I Almost Died Of A Mysterious Illness In A Developing Country And It Changed Me Forever
When I was 19, I decided to work for an education based NGO in Siem Reap, Cambodia. At the time, I could barely place Cambodia on a map and had only been out of the United States once before. I was armed with nothing but optimism, a few thousand dollars in savings and a verbal warning from my mom to “be careful”.
Like most volunteers, I thought that was all I’d need.
And it was, for a while. I quickly got into the swing of things, learning about the organization I was working for and the history of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. Without any major mishaps, I slowly transitioned into my job, writing press releases and organizing fundraisers for the organization. At the end of every week, I’d reward myself with a 50 cent beer and night on the town.
Surprisingly, being alone in a foreign country didn’t bother me. Instead, I picked up Khmer phrases, networked like hell with other volunteers and made it my personal mission to befriend anything that moved.
Before long, I found myself with a circle of comrades in a country I loved with all my heart. I was ready to lose my passport, bribe a border official and live in Cambodia forever.
That is, until life caught up with me.
During Khmer New Year (a week long holiday that shuts down the entire country), a friend and I went to Phnom Penh for vacation before she flew back to the States. We ate delicious food, shopped in one of the largest markets I’ve ever seen, narrowly escaped being kidnapped and visited the Royal Palace. All in all, a pretty successful vacation.
After one last day bumming around, I dropped my friend off at the airport and found a three dollar bus back to Siem Reap. On the bus I settled down next to a friendly Khmer man who offered to share his fried beetles with me (I declined) while I did my best to block out the noise from a handheld radio being amplified by a megaphone (it didn’t work).
We started on our way as I took one last, lingering look at the city.
So the thing about local buses is that they only make two official stops: Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Which means, the 100 people that got on and off at the villages along the way simply ran up to the side of the bus, tossed their belongings on board and threw their loved ones through the door. At one point, the driver ordered food delivery and a man literally ran out of a roadside stand, jumped in the front door, dropped the food in the driver’s lap and then dove back out.
Just tuck and roll.
Because there were so many people travelling back from Khmer New Year, we never reached a speed faster than 10 miles an hour. If we did, all the drop on/off passenger wouldn’t make it. Our 6 hour trip was steadily deteriorating into a twelve hour trek.
While watching the people jump on and off the bus, I started shivering. I slowly put on all the other clothing I had with me - a few skirts, a pair of socks, two t-shirts. But still I had goose bumps.
Scrounging around in my backpack, I made a terrifying realization. I was on an overcrowded, non air-conditioned bus on a 100+ degree day. If I was shivering, we had a problem. A big problem.
Luckily, my friend had given me her first aid kit and a few other random items before flying back home. So I pulled out the thermometer and took my temperature. 101.
I pulled my legs up to my chin and tried to keep warm.
Seven hours into our trip and the real shaking started. Even under ten layers of clothing, I was freezing cold and white as chalk. I must have looked horrifying because the man next to me suddenly decided he’d prefer to sit on the aisle floor with a stray dog rather than share the seat next to me.
My fever was 102.
We passed several more villages and I started to hallucinate. At each village I would vividly imagine myself jumping off the side of the bus and rolling my way to a provincial hospital. I’d be able to feel a local woman trying to stab me with a used needle and I’d experience the distress of not knowing how to express medical terms in Khmer.
The people on the bus started giving me weird looks. My temperature rose to 103.
Finally we pulled over for a bus break at a roadside restaurant. I attempted to stand but failed miserably. I ended up doing something between a crawl and a shuffle towards the bus door, at the stairs I simply let gravity pull me down. I somehow managed to get myself and the 12 lbs of mismatched clothing on my body into a bathroom stall.
And that’s when I realized something was terribly wrong. The bathroom was a plywood box with cracks in the walls and a hole in the floor. Around the hole were puddles and stains. It was the type of hole I’d normally balance above on my tippy toes, attempt a standing pee and sprint out without letting my hands touch a single thing. Instead, I plopped my bare butt down on the floor, held on to the walls and attempted to urinate.
That’s when I learned something valuable. When you find yourself lounging in other people’s pee puddles without a second thought, you should get yourself to a hospital immediately.
So I dragged myself back to the bus and sat down. I immediately started calling everyone I knew to ask for help. Someone had to pick me up in Siem Reap and get me to the International Hospital. My temperature was hovering around 104 and I couldn’t sit up straight. My hands were shaking, but no one answered my phone calls. All my Cambodian friends were still on holiday.
After a failed attempt at getting hold of anyone in Siem Reap, I rolled my body into the bus aisle and looked at the only other foreigners on the bus, “Can you please make sure I get myself to a hospital after we stop?”.
I’d like to think I saw the girl across from me nod, but I have no idea if she even spoke English. It took all the effort I had to toss my body back into my seat and sit cradling my thermometer like a lifeline.
When the bus finally rolled to a stop in Siem Reap, I got on the first moto I could find and asked to be taken to the International Hospital. The driver looked at me like he would eye a bear. A big, angry bear. I was foreign, dangerous and scary. If this little tourist got on his moto and died, he’d be in big trouble.
But I didn’t have time to convince him I wouldn’t die or that if I did, no one would make it into a big international incident. I just threw all the money I had in his hand and straddled the seat behind him. That was the last part of my trip I really remember.
He must have held me up behind him on the way to the hospital because I know for a fact that I couldn’t support my own weight around turns. Like a skyscraper on a rowboat, I would’ve just tipped over if left to my own devices.
Finally, I became slightly more aware of myself after the hospital gave me something for the fever. A nurse stopped by to ask if I’d like to call my parents. The answer was yes. Definitely yes.
But then I froze. I didn’t know my parents’ phone number. I didn’t have it saved to my phone. In fact, I didn’t have it written anywhere. I had no way to call.
I tried to explain but the language barrier proved too great. The nurse eventually gave up, put the phone down and asked for my insurance. Which was another bust. To verify my insurance they needed to call the company, but I only had a 1-800 number on the back of my card. A number that could not be dialed internationally.
Armed with Tylenol, a 103 degree fever and a mysterious antibiotic that I later discovered is no longer approved for use in any Western country, I was sent on my way. I spent that night terrified and crying in my apartment. All I had to do was make it through the night. I had to find a way to survive.
And that’s what I did.
My fever finally dropped to a respectable 100 somewhere around 8am.
The next day I was able to reach my parents and find an immediate flight home. After about two months of being back in the United States, no doctor was able to identify what it was that I had. It took about six months for me to feel anywhere near normal. But I’m ok now. A normal, healthy, twenty something year old girl.
But something is different in me. Something that can only happen from a life or death experience. I’ve lost almost all sense of “impossible.”
A situation that would have seemed insurmountable in the past (being without an apartment, losing a passport, having a hotel cancel while I’m in another state without transportation) is insignificant now. When compared to hallucinating from fever while alone on a Cambodian bus, nothing seems too bad.
Nearly dying made it so much easier to live. I’ve learned that all I need to get through a situation is myself. And the only thing that can ruin me is death. Everything else is manageable.
And someday, with any luck, my future children will find themselves alone in a foreign country with no support and a big problem.
After something like that, a person can’t help but be deeply, profoundly confident in oneself.