What I did over winter vacation part 2
At five my companions got up to continue their journey and I stayed there to rest. Before they left, they called the Peace Corps emergency number, waking up the lady who was filling in for the Peace Corps Medical Officers while they were on vacation. Her advice was to go to a hospital in Tzaneen, another city I had never been to. I was considering just going back to my site and resting, which probably would have been easier, and probably a very bad idea.
So a little before 10 o’clock I was feeling better, but I figured I should press on to the hospital anyway. I left a big tip because of the mess I made, and the lady at the desk gave me directions to Tzaneen: go to the road and get a ride.
I did that, but I wasn’t very good at it because it’s hard to hail a taxi while staring into the sun. When I finally succeeded, I told the driver I wanted to go to Tzaneen, but if he wasn’t going there, he could take me to the nearest rank. He said it would cost R30 to get to the nearest rank (that’s huge in my area) so he’d just drop me off at a road where I could catch another ride from there. This road must be a popular hitch-hiking area because there were cars waiting there to pick people up. I got in one with three other hitch-hikers and I tried to talk to the driver in Tshivenda but he wasn’t having any of it, because this was Tsonga country.
Well, it didn’t take long for me to start feeling sick again. I took out a Ziploc bag that I was using for holding toiletries in anticipation. The guy sitting in the back with me was staring at me and pretending not to. When I saw a shop by the side of the road, I told the driver to stop because I wanted to get some water and rest. The driver wanted R10 for having taken me that far. I reached for my wallet only to find that I couldn’t find it. I got out to search my bags, knowing that I wouldn’t find it there because I had just paid the taxi driver from before. The car drove off as I was still searching.
There were only three places where I could have lost my wallet: in the taxi after I paid the taxi driver, or on the short walk between the taxi and the car, or in the seat of the car, which might be why they drove off when they did. But thinking about that didn’t help. As I walked to the stop, I called the emergency duty line to explain my predicament.
“Look, I’m in a bad place here. I’m somewhere between Giyani and Tzaneen, and I lost my wallet,” I explained.
“Oh, rubbish,” was her reply. “I’ll inform our safety and security officer so he can come get you. Can you tell us what road you’re on?”
“I think the sign said R529.”
“Can you hear me? What road are you on?” By this time I had walked over to the shop, where apparently there is no cell phone reception. I hung up on the hopeless conversation and went to buy some water with the change in my pockets.
Naturally, despite the colorful paintings on the wall and the people in front of it, the store was closed. The only thing open in this little cluster was an auto parts store. “Hey, where can I buy some water?” I asked the people around me. They told me there was nothing like that here. I sat in the shade to rest up and plan my next move. I decided that once I was feeling better, I’d get back on the road and try to catch another ride.
As I was resting, a man came and brought me a glass of water. I explained my predicament to him as I counted the change in my pockets, which amounted to about R30. He and his family told me that they would help me get a ride to the hospital. So we went back to the other side of the road, and they started flagging down cars and explaining to them in Tsonga what I needed. I must have looked pretty unwell, because they even tried calling an ambulance, but there was still no cell phone signal. After about five cars, they found someone who would take me straight to the hospital in exchange for the change I was carrying.
The motion of the car made me throw up again, but I still had the bag ready. No one seemed bothered by this. The driver was able to get directions to the hospital at a filling station and he took me straight to the emergency unit. I walked in, penniless and still carrying a bag of bile, and the sisters gave me a bed there and threw away my bag. I think it says a lot about how I’ve adjusted as a PCV that I still wanted to keep the bag. They drew some blood and then stuck an IV line in my hand and started emptying bags of saline into my arm.
I was feeling pretty hungry by then, having not eaten anything since 2:00 the other day and having not kept any of that, so I asked for something easy to digest. They brought me ground beef in oil, with mashed potatoes and chopped vegetables. That might have been good any other day, but not then. Then the doctor came in, a black guy wearing a leather jacket, with an 18-year-old student following and observing everything he did. He drew the curtains and proceeded to poke me and ask me questions. When he was done, he sent the nurses and the student away. He leaned in and said in a low voice, “There’s one more thing I need to ask you. When is the last time you have been tested for HIV?”
I had to be tested last year before I could join the Peace Corps, and I told him so. “And what was the result?” he asked expectantly. Peace Corps doesn’t allow volunteers who test positive.
“So what’s wrong with me?” I asked the doctor.
“Oh, it’s definitely gastroenteritis,” he said as if that settled it.
I checked my phone and saw that I had an SMS from the medical officer asking where I was. I was typing my reply when she walked in with the safety and security coordinator. “I’m glad you made it here,” he told me, “but you could have stayed where you were and I would have come to get you.”
They stepped out to sort the paperwork and payment details. The nurses put me in a wheelchair and were about to admit me when the SSC stopped them. The new plan was since I didn’t have any money, they would take me to Pretoria where I would be closer to the hospital. I climbed in the van and lied down on the seat, my IV drip hanging from the notch made for coat hangers, and the medical officer holding onto it so it didn’t swing too much during the bumpy ride. At one point I got out at a rest stop, and I had to carry the IV bag above me as I went to the restroom.
While we were traveling, the medical officer explained to me that if I were really sick, they would take me to the hospital and admit me, but if not, they would take me to a guesthouse where I could rest. She then called the hospital in Tzaneen to ask about the results of the blood tests, and I forgot about it.
At about 10:00, we arrived at the hospital. Having remembered what she said about admitting me, I asked about the blood tests. “I’ll tell you soon,” she said. “Let’s get you inside for now.”
Once I was inside and in a bed, the medical officer spoke to the sisters. (Nurses here are called sisters, and instead of scrubs they wear military-looking uniforms. I’m not sure what men are called but they wear a lot of buckles.) She explained, “The levels of potassium and hemoglobin in his blood are low, and we tested him for malaria–”
“And the result was positive?” the sister said as if that would tie it all together.
“No, that was negative. But we want to do some more tests to make sure what it is.”
A physician came and started giving me the same examination as the doctor in Tzaneen. “Now, I see from your list of medications that you’re on malaria prophylaxis,” she told me. “And you forgot to take your pill last weekend, didn’t you?” Sorry as I was to disappoint, I had taken one, because although I had forgot to bring one, another volunteer gave me an extra. “Well, we’ll test you again, because I know malaria can be nasty up there.”
The medical officer, who had been up since 5, said she wanted to go home and get something to eat. So did I, but I didn’t say anything. She came back an hour later when the results were in. “You seem to have a bacterial infection,” the physician told me. “We’re not going to admit you, but you need to go get some rest.”
I got in the car with the SSC and he drove me to the guesthouse where PCVs who had been medically evacuated from other countries stayed. “You look tired,” he said.
“I am tired, but I’m also hungry.” I hadn’t had much nutrition in a long time, unless intravenous saline counts. So we stopped at McDonalds (just about the only thing open so late) and he bought me some burgers.
At the guesthouse, one of the housekeepers let me in to this elegant house where it looked like I was the only guest. It was almost midnight, so they told me they’d send a car at 11:00 to take me to the office for more exams. I ate a burger, crawled in my bed and slept.