Being Sick and Getting Better

It’s taken a couple of weeks, but I’m myself again. For what that’s worth. I could feel it especially as I walked uphill to get home last night with a rather full backpack. The hike felt easy, though it was hot. There were none of the struggles or the perceived need to pace myself that I had been feeling of late. This morning I tore down the mountain at the pace that some neighbors tease me about.

I’ve been very lucky about my health in Haiti. I’m not very careful about what I eat or drink, and I spend lots of time in the sometimes-chaotic traffic that fills Port au Prince streets and getting whacked around on the none-too-smooth roads across the haiitan countryside. But, on the whole, my health has been excellent. I’m rarely under the weather, even for a day. My most serious injuries have been cuts on the top of my head – from foolishly jumping onto a moving tap-tap – and on my shin – I fell backwards off a rock I was climbing. Both healed promptly without further consequences. As I say, I’ve been lucky.

So when fever hit a couple of weeks ago, I felt not only miserable, but a little dumbfounded. I was in Mibale, at the tail end of a long, varied, and busy trip through the Central Plateau. And by midway through a Wednesday morning, I could think of nothing but lying in bed. I had a high fever, with all the associated aches in all parts of my body, and a deep cough to boot.

It had been a hard few days. Part of the trip had involved long rides on the back of a motorcycle along roads made extra dusty by a prolonged draught. I can tend to be a little asthmatic here in Haiti, but normally an inhaler is perfectly adequate as treatment. But the dust on the Central Plateau affected me badly. The inhaler stopped helping. There’s a very effective, Haitian-made pill to treat asthma, and I started taking one each day. It has insomnia as a side-effect, though, so I started to lose a lot of sleep. Tuesday night I couldn’t get any sleep at all. By midnight, I gave into the wakefulness. I decided I could make use of it to finish a large piece of editorial work I had hanging over me. Mibale is quite different from most of Haiti in at least one respect: It has electricity all the time, 24/7. So I finished the work around 7:30, and e-mailed it off by 8:00 or so. Then I went straight back to bed. I felt miserable.

I was in Mibale for a couple of reasons. It had been a base from which I could visit Fonkoze’s newest branch in Beladè, a small city near the Dominican border. There I was scheduled to meet with representatives of the Dominican office of an important funder of Fonkoze’s literacy projects, Plan International. Plan’s team wanted to bring a representative from Fonkoze to their new office in Elias Piña, the Dominican city across from Beladè, to talk with Dominican microfinance institutions. Plan likes Fonkoze’s approach, and was wondering whether we could help them push their potential Dominican partners closer to it.

In Mibale itself, I was scheduled to visit a workshop for Fonkoze members who would be leading meetings of other women from their credit centers as they studied Fonkoze’s very popular, four-month unit on Sexual and Reproductive Health. The week-long workshop was being led by Freda Catheus, Fonkoze’s main trainer of discussion leaders for the unit. She was also working with another woman who is apprenticing with her as a trainer of discussion leaders, so investing a day of so in observing their work seemed like a great idea.

But when I returned to my hotel room after sending off my e-mail, a hotel room in the very same center that was hosting the workshop, there was no question of observing anything. Everything ached, I couldn’t think of eating, and I felt as though I was burning up. Mystal, the Fonkoze staff member who had made the trip to Beladè with me, immediately got to work. He went out and bought several bottles of very cold drinking water, and delivered it from downtown Mibale to the room we were sharing. When Emile, the Fonkoze education coordinator who had organized the workshop, arrived, he took action as well. By then, Mystal had been forced to leave. He had a day’s work to do in the branch in nearby Boukan Kare. Emile got the workshop started, and then went back downtown in search of pills.

He came back with ibuprofen in a wide range of strengths and with chloroquin. The latter is the standard treatment in Haiti for malaria, which is often the assumed cause of a high fever. I think that, at that point, one could have done whatever one wanted with me.

But the one thing I couldn’t do was eat, and the one thing I wanted was to get back to Kaglo. A Fonkoze truck was scheduled to return to Pòtoprens from Beladè via Mibale, and I prepared myself to make the trip with them. Meanwhile Emile, Freda, and Malya, who was her assistant for the workshop, took turns sitting with me as we waited. The workshop continued on the other side of a thin concrete wall from me. It seemed to go well.

Late in the day, it became clear that my hoped-for ride from Fonkoze would not materialize. The truck had gone to Beladè to bring a team that was helping with the opening of the new branch, and they had a lot of work to do. They didn’t get back to Mibale until after dark, but by late afternoon it was clear that they wouldn’t be back in time to return to Pòtoprens. The next day, Thursday, the team took the truck back to Beladè. They had more work to do. They said they would pick me up on their way back to Pòtoprens. They promised they would be going that day.

That evening, Emile and Mystal talked seriously about taking me to the hospital. If they had had a car available, I might have let them do it, but I couldn’t imagine mounting the back of Emile’s motorcycle. The hospital they had in mind was in Laskawobas, and though the road from Mibale to Laskawobas is excellent, the ride seemed like it would be much too much. Freda sent off to buy key limes. Lime juice was the only thing that appealed to me. In fact, I craved it terribly.

When I got up the next morning, I felt a little better, and when I thought of waiting most of the day to return to Pòtoprens with Fonkoze, I blanched. I decided instead to pack my things and walk downtown to take a midmorning bus. I took a seat on the bus, and waited as it started to fill up. A bus won’t normally leave until it is full, and filling up a big bus can take time. By the time this bus was ready to go, I couldn’t not imagine what could have convinced me that I’d be able to make the rough three-hour trip alone, in the large bus, with its blaring music. Still worse, on arrival in Pòtoprens, I’d have to walk through the crowded market in Kwadeboukèt to get a tap-tap to Delma, from which I could get another to Petyonvil. It would be a lot of moving around with a backpack that held ten days worth of clothes, books and a laptop, and I was starting to feel weak and feverish again. I got down of the bus, and went back to bed.

Mid-afternoon, the truck returned from Beladè, and we headed back to Pòtoprens. When we got to the city, we dropped off the other Fonkoze staff members at their homes, and then Rodrigue, the driver, took me to my godson’s house off of Delma 75. There we picked up my godson’s Uncle Job, a fourth-year med student, and Rodrigue took us both all the way up to Kaglo.

Job came up with all his medical equipment. He took my temperature, listened to my heart and lungs, poked and probed, looked in my eyes and ears. He even took a bit of blood, and tested it for something. He voiced a couple of suspicions, but immediately added that, if I was up to it, he would take me to a lab in Petyonvil the next morning for tests. By then, I was already feeling much better, just a little weak. That weakness, both physical and mental, lasted over a week.

The lab tests didn’t show much: no malaria, no parasites. Lots of white blood cells, suggesting they were fighting some kind of invasive presence, and low protein, suggesting bad eating habits. Job suggested paying more attention to making sure I eat decently and taking vitamins. He also said I should get more rest. Meanwhile, my neighbor Madanm Boby, who knows a lot about medicinal teas, starting producing them in quantity for me every day. Between rest, the teas, and forcing myself to eat even when I had no appetite, things eventually go back to normal.

It was a hard couple of days. Being sick is never fun, but it’s probably a little harder when you’re out of your native element. At the same time, I was struck by the extent to which the things that make it easier to be sick at home were true for me here in Haiti. I have my own doctor, Job, and a striking array of colleagues and friends who immediately huddled around me when they heard that I was unwell. Madanm Boby turned into a tea factory, and the only thing that get Madanm Anténor out of the action was that she was off visiting her sister in the Dominican Republic. When she learned I had been sick behind her back, she was horrified. My colleagues at Fonkoze could not have huddled around me more closely than they did.

Having been down for a couple of days only served to reaffirm the very great degree to which I am now at home in Haiti.