What is it like to almost die?

Everything went black. 

I woke up in hell.

My killer was Malaria. It had drained the  life from my body. There had been nothing dignified or graceful about it in any way.

I always recognized it was coming by the dull headache behind the eyes, the sensitive almost painful feeling on my skin and the nausea.

Next would come the three-hour cycle of fever. It feels like you are freezing to death when in reality your temperature rising higher and higher.

The vomiting means you can’t keep any food down. You become dehydrated. Dehydration and soaring fever are usually what kill you.

Very often you hallucinate,especially in the later stages.

In those days we just treated it when we got it and hoped it wasn’t cerebral malaria. The doctors used to tell us that if we were living in a malaria zone continually and we knew how to recognize the symptoms, that we should not take malarial prophylactic drugs.

Instead they advised us that we should immediately treat for malaria, dehydration and fever if we developed the symptoms.

Their reasoning was that constantly taking the preventive medication would be very bad for you over time. They also said these drugs often masked the symptoms till the malaria developed to a more dangerous stage. They also said that it left fewer options for treatment.

It obviously never dawned on them that getting malaria frequently and treating it with the necessary heavy medication would probably be worse for your health.

I had already had it four times prior to this in the last six months as well as amoebic dysentery. I was very thin and my immune system was obviously weakened. It was also the hottest time of the year, just as the rain season was hitting. It was also the end of the tourist season so I had been working non-stop for months. Now the poaching season was starting. I had more serious work to do now.

I had been having a few days off in Kariba in Zimbabwe from work in the Zambezi Valley on the Zambian side of the river when I had recognized the symptoms.

I treated the malaria and crashed in bed for a few days. On the morning of the day I was due to head back down into the valley. It seemed I was over it. I grabbed my kit and threw it into the back of my vehicle.

I was driving an old short-wheel-base Land Cruiser. The doors and roof had been removed so I was exposed to the sun and wind. I felt okay though and it was still morning so not too hot yet.

I needed to cross the border, drive a couple of hours down to Chirundu on the pot-holed tar road and then on to camp on the dirt. It hadn’t rained properly yet, so the dirt road was still okay. Once the rains came it would be impassable.

I left a bit late, so when I reached the border at the Kariba dam wall I was in a hurry. Unfortunately the immigration officers on the Zimbabwean side were not. There was only one on duty. He was in no hurry and there were three buses full of people queued up.

I ended up waiting and standing for hours. I began to feel very sick. I didn’t have a temperature so hoped against hope that it was just the after effects and the fact that I was still weak.

I finally got through, headed across to the Zambian side and into the then small building. As I began to fill out the arrivals book, the officer behind the desk pointed out that I was shaking. “Ah my friend, are you sick?”.

He was right I had the shakes and was feeling cold, even though by now the sun was high in the sky and it was approaching 40C.

There were buses on this side just heading across to the Zimbabwean side. If I tried to go back it would again take me hours. My best bet would be to head for Chirundu. I knew there was a mission hospital there run by Italian nuns and doctors.

I set off. The drive was about two hours. Within half an hour I was struggling to keep going, having to stop and retch. There was nothing in my stomach to throw up.

Within another fifteen minutes I was stopped on the side of the road and trying to get water out of the twenty liter container in the back of the cruiser. I couldn’t lift it. Eventually I knocked it over and licked it off the floor.

I staggered over to the shade of a baobab and collapsed. I was beginning to lose consciousness.

“Oh dear”, said a voice next to me, “this is bad”. I saw a white man dressed rather strangely lying in the same shade. He was also obviously sick too, sweating profusely. His face was gaunt and jaundiced. He looked familiar. Oh yes, it was David Livingstone.

“We’re dying”, said Dave.

“Shit”, I answered.

“Nice tree to die under though”, said Dave.

“F***”, I answered.

“Well, if you don’t like it  then why have you chosen to die here?” asked the good doctor with a look of kindly bemusement. “If you don’t like this tree or you don’t want to die then you better move on” he said.

DL was quite right, if I didn’t get in the car and go I would just die here. It was my choice.

Everything went black. A vague memory comes to me of swerving and trying to stay on the road. Then nothing. A loud bang. Water. Ice.

I woke up in hell. There were faces all around me. Thin skin stretched over bone. Dull eyes. Hell was like a concentration camp. They were all suffering. There was screaming in the background. Funny that I was the only white man; all the faces were black. I must be somewhere else. There had to be many more white men in hell.

One of the faces grew a body. He started talking to me. He thought something was funny, he was grimacing or grinning. I couldn’t tell which. I looked around. Yes, all the faces were still the same but this was not a concentration camp. I was in a hospital.

“Where am I?”, I asked the living skeleton next to me.

“Chirundu Catholic Mission Hospital”, he answered.

“Congratulations”, a voice said. I looked around again. A old nun was standing smiling at me.

“Thanks”, I answered. “Why?”.

“We thought you were dead when they brought you here.”, she said.

“A couple of days ago you crashed your car into the lamp-post at Chitibu Bar, then walked inside, asked for water and fell over. The owner got her sons to put you in the back of your car and then she drove you here. ”

She continued, “You were barely alive. We threw you in a bath with blocks of ice and put you on a quinine drip. It will probably give you tinnitus by the way. We put you in this ward because we didn’t think you would make it.”

Well that explained the screaming, which hadn’t stopped, and the ward I was in was obviously for those about to die. I later discovered that all the five poor men with me were in the last stages of Aids. Unfortunately, they didn’t offer me a bed in a different ward.

I thanked her from the bottom of my heart and I told her I needed to get going. She laughed and told me I wasn’t going anywhere.

She was right. After another day had gone by and two of my ward companions had passed away, I was able to get up. I insisted on getting going.

The doctor told me it was a bad idea. I explained that no one knew where I was. I didn’t mention that I didn’t really feel like lying there with nothing to do except watch my companions die.

He relented, but on condition I left in the cool of the morning and if my temperature went up at all I must come straight back.

I set off the next morning, feeling pretty weak but otherwise not too bad. Two thirds of the way to camp it started bucketing down with rain. It took me forever to get there. I was extremely lucky not to get stuck. When I arrived I had a temperature.

I collapsed shortly afterwards. My friends and colleagues, Roz Mitchell and Rolf Niemeijer tried to keep me alive. All they could do was put me on a drip to keep me hydrated and give me anti-pyretics to keep my temperature down. I was hallucinating badly. They decided to try and drive me out back to the mission.

As soon as they got me into the back of the vehicle and started driving I started swearing and spitting at Rolf.. in French. I was convinced in my delirium that he was taking me out to shoot me. He was accompanied by a staff-sergeant from the French Foreign Legion who was giving him instructions. I opened the door and almost fell out. I was just energetic enough in my madness to be a danger to myself and possibly Rolf. The road was impassable by now anyway. He had to turn back.

That night Roz nursed me in a tent, pouring water over the sheet covering me and then fanning it to try and keep my temperature down. At first I went quiet and they worried I might have died.. Then I began to ramble on and grumble in French. I went on all night. Apparently it was quite annoying.

In the morning my temperature had dropped. I began to improve. In a few days I was on my feet. I was lucky. I was skin and bone.

Quite recently I passed by the tree where I met the long-dead Dr. David Livingstone. It was quite strange to go back. I stopped, sat under it and smiled to myself. It was a very good tree to die under, but not good enough.

Thanks Dave.

 

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