bag was replaced but I wasn’t feeling well. It was probably a combination of not having the IV for who knows how long, the medication and using my energy to get out of bed and yell for help.

Matters got worse over the next few hours. I again called for help. This time I couldn’t get out of bed, and my yells became weaker and weaker. I tried to text my family, asking for them to come, all I could muster was the word “hard”. After seeing my text, my mom called – she heard how much stress I was under even though I couldn’t speak much. This felt like the first set of medication I had after the misdiagnosis (although more severe) and it grew worse over 3 days. I was afraid of the same thing happening this time around and being alone.

Nurses came about 45 minutes later and noticed I wasn’t doing well. They tried to give me some antibiotics orally. My throat was so dry that it got caught on the back of my tongue. I moved my head to the left and started vomiting. There were 5 nurses in the room. One retrieved a waste bucket for me. I couldn’t open my eyes during this time, I just heard him slide it under me. Then I heard one of the nurses vomiting in my toilet because I was vomiting. This is not a sound you want to hear. I managed to open one eye just to see what everyone else was doing; I saw one of the nurses taking a picture of me. It was upsetting but I had no way of explaining that. Some were very professional, others weren’t. The standards are just completely different there. I began feeling better over the next couple of hours.

Urine sample

My father and brother were on their way – to the rescue. Over the next couple of days, I slowly got better. I was no longer vomiting, my fever was subsiding. After my last episode the nurses started giving me medication through my IV instead of orally. I think this was a big factor. My brother and father arrived on Christmas day. I can easily say this was the best present I have ever received. Seeing familiar faces was such a relief. Within 5 minutes laughs were shared. I haven’t laughed like that in what seemed like a long time. They were instrumental in getting everything in order and getting me out of the hospital. I moved to a hotel that day since I no longer needed an IV. I was malaria free on Dec 26th. Over the next four days I stayed with my brother. It was funny seeing these two worlds collide.

We managed to do a little sightseeing; we visited a local Buddhist temple and did some touristy things. We flew out of Sorong on the 30th; I felt comfortable enough to make the trip. There were so many people that helped me. A special thanks goes out to my family for their support. They were on the next plane, as soon as I asked; even though it was Christmas and they probably wanted to spend time with families of their own – Thank You! I met a girl named Kate only 10 days before I left Canada for this trip. She’s just finishing nursing school and was instrumental in supporting my family and assuring them everything was going to be okay. She answered lots of questions and really blew everyone away with her kindness and attentiveness. She also helped me pass time as I lay in bed for 3 weeks. Thank You! The people of Waisai and Sorong who helped me – thank you so much for your generosity! The people’s spirit reminds me of why I love this place, and why I return. Ranny, who knows what would have happened if I didn’t get to the clinic when I did. Thank You! There were so many people who helped with flights, vaccines and medical support. Thank You!

Malaria is something not to be taken lightly. It can be a deadly combination when traveling in a remote area, the medical standards and the seriousness of the illness. It can often lead to serious complications down the road. A series of small mistakes can often lead to tragedy. Please don’t make the first one by not taking preventative malaria medication. If I can convince anyone to take this medication during a trip to the tropics, then my experience was worth it.

Now… back to training for my run.

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