One night, three months into my work in the Salelologa, Savaii, I woke up with a start. It was 4:20 am; I was drenched with sweat; my body was wracked in aches and feverish chills. I tried to think back sequentially through the previous day to identify something that may have caused such a sudden onset of illness.
I figured that I ate something that disagreed with me. My mind caught hold on the possibility that my aches and fever were caused by either the pigs feet I had for dinner or the sasalapa, or soursop fruit, that someone had given me; both were firsts in my culinary repertoire to that point. The only hole in my foreign food theory was that I wasn't vomiting.
I alternated between intense fever and sweaty chills all morning long. At breakfast, I had no appetite. The bishop's wife thought I ought to eat something, and, bless her heart, she kept having things sent to me as I stretched out on a couch in the living room: Sprite, toast, Eno. I didn't want to have any of it.
Seumalii was able to contact our mission nurse, and we were fortunate that she and two elderly sister missionaries were in town with the zone leaders to do some shopping. I moved from the bishop's couch to the uncomfortable interior of the mission van. There I stayed for at least an hour's time while the nurse shopped. The van's air-conditioning tortured me with its relentlessness. Because I couldn't help the situation any I simply took in the experience. I found it a little ironic that the chorus of the first song I heard from a radio that morning was, "Feeling hot, hot, hot."
The zone leader took me and Seumalii to the nurse and elderly sisters' house. Once at the house the nurse began making phone calls to the Upolu mission office. For the first time that day I heard speculation as to what I had: dengue fever, also known as breakbone fever because the pain in the bones can be so severe it feels as though they will break.
The nurse insisted I take a cold shower to see if my fever would break. I couldn't force myself to do it; I took a hot shower instead. The nurse didn't want me to have any sheets to cover me while sleeping but I couldn't stand how cold it was in their air-conditioned house; I complained until I got a sheet.
Nurse Paialii was scheduled to fly to Upolu to visit her cousin, the mission president's wife, the next day. She instructed me that I would accompany her and be admitted into the hospital there. The next morning we went to the Maota airstrip but found out that the flight was full. Paialii was adamant that I go to Upolu so she gave me her ticket and stayed behind.
I was so sapped of any strength and vitality that my usual excitement at seeing more of Samoa from different perspectives was reduced to nil. It was nice, though, to see an aerial view of Manono and Apolima, the small islands between Savaii and Upolu. My frustration at having to leave Savaii was tempered by my fever-induced malaise.
The flight didn't take long and I soon arrived at the Fagaliʻi airstrip. There Nurse Morgan, a Kiwi turned Aussie, met me and immediately transported me to the MedCen hospital in Vailima. No other rooms were available so I was put into the birthing room, the walls of which were covered with posters illustrating the various stages of embryonic development.
Dengue fever, I found out, is spread by mosquitoes, or mozzies if you're Australian. My symptoms included fever, lethargy, pain, and sleepiness. My head ached. My bones ached. I sensed pain from hair movement in their follicles. Light hurt my eyes. Sound hurt my ears. When I felt feverish, I sweat profusely; when the chills set in, the sweat and air-conditioning and plastic-covered mattress combination intensified my suffering.
The nurses put an IV into a vein in my left hand. Over the next four days in the hospital, I took in 5.5 liters of fluids via IV. My fever hovered around 103 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. All the doctors and nurses could do was administer fever-reducing drugs, antibiotics, and IV fluids. As long as I was hydrated and kept from secondary infection due to a suppressed immune system, I would be ok, that is, unless my brain was cooked beyond repair.
I slept most of the time in the hospital. I only woke up when the nurses changed my IV, gave me antibiotics or fever reducers, and when meal time came. None of the meals had any Samoan food. But even though it was more like food from home than any food I'd eaten in the past three months, I still didn't have much of an appetite.
My mission president visited me and informed me I would stay on Upolu to continue my service rather than return to Savaii. I was too weak at this point to feel anything more than a fleeting disappointment. Nurse Morgan visited occasionally as did an elderly couple from Idaho. My most frequent visitor was a Samoan hospital custodian. He and I spoke exclusively in Samoan. Both he and I were amazed at my abilities in the language. Perhaps my inability to stress out over anything helped me to realize that I'd made more progress in the language than I had previously thought.
Four days after being admitted to Medcen, I was discharged and taken to the mission home where I rested for the next three days. Dengue was grueling, but I didn't have as bad a case as I could have. Indeed, some people die from dengue fever.
Having no opportunity to say goodbye to hardly anyone, thus ended my time on the big island of Savaii.
Links for more information on dengue fever:
CDC Dengue Brochure
CDC Dengue Fact Sheet