I awoke the morning of the day I was to fly back to the US, two and a half weeks in Burkina Faso, and my time had come to an end. Unexpectedly, I had quickly come to love the people and this land. With 12 hours until my flight that evening, I was going to try to make the best of my remaining time. They had become used to the hustle and bustle and cram as much as possible into a day as possible ways about me and knew they were in store for a busy. If I were a local, I would be resting up for my travels.
Leading up to this final morning in Mother Africa, I had diarrhea and gut issues for a week. That topped with the fact that the anxiety and emotions of travel often resulted in gut issues, it appeared that this day was going to be no different. I mean, when I saw the red dirt from the plan on arrival, I had cried that I’d have to leave, so it was not surprising that I had a stomach ache upon rising.
It was 9:00AM and no one else was awake in the house, or at least out of their rooms. I went out to the living room and turned on the fan to help stave off the eventual overheating of my body that the day would bring. The walk from my room, down the hallway to the living room made my stomach hurt more, so I laid down on the couch. Soon after Idrissa emerged, and I could hardly sit up to greet him. I tried to play off the pain as I did the night before at my going away party.
Friends and family came to wish me well over kebabs and the local beer. Kaba wore a floor length, silver, spaghetti strap dress and newly braided locks that took multiple people over eight hours to style. I don’t remember what I wore, but I know it was something cotton and comfortable because my stomach hurt terribly. When Kaba asked about my muted style and personality, I played it off and said I was sad to be leaving. While true, it wasn’t the whole truth.
When Nikiema greeted me, I tried to pass off my stomach ache and general blah feeling as the a typical morning after a party, but when I couldn’t sit up or get off of the couch to go to breakfast, it was clear I wasn’t well. I couldn’t worry anymore about being the stereotypical white woman with gut issues. I’ve had a long history of severe stomach pain, so up to this point, for all I knew it may have been a minor issue. I didn’t even know I had been in two hours of labor because I was used to cramping that crippled me over from from eating dairy, gluten and other foods.
TO THE CLINIC WE GO
My illness progressed quickly as we rode to the clinic. By the time we arrived, I was feverish and dizzy, like I had a bad buzz. Getting from the waiting room to exam room proved difficult and I couldn’t walk on my own from lack of coordination and feeling a little delirious. The ten minutes from arrival to exam was long enough for me to spike a high fever and barely keep conscious. Walking back to the room was a bad roller coaster ride as I felt my stomach in my throat, like my head had been left behind at the start and my body was at the finish being told to exit the ride.
The doctor’s first thought was malaria, but a blood test quickly ruled it out. I very well could have had malaria since I quit taking my anti-malarial pills. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly, but after a week of not sleeping and hallucinations when I’d start to sleep, it was a necessity. While in Ouagadougou I had a mosquito net, plus, mosquitos have never really bothered me, so I wan’t as worried as I probably should have been. The theories I’ve heard are mosquitos are attracted to carbon monoxide (which my breathing is interfered with because of chronic sinusitis) and vitamin D, which I’m deficient in as a lifetime resident of MN. So I didn’t have anything they wanted and felt semi confident in my decision to end my prevention treatment.
I’m not sure how I got from the exam room to the car, but at some point Traore had arrived and said this clinic wasn’t good enough me. He arranged for me to go to the hospital where foreign diplomats went to get the best care. In MN we hate flu season—the puking, fever, chills, body aches—but the flu was a picnic compared to the fever consuming control over my body as we travel to the new health facility.
My friend helped walk me into the international hospital where staff escorted me directly to an exam room. I, with my limited French skills and friend who spoke minimal English, tried to detail the frequency, consistency and contents of my bowel movements of the previous week. Language struggles aside, this kind of talk was against the etiquette training I had as a Miss Princess of my hometown. I saw things that I didn’t eat in my BMs. It seemed like grass or hay, but I obviously couldn’t examine much. In hindsight, maybe they were worms. Either my semi-coherent poop ramblings translated well, or they were confident in knowing which tests to run on white ladies with stomach aches, as tests were run and I was admitted into the hospital.
Though I was brought to the best health care facility in the country, I thought I walked, albeit uncoordinatedly even with assistance, through a time warp to the 1940s in the United States or the Cuba shown in movies, with nurses wearing stiff, straight lined, white, knee length dresses. I wasn’t alive during WWII, so this feeling was based on the hospital scenes in Pearl Harbor, circa 2000ish. White tiles lined the walls and floors, and a contraption that can only be described as jumper cables with bells—I can’t remember what it was used for as I was pretty out of it, but seeing them weirded me out, like I was in a bad horror movie about to be tortured. I was sick enough that I was admitted into the equivalent of the ICU in the US, with a nurse’s room attached to mine, separated only by a window for observation.
Although I was extremely ill, I didn’t receive a diagnoses. They presumed it was a bacteria infection because everything else was ruled out—not my first or last diagnosis based on exclusion and getting the, “We know your sick, we just don’t know why.” words from the doctor that were supposed to somehow be comforting. What was new though was that I wasn’t upset about being in the hospital.
During my 30 plus years, I had multiple hospitalizations—as a four year old with pneumonia and because they put my IV in my right hand and I had to color left handed, that’s how I became ambidextrous, for weeks the summer going into seventh grade when I ruptured my liver and ended up missing the first month of junior high, giving birth to my daughter, or when I had my hysterectomy and gall bladder removed, both out patient procedures that resulted in multiple day stays and extended healing times— so I knew how to operate bed remotes to get comfortable. On this day though, from my uncomfortable, non-electric with no remote, adjustable bed that moved in large, manual increments making it impossible to find the comfort sweet spot, I could hear my plane take off from the airport. I knew it was my plane because back then, they had very few flights and you knew which was yours. At the time I didn’t have a diagnosis, so I laid in my bed, waiting to contact my parents until I had something to tell them to avoid needless worrying. They had seen me at the doctor and in the hospital too many times, and for the first time, they weren’t with me.
Even with this history, I hated being in the hospital, although I was lucky enough to always have my family by my side, and they would adorned me with gifts and food from the outside. Before my accident the summer going into seventh grade, I remember going to Thrifty White Drug at the mall. Up high on the shelf was a stuffed lion that was almost half my size and well out of our family’s price range. I thought it was coolest thing ever! I left the store with him still up on the shelf. After exploratory surgery that revealed I had ruptured my liver after running down the hill and tripping on tree saplings, I recovered after rupturing my liver and then bleeding internally for a week, as Leo the Lion comforted me in my hospital bed in the hospital and the one in our living room for a month as I recovered. Twenty-five years later, I still have him and remember the time I saw a tunnel of light, and then woke up from surgery to a room full of my family.
Even though I didn’t have my family by my side, this time however, I felt I was given a gift, and not just because I didn’t have to wear a hospital gown. Maybe all of those times with love and concern from my family prepared me to do this alone. Although sick, my trip in this magical place was extended. I received an unwrapped gift. Who can be upset when invited to stay longer? Although bacteria made it happen, I wasn’t upset at the result.
I spent two days and one night in the hospital, and then went back to the home of my new family. How happy was I that when I purchased my ticket, hospitalization was a reason to get a free ticket date transfer? I was weak, but the next day I needed to go to the cyber cafe to rebook my ticket. Today we are in the land of 4G, free wifi, and fast streaming. In that cyber though, made of scrap wood and metal with a dirt floor and less than ten computers lining the tables, the dial up connection was slower than the slowest dial up I had experienced in the 90s in the US. It didn’t help that the rain came and disconnected everything. It’s not cheap for the super slow access either.
RESCHEDULING MY RETURN
After two days of trying to reschedule flights that were only available Tuesday and Saturday, I found out I needed a special form. We had already driven 45 minutes across town to get a doctor’s note, but now we needed to do it again with a special form that I couldn’t print because the power went out again. I was released from the hospital on Saturday, but I wasn’t getting out on the Tuesday flight to my family’s dismay. While I enjoyed more dancing, sightseeing, art making and making friends, my mother threatened to have Governor Dayton send the National Guard to retrieve me. I explained that I wasn’t being kept against my will, but in order to not pay huge fees for a new ticket, I needed to play the airline’s games, while having access to limited resources. As a mother and looking back, I can only imagine the anxiety and worry my family felt knowing I was sick, in a foreign land and not able to return to them timely.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for me though as I was laid off from my job during the government shutdown of summer 2011. Though delayed, I wasn’t missing work, which would have been a big concern. My daughter was well cared for by my family so I didn’t have to worry about her. As soon as I landed on US soil, I received a call that the shut down was over and I had a job to report to on Monday.
Before I could get the paperwork signed at the hospital, I needed to pay the for two days in the ICU. Needless to say, they didn’t accept my insurance, nor would my insurance cover the expense even if they did. How much does two days in ICU with a nurse constantly in your room cost in the US? I was so scared for the bill, knowing what just non-ICU cost at home. $1,000 US dollars for 30 hours of care, tests and medication. What a deal! I later learned that the locals don’t have access to the timely or quality of care I received. While extremely grateful for my positive outcome, survivor guilt hit me hard.
However, it was more money than I had, so I made the expensive phone call to my parents to request a deposit into my bank account as the hospital didn’t take credit cards. My dad’s sister-in-law’s father had recently been out of the country and was exploited for money before he could return to the US. I feel like we came up with a code word but my dad and I can’t remember. Even still, I had to reassure my family that this was not happening in my case. I was well cared for and while they didn’t want me to leave, they were going to let me go.
A week after my original flight, the doctor cleared me for flying, completed my paperwork so the airline could give me a new ticket, and I was headed to the airport a different person than I was when I arrived three and a half weeks previous. How was I different? Why was it life changing? At the time, I maybe didn’t know it, but it would manifest in my life in ways I never imagined.
I’ve always been the traveler that when I visit a place, I connect to it. Not through the tourist trap sites, but the nature, history of indigenous people, culture and art. I’ve tried moving out of the St Cloud, MN area so many times, that when I see hope in a place, I try to make a move happen. This is especially so of NYC, Hawaii and Chicago. Burkina Faso now was no exception to that, but I actually found myself wondering if I had to leave.
That was new. What would happen if I stay? I have a job that I’m miserable at. I’d be away from my family, but all of them have moved away at some point, and I never have, so why couldn’t I? I have a seven year old daughter that would miss her family and friends, but if I moved her to Burkina Faso, I couldn’t afford to send her to the international school where they speak English, as she doesn’t speak French.
I would never leave her, but I did wonder if she would be happier without me. I was a worn out, single mom, tired from lack of sleep, and unable physically to play with her as other parents do their kids, even before my car accident four years prior. Would my family care for her? Of course if I died they would, but what about if I chose to leave? I couldn’t see her being happy in Burkina Faso. That was just her personality. I couldn’t see myself being happy while on high alert trying to keep her safe from danger and from getting sick, as she was a very oral child and she would contract something, or many things. All these questions and more plagued me as I was nearing the end of my trip, just as the questions of my family did before I left.
When I returned to the US, my body was a mess—physically and spiritually. I was going through a shift, and how could I not after feeling called to embark on a new journey into art and humanitarianism. I was having trouble with my memory and was loosing control of my muscles, so I would stagger when I walked and fall into the wall. The doctors were certain that whatever made me sick in Burkina Faso or another disease came home with me. After 9 months of constant doctoring, it was revealed that I had Lyme’s Disease.
All the concern and blame on “foreign” diseases and travel, and I contracted my disease while in Minnesota’s own back yard. Again, it didn’t bother me so much that I was sick, but saw it as a great educational moment for doctors to not make assumptions about their patients, especially immigrants and refugees. I was a white woman who chose to travel, and “those” diseases were blamed for my illness. Had my doctors been more open mind, they may have uncovered my diagnosis sooner. I hope their time with me propelled them to a new level of understanding when working with difference groups of people.
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