This past week has been one of the roughest of my life. On Monday the 11th just about the time I had finished writing my article about the Chinese (Lunar) New Year, I developed a sharp pain in my stomach. After only having written about 750 words (3 pages) of my novel in my coffee shop of choice, I packed up my laptop and headed home to spend the rest of my only day off until May curled in the fetal position in my bed.
By the time I tried to actually fall asleep Monday night, my symptoms included:
My fever broke in the middle of the night and I woke up Tuesday feeling fine. It was obviously food poisoning or some 24 hour bug. However, after a couple hours at work, the nausea, stiffness, and fever relapsed and I had difficulty standing up straight. My boss let me go home early that night and the only thing that temporarily alleviated my agony was a hot shower (I’ve taken 2-3 per day since Monday).
Wednesday morning I woke up feeling great again only to have the same onset of symptoms occur within a few hours of waking up. So I went to WebMD for some answers. Turns out that that specific group of symptoms leads to an entire host of potential conditions including:
- Lyme Disease
- Dengue Fever
- High Blood Pressure
I was bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. I had no idea what I could possibly have but as I researched further into each condition, I learned there were a few key differences in my symptoms that I’d never experienced before. Typically when I’ve been sick in the past, the fever comes on strong and sticks with me until it eventually breaks and then is gone for good. Not so this week. The fever waxed and waned like the phases of the moon or the ebb and flow of the tides – a symptom specific to two illnesses on this list: Malaria and Meningitis.
Needless to say I was slightly freaked out by this discovery so I went to a doctor who ordered blood work simply so we could rule out both of these very dangerous and fatal possibilities. He assured me that his professional diagnosis was the flu and his prescription was lots of fluid and rest, but because of my recent travel he needed to be certain. The rub was that the results of the tests weren’t immediately available; I’d have to wait 3-4 days and the waiting is the hardest part.
Wednesday night and Thursday I felt worse than I had before the doctor visit. I wondered if this guy was a quack. After all, he’d given me preventative malaria pills prior to my trip! How could I possibly have malaria? Oh, right. He neglected to tell me that the effects of the pills was negated with the consumption of alcohol. What?! Are you kidding me? It was my vacation! Over the Christmas holiday! And in a tropical country! Find me someone who wouldn’t drink given those circumstances?
I knew what I was getting myself into when I booked the trip. I’d visited the CDC (Center for Disease Control) website and read their travel advisory about Cambodia which states that:
“Malaria is always a serious disease and may be a deadly illness. Prevent this serious disease by seeing your health-care provider for a prescription antimalarial drug and by protecting yourself against mosquito bites.”
They also warn against Typhoid and Hepatitis A – both of which I took a vaccine injection before I visited. But the CDC website also says:
“Antimalarial drugs purchased overseas may not be manufactured according to United States standards and may not be effective. They also may be dangerous, contain counterfeit medications or contaminants, or be combinations of drugs that are not safe to use.”
Um, okay – what?
Additionally, the flu-like symptoms associated with malaria are also associated with, and are oftentimes progressive from malaria, meningitis – a much deadlier disease than malaria. However, I wasn’t displaying half of those symptoms which include:
- Light Sensitivity
- Abnormal Gait
I wasn’t too concerned about meningitis but malaria was still in the race. I even thought the whites of my eyes appeared yellow in the mirror (though that could’ve been the poor lighting in the bathroom). At any rate, I continued to rest and keep myself hydrated mostly because I felt dizzy every time I stood up and felt like puking every time I tried to eat.
Malaria isn’t contagious and it isn’t an airborne illness. It’s spread through a very specific type of mosquito called the Anopheles and even then, only through the female of the species. Apparently, the males don’t even bite humans at all.
Only the females bite, suck blood, and spread disease – story of my life…
At any rate, a bite from an infected mosquito injects parasites into your bloodstream. The parasites invade red blood cells, using each cell as a microscopic incubator to multiply until they’ve taken over. If this invasion goes unchecked and is able to reach deep into your brain and spinal column, that’s when malaria can become meningitis. So this isn’t an illness to scoff at or take lightly. In 2010, the WHO (World Health Organization) estimated 219 million cases of malaria worldwide and of those between 660,000 and 1.2 million ended in death (2,000-3,000 per day). However, accurate data is unavailable from rural areas – like much of the Cambodian jungle.
Friday morning I woke up very early with the single worst headache I’ve ever experienced in my life. Sharp stabbing pain throbbed behind my eyes, echoed around to my temples and shot down to a dull achy pain between my shoulder blades and up my neck to the base of my skull. Tension headaches usually hit me in my neck and other headaches affect the temples and the eyes but I doubt many of you have been stricken with pain in all of those simultaneously. I couldn’t turn my head or twist my neck. I couldn’t move.
Without any other options, I took a tylenol and tried to sleep again. It took me over an hour but I was finally able to get back to sleep for another two hours or so and when I woke up again, I felt substantially better. I also woke up to a text message from the doctor with the results from the blood work. Yes, they text medical information. Koreans are nothing if not efficient – that or they love their technology. I still say the US Healthcare system could learn a thing or thirteen from other countries’ systems.
To make a long story short (too late), I don’t have malaria.
My blood smear and liver function test came back with all normal results. So I just had the flu. And while I don’t like to think of myself as a hypochondriac, being sick halfway around the world from home, isn’t a great feeling. Most men (myself included) are huge babies when it comes to getting sick. I’m just thankful that it wasn’t anything too serious. I have to be careful with what I eat over the next week but with any luck, I’ll be 100% soon and back to my old self. Let’s hope this is the last time I’m sick overseas as it was one of the hardest experiences of my life.
Until Next Time…