Pain comes in many forms; it can bruise you or shock you, maybe tickle you or just make you hiccup. It can cause you to bleed; it can break your heart and leave you feeling hopeless for lengths of time.
Sometimes you can see it coming. Sometimes, it comes without warning.
My most recent experience with pain came in the form of a tropical illness, which was given to me by a gracious and rather parched insect in return for a few drops from my bloodstream.
Malaria, at the onset of becoming a Peace Corps volunteer, was filtering itself into every prophylaxis-induced nightmare, causing me to receive symptoms without yet having been bitten by a buzzing blood blister. Every medical meeting ended with an entire crowd of Peace Corps trainees staring into the middle distance, visualizing their inevitable bout with the disease after having just been loaded with horror stories and filled with medical jargon that just plumped us up like a jelly donut inviting the sweet tooth of every mosquito in a five-mile radius (fyi: mosquito do have teeth!).
There was some reassurance, however; “Just take your prophylaxis as directed and you will be safe” says the staff after wiping the budding sweat off their brows after finishing another animated horror story in which a volunteer lays in bed, writhing in pain, with no one to help them in the village, not eating for a week, stomach churning in pain, diarrhea flowing like Willy Wonka’s chocolate river out one end, and a steady stream of stomach acid and bile flowing out the other.
“You will be safe.”
So there were no two “buts” about it, I was going to take my magical pill every day, at the same time, and I will leave this country (having properly saved the world first) and return back to America without ever having so much as a twitch in my right eye which sometimes acts up every other month but it’s not really all that bad and, in fact, I enjoy watching the twitch in the mirror from time to time…but I digress.
Yet, after months of diligent pill-popping, proper hydration, adequate use of the mosquito net at night time, never staying outside around dusk and coating myself in bug spray from time to time; malaria drops in to say hello.
It happened just before sleep last Thursday night. That evening I had felt some minor back pain and my legs were sore. I thought the discomfort was the result of a wrestling match that happened earlier that day. On top of that, my stomach had been queasy the entire day, and I skipped supper, punched out early and laid down around 7pm hoping to just sleep off all the kinds of discomfort.
I woke up roughly four hours later with the most intense and all-encompassing pain I’ve ever felt in my entire life. My entire body was covered in cold sweat, which seemed to be flowing rather liberally from my pores and causing me to shiver. My entire back, head, both legs and my shoulders had just gotten the sledgehammer treatment, and no position seemed to calm down their aches. My stomach churned to and fro causing me to grip my torso and roll up in a ball which slowly adding my moans to the howls of the village canines barking at the moon that shone through the tent and onto my feeble, sick and suffering body.
It was late, and my friends who were in the hut next to the tent were fast asleep and I couldn’t yell loud enough to wake them up. Either way, Peace Corps medical doesn’t operate at night, so I had to deal with it for a few more hours until I could make a phone call. After the first hour, I managed to get up to pee, which only confirmed all the pain and aches and everything else as I hobbled around the compound trying to get back into the tent.
Morning came and my friends heard my pathetic pleas from the tent outside. We rang medical, and the assessments began. After three trips to the pit latrine and one trip to the side of the hut to puke, the cruiser sped down the village path to retrieve me and take me back to the house where I could be in a better setting to deal with such an illness.
Luckily for me, my friend Maggie was there to take care of me, bringing me water and taking my temperature and getting me to take my pills. The worst of all the pain and sickness and nausea only lasted the whole of Friday, and I think a lot of that has to do with my good friends who were able to get me to where I needed to be, and get the necessary things into my body to start the healing process.
A week later, and I’m doing fine. Others haven’t had it so lucky. People writhe in pain for days, and never eat anything. I did lose weight, but I’m eating well and trying to gain it back. I still feel a little weak, but it’s not anything I can’t handle for now. Needless to say, I am thankful for that quick glimpse into the horrors of malaria, a disease that takes the lives of thousands of rural Zambians each year.