That time I got Malaria, and got it bad

I had high fevers and the shiver. And I was sure I had the flu. I had flown in after completing one-year assignment in Liberia, and was home with my parents in Seoul, Korea. It was a bitterly cold winter in Seoul, which was at least 60 degrees colder than tropical Liberia. I stayed under the cover with some Tylenol and waited for my flu to go way.

Since this was my first time visiting my parents in the past few years, they planned a small get away to a coastal town in Korea to welcome me. I was sick but we drove to the vacation spot nonetheless. My parents are both medical doctors and I was raised just like this. Unless I am dying, I am doing fine. They were used to seeing people get very sick and be okay.

That night, I was shivering so much that I could not hold my teeth together without clanking. I felt so sick, and started feeling like something was up. Having barely slept, I asked my parents to drive home the next day, and I told them I needed to go to the hospital. By the time we got to the hospital where my dad works at, the fever was still high, but I wasn’t shivering. I asked the doctor to take a blood test for me.

“I just came back from Liberia in West Africa. Could you please take a blood test? I feel really sick.”

Half an hour later, the doctor came back and said I had malaria. I was to be admitted to the hospital immediately.

During my one year in Liberia, I had seen many friends with malaria, Liberian and foreigners. The key is to take the medication right the second you have the symptoms, like chills and fever, and you are 99.9% totally fine. It feels like you have a cold, then it most likely goes away. This is why malaria is such a preventable, yet deadly disease. If you are not treated within the first 24-48 hours, the chance of your survival dramatically decreases. Malaria is essentially a parasite that goes dormant in your liver, multiplies, then spreads through your blood stream. As it spreads through your bloodstream, the parasites destroy the red blood cells, eventually causing organ failure, which leads to death of a human being. There are four strands of malaria, one in tropical West Africa being the most fatal one. And yes, that was what I had, and I was in the hospital at least 36 hours after I started feeling sick.

Most of my time in the hospital, I was high on fever, and could not eat anything. I had blood drawn every day, and had numerous blood transfers to make up for the red blood cells destroyed by malaria. I was not sure what was going to happen, but I was not getting better. The doctor did not seem to know what to do. He said he has treated people with malaria from Southeast Asia, a much milder form of malaria, but had never treated someone with tropical malaria.

“That’s relieving” I thought.

One night, I felt like I was going to die. It was hard to breathe and I felt like I had chest pain. The next day, I went for an X-ray and they said I have liquids filling up in my lung because of organ failure. I couldn’t walk as far as to the bathroom because I was out of breath. When I put my hand on the lower right side of my body, I could feel my liver becoming swollen and hard.

And I was hallucinating one day. The doctor came into speak with me, but I saw the ocean and the beach under blue skies behind him. Strange, I thought. And I heard the doctor tell my parents to prepare for the worst.

“I am sorry.” I told my mom.

I went to Africa to work against my parents’ will. I was young and wanted to use my law degree to make a difference. I had taken a fellowship with the Carter Center to work on judicial reform, and had stayed on as a consultant. I worked with Liberian judges and lawyers everyday, and despite all the challenges, I loved my work. I was also thankful for the opportunity to see the parts of the world that I had not seen before and face the poverty that I didn’t previously know growing up in South Korea and the US.

And dying of malaria at 29 was not the ending I had imagined.

My mom held my hand quietly, and then buried her head into my hand. When she got up, she seemed determined. She asked me for names of all the malaria medicines I have heard of back in Liberia. She walked out armed with those names, and two hours later, came back with all pills imaginable. Remember, my parents are doctors- they didn’t need the tropical disease specialist who had no idea what he was doing to get hands on their pills.

My mom is the epitome of Korean mother. She is filled with tough love, always telling me to do the right thing. She supported me to go study in the US at age 15, and enrolled me in a boarding school. She probably did not expect me to stay on in the US, then go work in Africa- her plan was for me to study in the US and return to South Korea. And we grew apart for that reason, and my mom was angry and disappointed that I did not choose to take a predetermined path of going to work at a law firm, or even, attend medical school.

She fed me spoonfuls of strawberry yogurt with ground up pills mixed into it. Every hour, she fed me a little container of yogurt, and with it, all kinds of malaria medication possible and her determination to see me live.

And that’s when life came back to me.

After a couple days of some ungodly amount of strawberry yogurt, I was able to breathe again. My liver wasn’t so hard anymore and I was slowly able to eat. That was after two weeks in the hospital.

If I remembered the fear and pain I felt in these couple of weeks, and if I had remembered how my heart broke when I had to tell my mom I am sorry, I probably would not have had gone back to live in Africa again. But I did. I went to live in Tunisia though, a Mediterranean country with Sahara desert in the south, far from the malaria mosquitoes.


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