Very early on my mission partner contracted malaria. Years later with overseas mission experience a plenty, malaria was just “one of those things” you were careful to avoid, but dealt with when needed. But the first time…the sage wisdom of experience was not available.
While in mission training, we had a course based on the book “Where there are no doctors” (or so similarly titled). As the book title indicates it was how to deal with all manner of illness and injury in distant and tropical settings. Beyond the binding wounds, bracing broken limbs, and soothing fevered brows, the book when into treatment of parasitic infections, worm invasions, and a whole host of incidents which had the effect of causing one to think twice about mission. But in the here and now, we were in the field far from a hospital, but not too far from a clinic run by Italian religious sisters. It seemed like an oasis in the midst of our worries and concerns.
It was bit of a hike through the bush but was located on one of the well trod paths. If memory serves, the only languages spoken were Dhluo and Italian. But sometimes language is not needed. Two wazungu (white people) show up and your clinic, you can be pretty sure they are either lost or in need of care (and perhaps lost also). I suspect the one word needed was “malaria” – perhaps as universal a word like “Coke” or “OK.” In any case they took charge of my friend.
The process was relatively simple: draw blood and visually inspect under a microscope. If one sees the parasite, then the patient has malaria, confirming what the patient’s symptoms already indicated. In short order, one of the Italian sisters came to render the diagnosis. She did not speak English and we did not speak Italian, but the word “malaria” (said with a lovely Italian lilt), “quinine” and a hand motion to indicate the delivery method of the medicine would be by injection was all that was needed.
At this point the telling of the story diverges. My version, as the passive observer is rather mundane. My friend and mission partner’s version is more robust. Let me set the scene. We are in the bush of western Kenya, the clinic is filled with women and children waiting under shade trees. The compound has the normal clinic sounds of coughing, mother’s cooing to children to provide some comfort, and sometimes the soft weeping of wounds and fractures waiting attention. Meanwhile staff hurries to and fro, forms are filled out, vitals recorded, and the vision of heavenly Italian sisters, dressed in all white with veils, move through the scene imparting a healing touch. (As I said, … more robust)
When we are called to the exam room, in fact, just a corner of the clinic with partitions, the diagnosis is delivered and we awaited treatment of the quinine injection. She returned with a vial of the drug and the hypodermic needle that was the size of an equine needle (it seemed regular to me). His eyes growing a bit wider at the prospect of a pointed encounter, my friend begins to roll up his sleeve. At which point her angelic countenance took on a evil grin (she seemed quite business like to me), and slowly shook her head (that part is accurate), and pointed to his posterior (also accurate).
Forever frozen in time and memory, is my friend, pants dropped, buttock exposed, bending over a table, with an evilly laughing Italian sister (again, she was quite professional), viciously plunging (not really) the needle into him taking revenge for every priest that had treated her poorly. The deed done, her laugh continued as she pantomimed that he would be stuck deaf as a side effect (not really, but quinine can cause temporary ringing in the ears), and go through life accursed among men (he’d be ok in about three days).
There were other encounters with malaria whose treatment and cure were not so interesting. They simply involved taking a pill over several days. But those moments are not forever frozen in time and memory – nor told with increasing embellishment at reunions of mission folk.