Malaria and the day I nearly died

“You nearly die far too often,” says Malachy when I propose the title of this article. And he’s right. It does seem as if “I’m dying” has become my catch phrase. But the fact remains that I could have died that day…

It all started on a Friday morning. Our time in Kigali, capital of Rwanda had come to an end and we were setting off on the long journey to Mwanza, Tanzania’s second largest city. At first I simply felt very tired and put it down to lack of sleep. In the bus, I felt very weak but felt better after a piece of chocolate and imagined that maybe I was simply weak with hungry – I hadn’t eaten properly in a while. But by the time we got to the Tanzanian border, I knew that something was wrong.

My back was getting very sore and I was absolutely squirming in my seat, unable to find comfort. I felt cold but was burning with fever. “We’ll need to check my temperature,” I said as I began to fear that I might have developed malaria. But how could that be? To develop malaria, one must be bitten by a female Anopheles mosquito. At altitudes above 2000m mosquitoes are very rare. I take prophylactic (preventative) anti-malarial medication every day without fail which makes infection quite unlikely. I sleep every night in a treated mosquito net. I also wear only long sleeves and trousers. I even wear a scarf each evening despite the fact that as a result, I am frequently mistaken for a Muslim. So how could I have malaria?

I read my temperature. It was thirty eight degrees. I think that’s when I knew had malaria. Malachy was in complete denial. It’s a normal reaction and we both had such strong faith in all of the preventative measures we had taken. I was sorely tempted to think the same. His preference was to push on and get tested at a clinic en route to Mwanza. But what if I did have malaria? You need to treat it quickly. It can become life threatening within twenty-four hours and I’d already been quite sick for six. I wanted to return to a hospital in Kigali. A local man then told us about a good hospital not far from the border. We decided to go there.

As the afternoon wore on, I really began to suffer. We had to wait for a taxi to fill before leaving the border, then we had to take a bus to the town of Ngara, then we needed another taxi to the hospital. The journey took several hours and with every passing minute, my condition was deteriorating. I was exhausted, my body ached, I was absolutely shivering with cold but burning up with fever. And I was terrified. Everybody told us that Malaria would be our biggest risk on this trip. It is the biggest killer in Africa, killing one million people worldwide each year. You don’t mess with this baby.

At last we arrived at the hospital. At this point, I was crying. I’m not sure if it was pain or fear. I had a test and the young doctor confirmed that I had malaria: falciparum malaria – the most dangerous form. Malignant malaria. She asked if I had my own drugs to take. We had malarone but were unsure if it was suitable. She’d never heard of it. She wanted to admit me and start me on a quinine IV. We decided to contact home for medical advice and as I lay there groaning on the hospital bed, Malachy made a string of phone calls to Ireland. A team of doctors and nurses sat with us warning Malachy to hurry up. “Her system is not used to malaria. We need to start her on treatment right away… We’re very worried about her. This is a very dangerous form of malaria… Have you managed to speak to anybody yet?” And all the time I was thinking: is this the form of malaria recurs years after its first appearance? Can you imagine how it felt to lie there listening to doctors telling Malachy that they were very worried and wanted to start treatment immediately, doctors who deal with malaria every day of the week, doctors who themselves suffer malaria every year?

At last we made contact with two people: Dr. Andrew Collins of the Malaria Consortium advised us to start Malarone immediately. He too was quite surprised that I’d developed malaria. Sr. Kate Costigan advised us to reduce the fever and take fluids. Our parents were worried sick at home, knowing even less than we did and imagining the worst. Should they organise a rescue party? I doubt it would have been possible had it been necessary. We were in a very remote part of Tanzania at this stage. I couldn’t be admitted to the hospital so I was to be taken to the house of the local priest, Fr. Alfred. I was horrified at the though of having to walk and didn’t really believe that I could. “Don’t worry,” said one man. “If you fall I will carry you.” It was now 8 p.m. I’d been sick for twelve hours now, I’d eaten nothing all day, and I was dehydrated and terribly weak. But at least I knew what I needed to do.

I took the tablets. Then I slept. When I awoke, I was beginning to feel better. My fever was coming down; I was able to eat some rice. I was strong enough to speak to my parents. The following day, I was feeling much better. I’d had a lucky escape and was on the mend. Soon I would be well enough to continue the journey to Mwanza. If only everyone who suffers this terrible disease could be so lucky. If only everyone had people to take care of them in their time of need. If only everyone could have the advice of experts. If only everyone had access to advanced medicines.

– Written by Niamh O Riordan and published in The Imokilly People

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