I knew it was going to happen at some point in time. I remember joking about it with my friends at home before I left. I believe my exact words were, “I know I’m going to get really sick at least once.” Why would I say this? Well, it just seems like an inevitability when you are living in a developing country. The better question might be why would I have accepted this job and moved my life here when I knew that sickness was inevitable? Trust me, on Saturday afternoon I was asking myself that very question.
I suppose it all began on Friday at some point in time. I’m not exactly sure when, and I’m not exactly sure how, but what I do know is that I was fine on Thursday and most of Friday. I went for a jog on Friday evening (something I’ve been doing more and more frequently) and I remember thinking that I was much more tired than usual, but I chalked it up to the fact that I had done the same 7 km (3.5 of which are uphill in the Himalayas I might add) jog the day before and hadn’t gotten much rest in between. What does standout now, in hindsight, is that when I was stretching towards the beginning of my run, my balance was quite off, and I normally have quite good balance. Again, I chalked it up to exhaustion and pressed on. When I got home I was tired, but no more so than after any other run. My legs were also feeling a little stiff, but back to back runs can do that to you when are not yet used to jogging this frequently. I “bathed” (showered), changed into some fresh, clean clothes, and went to a restaurant with UK for dinner, as I was too tired to prepare anything myself.
I was fine the rest of the night. My mom called when I got home and I talked to her for a little while about some of my frustrations as of late, until we were cut off due to a collapsed network on my side of the line. I tried to call her back, but there was absolutely no signal. I also realized that I had no money left on my phone (phones here are all pre-pay), which is never a good situation to be in. So I put the conversation’s conclusion on hold for the time being, read a few pages of my book, and then passed out almost immediately.
I awoke at 2:30 a.m., my body on fire. At first I wasn’t entirely sure I was awake. I could just feel the heat from my chest radiating against my arms. Initially it felt kind of nice being so warm, like my blanket was really doing its job. But when I woke up a second time at 3:30, I realized that this was not so normal. So I raised myself out of bed, searched for my thermometer in my oversized first-aid kit, and took my temperature. Thirty-eight point four. Not so good, so I took two Advil in an attempt to control my fever. I was also filled with that cold-sweat sensation and I couldn’t decide which felt more comfortable, throwing my blankets off and accepting my convulsive shivering in an attempt to cool down my overheating body or controlling my convulsions by bundling myself under my blankets and feeling my brain frying like piece of puri (This comparison might indicate that I’ve been here too long already). I chose to bundle, as it was the only hope of getting back to sleep, and at about 5:00 I finally passed out.
The next morning I felt a little bit better. I was not perfect by any means, but definitely better. I went to school in a half-daze and did my best to push on. In my first period class I explained to my students that I really wasn’t feeling well, so I was just going to review a few things that we went over last week in grammar (Saturday is grammar day for my class XIs) and then have them do some practice exercises or any other work they needed to do. They were thrilled to have a work period (no one likes school on Saturdays) so they went to it. I sat down beside one student and began typing away at a book I’ve been working on for far too long. After about thirty minutes a tidal wave of nausea came over me. I quickly shut my laptop, packed away my things, explained to the class that I wasn’t feeling well and that I was relying on them to behave themselves, and left in a hurry.
I went straight to Master’s office. Master’s real name is actually Sonam Rinzin, I believe, though you would have a hard time getting that information from most teachers at my school. The only reason I know this is because Master also just so happens to be UK’s father. You would never hear anyone call him Sonam or Sonam Rinzin, however, because to do so you would be risking your life. For you see, Mr. Sonam Rinzin is referred to as Master because he is a master of Tae Kwon Do. He also happens to be the school nurse.
I told Master what had been going on and he gave me some Paracetamol (Acetaminophen or Tylenol for us Canucks), some oral re-hydration solution, and some antibiotics to take in case my symptoms got worse. I graciously accepted his offerings, thanked him, and ran home to use the toilet.
I had second and third period free, but class in fourth period and responsibilities after fourth period, so I decided that I would lie down and rest during my free periods. When I hit my bed my condition really deteriorated. My fever had returned, I now had diarrhea, my head was throbbing like no other, and worst of all, my entire body was aching from head to toe. I’m not just talking a little sore, I mean aching. No position was comfortable. My legs were by far the worst. I would stretch them, bend them, flex them, fold them, shake them, squeeze them, rub them, hold them. Nothing relieved the pain. The only thing, I came to realize, that provided any kind of relief – or perhaps satisfaction is the better word – was to expel a variety of grunts and groans each time I moved an inch. I later explained to UK, Namgay, and eventually Keira, that anyone walking by my house probably would have gotten a very wrong idea about what was going on inside. My breathy “Oh gods” and “Oh *@&$!s” could easily have misinterpreted as sounds of pleasure rather than sounds of pain. And I suppose to some extent they were. For whatever reason, they made the following hours slightly more bearable.
Needless to say I didn’t return to school that day. I called UK and asked him to see if he could find someone to cover my class and my class teacher responsibilities after school and he told me it wouldn’t be a problem.
At about 2:00 Namgay knocked on my door to check on me. He was carrying a package of Koka (like Mr. Noodles). UK was close behind him. They had come to check on me and to make sure that I ate something. The truth was I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I really wasn’t feeling up to it (solid food didn’t appeal to my stomach, and hot liquid didn’t appeal to my fever of 39.6), but they insisted that I eat. So Namgay slipped into my kitchen and prepared some soup for me, while UK sat with me on my bed and dabbed my head with a cool, wet cloth.
I am so lucky to have made such amazing friends here. They had no idea what kind of condition I was in, but they still came to check on me out of genuine concern for my wellbeing. Not only this, but they came with food with which to nourish me, and compassion with which to nurture me.
They hung out for a little while and then left to play a soccer game that I was also supposed to be a part of. They returned later to check on me once again, this time carrying three more packs of Koka and a package of more substantial soup. They hung out for a bit, we joked around, Namgay played some guitar, and eventually they went home.
I was somewhat relieved when they left, simply because I could only bask in my own misery when I was alone. The company was nice, and it certainly distracted me from the physical pain most of the time, but at the same time, it was effort that I didn’t really have the energy for. I was feeling incredibly dizzy by that point in time and I just wanted to lie down and rest.
The rest of my night was horribly miserable. The diarrhea really kicked in (I promise that’s as much detail as I’ll go into) and my legs felt like dull, rusty spoons were going to tear through my every pore. If anyone has ever had a bad infection, it felt somewhat like that, with an amplified pins and needles sensation thrown into the mix. No matter what I did I couldn’t get comfortable. And the fever! Oh, the fever! My head was completely ablaze and throbbing in pain. I could feel the pressure building to the point that my hearing became muffled. I continued to dab my forehead with a cold compress throughout the night, but just to give you an idea of how hot my head actually was, it took less that ten seconds of leaving the compress on my head before the cold water turned hot. I was forced to constantly re-soak the rag and reapply it to my forehead, which, I assure you, makes it difficult to sleep.
I got maybe an hour or two of sleep total, but between my stomach’s desperate cries for relief, my body’s angry disapproval, and my head’s relentless nagging I couldn’t really immerse myself in zzz’s.
I woke up on Sunday feeling just awful. My head was pounding and the familiar aching continued. I lay in bed for as long as possible, but I knew that eventually I had to get up. When I finally got up I realized that I had been sweating profusely. My sheets were drenched and my hair was soaking wet. But as I slipped out from under my blanket and chill came over my body and I was freezing. My fever obviously survived the night.
I went about my business in the bathroom, took two 500 mg Paracetamols, and plopped back down on my bed. I didn’t get under the blanket this time, but rather lay so my legs were covered but my torso could breathe.
An hour later I was feeling much better. I was still sweating profusely, but my fever was down, my head wasn’t throbbing quite as much and my legs only felt like only a few knives were stabbing at me from time to time, rather than thousands constantly. What price did I have to pay for this kind of relief, you ask; well, my stomach lost whatever stability it once had. I was running to the toilet and back all day. I’m convinced that I actually got more exercise on Sunday than I did on Friday during my jog. Sometimes there was an hour between visits, sometimes merely minutes; it was completely erratic and entirely beyond my control. Nonetheless, it was a trade I was more than happy to make.
So here I am. It’s Monday morning and the pain has subsided. My stomach is still playing tricks on me, and I didn’t quite make it to lunchtime before having to run home to use the bathroom and relieve myself of the overwhelming nausea that seems to appear out of thin air. I had a free period anyway, so I’m just taking it slow and resting whenever possible. There were definitely a few moments on Saturday when I looked out my window and asked myself what the hell are you doing here? There were moments when I looked at the people walking through town and for those moments I genuinely resented being in Bhutan. I have never been sick like that at home and I honestly don’t think it is possible to get sick like that at home. The only time I have ever experienced anything like that was when I was traveling through Vietnam a few years ago with my girlfriend at the time. In fact, my experience then was almost identical to what I went through this past Saturday, with a few minor differences. Firstly, I was with my girlfriend at the time, who could perhaps not provide me with any medical support, but did at least provide me with a great deal of emotional support. Secondly, I was in Ho Chi Minh City, which is a fairly developed city, and thus provided me with access to topnotch medical facilities and the medical expertise of a variety of expatriate doctors. Lastly, I was on vacation with not a worry in the world. My illness was a serious damper, but I had the time and freedom to wait it out and let it pass. My situation here provides me with none of the above comforts. I am a single guy living in a rural town with no hospital less than an hour’s drive away, and even then I have no car and no real way of getting from point A to B. Even if I had managed to get to a hospital, I would have had to worry about work the following day and about providing the principal with the proper documentation in order to prove that I was in fact sick; as if my sweat-stained sheets and empty toilet paper rolls aren’t evidence enough.
But I survived it in Vietnam, and now I’m just hoping that this was my one mandatory confrontation with complete and utter sickness in Bhutan. It was definitely a miserable experience and I feel as if I have beaten it, but then again it’s now Monday afternoon and I’m still lying in bed, and let’s just say that I have made more than one trip to the facilities in the process of writing this.