NOTE: Before sharing my experience with these parasites, I must first confess that I did not take my prophylactic (preventative) meds very faithfully, having never had a problem we were a bit over-confident; given that, only one out of five of us getting sick is pretty good considering the stress we had just put our bodies through on a long journey. We do sleep under treated nets, stay indoors after dark and/or cover up or use OFF spray.
I’m told that malaria, or paludisme, or swamp fever, manifests itself a bit differently in each person. Of course over the years we’ve heard lots of stories:
Makes my knees ache.
Feels almost like the flu.
Gives me high fevers.
Has good days alternating with bad days.
Just never get it.
He’s prone to it.
Lost 2 babies to malaria en utero.
Had to leave the country because of recurring malaria.
Some people just never get it (and there are a million theories why). Some people get it all the time. A friend of ours has 4 girls aged 2, 4, 6 and 8. One Sunday the 4-yr-old is dancing and singing in a church choir and 36 hours later she lay unconscious in the hospital with serious cerebral malaria. There is a 50/50 chance she’ll pull through even with treatment. Thankfully she did. Little Ruth woke up 3 days later on a quinine drip (IV). It can be a very fast and unpredictable illness. Blood tests are not always accurate. Symptoms can vary from person to person. Parasites enter your body by mosquito bite and your body fights them off (with help from preventative meds if you take them), but in weaker moments they take up residence and start taking over and reproducing. Often symptoms will start ‘cycling’ getting better then worse as new generations of parasites are born. Fun huh? Lest you think this is only a problem overseas, I remind you that malaria got its name in Medieval Italy mala aria ‘bad air’ and whole settlements in the 13 colonies were killed off by these parasites. See wikipedia for a nice little history.
For me it all began a few days after we got home. I wasn’t fully unpacked yet, but started having what I call the ‘freight train’ headache. Then the fevers and chills, aches and pains, etc. I will spare you the details. I could do little but lay in bed and moan. I had flashbacks of an adult case of the chicken pox in college. The ‘freight train’ would come and go for a few good hours and then a few bad hours. Sometimes I felt myself falling back on labor techniques to deal with the pain – breathe! By this time Kent had called the one American doctor in town.
We saw her around noon. I didn’t register a fever in her clinic, but I was on Tylenol and she took note of the fact that I had 4 layers on – in the tropics! She said I was close to needing to be put in the hospital on an IV drip, but should try to get the quinine pills down. If I could not keep them down, I would have to be admitted (which was a strong motivation for me, as the hospital here is probably about as bad as your imagination makes it). The doctor says she treats at least 10 people everyday for it. Kent went to buy my drugs and I didn’t have the strength to follow him or the stamina to sit in the hot car, so I found a shaded bench.
As I sat holding my head on the rough wooden bench in the waiting area, trying not to toss cookies I hadn’t eaten, I was vaguely aware of being closely watched. I don’t think people here often see sickly foreigners. How strange. We have big medicine cabinets and get on a plane if things get bad. Suddenly it occurred to me that these parasites I was fighting for the first time ever, were ones they had known their whole lives. Malaria has taken some of their relatives: their aunt, their father, their baby. Every one of them has had it at one time or other. Suddenly all the pain and anguish seemed ‘par for the course’. Not to over-dramatize, but I did feel like I had passed the test, a rite of passage, initiation. Don’t I get an ‘I beat malaria’ T-shirt?
I felt what they felt.
No one forced me to live here.
This is like what Jesus did for us taking on human flesh.
No one forced him to either.
I had major sympathies from our local staff and friends.
They had felt what I felt.
They were sorry I had to.
I said, “Now I’m more like you.”
I have walked once the road they have walked every year.
Not something I plan on repeating, but redeemable all the same.