Thursday, November 21, 2013

Excerpted from the online blog I kept while working with the 2Seeds Network in Tanzania.

It crept up slow at first, stalked me – like any tropical menace worth its salt.  A tinge of a headache in the morning, an uneasy stomach on the bus to Korogwe, a few unusual aches around the neck.

Though I was scheduled to return to Magoma right away, I chose to stay in Korogwe for an extra night, expecting that sleep and rest would recover me.  That first night with the malarial fever: a heightened delirium, a little tingly all over, a full collar of sweat, my arm hairs standing at attention shiver after shiver.  And a sinking realization of the potential diagnosis.  Still, I woke the next morning in slightly improved health and started back to Magoma as planned.

After a bus ride that can only be explained (melodramatically) as Dante’s forgotten tenth circle or (lightheartedly) as the life of a queasy popcorn kernel, I returned with a rising fever and very distressed intestines.  I still wasn’t convinced I needed medical attention, and, having just spent two-plus hours wedged between the 33rd and 34th passengers on the 20-seat bus, I simply wanted to be back in my own space.

Avery and Babu

Avery and Babu

The fever rose, and, to be honest, there are a couple hours there where I’m a little hazy on the details.  We decided it was hospital time.  Babu came to walk Avery and I over to the hospital.  When I say “hospital,” I find this tends to invoke an image full of linoleum, twenty-some floors, bespectacled doctors examining x-rays, and lipsticked blonds fluffing pillows.  There was a very pretty nurse in Magoma’s hospital, but she wasn’t blond, had no linoleum to tiptoe about on, no multiple-floors to ascend or descend, and – to our dismay – no doctor (with or without eyeglasses) to consult.

When Avery, Babu, and I arrived, we found an almost empty building and, as I said, no doctor.  The pretty nurse took my temperature and asked a few questions (in Swahili) that took my overheated brain a stupidly long time to answer.  She claimed the doctor was coming and asked if we had a notebook for him to write in.  Babu ran out to grab one.

Before long a second woman (nurse? doctor? something in between?) came along and ushered me into a shadowy room with a desk and two chairs.  I repeated my symptoms and grew a little exasperated with the whole situation, beginning to long for the stoic, overbooked, incredibly well-educated doctors of your typical, hyper-sanitized American hospital.  I left that office with prescriptions (for who knows what) but still had learned nothing conclusive.

Luckily, Babu, who had disappeared for a while, returned with a doctor in tow, having tracked him down somewhere and convinced him to come to the hospital.  This doctor performed the necessary tests and diagnosed me with malaria – five malarial parasites – and dysentery (and/or some sort of stomach parasite).

We picked up the medications.  The night and the day that followed…  Dysentery is gruesome, painful, rather demoralizing.  And with the malaria…  Well, at about five-thirty in the morning, after little to no sleep, I sat at the edge of my bed, and dazed by the dawn, ran my hands through my knotty and fever-drenched hair and really thought about mortality for the first time.  Not my own mortality.  Just generally.  Just precious, precious mortality.

And then I had to lie down again.

I was picked up early the next morning and brought to Korogwe to be closer to 2Seeds staff and a (theoretically) more adept hospital.  I tried to eat and hydrate, but the taste, smell, thought of food would send my intestines up the Tower of Terror – and they weren’t too keen on the drop.  The following day: another hospital.  This one smelled intensely of breast-milk, seemed swarmed with flies, and was past capacity with sick people, every face buried in the palm of the sufferer.  It had something in common with that first hospital, though: a tardy doctor.

This second doctor upped my dosage and sent me on my way in under five minutes.  I rested.  I read (not quite actively).  I wrote (not well).  I watched Amanda Bynes movies.  I took all the pretty-colored pills.  And I determined what really is harshest about it all.

What makes it harsh is the circumstantial contrast.  Like that hill on the border in El Paso, Texas where you can see glass-walled condominiums on one side and weather-stained cardboard constructs on the other.  When I got sick, I remembered that hill.  Because, even when I was afraid my condition might worsen or skeptical about the treatment, I knew on which side of the border I would fall.  I knew that by virtue of my wealth and birth, I was going to be just fine, going to recover.  If I wanted, I could insist to be taken to a better hospital, a different town, flown stateside.  There wasn’t a question about whether I could afford the $2.82 doctor’s visit or the $1.90 Erythromiacin to ease the intestinal pain. The $0.38 clean, bottled water was barely an “expense” at all.

Illnesses are famous for the despondency, discomfort, and even despair they bring their sufferers.  And – if you are anything like me – perhaps you’ve sometimes felt like those fateful “third-world” ailments are those three d-words in magnification.

I agree.  “Third-world” diseases and fevers are harsher, somehow more grotesque, more perilous.  But it’s circumstantial despondency.  Malaria and dysentery are – we forget so easily – very treatable with the right resources.

Thus, there was an element of empathy in the whole experience, in knowing how many people suffer from these diseases, how frequently, how fatally, how few can afford or access the treatment and care with which I was automatically blessed.  I now know what it feels like to have malaria, to have dysentery, but I’ll never know what it’s like to watch your child suffer through them, to be entirely powerless to do anything, paralyzed by poverty. But perhaps now I have a more apt imagining of what that might look like.

Watching your five year-old leak blood and shit and sweat into his sheets or watching his eyes turn malarial, that feverish, glossy look that makes parents everywhere panic… Running around to collect shillings from debtors, selling the family goat, banging on the church doors in a desperate frenzy – how can we pay?  And fast?  Navigating this “system” (where the hospital may or may not be open), checking every source to find water clean enough to drink, trembling in preemptive dread about what happens if the symptoms worsen.  Well, that’s really confronting mortality.

Did I miss America?  My mother?  Noodle soup?  Absolutely.  Did I want to be anywhere else?  No.

Because I couldn’t wait to get back to work, work that somehow became even more real, more crucial, more personal.  Have you ever felt a number?  I think maybe I felt over 1,000,000 die of malaria each year, in that fever, gentle little pins in permanent acupuncture of the human conscience.

Thank you so much for your thoughts and prayers – I felt them, too.  And, if you’re willing…  Well, many out there still need them.