Last week I nearly died. So I hope the delay in blogging will be forgiven by my three avid readers and fans and I’ll tell you all about starting work at the hospital in a few days. What made me sick wasn’t Ebola, nor an exotic something which an episode of House would be based around, although like Hugh Laurie I did get given a lot of Tramadol. It wasn’t even something gross and tropical, such as a leg-worm you can wind on a stick like candy floss. It was common or garden septic shock. We still don’t know what the bacteria was, the labs here are slow. But the unnamed pathogen won the fight against my immune system, taking advantage of its naivety as a stranger to these spirited African strains, fumbling for its Lonely Planet Guide Book to Nasty Bugs, to ask for “some more please T cells thank you” whilst the bacteria danced happy reproductive swirls throughout my increasingly depleted circulation.
I suspect that whatever it was got into me when I was cleaning down the labour ward here, drenched in filthy water, trying to scrub bodily fluids in a range of attractive pastel colours off the rusty bedsteads with Vim powder. What our maternity wing in Blantyre really needs is not just more midwives and doctors, we have those and for the most part they are excellent clinicians. What we need are more HCA’s, cleaners and someone to get the damn autoclave to work.
I was ok in the evening, a little blurred vision but I thought I was just over-tired, maybe a touch of migraine. I developed a fever overnight and woke up dizzy, but apart from the ever-present hypochondriac ‘maybe I’ve got malaria’ worry, I was sure it was just a cold. Three hours later I was unconscious in the Mission hospital with a blood pressure of 75/40mmHg. I tell you this mostly because I’m now well enough to dramatise and hope for your sympathy – the only good bit about being sick is that people tell you that they love you and bring you tasty things. I feel very far away from Nonna’s aubergines today. But also because it again reminded me of how lucky I am to be me. We have health insurance, a car and a lot of medical knowledge between us, although not, I must say, evenly distributed. I still can’t remember which side of the heart is the red bit and which is the blue bit. It only took Jody half an hour to get back from work, when I found I couldn’t stand up and called him, and another 15mins for him to get my delirious tiny self to the hospital. If I’d been 999 out of a 1000 women in Malawi, I wouldn’t have reached the main road.
I would really like to say that such an extreme experience, certainly the closest I have ever been to non-existence, gave me some fresh perspective on life. I felt really terrified being incapable and with Lyra, but that was fear of leaving her alone and scared, and Jody turned up soon enough. But otherwise it all felt really prosaic; painful but really ordinary.
Other times I have ‘narrowly avoided catastrophe’ have all been much more tenuous and with surpassing dramatic narrative. Hungover and sleeping through my alarm, thus being late for the meeting that would have seen me at Kings Cross Underground just before nine o’clock on 7th July. Being chased across a river by comically mustachioed Mexican malditos with rifles so old-fashioned, a musket would be an upgrade. One May Week long ago, missing my footing and dangling off the guttering of Trinity College with a pair of heels over my shoulder, trying to impress the (turns out un-impressible) long-haired ponce I had a crush on. However, this time, after the very unglamorous reality of a shot over the bows of mortality, I don’t feel invigorated. The constant ache for my mum, Bridges, Chanje, Jaymi, Dave and the rest of the people I love is intensified, but I knew how important you all were to me anyway. Maybe I’ll have an epiphany or similar insight into the meaning of existence when the headache and nausea go away.
One unexpected dramatic twist though, was my attending doctor. When Jody and I were both still medical/midwifery students, we paid the university fees of a young medical student in Blantyre. This was through a very small project set up by Malcolm Molyneux, a principled physician who has spent his life working to improve health care in Malawi and who was an inspiration Jody. It wasn’t that much each month, but still we struggled to make the payment sometimes, living in London on a leaky boat and not having much of an income. This was a decade ago, and I thought for sure we’d never meet him – most qualified doctors here leave for South Africa where there is a better quality of life for their families and where they can practice medicine with more resources and support. But James stayed, and happened to be the Consultant on call at a small Adventist Hospital here when I was brought in. He realised who Jody was, despite my feminist refusal to ever take his surname, and hugged him when they met. Back then I’d imagine him sometimes when dreaming of Africa, as a student doctor working on sunlit but bare wards, in a city of noise and heat. I would Imagine him treating patients in a similar states of collapse, being quick and definitive with the instructions to “put Ringers up and start the antibiotics stat,” and thereby saving their lives.