We had been two peas in a pod, my daughter Amy-Caroline and I, as thick as thieves. Then she left for college and I began to travel and two years later distance was putting a thin veil of alienation between us. A lot had happened to us both, we had changed a great deal. Did we even know each other anymore? We decided to take a three month trip together and worked hard to get it. Amy even took a year away from school and served at a restaurant to save money for what was going to be a super bonding experience, that’s what we hoped. But a month into the trip we just couldn’t seem to get our groove back, and now I wondered if being in an Indian hospital, in the middle of a Rajasthan desert with a terrible illness, was going to count at all. We felt like the main characters in a really scary Saturday Night Live sketch, one with munchkins and steely knives and nurses who wouldn’t use hand sanitizer.
Let me back up. Turns out, Indian mosquitoes loved Amy Caroline. They munched on her sweet white flesh through thick clothes and repellant and then one day they left her a wee gift that changed her whole world, a blood born pathogen. We thought it was the flu at first and the doctors did too. Both hospitals we visited for help said “Go home, it’s only the flu”. We went home and put her to bed and a few days later, sure enough, she was feeling fine. On that day we happily set off to see sites, thankful to finally be out. With warm sun blessing our heads and cool breezes at our backs, we trudged up an ancient stone road to the tremendous Mehrangarh Fort. It was going to be a good day. The huge castle is perched on a hill above the beautiful blue desert city of Jodhpur, guarding it since 1460. That’s way, way before fossil fuels or cranes or anything that could assist with building the stone towers looming high, high over our heads. Wow. We bought our tickets, got head phones for the audio tour, and stood in front of the first castle wall hearing how it had been built by Rao Jodha, the chief of the Rathore clan and that if we looked to our right we could see cannon ball imprints from an ancient battle. Huh. Cannon ball imprints. There they were, but barely denting the great stone wall. Impressive. I looked over at Amy to see if she was impressed too, but I could see that she wasn’t. She wasn’t even looking at the cannon ball holes, she was looking at the ground. She was pale, breathing funny and her skin was glistening with clammy perspiration. When she grabbed my hand, I saw her lips turning a nice shade of blue. “My ears are ringing” she said. “My arms are tingling.” Her eyes widened with fright.
“Uh Oh. Take some deep breaths” I told her, “You are about to pass out. Let’s find you a place to sit.” I laid her down on a stone bench with the help of a passing doctor, an ambulance was called, and in it we bumped down the ancient stone road to yet another hospital. They diagnosed “The flu” in-spite of my protests, and said “go home.” This time we made the ride home in a terribly bouncy tuk tuk which sent Amy to the brink of unconsciousness again.
Ok, I would like to say a word about being a nurse and being a mom. My nurse job requires me to put my emotions in the back-ground and deal with a crisis in a rational, calm and cool way. It’s what medical professionals do and I’m good at it. Mom’s don’t do that. Stomping into the guest-house all my mom-angerfear spewed right out.“We are going back to a hospital!” I bit our guest-house owners head off. “We are going to the best hospital in the city, and we are not coming back!” Amit, the guest-house owner, said seven words, “I will take you in my car.”
And that’s when we ended up on the set of Saturday Night Live. First of all, that Emergency Department doesn’t change sheets between patients, they just plump the pillows. It’s weird to be laying on a bed wondering what illness came before you and if that disease and your disease will have teeny tiny pathogen intercourse birthing some bouncy evil baby disease of which you will be patient zero. They start IV’s that hurt like your hand is coming off and now we think it maybe even gave us nerve damage. They stand over us with what seem like steely knife shots, because that’s how scared we were, shots we did not ask for and had no idea what was in them, and when we refused the people got upset. “Why you not want this medicine? It is for everything!” “We don’t need a medicine for everything, we don’t know what’s wrong yet!”
I realize I’m talking about “her”- Amy, as “we and us”, but at this point our clinging fear had melded us into One, she was me.
Finally, all the test came back and the doctor said “She has Dengue Fever”. “What? Are you sure?” I gasped. My Chest tightened and squeezed. He was sure, and he walked me through the blood tests that proved it. Dengue. My most feared tropical disease, the one I least wanted to get of all of them. I first heard of Dengue Fever in Cambodia when my friend Mandi told me “It’s worse than Malaria. Your platelets drop and in really bad cases you bleed from every part of your body and you can die.” Wikipedia said it was true. Later, when I lived in a Burmese refugee camp and a full half of the residents had Dengue, I melted through sweltering days in long thick black polyester pants, the only ones I could find to guard against mosquitoes, because I’d rather die of heat exhaustion than bleed out with Dengue. Amy didn’t know any of this, but when we broke the news to her, “You have Dengue Fever”, she laughed out loud to keep from crying.
Eventually it was time to leave the emergency department and get into a room because now they were going to keep us. Amy, still wavering in and out of consciousness, was moved to a chair to be wheeled up to our third floor room. We waited for the elevator, staring into it’s deep dark open pit with a sliding metal gate in front of it. The light was spooky dim, we couldn’t see the bottom of the elevator pit and Amy was passing out. I do this weird thing when I am really, really scared, everything starts to seem funny, maybe it keeps the hysteria at bay. I must have been pretty scared because everything, right then, seemed just so hilarious. I bent down and whispered in Amy’s ear, “Don’t you feel like you’re in a Saturday Night Live?” She was snickering, as much as a semi-conscious person could, when the elevator box came down, the gate slid open and Amy was wheeled into the elevator coming face to face with the attendant who was a barefooted, two toed, munchkin in kaki. Ok, I want you to imagine this. Barefooted. Two toes on one foot. Dressed in Kaki. Munchkin. I swear I’m not making this up. Being friendly, he hobbled up to Amy and though she was sitting down and he was standing up, they were face to face, mere inches apart. In a tiny chipmunk voice he squeaked out perfect English, “How are you doing?” Amy blanched. I could see her already overloaded neurons screaming “Can not process munchkin, CAN NOT PROCESS MUNCHKIN!” “I’m fine, thanks,” she replied, but clearly she was not fine as she was laboring for breath. “You ok?” I whispered. She put her hand to her chest and gasped out “I’m trying to be OK”. Lowering my face to her face, I blocked the friendly munchkin. “Look at me.” I said. “Look at me and breath,” and that’s how we road up the elevator, eye to eye. “Breath, breath,” then slowly rolling down the dark hall, “breath, breath” then into our room with exposed wires, nasty toilet and stained green sheets “breath, breath.” She practically lunged for the bed so she could be laying down when she passed out. Thank God for a private room with a bed for her and a bed for me.
Amit, our guest-house owner, stayed with us this whole time, I will love him forever. He went for our medicines that had to be picked up at the neighboring pharmacy, even the IV fluids. We needed a lot of those. Then he brought us pizza and made sure we were fine before he left.
That was the end of the first day.
The second day we realized we were really in a Zoo, and everyone came to see the exotic white ones. Twenty cleaning ladies came on twenty separate cleaning missions to wipe twenty small spots on our one small floor and take a good, curious look. The security guard poked his head in twice a day, babbling away saying who-knows-what, but happy as a clam if we smiled and nodded our heads, and little beggar children asked Amy for money when I stepped out for food. Amit came, of course, bringing his parents who invited us home for dinner when we were able to make it. Nurses drew blood in the morning and the evening. I hovered with hand sanitizer. “No”, one nurse resisted when I held it our to her. “Yes”, my head bobbled with every bit of the caged mother intensity I was feeling. Her eyes went wide, she stuck her hand out, I dabbed some in. A male nurse gave Amy his ring to wear while she was there, maybe it brought her luck. And that’s how it was. Pizza, blood draws and a party at the zoo.
Three days later, on the eve of Diwali, the biggest celebration in all of India, it was time to go home. I was so ecstatic I paid the tuk tuk driver triple. His face beamed in happy surprise and when I wished him “Happy Diwali”, my face beamed too.
The next week we recovered, looking over beautiful blue Jodhpur from atop the Castle View guest-house veranda, playing cards, reading and watching partiers celebrate Diwali as loud, long and hard as I’ve ever seen. Ever. Crazy loud music, non-stop ear blowing fireworks, parties, parties, parties, for three days and nights nonstop. Three days and nights. Did I say Nonstop? It was a welcome celebration for us. Amy was out of danger and in-spite of all that happened we had never felt alone. We were strangers, didn’t speak the language and didn’t know where to go, yet people saw our need and helped us. The doctor at the fort, Amit, Amit’s parents, even the security guard. It inspired me, made me a better person, more aware of who is around me and who might need help.
Amy is as good as new, now the envy of her brothers as Dengue put the coveted double notch of toughness on her travelers belt. I love Amit dearly, my American friends have gone to stay at his guest-house and he has shown them the best of times. As for Amy and I? We became an “us” and a “we”.
Photos are below. For videos look here: