Orthodox Christian Mission Center’s Blog

January 13, 2011

Christmas Unplugged: An update from Missionary Michael Pagedas

As I thought about what I would write for my Christmas blog, I kept thinking of things I wanted to address, like being away from home (and overseas no less), being away from the Christmas commercialism that I’ve come to expect, and even focusing on how people in Tanzania celebrate Christmas. At no point did I ever consider parasitic disease as a discussion topic, but that is exactly how I’ll be starting this entry.

On December 21, at around 10PM or so, I noticed that my muscles and joints really started to ache. I had noticed a similar sensation several days before during dinner, but the pain was minimal and went away soon after. This time, I felt like I was coming down with the flu–a bad flu. I went to bed and when I woke up at around 2AM, I felt horrible. The aches were still there, plus I had a fever and chills. I couldn’t stop convulsing until I put extra clothes on, but that did little to stop the other ailments. I immediately thought malaria, but I wasn’t 100% positive and didn’t want to jump to that conclusion without knowing for sure. I had felt similar symptoms in the states, and those could usually be dismissed simply as the flu. I also learned at the travel clinic back home that it is still very possible to get the flu here in the tropics, even though we only think of the flu existing in cold weather climates. When I woke up again in the morning, I felt well enough to get out of bed but still a little iffy about what was bothering me. Later that morning, I was bed-ridden again. I attempted to get up and move around in the early afternoon, but I was very wobbly and becoming somewhat delirious. That was all Felice and Katie needed to send me to the lab to be tested for malaria. I somehow managed to get into a cab with Felice and our interpreter and down the short, bumpy road to the lab without incident. The clinic was a a small building close to the main hospital in Bukoba. We walked into a small room with a desk and some chairs lined up against the wall. On the desk were a jar of cotton balls, a container of wrapped lancets, and another container for their disposal. I remember being relieved at seeing the lancets individually sealed in paper wrappers, indicating that they were most likely sterile, but in my condition, they could have had a jar of rusty nails, and I probably wouldn’t have objected. The technician stuck my finger, did a blood smear on a glass side, and then went into a side room to do the analysis. About 10 minutes later, which seemed like 20, she came out and delivered the news: I really did have malaria. On one hand, I was relieved that it was something easily identifiable and could be treated, but I also felt like I had been betrayed by a close friend. I had done all I could to prevent getting malaria (a daily doxycycline pill, burning a mosquito coil next to my bed every night, and using a mosquito net) but it didn’t matter. I still had malaria, and Africa didn’t care. Over the days since I have both contracted the disease and been treated for malaria, I have been putting a lot of thought into this and have come up with the following philosophical perspectives:

I am OK, and the world will go on.

Malaria is a serious disease and can be fatal, but most everyone here regards it like we would the common cold. That’s not to say that there is a nonchalance about it, but the fact that it is so commonplace, in addition to advancements in modern medicine, make malaria one of those “it’s just part of life in Africa” things, for better or worse. Millions of people have had the disease before me and millions more will get it from this point on, unless someone stumbles across a cure before then. By the way, there is no known panacea for malaria prevention. There are simply ways of managing it once you get it. The ways of managing it are so advanced now that many people no longer find it necessary to take prophylactic medications for malaria. It’s actually easier to be treated for malaria once you get it than it is to prevent getting it! This opens up an obvious point of debate within the medical community. I have been told by both a medical anthropologist and a local pharmacist with reputable training that drugs like the doxycycline I am taking daily to prevent malaria don’t work, especially over the long-term, and that it’s better not to take anything at all and then be treated for malaria once it hits. I now believe the first part of that to be true, but I’m not sure about the mentality of giving up completely on trying to prevent getting malaria. To be continued.

I have been given a firsthand insight into what life is really like here.

We all know that malaria is a huge problem in Africa, but I’m sure that only a few of you reading this know exactly what it’s like to have malaria. Given my reasons for coming here, this may have been a boon for the rest of my term. I got to experience firsthand one of the health issues I will be dealing with in my ministry. It’s easy for someone to come in and say, “Malaria is bad. Here is how to protect yourself,” having no idea what it’s like for those who have had the disease. However, I now consider myself more of a respectable authority on malaria because I’ve been through it. To take another angle–and I apologize if this is an affront to anyone who has ever been deathly ill from or lost a loved one from malaria–I kind of feel like malaria is a rite of passage for living in Africa. I’m now a member of the club. Welcome to Africa. I have often read stories of 19th century explorers traveling through the heart of Africa and contracting diseases like malaria. I can now understand what they felt and can only begin to wonder what it must have been like to be in a time when medicine wasn’t the same and it was more difficult to be evacuated in an emergency. Furthermore, I am amazed at their willingness to keep going under the circumstances! To look at this more spiritually, maybe I needed to suffer with those I am serving to really become a part of who they are. Just as God was able to participate in human life through Christ, I feel like I have been able to participate in African life through this illness. A recent daily scripture reading, which relates to God taking the form of man in order to deal directly with temptation, sin, and death, was perfectly (even frighteningly) well-timed: ”Therefore in all things He had to be made like His brethren…” –Hebrews 2:17

I hope I never get malaria again, but even if I do, I’ll know that it can be treated very effectively.

I have been prescribed two relatively new drugs on the market: Artefan and Artequin. Both are extremely effective at fighting malaria and can even reach the parasites where other medications may not be able to, like the liver. The pharmacies I have used for all of my prescriptions carry medications made from reputable sources in countries like India and Switzerland, so there is little reason to worry about the efficacy of the medications I am taking. It may be difficult to prevent malaria over the long haul, but it’s nice to know that modern medicine is keeping pace with the disease.

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I was worried about the weeks leading up to Christmas because I didn’t know how I would be emotionally. I have always been with family on Christmas, even when not at home, so this would be new territory for me. There were two things working in my favor. One was that we arrived in Africa in early July. Had we arrived only a month or two ago, the pending holidays may have been more difficult to get through. The other advantage was the “lack” of holiday spirit in Bukoba. I have become used to Christmas seasons that now begin as early as Halloween. To not have that around put me through somewhat of a withdrawal, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I felt kind of relieved to not be subject to the onslaught of Christmas ads on TV and Holiday Music 24/7 on the radio. A local restaurant we frequent played Christmas songs (unfortunately, most of them were sung by Jim Reeves), but there wasn’t much else in the way of lights and decorations until Christmas was on our doorstep. That led me to make the following realization: Bukoba is what Whoville would have been like even if the Grinch had not returned the presents at the end. People really got into the spirit when it counted and didn’t need to exchange a lot of material items to officially make it Christmas. What an amazing concept!! Is this how most of the world celebrates Christmas? Could this have been how the early Christians celebrated? At our home parish, it was business as usual. The only difference was that on Christmas morning, the church yard was decorated with balloons. Yet, the mood during the liturgy was definitely a lot more festive. There really was a sense that it was Christmas, even though it wasn’t the Christmas I was used to. Maybe Dr. Seuss was right when he said that “Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” I went from feeling like I was cheated out of a homestyle Christmas to being grateful for the opportunity to experience Christmas in a different part of the world and stripped down of the excesses. Christ really was put back in Christmas.

And to think that I get to do this again next year!

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I enjoyed getting so many responses from my previous blog. Thanks for the positive feedback. I am always open to questions and comments, and I will do my best to answer every message I get.

Thank you to my support team! Wishing you all a Safe and Peaceful 2011!

Furaha na amani,
Michael
m.pagedas@ocmc.org

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