my mystery malady

This past Wednesday, I woke up feeling exhausted but otherwise fine. About an hour after eating breakfast, a dull sense of weakness and malaise began creeping over me and I had to lie back down. By the end of the next hour, I was unable to sit up, paralyzed by bodily fatigue. I had stitches of pain and muscle aches in my legs and sides and neck. I couldn’t find a comfortable position and every time I moved I moaned. I was chilly and sweaty at the same time.

I didn’t want to jump to malarial conclusions and I also didn’t want to go to the doctor without a very good reason, so I tried to wait it out, but by 7pm it was clear it was getting worse instead of better. I had gotten nauseous and head-achey, my aches had turned into pronounced pains, and I could barely crawl out of bed let alone stand up straight.

I hobbled with Mamie to the pharmacy next door where they pronounced their prognosis soon after my arrival: “un petit palu,” a mild case of malaria. I told them I take doxycycline every day as a prophylactic and they mimed the pill going in one ear and out the other. They gave me a fizzy paracetamol tablet to reduce my fever and told me to get to the doctor stat.

So we headed to the emergency room (salle d’urgence) of the hospital downtown, whereupon I began an epic journey / vocabulary lesson.

When the nurses examined me, I realized that the locus of my pain (douleur) was the lower front part of my right side, and then I fervently prayed for malaria. The thought of having surgery to remove my appendix (appendice) abroad filled me with such horror that malaria seemed like a quaint way to pass a summer’s day.

The nurses sent me for an ultrasound (échographie). The technician couldn’t see my appendix (apparently a good sign, because that means it’s not inflamed), but he did see a whole lot of other stuff. He told me my ovaries (ovaires) and uterus (utérus) were riddled with cysts (kystes), fibroids (fibromes)… and a baby (une grossesse). I can’t remember how he broke the news because it was all in French, but his face and tone were hilarious, as if he were laying the world’s biggest whammy on me. I was torn between losing all confidence in this man’s competence and being grateful for the comic relief. Because unless that was a very funky fetus, the chances of me being pregnant were less than zero. I told him, “Je vous assure que c’est impossible,” so then he decided that the big black blob on the screen was a grossesse nerveuse. (I remember a unit in French class devoted to body parts like the head, the arms, the legs, but perhaps there should also have been a chapter on morbid anatomy. You never know when a medical emergency / female hysteria will strike.)

The ultrasound technician told me that though my phantom pregnancy did not explain it, he was nevertheless certain my fever stemmed from a gynecological (gynécologique) problem. He printed out the glossy ultrasound photos for me and told me I should give them to the gynecologist the next morning. I thought about how I could post them to Facebook: “Thrilled to announce the impending arrival of this non-gendered ball of inanimate goop, due whenever it grows too big to be supported by my barren womb and has to be surgically removed!” The only thing worse than being told that your reproductive organs are totally screwed up is being told that you wanted a baby so badly that you willed a faux one into existence, and that’s the best you’ll ever do, because your reproductive organs are also totally screwed up.

Before I left, I took a blood test that confirmed no malaria but the presence of an infection. The nurses advised me to get some sleep and come back in the morning for more tests.

I woke up the next day with no fever but still weak and achy. I went back to the hospital, this time alone. The gynecologist did another ultrasound and within fifteen seconds he told me, “It’s not a gynecological problem.” I asked, “But what about the cysts and the fibroids?” He said that any cysts and fibroids I had were totally normal for where I was in my cycle and that there was nothing wrong. I asked about the nervous pregnancy. He smirked (which I appreciated so, so much) and repeated, “There’s nothing here but your uterus.” I persisted, “What about the black thing the other guy showed me?” He said, “That’s your uterus.” This man was my Florence Nightingale. I have never been more in love with a doctor.

He said that though the pain I felt could be a sign of a ruptured cyst (kyste rompu) – a totally normal occurrence – that wouldn’t explain the infection, so he sent me to the gastroenterologist (gastroentérologue). In the waiting room (salle d’attente) I was comforted by an old lady who told me that if it was appendicitis (appendicite), no need to worry, she had her appendix removed right here in Dakar 55 years ago while four months pregnant, and of all of her kids that one turned out best. I had a good chuckle over that, which made my side hurt, which made me remember my condition was still no laughing matter.

The GE did yet another ultrasound, saw nothing, told me I probably had a UTI (infection urinaire) even though I had none of the burning or constant urge to pee that have accompanied my past infections. Since the results of the urinalysis wouldn’t be back for three days, he sent me for a CAT scan (scanner) to rule out appendicitis completely.

The technicians asked me if I was allergic to any medicine and I answered, “sulfamides” (sulfa), and then I was like, “Wait, why do you need to know that?” “Because we inject you with something that lets us see your organs (organes) better. It will make you feel nauseous but you just need to breathe through it and it will be fine.”

In my life I’ve harbored three legitimate phobias, which through a ton of work I’ve reduced from debilitating to strongly fear and disgust-inducing: cockroaches, puking, and injections/blood draws – the former because I am afraid of having an allergic reaction and dropping dead (a delayed irrational reaction to my throat closing up when I took a sulfa antibiotic as a kid), and the latter because the thought of a needle sucking blood out of my veins makes me nauseous and faint.

So, while for most of the world a ten-minute CAT scan is no big deal, for me it was a mentally exhausting exercise in keeping the floodgates of anxiety firmly closed. When it was finally over, I sat back up and breathed a little easier… for about five seconds. It was then that I saw a humongous roach skitter across the floor. I screached, “Cafard! Tuez le cafard!” The technician smiled indulgently for the poor little girl afraid of needles and bugs and stepped on the roach. Five seconds later, another one appeared. I became distressed. I asked why there were so many cockroaches and they told me there had just been a pesticide treatment. They grinned their amused and comforting smiles at me some more. I wondered how I could swing so easily from resilient adult who can take care of herself while sick abroad to helpless girl in need of protection (mostly from herself).

There was no time for me to dwell on that question, because when I stepped out of the scan room into the hallway, I was confronted with a scene out of the cockroach version of “Saving Private Ryan.” Big roaches, small roaches, fat roaches, thin roaches, fast roaches, slow roaches, live roaches, dead roaches… perhaps it was more like the roach version of “Go, Dog, Go!” All I know is that it was like a bespoke nightmare, the nadir of my own personal fear trifecta, resting on top of the anxiety of still not knowing what was actually wrong with me.

I fled the carnage and when I came back for my test results (le bilan), the roaches were thankfully gone, and the scan showed that my appendix along with all the rest of my internal organs (liver / le foie, pancreas / le pancréas, kidneys / les reins, spleen / la rate, gall bladder / la vésicule biliaire) looked great.

By the third morning, I felt pretty much normal, just tired with some residual aches. Now, five days later, I’m pretty sure that whatever it was has fully passed, though I can’t help harboring fears of an action movie-style last stand, the kind where you think the bad guy’s dead but then he pops up again wielding a shovel. If the urinalysis results come back negative on Tuesday, it’ll be an unsolved medical mystery, but at least I’ll be officially infection-free.

Last week was not pleasant, but it was eye-opening in several useful ways. It was also gratifying. I am very impressed with myself for navigating the whole experience solely in French. Overtop all the discomfort and anxiety floated this gauzy layer of satisfaction at being able to describe my symptoms, comprehend questions and instructions, and understand explanations and options. I feel like a language is no longer foreign if you can reliably get through these kind of esoteric situations with it.

One of the only times I asked, “What does that mean?” didn’t even have to do with French. When they took my temperature and told me it was “trente huit,” thirty-eight, I had to ask Mamie to convert it to Fahrenheit on her phone so I could understand how high my fever (fièvre) was. 38 degrees Celsius translates to 100.4, which is incidentally the score I would give myself if my hospital visit were a very elaborate quiz on that French morbid anatomy chapter.

34 thoughts on “my mystery malady

  1. Fabulous….like a black comedy…..glad you came out of it ok. I too hate cockroaches only because they will rule the world when we are gone….makes the skin crawl

  2. I enjoyed reading your story. I am glad that you are doing better. By the way, thanks to several serious allergic reactions I share your fear of having an allergic reaction to an injection. So I know just how long those ten minutes can feel. But having to handle that fear and invasion of roaches, wow! That would have been way more than I ever would have wanted to handle. Congratulations on keeping your cool and maintaining your sense of humor during such trying circumstances.

  3. I hate roaches, and being disturbed in sleep mode. One day i saw a roach, and I was so sleepy and irritated, obviously because I couldn’t sleep with a roach present, that I just got up and whacked it. Pooof! Roach fear replace with roach rage. Lovely writing you got there. Enjoyed it!

  4. I totally empathize with you. I will write in my blog about the time a Soviet trained doctor made a house call. And another time when a Kazakhstani “friend” treated me for cough using a jar, scissors, cotton, matches and vodka.
    You are a great writer. Loved the story.

  5. It’s definitely a sign that your language skills are good if you can use them when under the weather. I went into a panic the first time I got sick in the US and had to deal with the horrible medical practice we’d chosen. That was in English, and there were no roaches that I saw. Good luck I hope your mystery stays away.

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