There I was, lying in the white hospital bed diagnosed with malaria, thinking about the fragility of the human body. There are so many diseases and illnesses and things that can happen to you in this world, but most of the time they don’t. Luckily. Somehow, our bodies are covered with this protective aura that doesn’t allow anything bad to happen to you, except a flu here and there as a reminder that health is important.
Nevertheless, sometimes… There is that unlucky juxtaposition of circumstances and timings when you find yourself hit hard. By an illness, that of course, you never thought it could happen to you. Only then, you pause your life and realize that the money, the breakup, the career aspirations, the boyfriend issues, the single people issues, the expensive shoes, the better car, the do-more, the want-more, the I-need-to-find-my purpose-in-life… NONE of those MATTERS. Just HEALTH.
I was diagnosed with malaria, the most dangerous type (plasmodium falciparum), on the 1st of August. How symbolic. I was not that surprised since I already suspected it. I also didn’t care about the diagnosis that much, when my fever was reaching 40 again and the unbearable headache was splitting my head into million pieces. All I wanted to do at that time, was to surrender myself to the people in white coats.
“Are you able to go NOW to the hospital or you need someone to help you?” – asked me over the phone, the person who communicated me the diagnosis. Amongst my crying tears, I said “I think I can…” In 15 min I was at the hospital. I see the people in white coats. I still feel miserable but I am safe now. I surrender. The worst is behind… Or, maybe not?
The worst part of my malaria ordeal, was the period before I got hospitalized. The symptoms started whilst I was on a short 5-days vacation in Montenegro.
The first two days I had a mild headache. Nothing to worry about. Maybe I am still jetlagged, maybe I push my body too much with all this flying, maybe it’s the sun. Until…
On the third night, I woke up in shacking chills. I could not control them. All the muscles were involuntarily contracting in spasms taking turns. “Let’s shake the legs first, then arms, now the chest. What about the core? Let’s shake it too!” It was like a muscle conspiracy against my body. On top of that, I was cold. So cold, I covered myself with two blankets and two towels. Still shacking. “Shall I call an ambulance? Only for shacking? Not sure it’s justified…” With these thoughts in my mind, I fell asleep.
In the morning I woke up all covered in sweat. My bedsheets were wet and I felt so hot. I knew I had fever and I also knew I have been to Nigeria, almost 2 weeks ago. “OMG! It cannot be!” I quickly grabbed my phone and googled the symptoms of malaria. “An attack usually starts with shivering and chills, followed by a high fever, followed by sweating and a return to normal temperature.” That’s exactly what I had. But then, there was also vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, anemia… I didn’t have those symptoms yet, so I was hoping it was the flu.
Either way, I ran to the pharmacy. Bought a fever scan and Paracetamol. Measured the temperature. 39.9! How come I am not hallucinating yet? I popped two pills for fever and headed immediately to the hospital.
The doctor spoke bad English and Russian but she still got the idea of my drama. I warned her about malaria, but she disregarded it. I guess because it’s too exotic for Europe. “It’s just a virus” – she said. She took my vital signs, prescribed me an IV (intravenous) fluid and advised for a blood test after that. Who does that? Your blood is diluted after receiving an IV, and doing a blood test after that might affect the results, as I found out later on. I did it anyway because the doctor said and people almost always do what doctors say. The results came abnormal. She motivated: “It’s because you had fever”. “Oookay” – I looked at her suspiciously. She also advised me to go to a bigger hospital in another city, if I wanted a proper check-up.
In the afternoon I felt better. Not sure if it was because of the IV fluid or because the malaria attack was in cycles. But maybe I did not have malaria… I also wanted to believe I had JUST a virus.
In the evening we took the bus to our next destination, Kotor, which was also the city with the proper hospital. In case I would feel sick again, at least I could receive proper medical care.
I woke up the next day. Fever scan under the armpit. No fever. Great. Let’s go have some breakfast and explore the town. When the food came, I suddenly lost appetite. I could only eat fruits. But felt ok.
At noon, we took a boat tour to explore the Bay of Kotor. Shortly after the tour started, my fever and the splitting headache started as well. “No, no, no, no, no, no, not this again! Not now at least.” And it was hot outside and the boat was floating and I was miserable again. I couldn’t wait for this tour to finish. I did not see anything.
When I got back to the hotel, I dreadfully looked at the thermometer and read 39.6. Two more Paracetamols and a cold shower. After I felt a bit better, we went to the hospital.
The proper hospital had a separate entrance with the suggestive panel: “For foreign patients only”. I knew already that I should expect higher prices. I was right. 130 Euros for a simple consultation, but the doctors worked only until 2 PM. I was there at 4 PM! Basically, I couldn’t do any blood tests or checkups, but I still had to pay 130 Euros if I wanted someone to have a look at me and tell me what I already knew.
I had an urge to cry. “How am I going to survive another 24h with this insupportable fever and headache? If it’s malaria, this could be life-threatening!” At least the next day we were flying back. That gave me hope. But would I be able to make it to the airport? I wanted to escape that country. I felt trapped. In Europe!
We returned to the hotel. I was exhausted. Until next morning I was in a lethargic state, trying to sleep to escape the reality. The fever cycles became much more frequent and my anxiety too… “What is going to happen to me?”
The day we traveled back, was the most difficult, for the following reasons:
1. I had to take two flights to go back home. TWO!
2. I was on a standby ticket since I was using my flight attendant benefits.
3. The flights were showing both full.
4. I had to pretend I’m healthy so they don’t offload me. Sick passengers are never welcomed on the flights.
5. I was far, very far from healthy.
Tivat airport is very small. The place was packed like sardines when we reached there. The queue to our check-in counter was long. “I just need one seat, pretty please. I hope the plane is big enough to fit everyone” – was praying in my head, whilst more and more people with big suitcases lined up.
“The flight is overbooked, Madame. Go take Montenegro airlines.” – replied coldly the bored woman behind the check-in desk, whilst I was trying to pull a smile. I felt my fever reaching 50. There was no way I could take Montenegro airlines, which flight was in 12 hours.
As per the procedure, the bored woman put me on standby and told me to come back when they were about to close the check-in. Maybe, there will be a no-show. At the same time, I was trying to look at the alternatives. The other 3 flights to Moscow were also overbooked. Ok, maybe other connecting cities: Geneva, Bratislava and that’s it. Not many options for a small airport and the few flights they had, were all overbooked.
Last resort, I would stay in this hopeless city, go back to the proper hospital (where, by the way they couldn’t test me for malaria, the test was available only in the capital), pay the goddamned 130 Euros if not more if I get hospitalized, and do some blood tests or something, preferably before an IV. I could have reached there by 2PM when the doctors were still there. This was the worst-case scenario. In reality, I was desperate to leave that country. So I started to pray in my mind for a no-show. I suddenly became religious and remembered about my little angel… “Are you there? Can you hear me? Can you help me? I need to make it back home, or…”
One hour later, the bored woman called me. “There is a no-show. We can put you on this flight. Do you have any bags to check-in?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but I also didn’t want to be happy until I took off. We got our boarding passes and quickly rushed through the security checks. I reached the boarding gate and sat on the floor. I felt happy, sick and tired.
One more mini-mission – survive the boarding! Since it was a small airport, there were no airbridge or buses to take us to the plane. We had to walk on the tarmac in 40 degrees Celsius outside. 40 degrees outside plus 39 inside! I felt so weak. “Just don’t faint here. You can make it to the door plane. It’s close.” – was repeating the mantra to myself.
I made it. I sat down and closed my eyes. Shortly we took off. “Thank you, my little angel. Now I can be sick in peace”. I didn’t have to pretend I’m healthy anymore. I slept all 3,5 h flight to Moscow. After I landed there, I felt quite normal again. Not sure if it was the pills, the sleep or the thought that I’m on my way home, but I felt Ok and the fever was gone.
On the next flight, I even ate and watched a movie. “Maybe it’s all gone…” – I thought. However, I still wanted to go to the hospital the next day to check what was with all this fever and headache for 3 days.
My doctor’s appointment was at 2 PM the following day. Just before that, the fever and headache came back again, even stronger than before. I felt like my head was a landmine ready to explode at any time. And the tension around the eyes and forehead… That tension… I didn’t know a headache can be so intense.
The doctor measured my temperature. It was high. She told me to do a blood test and go home. I was a bit surprised. How could she send me home with this high fever? I guess it would take a while to know the results. So I did what the doctor said because we always do what the doctor say. I went home.
Meanwhile, my fever raised even higher, my headache stronger, my friends were all flying and that was the first time I burst in tears. This was the moment when I received that phone call telling me my diagnosis. “Are you able to go NOW to the hospital or you need someone to help you?” – asked over the phone, the person who communicated me the diagnosis. Amongst my crying tears, I said: “I think I can…”. In 15 min I was at the hospital. I see the people in white coats. I still feel miserable but I am safe now. I surrender. The worst is behind… Or, maybe not?
Did I say the worst was behind? Well, if you look at the 3 nightmare days I had in Montenegro, living with those horrendous symptoms; not knowing what exactly was happening to me or how urgent it was; trying desperately to get some medical help; trying to hold on to fly back; yes, it was hard mostly from a psychological point of view. I had to be strong. I had to hope for the best.
From a physical perspective, the worst were the first days in the hospital. I was in good hands already, but at this time my sickness reached the peak. That’s when nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding… all kicked in, on top of the fever, which by the way lasted for another 5 days. I looked yellow. I couldn’t eat anything for a week. I survived on watermelon and pineapple. That was all that my body could process. Simple tasks like taking a shower or making it to the bathroom, which was five steps away from my bed, required gathering the energy from all the corners of my body.
How fragile can a human body be! How in a few days you can go from running to lying down like a vegetable.
How fragile can a human body be… But also, how strong can a human body be! On the 5th day, my fever was almost gone. And together with the fever, the headache as well. I started to get out of the bed and move around slowly. I was left now with anemia.
What malaria does to your body, is destroying your red blood cells. Doctors told me that my hemoglobin level decreased below the acceptable level, so I might have needed a blood transfusion. Blood transfusion! I thought they did this only in extreme life-threatening situations.
The doctors were also quite reluctant about this procedure. After discussing amongst them, they decided to put me on steroids. It worked. After a steroid injection, my hemoglobin level increased the next day. I also felt more alert. Soon, I was sent home to recover.
The first week at home, I felt quite dizzy and had slight difficulty in breathing. Clearly, not enough oxygen in my blood. My heart rate would increase over 100 as soon as I climbed a few stairs. I tried to eat foods rich in iron and rest as much as I could.
The next blood tests showed that my bone marrow, the one responsible for producing new red blood cells, was working much better and my hemoglobin increased greatly. After three more weeks, I was completely healthy. Just like before. Back to old Natalia. Full of life.
The moral of this story
I never asked: “Why me…?” Moreover that luckily, malaria is a treatable disease, IF detected early. I believe that everything that happens to us in our lives, good or bad, are lessons, reminders, experiences.
Having malaria, reminded me not only how important is our health, but also how miraculously are we built as human beings. Our bodies are like the Phoenix bird that can regenerate from ashes. And for this I am grateful. Beyond.
On the other hand, I realized how little attention or respect we pay to our bodies. We feed them crap sometimes, we overeat, we push them to the limits (I plead guilty myself always pushing it with all my traveling, despite my tiredness), we stress them with fears and anxieties. We never listen to our body, when he tells us to stop. Until one day, it simply crashes. “Told ya to stop!”
After seeing what my body can do for me, I want to pay him back, I want to help him stay healthy and strong, I want to hear him and thank him every day for hosting my soul.
Another thing that I learned from my malaria experience, is about safe traveling. I travel so much around the world that I became almost ignorant to all the health dangers that are out there. Yes, I heard about malaria before, about Dengue fever and so many other illnesses. But, what are the odds they would happen to me? Until it did happen to ME. Furthermore, whilst I was in the hospital, there were two other cases of malaria from the same destination I have flown to.
My advice for travelers would be to inform themselves about a destination before they travel there and take the necessary precautions. Do not neglect it. Malaria is not only in Africa. It’s in Asia, in Carribeans, actually in 103 countries across the globe. That’s a lot! If malaria is not detected early enough, it can lead to serious life-threatening complications and even death.
My case had a happy ending, but I heard and read terrible stories… So, take care of your health! We all know it’s the most precious thing we have.
Last but not least, my Montenegro vacation was a fiasco. Instead of a magnet, I came back home with a fever scan, which I hope I will never have to use it again.