“Guys, I think I might need to go home. I’m feeling really sick,” I said to the kids Thursday as we walked from the parking lot towards the school entrance. A wave of exhaustion and nausea had washed over me in the few steps I had taken since parking the car.
“I’m going to walk in and let Wendy know I’m going home sick,” I told them. The night before I had fallen asleep right after school, not feeling well. I had not wanted to get up for dinner. I thought our fun, lovely, beach get-away the previous weekend must have wiped me out more than I thought it had. I had woken with a slight headache, but didn’t think anything of it-probably just needed my morning coffee, showered, and got the kids ready for school.
Once inside the school’s gates, I checked in with my office mate. Turns out she also had a fever the night before–we compared notes and decided we both must have caught a virus. I congratulated her on being tougher than me and I drove myself home, crawling into bed as soon as I got there. Five minutes later my alarm went off, letting me know it was time to go pick up the kids from school. Dragged myself to the car, drove to school and back. I went right back to bed. Slept through the evening and night, thinking I’d be fine when I woke Saturday once the virus had run its course.
The alarm went off Saturday morning, letting me know it was time to get Simon ready for his soccer tournament. Showered, got him ready, and headed to the school. “Whew,” I thought, “I’m glad that virus is gone.” I found a bench, made small talk with a colleague, and got comfortable with my Kindle. 15 minutes later-WHAM. I knew right then that if I didn’t go home right that second, I was going to have a problem. I was freezing and had my head hurt so bad it hurt to have my eyes open. I shivered my way to the car and back home. By the time I got myself there and back into bed, I knew I was pretty sick. Feeling like a little kid, I called a friend crying. I asked her to come over and help me call the doctor to come to the house.
One of the many challenges of living abroad is that Senegal is a country whose primary language is French. I have some French, but it mainly deals with getting around and everyday things such as food and transportation. There is a service here my insurance covers called SOS Medicine that will come to your home BUT I have no language for describing my illness to someone on the phone, much less the ability to explain where I live in a country and city where there are no road signs!
My friend is from Canada and speak French, thank God! She and her husband came right over to help me. (Thank you Ingrid and Scott). Having their familiar faces here made me feel a little better and we waited for SOS Medicine to arrive (It took about 90 minutes for them to get here).
Our of the doctor’s backpack came all the equipment to take my temperature, blood pressure, heart, and the short finger-prick malaria test they give anyone with a fever. We waited for the test to do its thing and made small talk with the doctor. She’d seen two patients in my area with malaria earlier in the day. Volia-the test was negative for malaria.
Relieved I only had a virus, my friends went home, agreeing to pick up Simon for me, and I went back to bed. Sleeping was the only thing that made the headache ease a little. Freezing, shivering, burning up, all the fun of a bad fever. I slept, and slept and slept. No sympathy from my teenager, lots of worry from the ten-year old. I didn’t get out of bed the rest of the weekend. I had no desire to eat anything, but did manage to get enough water in me to get a regimen of Advil and Tylenol into me. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so sock.
Monday after the kids went to school, I sent a delirious e-mail to the school nurse and asked her to come over. I knew I was really sick, even though I had the negative malaria test. God bless Nurse Wendy and Wendy, my office mate, that took one look at my e-mail, that they later told me made no sense, and drove over. They were in my bedroom right away. Nurse Wendy took a look at me, took my fever and said she was pretty sure I did have malaria. She called SOS Medicine back but without a French speaker with us, was unable to make clear the problem. Despite the fact that I wasn’t sure I could get out of bed, she loaded me in my car and drove me to a lab/medical office to have another malaria test.
We arrived at the medical office, right off the Corniche and at the bottom of a steep hill. It overlooked the Atlantic Ocean, which at the time, really bothered me as a cold breeze was blowing off of it. I was ushered into what felt like another era. I’ve been calling it 1950’s Cuba-although I don’t know why I settled on that description as I certainly have never been to the 1950’s or Cuba. We waited and waited for a doctor as they wanted me to see one before they’d do a blood test. The doctor was of Arabic background and was a cardiologist of all things. He spoke French and English in addition to his primary language. We were ushered into his 1950’s office. The equipment looked like it was from the set of a 1940-50’s movie.
In a heavy accent, the doctor asked some questions.
“You need to stop eating so much ‘gateaux’ (cake),” he , as he announced as he escorted me around the corner from his desk to the examining table. “You need to lose some kilos,” he proceeded to tell me.
Thanks doctor. That’s REALLY helpful as I haven’t been able to eat since Thursday and I certainly haven’t had any damn cake since arriving in this country. Thanks for the commentary on my weight when I feel like shit and want to lay down on the floor. Fortunately my illness kept my tongue in check, and I didn’t tell him where he could shove a gateaux.
He made me take my clothes off so he could weigh me, again told me to lose kilos, looked in my throat, and listened to my heart. Then he explained that I had the “grippe” (whatever the hell that is) and wrote a prescription for 3 stupid medicines that I didn’t need- including one for Benadryl. I knew none of them were what I really needed.
Nurse Wendy navigated the paperwork. By this time I could not even sit upright in the waiting room chair. They called me for my blood work and put me on a 1950’s Cuba metal patient table and a young woman tried to take my blood 8 times while I shook like a leaf from the fever. After the 8th time when I managed to yell “Ow!” she went to get another person to take the blood. Thank god for the Sister Theresa looking nun- nurse who was able to do it on her first try. Wendy poured me back in the car, went to finish paying and doing the paperwork and drove me home. I crawled back into bed and went back to sleep. I could not believe anything could make my head hurt so bad.
Several hours later Wendy called to let me know that the new blood work did confirm that I had malaria and that she was going back to the doctor’s office to get the prescription for the medicine.
Three doses, one a day for three days of anti-malarials. More sleep than you think one person would be able sleep.
While I slept a week away, a few lovely colleagues and my housekeeper took care of my children and got them to and from school. I couldn’t get out of bed. I had the worst headache I’d ever had in my life.
There were a few low moments in among the sleeping. Wednesday, the second day of anti-malarials saw the fever abating, but not the headache. I told some nice colleagues that stopped by that, “I hated f***ing Africa” and “If I was in the states, I’m pretty sure I’d be in the hospital.”
Thursday, Nurse Wendy was back to say I needed to have another blood test. I told her there was no way I could get out of bed to go back to the lab. She and another French-speaking colleague managed to get ahold of a lab that comes to your home. The test was necessary to make sure that the malaria was on its way out and that my blood count was on its way back towards normal. Sleeping and headache was still the name of the game. Nurse Wendy came back with the Codeine equivalent of Alka-Seltzer. She delivered it to me along with effervescent codeine. I didn’t know such a thing existed, but it was my friend, as it was the first thing to be able to put a dent in the headache. It knocked the headache out, but also put me back to sleep.
Friday-still terrible headache. Still couldn’t eat. Finally managed half a banana my housekeeper went and got for me. Went back to sleep.
Saturday-friend Andrea arrived to help take care of my kids. That afternoon I started to feel human and left the bedroom and house for the first time in more than a week.
Damn mosquitoes! I hate those bloody insects!
I had access to heath care as an expat living in a country where, according to a 2007 Human Development Report, there are 6 doctors per 100,000 people. The disparity of my expat illness has not been lost on me. Since then, my night guard Severyn’s brother has died of malaria. Sobbing, he had to ask me for money to help pay for the funeral. His brother lived in rural Senegal and by the time they got him to the doctor, it was too late. No one in his extended family owns a car. The country has 17 cars per 1000 people. In the capital city, we still share the road with horse carts. In the more rural areas, horse or donkey carts are the MAIN transportation besides walking. Hitchhiking is just a norm outside of the city. If someone has a car, and it’s not packed full, they will pull over and give someone a ride. That’s their normal. Buses or Car Rapides often have people hanging out the back, occasionally on top.