India Part II: Struggling with Getting Sick

Why India is a question I have a lot of trouble answering.

I grew up alongside Indian Americans in Texas. I watched my fair share of Bollywood movies, spelled the cooking smells (although my best friend’s mom was worried that I wouldn’t like Indian food and often got us take out when I stayed over, to my great dismay and no matter how often I protested that I would be happy to eat whatever she cooked), and learned about Hindu gods and goddesses from asking about my friends’ families’ devotional posters.

My curiosity was piqued and I read all I could about India. When I got to college I kept my interest in India, took classes relating to India, and it felt right that that should be where I went for research.

Although it’s hard to say that on a funding application, and when it came down to it I really didn’t know what to expect. I had barely traveled outside of the US and global travel was a new adventure for me.

I went to live in a village and volunteer at an NGO that was a residential school for street children (children who were homeless and who often did not have parents who were able or willing to care for them) for two months in Northwest India. (More on that in a future post!)

True to my dad’s prediction, I did get a bacterial infection. In fact, I got two. I used up the antibiotics my doctor had given me and went to the local village doctor.

A friend at the NGO, fluent in Hindi, took me.

We went to the clinic, which was located in a small cement building wrapped around a courtyard, where the doctor was sitting.

The attendant helping the doctor spoke to my friend, who translated.

“It’s ten rupees to see him.” This was less than a quarter in American money.

I looked in my bag, the smallest bill I had was a 100, because ATMs in India are as irritating as they are in America and don’t give small bills. I felt so weak and sick, I tried to just give him the 100 for the visit, to use for other patients, those for whom 10 rupees was a lot, but they just gave it back to me and saw me for free.

I had no energy to argue, but I make sure to always contribute to health care NGOs every year.

He asked a couple of questions, and determined

“Yes, you have a bacterial infection. I’ll just give you an injection (which is British-Indian English for shot).”

I freaked out about the idea of using a needle and asked for pills.

So, then we went to the pharmacist and got a bunch of pills in blister packs. All of them with ingredient lists I didn’t know. I just took them on faith, although I really wanted to research the ingredients and check for side effects. It was hard to just take the meds.

It was definitely hard to be so sick in a foreign place, without my own space. I felt out of control. I had to ask for people to help me get water to drink and cook food that I could eat.

I struggled to find the energy to take bucket showers (you dip a cup of water in a bucket full and pour it over yourself after soaping up) to stay clean and feel human. I envied my fellow volunteer who had a brought a ton of wet wipes with her. (Those were definitely on my next packing list for India, although I didn’t get sick that trip or the next).

I was well for a couple of weeks until the end of my trip.

I was in a small city nearby and got what my host family called malaria. Whatever it was, it was also gross.

Unfortunately, there was only one bathroom for the whole family. So of course, there was a day when my stomach couldn’t wait to return its contents until after my host father had finished in the bathroom.

Cleaning up after that incident was probably my least favorite memory from that summer. I struggled with the panic induced by the whole event and tried to keep it together alone.

I got a high fever, and was so worried that I was really sick and should see a doctor. My imagination ran wild with different illnesses it could be. I asked my hosts to take me to a doctor to allay my fears. They called their friend, a doctor, who told us,

“Probably malaria, but she’ll be fine. Just give her a fever reducer for fever.”

In North India, when you’re sick, everyone believes you should be fed so you don’t get weak and sicker. I struggled to eat rice or rotis, even though I just wanted to sleep and not put anything in my stomach or digestive track.

My host mother harangued me for my poor sick behavior, “Eat, eat, eat. Look, I put good food on your plate. It’s bland. It’ll be make you feel better. You can sleep after you eat it. No sugar or snacks. You need to eat!”

I tried and failed to even sit at the table without almost passing out. I was not a great houseguest, unfortunately, but I was very lucky in my host family who took good care of me.

At one point, I called my mom to tell her I loved her in case I died, I felt that bad and believed in my anxious/OCD heart that it was a likely possibility. (My mom is a bit of a worrier too, so I didn’t tell her that. I just mentioned I had a stomach bug).

So, yes, I got sick. A lot. It wasn’t easy. I used a lot of hand sanitizer and tried to always drink filtered water and eat non-street food that was always cooked, but I still got sick. I couldn’t control it.

My body was not really ready, nor was my brain, but I learned I could do it without losing my mind, without giving up, and that I wanted to go back. It was 100% worth getting sick to spend two months in Northwest India.

And you better believe that I was much more prepared when I did return to India!

(For the first post in this series, click here!)

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