Namikango Mission

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My Bout with Sickness in Malawi

Jan 15, 2016

By Becca Hayes

Malaria. According to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention, in Malawi, it is the number three killer, following HIV/Aids and respiratory infection, taking an average of about 8% of the people each year. It is a difficult sickness to diagnose and is often named as the default of any unknown sickness amongst Malawians. Malaria can strike at any time in Malawi and there is no “safe” zone, except in a few areas where the altitude is too high for mosquitos to survive. This news can be daunting and almost cause one to live in fear.

The first three years of living in Malawi, I have battled with my own fear over whether my three children now 4 years and under or another family member would come down with Malaria. We chose not to take a prophylaxis (preventative) for Malaria because of the long-term side effect. Malawians themselves recognize the symptoms and treat it as it comes. Year round we would usually have a few or many mosquitos inside the house. With high temperatures during the dry season, they are few and the windows fly open daily to let some air in. There is no closing yourself off to the chance that a mosquito may find an opportunity to sting. I pray daily that we are free from sickness, particularly Malaria. Several times one of the children has run a fever for more than 24 hours and we have taken them to have their finger pricked and the blood tested to see if a trace of the parasite could be found. Each time we were so thankful the tests were negative. However, tests are not always accurate. The parasite may not always be in the exact area of the blood that is being tested, so multiple tests may need to be conducted at a laboratory.

In early November, I began feeling severe fatigue and experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, and an intense headache. After 24 hours, I was so weak and feeling much worse. I was still nursing my 12 month old son and it did not help for my rehydration attempts. Our teammates Ryan and Justine had been away for a couple of weeks and had just returned the evening before we called them at 3 am to pick me up and take me to the nearest 24-hour clinic. I was very afraid the blood test would show Malaria. However, when the negative results appeared, I asked, “what is wrong with me?”

We discussed at length with a Malawian doctor on-call about the possibilities. He said that all my symptoms seemed to be Malaria, but the test was negative. He requested that I wait and return for a second blood test. By 9am the same morning, I was feeling such intense sickness and weakness that I could hardly walk. We returned to the same wellness clinic to find a second blood test negative. I requested an IV as I knew I was also struggling with dehydration. Thanks to Justine and a Malawian nurse friend of ours who stayed with me and made sure all things were done well. After several hours of fluid, I was not feeling much better. I requested to take the medicine, regardless of the negative testing because I knew the test was not always accurate. I will pause here to tell you another story inside this one.

After the first test, we still suspected it was Malaria. As a nursing mother, I was very concerned with the medication being safe for my baby. I texted a few people who were familiar, asked some doctors and nurses, and the answers were not clear. The medicine they give to nursing mothers in the village is one that pharmacies and clinics were short on in the city. However, our maternity clinic in Thondwe had it. So, one of the maternity nurses was driven the 20 minutes into town to bring it to me. Even after bringing our own medication to the clinic, the doctor pulled out the leaflet within the other Malaria drugs and was reading them to us and the nurses comparing the differences. He requested to put me on a new drug. I refused not knowing anything about that one. I was feeling as if I was my own doctor at this point. I forced the medicine down, which I really did not want to take. Within the next couple of hours, I began feeling better.

At the clinic, there was no air conditioner or fans and the windows were always open. The screens on the windows could use a bit of patching. Therefore, as you can imagine, the mosquitos find ways inside. Thinking through this as I was laying in the patient bed - I was possibly fighting a sickness caused by mosquitos as mosquitos were flying all around me. It’s a bit hard not to feel…surrounded by the little buggers. The positive factor is that the female anopheles (Malaria carriers) only come out from dusk to dawn. Being at the clinic during the day lent itself to a bit more peace than if we had stayed there overnight.

I improved within two to three days. The medication had side effects that wore off after that time period and I felt normal. The kids were troopers along with their daddy as they helped look after their mama.

Was my sickness really Malaria in my blood? I won’t know, but I do know that I was not taking any chances. I could tell you some hard stories about people suffering for long periods of time from the side effects or how quickly it can cause death without too many symptoms. Do these things cause fear in me? Absolutely! But, the Lord is my rock in whom I must find peace. My health is in His hands and I am thankful for the healing power on my body from this recent episode. Thank you to everyone who prayed for me.