I managed to make it my whole 30 years without ever getting the flu (right, Mom?). I get my shots every year because I have asthma and they pester me about it incessantly from August to December if I don’t. Well, I guess I won’t need one for this coming year because Influenza A is my welcoming gift (possibly acquired on my plane). I have inside knowledge from a public health guru (which means teacher in Nepali, by the way) that this time of year is bad for the flu and those making equatorial, international travel. Welcome to Nepal. Here’s your flu. You came for research, mountain views, and the excitement of a new cultural context? How about high fever, body aches, and headache first? Oh, and the chest-searing cough is on us. And, because it’s during your orientation, we’ll remind you constantly of all the dangers and diseases so you’re extra filled with the anxiety about how your symptoms align with every scary disease the travel clinic tried to scare you about. So I played a mental game called “Rationally versus Anxiety” for a day or two and was starting to realize that, either way, I did need to go to the doc, even if just to rule out the few scary things that seemed most likely. And maybe for some more meds, despite me bringing more than a gallon Ziploc bag full of OTC and Prescription meds.
Luckily, we were having our orientation to the British-run/funded CIWEC (pronounced C-Wick) clinic in Kathmandu my third day of being sick, definitely my worst day. Team Fulbright arrived at CIWEC for a one-hour presentation on A Thousand Ways to Die in Nepal* (a recurring theme in Fulbright, Embassy, and CIWEC briefings…). In the midst of learning about death or harm by: altitude, snake bite, bug bites, trekking, and diarrhea (which can come from just about everything), I was wondering which disease I had. Surely it was Meningitis (my neck hurt a lot) or perhaps TB (explains the cough). After our meeting I filled in some paperwork (mostly about where I’ve travelled and not my symptoms) and I was seen pretty quickly since the clinic is underutilized because it costs too much for the average Nepali. When they called me in I stood too fast (I always get so surprised when the docs call my name and spring up, weird habit that should be easy to break but isn’t) and got dizzy and staggered a little. This turned out to be a pretty effective way of winning the doctor’s attention on my case.
In the exam room he listened to my lungs and looked into my ears, nose, and throat. All were normal. Then the nurse took my blood pressure. She asked “Is it always so low?” which, any social scientist worth their mettle will tell you is a terrible way to get accurate information. And I almost fell for it and confirmed, since I do have relatively low blood pressure (114/65 usually). But then, partly out of curiosity (which is how I know my BP in the first place), I asked her what it was: 90 over 60. That’s low. And explains why my heart races a lot when I am doing simple things. The doctor then jammed a swab into the back of my nose to swab for Influenza. This triggered an automatic reflex of coughing my germs into his face directly. Sorry, doc (but you started it). Distracted by the disease coming at him, he didn’t get the swab. We needed to try again on the next nostril. Oh joy. Just as unpleasant, at least this time he got a successful sample. I was left spluttering, nose running, and eyes a bit watery. Just then the nurse took my temp and exclaimed with a bit of surprise and worry, “You have high fever! 39.2!” This meant nothing to me and I was in no mood to do my usual “multiply by 2, take away a tenth, add 32.” I asked and was told that is 102.5, which explained the burning up and then shivering all day. And the general clamminess that exceeded the requisite sweating for the humidity. By the way, if you can avoid high fever in a very humid and quite warm place where you are expected to dress modestly and stay in long pants and no exposed shoulders and A/C is not really used much, I recommend it.
After the nose probe and disturbing news on BP and Temp, they left. Which was good because I found myself a bit weepy and embarrassed to be crying over a high fever in front of them. But really, if being sick is bad, and being sick away from home is really bad. Then being sick alone in a new foreign country where you’ve been told your symptoms could be any number of terrible disease is definitely bad enough to warrant a few tears of worry (and, perhaps, one or two for self pity as well). Hearing that my fever was higher than I suspected (100ish) and higher than my obviously useless thermometer (97.5) reported forced me to consider the reality of getting a disease in Nepal, something I had been avoiding thinking about. I tried futilely to stop the tears but couldn’t do that or remain calm and regain control until I acknowledged my fears that these things might actually happen and I would just have to deal if they did. That helped me feel ready for the return of my medical team about 7 minutes later. Doc said “You have Influenza A, here is your medicine” and that was that. I have never ever been so happy to have the flu.
In case you want to know more about Nepal (and not that time I cried about being sick in Nepal) I have plenty of other things I plan on writing into a blog post. And those will actually have pictures (I think we can all agree that photos of me with a fever are not Grade A blog material). This post has gotten long, so more soon, because I am feeling quite well again and there is nothing more invigorating than a whole Nepal out there to be seen through the healthy eyes of someone with energy and a renewed sense of self and place.
*The title was actually “Staying Healthy in Nepal”, not A Thousand Ways to Die in Nepal