November 17, 2008
“You have pus in your stool,” the poker-faced nurse broadcast to me and everyone in the waiting room. So much for patient confidentiality. Then I figured, hell, everyone sitting here probably has pus in their stool or worms or some other embarrassing African affliction.
It all started Saturday morning, I woke up with a splitter of a headache, the kind that leads you to believe that you have a brain tumour at the very least. I was disappointed in myself, figuring that the jackhammering inside my skull was from the two beers I had the night before. Maredy had dropped in, and the house was already full with two Tanzanians, a Rwandan from the Dian Fossey Foundation, two Aussie girls who had been evacuated from Goma due to civil unrest, Debby and a Swiss carpenter. The banter ping-ponged back and forth over stale Doritos and the beers were sliding down easily with the laughter. We decided to order pizza (yes, you can actually do that here!) It’s guaranteed to be ready in 20 minutes, but you don’t actually see it for two hours. We moved our party of many languages to the balcony where the sky over the lake flickered with distant lightning.
The pizza tasted like home, and I ate half, dazzled by the stars and the conversation that moved from ghosts to Sarah Palin to Vegemite (which I still strongly believe tastes like bad breath and dead things). One by one we made our way to our mozzie nets, and tucked in.
Come morning, I blamed the 500ml beers. I still ran, thinking the lake air would blow my stink off. And then it all crept up on me, chills, sweats, chills, sweats. Still, I ignored everything, thinking I ran too hard on such a blazing hot day. I packed my bag for the beach, tucking in my journal and a copy of The Glass Castle.
My god, walking to Anderita beach was like crossing the Sahara. Soooo far. My legs were cramping up. I arrived at the beach, chugged a tonic water and slid out of my beach chair onto the sand because I couldn’t sit upright any longer. This was an odd sight, because Anderita Beach is actually a restaurant/bar, and locals don’t exactly lay down supine to tan. I didn’t have a care in the world, I could not stay awake. I woke up an hour later with a soccer match going on around my head, and five kids looking at me quite strangely.
I had to get home. The sand was sticking to me everywhere, and I just let it fall off as I walked further. Home, home, home. Why didn’t I pack my ruby slippers? My brain was too big for my skull, my calves were spun tight– like when you try to point your toes doing an underwater handstand and you instantly cramp up. But, then I saw her. She was wearing a tattered, dusty margarine yellow Communion-type dress. Her flip-flops were a little too big, and she had sweat on her brow. She would take five steps with her bag, then drop it, switch arms, and repeat. As shitty as I felt, I would have felt worse passing her by. She offered her name, “Winnie,’’ and that she was nine-year’s old… but that was it. I offered to help her with her bag and she looked at me with great hesitation. I told her I was a friendly Canadian, told her my name, Jules. She repeated, “Juice.” (I am Juice here, and it’s growing on me. Move over Juice Newton). I finally grabbed hold of the bag and Winnie pointed where to go. The bag had pumpkins in it, potatoes, and rocks perhaps. It was fucking heavy, probably 20-25 pounds, and she had come from the market which meant she had already carried it 2km or so. We turned down Lugard, Winnie offering me the odd shy smile, but, not into the small talk so much. We passed the Jane Goodall office and I wondered what I had committed myself to. Where the hell did she live? We started down the road to the military base and she started hopscotching. Her brothers and sisters ran towards her (all six of them), squealing. I was not squealing, I was wanting to whimper and not throw up. We reached the military base gate and suddenly Winnie spoke fluent English, ‘’you cannot come through here.’’ She reached for the bag and carried on. Imagine, being nine and hauling pumpkins 5 km for your family. The poor thing. It was good to feel sorry for someone other than myself.
By nightfall, I was a wreck, sweating like McCain on election night. I sweat so profusely it was seeping into the mattress. Then, shivers, like I was lying on an ice floe. I wondered about malaria, I thought awful, delirious thoughts—meningitis, yellow fever… I really hoped I wouldn’t die in my sleep. My skin hurt, my hair hurt—I just couldn’t stand being in my own body. I stuck my iPod in my ear to distract myself and woke up paranoid that I may inadvertently strangle myself doing such a thing. I told Debbie to check on me in the morning, to make sure I didn’t slip into a cerebral malaria coma, and I started having those terrifying dreams where you are sleeping in your dream, and can’t wake up. Oh, agony.
Debbie found me coma-less in the morning and said I needed to go to the clinic. I willed myself into a standing position after about an hour. You know when you’re so sick that it takes every effort just to roll over? Yeah, this was my sorry-sack self. The clinic is in Kampala of course, which meant a bumpy one hour race against the bodas and matatus into the capital city.
I sat in the cool of the clinic (called The Surgery, which is a bit intimidating!), an algae-covered fish tank burbling behind me. Debbie read every magazine in the rack except the one in Dutch. I sat and stared at someone’s foot across from me, like someone with dementia. Finally, the doctor called me twice, “Kathleen? Kathleen Torti?” Well, I didn’t realize we were on a middle-name basis, nobody calls me that. “ You make pee, and you make stool.’’ She handed me two cups, talk about demanding. Now I know how guys feel at sperm donor clinics—and I wouldn’t have minded a Playboy either.
She checked my tendon reflexes and tested for meningitis. “Is your neck stiff?” Well, it was, but, how stiff is stiff? Everything felt awful. I made her do the test again and she said, “you no have. Go make stool, it will tell.”
So, I made stool, on command and peed, as requested. She seemed pleased and asked me another battery of questions. “ You must have Rickettsia.” I wanted to laugh out loud because I always tell Wanda that living in BC is giving me Ricketts with the monsoon rains and no sun. Ricketts didn’t seem right though. ‘’Tick Bite Fever.” Debbie was convinced I had malaria, so tick bite fever was a bit of a curve ball. My malaria test was negative, but it was pink… was I pregnant too? Immaculate African conception?
The doctor invited me to come back for stool results, and handed me a bill. Only $50 bucks, and surprisingly, the 10 day prescription was only a dollar! What a deal! I trudged out to the truck to see what kind of results Andrea had received (one of the Goma evacuees). She too had to do a stool but couldn’t do it on demand, and wanted to eat something first. So, while I perspired and awaited death or carjacking in the truck with open windows, Debbie, Andrea and Nick (Swiss guy who just wanted to come for the ride) had lamb biryani in the mall food court. Andrea still couldn’t will herself to go so we turned around for home. I was told to go back the following day anyway, especially if my neck became stiffer.
Saturday night was more of the same. Dreadful sweats, fretting about comas and my neck getting stiffer, curling up like a shrimp and trying to think of sugar and spice and everything nice. Debbie said we would go at noon which left me all morning to crawl to the shower and try to ingest toast.
‘’You have pus in your stool.” There was no ‘’hello’’ or ‘’how are you today?’’ –the doctor just called my name (Ms. Tort-eye this time), we took one step from the waiting room and she told me all about my stool sample. ‘’You have put feces in your mouth.” What? She told me with all the charm of a person who doesn’t have time to smile, that I had a major bacterial infection—Shigella. Somewhere, I had touched shit and then put it in my mouth. How horrifying! It could have been a doorknob, contaminated water, sharing my laptop (back off Shigella-giving co-workers!), unsanitary conditions in food preparation (duh)… there were so many possibilities. Andrea tried to reassure me by telling me that in the Congo the women put money up their bums to hide it from their husbands, so maybe I got it from handling money even. Great, I am using Visa from now on and only eating things out of tins and vacuum-sealed packages. I am on such high alert for fecal matter now. I don’t get it, I already wash my hands as often as Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets!
Does my lip balm have fecal matter in it? Will anyone kiss me ever again with my potty mouth? This Shigella could have terrible consequences. Oh, and does it. I took my new drug to combat the Shigella because the Tick Bite diagnosis was a hoax and learned that I am now prone to fainting spells and shitting my pants. The drug that is supposed to help diarrhea may actually cause it. On a positive note, the Norfen meds will also help treat gonorrhea. So, if I’m up to it tonight, and feeling frisky, I am in the good with at least one STD (don’t worry mom, I’m joking).
And so my love for Africa pales a little. I miss sanitized things. I suppose you can get Shigella at Starbucks on Burrard street even, but, at least you could suffer in your own home. This is when I miss my wife, who would be the most attentive nurse running banana popsicles and flat gingerale to my bedside. She’d make homemade chicken soup (and force-feed me until I threw up, but, still, it would be with the kindest intentions) and Bently would keep watch over me while I was sleeping (until he fell asleep). It seems odd to miss your toilet, but I do. I know exactly how many asses have been on it and that we are a Shigella-free household with liquid soap at the ready on every countertop.
I miss my bed too. This European Foam job that I’m sleeping on is like lying in quicksand. I fall to sleep in a shrimp ball, and wake up like that because I have sunk into such a deep impression. Tempur mattress it is not, there is no spring-back NASA technology. I am sinking into above-mentioned ‘’mattress’’ right now, dreaming of my massage therapist at home and a chiropractic adjustment.
I am fond of many parts of Africa, but, I am also quite fond of my health. I look forward to anti-bacterial, bleached and starchy Canada.
Until then, I will try not to put anymore shit in my mouth.