In my altered state of malaria-induced fogginess, New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport presented itself as an oblong-shaped mass of concrete and steel, a visually skewed version of the modern airport we had walked through only days earlier.
Stepping from the car to the curb, the world spiraled and collapsed around me. I felt nausea wash over me like a monsoon cloudburst. Bathed in sweat and with head spinning, I crouched and wrapped my arms around a nearby pole for support and drew short, shallow breaths, staring at the sidewalk below me outside of Terminal 3….
Mm…that’s better. I think I can walk now…and I began to rise…
“Honey…. look into my eyes….”, said the voice, vaguely familiar but out of context. Oh, it’s Gabi. Why am I looking up at her? And who is splashing water on my head, and who is slapping my face? What the hell’s going on?
Someone helped me sit up and propped me against a steel fence behind me, wrestling my backpack off and to the ground next to me.
The ground? I’m on the ground? What the…
A group of men had gathered, some on mobile phones and one handing me a bottle of water. I sipped it, grinned and told them I was fine. And I looked at Gabi, her face contorted in an expression somewhere between horror and loss.
I had passed out, claimed by fatigue, dizziness and dehydration brought on by what turned out to be a double dose of malaria. Two airport doctors appeared, took my vital signs and asked me some medical history questions.
The group of men had stopped slapping and throwing water on me, which I accepted as a distinct improvement. They stood around me, smiling. More random Indian kindness. I sipped some water and tried to shake the fog from my head.
A wheelchair appeared, and after receiving clearance from the doctors Gabi and I were fast-tracked past the lines of people and into the terminal.
“Wait,” said the porter pushing the wheelchair. “The man who gave you the water. He wants 10 Rupees for the water.” Gabi rushed back and gave the guy a note, and we burst into laughter.
Perfect, and so typical of India: The kindness and compassion are free, but water costs money, in this case about 15 cents.
This all began two days earlier, when Gabi and I were in Bikaner, Rajasthan. On the way back to bed after a 2 a.m. bathroom call, a round of chills and shivers wracked me without warning. It was my own personal earthquake, a teeth-rattling, muscle-twitching marathon that seemed to go on forever.
Food poisoning, I thought, as I climbed beneath the sheets and crawled next to Gabi for warmth. The beer you had for dinner, Gabi offered, pointing out that breaching my “no alcohol” lifestyle had probably not been the best idea for the previous night’s dinner.
Each round of chills was followed by a sweat bath worthy of a wrestler trying to make weight. I soaked through pillows and sheets in seconds as the sweat dripped from my hair and into the bed. A pulsating headache settled into a rhythm and a persistent backache that felt like I’d been kidney punched rounded out the charming symptoms.
Dengue Fever? I’ve had it twice, and this felt something like Dengue yet with more chills and bigger sweats. And this lacked the ubiquitous aches that give Dengue its nickname of “breakbone fever.” A bit of online research convinced me: Malaria.
Energy drained from me as fast as my appetite left, and the generous breakfast that came with the room had no appeal for me the next morning. I nibbled some toast and drank a cup of tea, preparing myself for the day ahead.
We faced a nine-hour train ride to New Delhi later that morning, and we were to be picked up at the hotel by auto rickshaw in half an hour. Then a 45-minute to the station, followed by the typical chaos that one encounters entering an Indian train station, finding the right track, train and car, and locating your berth.
Mine was once again the top berth in a forward car. After sitting with Gabi for half an hour, I climbed into the berth, wrapped myself in the worn but clean sheets that came with the second-class ticket, and disappeared into a prolonged daze. I sweat, shivered and eased in and out of sleep for the next eight or so hours, miserable, hot and cold at the same time, arriving into the New Delhi train terminal to the vision of the vast slum around the train station.
Looking through the window at the endless poverty, I thought: “And I think I have problems?”
My strategy was to get to a hospital in New Delhi the next morning. For guidance we relied on the advice of our new friends Pushp and Vinita, who owned the B&B where we were staying. Pushp took us to the hospital and walked us in, finally and reluctantly leaving after I assured him I was capable of making my way through the Indian healthcare system.
“Don’t let them admit you. They’ll try to admit you,” he warned and left.
His warning turned out to be a prescient vision of a scene worthy of a Saturday Night Live skit.
The clinic’s doctor was a portly man in a stained short-sleeved shirt sitting behind a rusty steel desk, his open briefcase bursting with papers, a mobile phone and several half-eaten packages of cookies. Ignoring me, he shuffled some papers and mumbled unintelligibly, reminiscent of my grandfather’s muttering and grumbling as he slipped into his afternoon naps on his breezeway.
But our good doctor was conscious. Sort of. He looked up and seemed shocked to see me sitting before him.
“With your permission,” he said, tossing the papers into his briefcase and grabbing his phone in his pudgy fingers. “I must make an urgent phone call. A very important call.” Of course, I nodded, and he proceeded, for the next five minutes or so, to speak in cryptic English to some bureaucrat at the Ministry of Self-Congratulatory Awards or whatever as he worked to make sure his application to receive an award of excellence was on time.
Are you frigging kidding me? I thought to myself. This is nuts. Urgent business? And here I’d thought there was a medical matter at hand. This health care visit wasn’t looking great.
His urgent business finished, Dr. Don’t Care transposed the computer-printed personal information about me on the back of the form I’d presented, carefully writing and speaking aloud the details in a duplicative process that began to gnaw at my patience as the minutes ticked by.
He asked me some questions about my medical history and then got around to inquiring about my symptoms. He scribbled as I spoke, and I realized he was writing a list of prescriptions before so much as taking my pulse. Antibiotics, anti-nausea medication, Tylenol…
“I think you should be admitted to the hospital,” he said, and I waved him off, wary of the quackery before me and unconvinced that there was any medicine to be practiced here. He shrugged and continued to write and mumble.
“…patient must take temperature every six hours and write on piece of paper.”
This charade continued for another few minutes, and then he waved to an examination table covered with crumpled paper that in my experience is typically torn off and tossed with each new patient.
Not so here, just as my portly physician dispensed with the formality of washing his hands. No worries, I thought: Death by cookie crumb infection is highly unlikely.
He listened to my heartbeat, roughly shoving my chin northward when I twice turned my head to the side, probed my chest and abdomen and asked me if I had a headache.
“Horrible,” I said as I lay before him, looking up. “I feel as if my head’s going to explode.”
Without warning, he grabbed my noggin on either side and bounced it on the exam table as if testing a melon for ripeness. Too shocked to object or stop him, I was further distressed when he did it again, as if to prove a point.
Exam concluded, I sprang nimbly from the table and raced to the safety of the chair with the desk between us: A rusted moat of protection from a chubby doctor with sugar crystals stuck to his fingers.
He wrote orders for a blood test, but I’d seen and had had enough of the Max Super Specialty Hospital (I am not making up this name). Within minutes Gabi and I were out the door, 1,100 Rupees (about $19) lighter but with my head and dignity intact.
We were soon at a Starbucks in a nearby mall, and within an hour I’d booked flights to Bangkok and to the safety of Bumrungrad International Hospital’s excellent doctors, nurses and facilities.
The next day’s episode at the airport was awful, the flight horrible, but it was all worthwhile when, at around 9 p.m. on Monday, I fell into the care of the Bumrungrad emergency room staff. They took my vitals, confirmed my suspicions of malaria with their own and then took blood samples to confirm it, and admitted me for what turned out to be 72 hours that licked my malaria and sent me on my way.
And they did all this without bouncing my head on the exam table. And with nary a cookie in sight.