Sorry I haven’t posted in so long…I’ve been sick the past few weeks. I wasn’t going to write a blog about it, but it’s turned into a much bigger deal than I thought, so here it goes….
Thursday, February 2nd. I woke up feeling terrible. But I headed down to the farm to make fish feed with the farmer. The fish gobbled up the feed, so it was a success! J After throwing up, I felt a little better, so I went to staff prayer. It’s one of my favorite times of the week, so I didn’t want to miss it. Little did I know how eventful staff prayer would be. During the hour of singing, prayer, and devotional, I felt progressively worse. I chugged a whole water bottle but was weak, hot, dizzy, and couldn’t concentrate on the teaching. Towards the end when they started the closing song, I remember thinking, “I should get up and go outside for fresh air.” But I was too tired to move. My legs wouldn’t obey my brain and my head slumped forward resting on my hands. That’s the last thing I remember until I felt a breeze on my face that was oddly horizontal and a jostling as I realized someone was carrying me. They lifted me into the car and said, “we’re taking you to the hospital.” Immediately I protested, “No, no, no—I’m fine!” Then asked, “What happened?” Apparently, after prayers finished, the Bible teacher noticed I wasn’t feeling well and asked if I wanted to go outside. I didn’t reply for a few minutes but finally mumbled something and tried to stand up but collapsed. The staff around me caught me before I hit the floor, and immediately the driver ran for the vehicle while another staff member picked me up and bodily carried me to the Land Rover.
While the nurse took my blood sugar, the staff in back exclaimed, “What’s taking so long? This is an emergency! This girl needs to get to the hospital!” In slightly slurred words, I was still protesting, “I don’t want to go to the hospital! I’m fine. I just passed out because I didn’t eat breakfast.” As Brown, the driver, sped to town, I remember in a semi-conscious, hazy sort of way him speeding much faster than normal, honking his horn, scattering chickens and children out of the road. Apparently the staff kept touching my neck and forehead and shaking their heads, going “Tsk, tsk, tsk” because I was cold and clammy, but I don’t remember any of that. Later, one of the staff said I was “like a limp chicken.” Another quietly told me, “It was like you were dead. Everyone was so scared.”
When we pulled into the hospital, the CVI staff bustled into the office, and I don’t know what they did or said, but I’m pretty sure we cut a bunch of people in line, and the doctor came to see me much quicker than anything usually happens in Uganda, and he was surprised I was sitting up—he seemed to expect that I was still unconscious. Anyways, the CVI staff got me a private room, and a couple of them and the two American interns stayed with me. A nurse took my blood to the lab and hooked me up to a glucose IV. My blood pressure was 70-something over 50—pretty much the lowest it can be. I’m grateful to the CVI staff who kept me company, got me juice and food, and played UNO with me. More CVI staff came to visit me—so many that the hospital nurses didn’t know what to do with them all. I struggled to keep my eyes open and concentrate on conversation until a few hours later the nurse returned and started hooking me up to more IVs. Still convinced that I was perfectly fine and all this rushing to the hospital business was a waste, I asked her, “am I sick?” She replied “you have some fever.” A couple minutes later, as she proceeded to inject me with more medicine, I asked, “what kind of fever?” She replied, “Typhoid.” I sat back and thought, “Wow. I guess I really am sick.”
But as I lay in that hospital bed hooked up to IVs for 11 hours waiting for it to drip drop by drop, all I wanted to do was get out of there as quickly as possible. When they finally released me around 11 pm, I was so happy I was finally free, but then I thought, “how am I going to tell my mom that I have typhoid fever?”
My Ugandan hospital visit was an experience—the large government hospitals in Uganda generally have competent doctors and adequate medicine, but they’re understaffed and woefully underpaid. (Last year, nurses went on strike because they hadn’t been paid in months). I only saw the doctor once at the beginning and the nurses never gave me instructions about what to expect with typhoid. Nurses in Ugandan hospitals don’t care for patients, they just administer medicine, so family members or friends camp out on the hospital grounds to care for their sick. I’m thankful I had so many CVI people stay with me! At night, the rooms inside are full of mosquitoes—now I understand the stories of people going to the hospital and when they’re starting to recover from their original illness, they die of malaria. But my entire hospital bill—admittance, doctor consultation, private room, lab fees, and medicine—was a whopping $37, not even close to my insurance’s $75 co-pay for hospitalizations.
Over the next several days, I basically stayed in bed at the CVI guest house in Gulu too weak to do anything. The one time I attempted to walk to town to get something to eat I nearly passed out again. My mom and dad, as loving, concerned parents, researched typhoid on the Internet (always a dangerous idea), talked with American doctors, and kept sending me descriptions of all the possible serious complications.
On day 3, I lay in bed with my body shaking and head paining, and I cried. I cried because I was exhausted and I couldn’t sleep. I cried because I missed my Lukodi CVI family. I cried because I finally admitted to myself how serious typhoid was. If this happened 100 years ago, I’d be dead. I cried because my family half way across the world was still asleep and I couldn’t talk to them. I cried because I couldn’t do the work I wanted to do. I cried because I was overwhelmed by the number of people praying for me—people at CVI in Uganda and in the US, at my home church, at my university, at my sister’s school, and at my mom’s work were all praying. I couldn’t believe so many people cared.
Finally, they let me go back to Lukodi! I was so excited to see the staff, girls, and kids—I had missed them so much! They were so happy to see me back too; when I walked into chapel, they stopped teaching and the girls all clapped and greeted me with huge smiles. I was still really weak. Sometimes I could barely walk from my hut to the kitchen for lunch. Reading gave me a headache, so I would lie in bed, sweating in the 100+ degree heat, and stare at my grass ceiling while listening to lizards chase each other along my wall. The CVI staff and girls took such good care of me though. They carried things for me, told me to rest, and constantly asked how I was doing. I never knew how much to admit the truth and how much to put on a brave face. When I said I was ok, they looked at me disbelievingly and said, “you’re not fine.” When one teacher caught me walking outside her classroom, she exclaimed, “Why are you in the sun? Get back to your hut and rest!” When Brown asked, “are you strong? Can we race to the fish ponds?” I smiled and said yes, but inside I thought, “No way. If I try to run 2 steps right now, I’ll fall flat on my face.” One teacher told me when she had typhoid, it took her a month to feel better. Aghast, I thought, “if I don’t play football for a month, I’ll die! I’m young and strong (well, at least I used to be). I’ll be better in a week or two.”
As I hit week 2, I started to feel better. I went down to the fish ponds to work some, and even played football with the girls a couple times (I had missed playing so much!). However, my legs were still weaker than I thought, and while sprinting after a ball, I fell flat on my face and scraped up my kneecap quite nicely. I was still really tired and had headaches and had to rest after doing anything for more than a couple hours. Then in week 3, I started feeling poorly again, so we made plans for me to see a doctor in Kampala. At first I protested traveling 6 hours just to see a doctor, but as I grew progressively worse, I accepted the appointment was a good idea. The day before I left, the CVI director told me, “Paige, I know you don’t want to admit it, but you’re sick. Don’t mind, but in Uganda we would say you look half dead.” I looked forward to getting some medicine and feeling better so I could return to hanging out with the girls and doing my work. Little did I know it wasn’t going to be that simple.
We went to a well-respected hospital in Kampala that has extensive experience with mzungus and tropical diseases. The doctor ordered a bunch of tests, but they all came back negative. She said I never even had typhoid originally! She didn’t know why I was sick. Her best guess was a virus, and if I didn’t feel better in 5-7 days, then they could test for more extreme tropical diseases like sleeping sickness. I was sorely disappointed and slightly concerned that the doctor couldn’t give me any answers. That night, the family of the US Embassy staff that oversees the Fulbright Program generously let me stay with them. It was so nice to be in an American style home and eat American food! The next day, they arranged for me to see the doctor at the US embassy. He was stumped too. He said I didn’t have a virus, he couldn’t explain why I passed out, and he had no idea why I was sick. He suggested I see another doctor in Kampala, and if I still didn’t feel better in 5-7 days, then I’d have to go to Nairobi for more extensive tests that couldn’t be done in Uganda. What!? I didn’t want to go to Nairobi! As I laid in bed that night, with my body shaking and head aching, I was scared. How could two Kampala doctors not figure out what was wrong with me? Typhoid was scary, but at least it had a name. Having some unknown disease now was so much worse. Tomorrow’s doctor was my last hope before Nairobi. I prayed so hard that she could give me answers.
The next morning, I got to the hospital before the doctors arrived and was first in line to see Dr. Helen. Immediately, I liked her. She was kind, friendly, extremely knowledgeable, and really took the time to talk with me and thoroughly examine me. We even chatted about northern Uganda because she’s originally from Kitgum—a town 100 km from Gulu! She seriously considered my shaking limbs and flinching muscles and ordered a new set of tests. After waiting several hours, the lab finally had most of my results. As I waited for Dr. Helen, I nervously scrutinized the pages, trying to understand what all the numbers and acronyms meant. Eventually, I gave up and resigned myself to anxiously waiting. Finally she said I had a few salt imbalances, and the typhoid test was slightly positive! Dr. Helen surmised I did have a fairly severe case of typhoid (explaining why I passed out since extreme typhoid can cause comas), and all my IVs and pills cleaned out the infection, but the antibiotics also wiped out my immune system and all the good bacteria in my body. Then the diet of boiled cassava and posho and beans wasn’t good enough to replenish my system to the proper levels, so poor diet coupled with pushing myself to do too much led to near chronic fatigue syndrome. She prescribed nutritional supplements and bacteria pills and rest. No more football for a while…It’s gonna kill me! I just can’t believe I had to go through the drama of seeing three doctors for something as small as fatigue. It’s going to be hard to make myself rest, but at least I know why I’m sick.
Typhoid is a nasty disease, but it’s taught me several lessons. The first is that you can’t judge a hospital by its waiting room. Dr. Helen’s hospital wasn’t as flashy as the first one I went to in Kampala, but she and her lab staff were extremely competent, professional, and friendly.
I also realized how fortunate I am to have insurance. Fulbright gives all their grantees health insurance, which let me comfortably tell the doctors do whatever tests they wanted. But as I sat in these hospital waiting rooms, I couldn’t help thinking about the man I met in Lukodi who couldn’t even afford 5000 schillings (less than $1.50) for a simple medicine.
I also learned to trust God when I’m weak and feel alone. I hate hospitals and seeing doctors and taking medicine, so the past few weeks have been excruciating. I’ve never had so many tests or been pricked with so many needles. I’ve always been strong and healthy. In high school, I played 3 sports. In college, I played nearly all the intramurals and ran or went to the gym nearly everyday. Here in Uganda, I would harvest sweet potatoes then play football for 2 hours in the intense heat of dry season. But with typhoid, there were times when I could barely walk. Getting out of bed to take my temperature was too much effort. I’m still working on this lesson, but I’m learning that when I am weak, God is strong. However, that doesn’t mean that I push myself harder and ask God for strength to get through it. Sometimes it means letting things go.
My sickness also showed God’s impeccable timing. While it stunk to get typhoid, if there was ever a time to fall ill, this was it. I passed out during the one time of the week when all the CVI staff are in one room. There was a vehicle to take me to the hospital, and there were two American girls knowledgeable in medicine staying as interns at CVI for a few weeks (huge shout out to them for staying with me through this whole ordeal!).
Finally, typhoid helped me realize how much everyone at CVI and my friends and family back home care about me and how much I love them. I’m blessed to be surrounded by such loving people.