Typhoid Mary: The Perils of Illness on a Remote Island
By Lucy Eglington
“Blood. Blood,” he said, inexpertly brandishing a rusty razorblade and a crusty, filthy test-tube. “We take blood.”
“What? With that? I don’t bloody think so!”
Even in my enfeebled state, I knew there was only one thing to do–get out of here, and fast.
This is what happens when illness strikes on a remote Indonesian island. I went straight down to the beach. Seeing me too weak to haggle, the fishermen enterprisingly charged me triple the going rate to the mainland. I lay in the boat watching them bailing away. It had all happened so fast. Two nights ago I was happily eating my dinner and thwack. I felt instantly, violently, ill.
I dropped my fork and crawled the 50 metres to my light-less, waterless room. I collapsed feverishly onto the bed–and didn’t get up again for 6 months.
On the main island of Lombok, at a resort hotel’s clinic, blood was duly (and hygienically) taken.
Two days later, my hostel phone rang. “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news,” said the doctor. “The good news is you don’t have malaria””
Aah. I’m so relieved! What’s the bad news then?”
“Well, you do have typhoid.”
Travel with typhoid is inadvisable and dangerous, to say the least, and he suggested I go to a nearby Catholic mission to recover. Apparently the government hospital conditions are so awful that “many people don’t come back out.”
If the mission was the improvement, I’m glad I didn’t go to the hospital.
I was wheeled down the open-air corridors to my room. In a feverish haze, I floated past families sleeping, cooking and just waiting. I caught glimpses into dark, windowless rooms where people lay on filthy mattresses. At night, I could hear them screaming.
I later discovered they were mainly suffering from malaria. The treatment is so expensive that many of them were here to be cared for until they died.
The mission funds much of its work with the proceeds of two private rooms. The door to one was pushed open. The floor changed color as a tide of cockroaches dived for cover, but at least there were sheets on the bed.
Over two weeks, the doctor visited twice. He seemed strangely intent upon feeling my breasts, despite their medical irrelevance. I was incredibly weak, had a constant fever of 103-104 degrees, and let’s just say I was no stranger to the bathroom.
At one point, I felt close to death. I was given stomach-destroying cocktails of antibiotics. Ciproflaxin (recommended for typhoid) is expensive and was not readily available on Lombok, or in many areas where it is desperately needed.
Fortunately, I had some in my basic medical kit. This situation hammered home just how spoiled we Westerners are. This hospital was full, but as a Westerner, I could afford the private room. I had access to the right drugs. I knew that when I could get home, I could get first class medical. For everyone else, this was the last stop. Volunteer nurses worked around the clock.
Still, the conditions were too much for my wimpy, over-sanitized Western stomach. I went in with typhoid and came out with amoebic dysentery and gastrointestinal parasites.
Back at a hostel several weeks later, I looked in the mirror. Like so many young women my age, I had aspired to looking like a tissue-eating, wafer-thin model. Now, I had inadvertently attained my goal, I was appalled.
I could see all my ribs, back and front. My knees were huge knobbly bedposts and my breasts, well, they just weren’t there. And wherever they had gone, they had taken my butt with them.
I’d had my shots. I just wasn’t careful enough. Having been to India and actually put on weight, I had delusions of iron-stomached immortality.
Finally strong enough to get home, I arrived at the airport check-in, still very sick, and self-righteously demanded a swanky seat. This was not a good idea. In fact, this was a very bad idea.
If this ever happens to you, DON’T tell the airline you’re sick. Airlines will leave you dying in the airport rather than risk you sneezing lawsuits over fellow passengers, or even worse, pegging out during the flight.
I had to leap “healthily” about, grinning like the village idiot before they — very reluctantly — let me board.
Two years later, I feel my old self again. It certainly hasn’t put me off travel — in many ways it was one of the best things to happen to me. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s the countless brilliant things I’ve seen travelling that gave me the strength and inspiration to come through this one negative. Plus, it makes a great horror story at parties.
And I just know what made me sick — the one “Western” meal I ate on the entire trip!
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