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The past week I kinda wrestled with whether or not I wanted to tell my story. It's been about 16 years, a long time…. I can't even believe it's been that long. It's a story worth telling, though, especially when it comes to raising awareness.
The summer of '96, I'd just graduated from high school, and I was headed to Papua New Guinea with my best friend. She was going to the Highlands region, and I was headed to the Sepik region to a place called Pukapuki (pictured below) to live with missionaries who worked with the Saniyo tribe. My team was slated to help the missionaries work on their own grass airstrip and help them in clearing a road from the airstrip to their houses.The only way to reach our destination was by small Cessna and then a 3 hour boat ride. It was just about as remote as one could get. I took all the necessary preventative medicine to prevent malaria, and we slept under mosquito nets while there; but about a month after returning home, my nightmare began.
I felt very tired days before the disease came on, like I was extremely run down. I was working in a nursing home at the time, and I just had this feeling that something wasn't right. I remember the day that it really started coming on…. I had shaking chills, horrible chills like I'd never experienced, and my body felt extremely touchy from head to toe. I'd pace my parents' kitchen, staring out the window, not feeling like myself at all, physically or mentally. My mom was getting ready to leave on an extended trip with my truck driver dad, so she took me to the hospital (I was starting to get dehydrated from the nausea/vomiting), and we told the doctor that I'd been traveling to a tropical region (exactly what we'd been told to tell the doctor if I came down ill after my trip). We told them this could be malaria, but having never seen the disease, they dismissed it as the flu and gave me IV's for dehydration, sending me home that same night. My mom, thinking that I just had the flu, because I seemed to be better the next day, decided to go ahead and leave with my dad. Everything seemed to be on the mend, and I was fine. However, the disease wasn't gone…. it was back the next day with a vengeance. And every other day for almost a week. From the most violent, shaking chills I've ever experienced to the most excruciating stomach sickness, it was probably the sickest I've ever been in my life. I remember a few days into it, starting to notice that my skin was turning a very dark yellow, almost orange. Little did I know that my red blood cells were being infected, and my liver was taking a toll.
Finally, my aunt came to get me and take me to the hospital, where I was diagnosed with several things, the first being hepatitis. My eyes were green, my skin was yellow…. what else would they think? I was so out of it, I didn't care…. I only knew that I was finally in what I thought to be a safe place, getting some relief from this awful sickness. Come to find out, though, I didn't really have hepatitis, so the doctors started making guesses, even telling us I had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Until one day, it came down to do or die…. I specifically remember requesting mac and cheese. I was so hungry because I hadn't been given any solid food. It was only a little bit later that the illness was back very suddenly, and this time, my fever spiked to over 105 degrees. I was pretty much delirious and don't remember much at all from that day, but I do remember seeing the thermometer at one point (I believe it read 105.7, but again I was delirious). I think I even remember one nurse trying to get the fever down by giving me a very cold shower, but my memory's a blur. The nurses held me down to give me medication that would help to fight the fever, and I remember going in and out of consciousness, hearing voices quietly talking in the background; they were surmising over whether to keep me at this hospital or send me to a bigger hospital. Finally everything just went black, and I pretty much remember nothing. My mom and dad must have been going nuts being so far away from me when I was so sick…. but we had an incredible support system. I have to give my aunts props and thanks (I'm ever so grateful to both of them), because I honestly believe they fought for me; they had a hand in saving my life. The doctor tested me again and finally found the malaria parasite. Several hours later, in the middle of the night, I woke up…. fever free, chills free, nausea free. I was weak, but over the next few days, with the proper medication, I began to recover (though I did relapse again but was promptly treated after visiting an infectious disease specialist).
I'm grateful to be alive today, especially after reading that over half a million people died from malaria 14 years later in 2010 (info from CDC). I wanted to tell my own story because in this country, we really don't see as many cases of malaria…. it just doesn't seem as real to us, maybe because it's not in our faces day in and day out. We face horrible diseases every day like cancer, AIDS, hepatitis, etc. My doctors were living proof that malaria isn't as prevalent here. However, in places like Papua New Guinea, Haiti, and especially Africa (not to mention countless other countries), malaria is a fact of life. In areas where medication and medical help is not so readily available, people are suffering and dying of this dreadful disease…. not just adults, but babies and young children.
(This photo used with permission of Malaria No More)
We can do something to help prevent this awful disease. By 2015, Malaria No More wants to see near zero deaths from malaria in Africa; they've set a goal, and they're on a mission. In fact, here is their revised mission statement: Malaria No More is determined to end malaria deaths. We’re helping the world get it done by engaging leaders, rallying the public, and delivering life-saving tools and education to families across Africa. Founded in 2006 by business leaders Ray Chambers and Peter Chernin, Malaria No More is working to create a world in which no one dies from a mosquito bite.
From education to net distribution to research, there are ways to get involved. It can be as simple as making a donation, perhaps even getting involved in a fundraiser.
A mosquito bite from an infected mosquito…. that's all it takes for someone to become infected with malaria parasites. This disease needs to be stopped, and we can help. Be sure to Like Malaria No More on Facebook and follow @MalariaNoMore on Twitter to stay updated on ways that you can get involved.