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Project Jacmel blog

Malaria or stomach flu? Add to ...

By my fifth day back in Haiti, my body seemed to be soundly mimicking the malaria symptoms outlined on the boxes of Malarone (malaria prevention pills) I take here: fever and flu-like symptoms, including headache, abdominal and muscle pain, and malaise. Muscle rigidity? Check. Chills? Check. Slight history of hypochondria? Also check. But in fairness to me, the box also said this: "Severe malaria … may cause seizures, coma, and kidney and lung failure, and may lead to death."

To back up, the fact that my symptoms might be malaria-related has been floating in the back of my mind for a few days as I've stumbled through a few morning interviews only to find myself begging our driver to take me back to the hotel. In my room, with the curtains drawn against the daytime heat, I collapse on my bed and fall into deep sleeps that allow me to escape the violent muscle cramping beneath my ribs and the constant fever I've been battling. All week, I've been hoping to sleep it off, wondering if my body is just overtired, or having trouble adjusting to the heat. But the symptoms have been getting worse, not better.

Yesterday I managed to eat an order of toast before feeling so wearied that I needed to once again retreat. I also swigged back two cups of special tea that one of our friends here got from the local market -- he swore that if boiled correctly, the tea would help with my congestion problems. Instead, it seemed to dehydrate me even more. Lying in bed, I imagined that my organs were actually throbbing. Deb, looking increasingly worried by the hour, began to worry out loud that I had contracted malaria. Her worrying made me worry more.

Some of that dissipated this morning when I woke up feeling perky enough to have a shower. But a few swigs of coffee later, things weren't looking so good. We called around to a few friends to see if they knew any reputable doctors - the steady roll-over of aid workers here makes it hard to maintain doctor contacts on the ground. The fact that today is Sunday made things more difficult - nobody works on Sundays. And I can't lie - Jacmel Chamber of Commerce President Roland Zenny's comment from a few weeks ago was playing loud in my mind (for those that didn't read the story, he told me that doctors at the hospital here "have a license to kill" and then whipped $2,000 in cash out of his desk drawer, which he keeps on hand for emergency flight to Miami).

We got lucky though, and found a doctor at the United Nations compound. A Sri Lankan, Dr. Jayantha Silva poked my stomach a few times, listened to my breathing, took a blood pressure read and asked me a few questions before declaring he was fairly certain I have a stomach virus, not malaria. All of us there, including our friend Barry Sampon from the Salvation Army, felt relieved and started to get a bit giddy. But none of us have a ton of confidence in the diagnosis given that no blood or fluid samples were taken. Dr. Silva sent me away with four different types of pills, a collection of white and pink little buttons I'm to take at six, three and two hour intervals, stapled in makeshift envelopes. A little Google research tells me that two of them are generic versions of Advil and Tylenol. The other is for some kind of stomach ulcer; the fourth is for pain releif.

If things don't improve in two days, I'm to see him again. Then, he'll do a "full check-up" to see if I have a parasite. In the meantime, I'm to drink lots of fluid. Get rest. And avoid eating meat. Cross your fingers for me.

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