The Meanderthals

The Dengue diary

Feeling a bit stung by the previous night’s oyster and wine extravaganza with Gabi, I wasn’t surprised to be a bit shy of optimum performance. 

But that lower back pain, poking at me as we walked back from Ptsar O’Russey…and so tired. Hmmmm…So, after breakfast, a short trip to the bike shop to buy a lock and a spiritless brief stint at the local casino, I head home to lick my wounds and get over what I thought was a mild hangover.

By late afternoon, every bone, every muscle and every joint in my body ached. I was a mass of pain. It hurt to sit. To read. To move. To breathe. After dinner, I settled into the sofa for a movie and an evening of recovery. It’ll pass, I tried to convince myself, though a bit troubled by the jabbing pains behind my eyes.

By the next morning, trouble had arrived with a vengeance. And oh, man. My eyeballs, reliable allies for over 50 years, have suddenly turned against me. They used to be my friends; now they torment me. Bloodshot and throbbing, they’re pulsating sources of agony. 

I seem surrounded by 100 tiny invisible men armed with one-pound rubber mallets. Each wails relentlessly on a joint or muscle group, and one of the tiny assassins has his way on my eye sockets, making it impossible to move my eyes without acute pain. Come out where ever you are, you merchants of yourselves and fight like, well, the virus that you are.

Sleep comes easily and frequently. But ah, the nightmares. Horrible, vivid scenes of destruction, dismemberment and debauchery. I won’t go into details, but the clarity of these night visits made sleep even less appealing. Besides, I’m drinking gallons of water and have to pee every 15 minutes. It hurts to pace, so I lie in bed, sweating and making sleep also impossible for Gabi. As she does with everything else, she takes it in stride.

After 48 hours of self-diagnosis (i.e., reading voraciously online) I know it’s Dengue. Headache: check. Joint pains: check. High fever: check. Fatigue: Oh, yeah. The trouble with reading this stuff is you go right to the “possible complications and indications” part, and before I’ve booked an appointment with the SOS Clinic around the corner from our house I figure I am hemorrhaging and nearly on my way to Bangkok for emergency treatment. 

A quick blood test confirms Dengue and the staff at SOS put me on two bags of IV to get my hydration level up and pack me off to the observation ward to chill out and relax. 

Which his easier said than done.

Can’t read, as my eyes are on strike. Dehydration is giving my kidneys fits, and my back feels as though some Cambodian kickboxer has booted me into the cheap seats. My wrists ache, and my temples throb. I am starting to obsess – what else is there to do? I am aware of every new ache and pain as this weird illness winds its way through my unfortunate body. 

I make my way nearly through the entire Martin Scorsese Collection that Gabi gave me for Christmas, and it’s only Day Three. I check online to be sure: typical Dengue visit is 7-15 days. I’m pushing for the short version.

Next day at the clinic the nurse jabs me again for a blood sample and an hour later I learn that my platelet levels are improving but still aren’t great, and that I’m to return in two days to check again. I am banished to the sofa to graze the TV, listen to Hun Sen speeches that dominate daytime TV, sweat and wait it out. 

Gabi, dear heart, arrives at the end of every afternoon with big smiles, comforting words and ideas for food that might offset my diminishing appetite. It works every time, along with the anti-nausea meds courtesy of SOS.

Days slip by and the only time I venture from the apartment is to head to the clinic for blood tests, an IV and a chat with a friend who works there and helps get me in and out quickly. As days go by the pain migrates from head to toe and then….

It just stops.

On day six, having tossed most of the previous night through a sweat-soaked non-sleep, I awoke with my eyeballs intact and functional, my backache gone and my joints and muscles pain-free. A nasty red rash has arrived (as predicted by my reliable online sources) but I’ll take the itching over the throbbing any day.

Sensing recovery, I head out to buy a book to read and chocolates for my favorite nurse/wife/cook/friend. A 20 minute ride in a tuk tuk leaves me drenched with sweat, scurrying for the shower and eagerly looking forward to my spot on the sofa. Recovery, the online sites and my friends at SOS tell me, if a gradual process that must not be rushed.

Dengue affects more than 220 million people worldwide each year, causing most serious illness among the young and old. In Cambodia alone, 11 children died last month from Dengue hemorrhagic fever, the disease’s worst complication. A mosquito-borne infection, it is reportedly on the rise, yet another charming side effect of global warming. As still waters expand, so does breeding zones for the mosquitoes that carry the nasty bugs.

A nurse at SOS who used to work at Kanta Bopha hospital for children tells me that hospital staff stack three kids to a bed, all sufferering from Dengue and each sporting IV drips.

“I educated the people from the provinces to bring their children to the hospital when they have a fever,” she tells me. “If they wait, it is often too late for us to help.”

Dengue is less of a threat for healthy adults like me, and there’s further good news. Get this disease once, and your body builds an immunity to it that lasts for a year. A repeat infection, however, dramatically magnifies the odds for complications. Third time, I read, it’s very, very serious stuff.

I wonder how a child or elderly person in the provinces deals with this horrible disease. I wonder how many die from dehydration and lack of care. I am once again reminded me of my privilege, with easy access to great care and everything I could possibly need to get through this uneventfully. 

I vow to kill every  mosquito I lay my eyes on.

I read in Southeast Asia Globe that some French doctor has had a research breakthrough for what is quaintly referred to as “breakbone fever,” and that vaccine production is expected to begin by 2014. 

Sign me up.

One comment

  • Hi Frank and Gaby, This is an impressive experience report on dengue fever. Long time ago I worked in the tropical medical institute of the university Tuebingen and got aware how quickly and heavy these tropical diseases take over your body. Early medical treatment is really helpful but is not available for many people in the world. I hope that your well communicated experience of dengue fever supports faster medical help for those who need it. Glad you got over it and with you best for your health. Susanne

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