The Terrible Awful. Getting Sick in Country.

10 Aug

I have the Goonfahn.

Now before you get all Ebola outbreak crazy on me and try to find the local equivalent of 911 (there isn’t one, sorry mom!), you should know what the goonfahn is. It’s terrible. It’s awful. It’s the common cold.

Tropical diseases tend to lend a sort of street cred: Malaria (ooh!), typhoid (ahh!), shitting your pants from amoebas or bacterial dysentery (3 times!). But the common cold? Buck up, Sarah. But seriously, I am going to prove to you that getting sick, just normal sick, nothing fancy, is automatically 12.3 times worse than it would be at home.

Here’s what I would do with a cold in the States: shoot some DayQuil and go on my merry way feeling about 75% normal. Here’s what happens with a cold in Ethiopia: shoot some DayQuil (courtesy of a care package), and stay bed ridden for three straight days cursing the gods, nature, and all things beautiful.

I’m thinking I got this bout of death from the mass of teenage girls I spent time with just about 2 weeks ago (suspicious!). One of the cutest, and most disgusting, parts of Ethiopian food culture is the gorsha, or feeding someone with your hands from your plate. Three gorshas are a charm, and mean someone loves you. I got a lot of love that week. I think next year they need to enforce a hand washing rule.

Good thing I didn’t have anything productive planned this week (sorry thesis). Here’s how this one snuck up on me.

Day 1 – I start to get a sore throat, but I’m already out and working so I order a ginger tea. A fellow volunteer is staying with me that night to catch a flight in the morning and we talk late into the night. Mistake.

Day 2 – I wake up unable to speak. My family calls at the usual time and I whisper through 12 minutes of conversation (normal talk time 30-40min) probably causing them to think I’m dying, hang up and go straight back to bed. Wake up and make tea, watch Vampire Diaries, nap, repeat. I feel guilty because at this point I only have a sore throat and I have zero energy.

Day 3 – Sleep in until 11am. No more guilt. Full blown achey, heachache, stuffed up, feel like an elephant with my head in an aquarium vengeance. I muster enough energy to head the 15 feet across the street to buy some bread. The store owner asks the typical Anchi dehna nesh? “Are you fine?” and I respond that “No, I am not fine, I am exhausted and I am sick with the goonfahn!” With a confused look, he continues to repeat the question until I finally answer appropriately. “I am fine!” cough cough. He hands me my bread with the parting words Ayzosh yaine lij  “Stay strong my child.” The conversation is so stereotypical I have to laugh/cough my way back across the street.  You could be literally dying in this country and someone would still answer that they are “fine.”

Day 4 – Progress! The cold has moved from my nose back to my throat, and I am in the super sexy phlembot tuberculosis coughing stage. Overnight however, my sinuses have conspired to attempt to push my eyeballs from my skull. A fellow volunteer calls to check up on me and I tell her to go to hell, her and her perfect health (she has a staph infection). I continue my trend of tea, nap, repeat.

I decide I need to actually make some food since I don’t have any stomach issues (knock on wood!) and my energy is awful. My daily ration of DayQuil, bananas, and crackers isn’t really sustaining… and I’m out of bananas and crackers. I opt for soup, also known as throw a bouillon cube in boiling water and call it a day.

Day 5 – Ok. Today is the day. I have dinner plans with some friends, and I have to at least attempt energy. I haven’t moved more than 15 feet from my house in three days, and tonight I have to extol the virtues of Gondar tourism to a Bradt Guide writer who is coming through town. I put in my contact lenses to at least pretend like I feel normal, though I’m pretty sure my bright red nose gives me away.

Day 6 – Feeling much better kas ba kas “slowly”. Though I still use the goonfahn as an excuse to get out of attending a fundraiser for a leadership group I have worked with. Hey, I might as well get something useful out of this cold.

Getting sick in country sucks, but I’d venture to say that sometimes the cure is worse. I have been lucky enough never to have to go to a clinic for personal reasons, but I also probably push the envelope on “I’ll just wait it out and see.” I’ve been generally fairly healthy during my two years here, minus a few nasty goonfahns, and some normal GI issues. But with the recent death of a volunteer in China, I’ve come to realize I probably should be a little more careful and honest with my medical team. When I came to mid-service conference about a year ago we had to have a meeting with the Peace Corps doctors. My chart was empty. Even though I had had multiple bouts of vomiting, shitting of the pants etc over 12 months, I had never bothered to call. I know that if I was ever in real trouble I would say so, but sometimes I understand the worry that going to hospitals in these countries is scarier than waiting it out.

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