Tag Archives: hospital

The Cycle of Life Part 1

As I said in the bit about me, I am a realist with a healthy dose of optimism. Apologies that I am again going to write about death. It may seem morbid to my blog followers but I do not always find talking about death negative. I dwell so much on it because it is my way of not forgetting those who have left footprints in my heart. Also because unfortunately, for someone who has been fortunate not to be from areas where death is a daily occurrence, I have seen more than my fair share. In the old and in the young. If you are squeamish, this may not be the blog for you.

I write this in the living room of my sister’s flat in Abuja and this was prompted by another blog I just read and also by a conversation I had with my sister. It was a long conversation but it ultimately lead us to discuss our mortality and how death can strike unexpectedly, about being a parent and planning for that eventuality to ensure your children are taken of and about writing wills etcetera. Despite the gravity of the conversation, it was quite an uplifting one. The words to follow are snippets of memories centred mainly around 3 deaths that have literally changed my life. These are young people who no one expected to die and their manner of death changed the way I think about death.

The first was of a classmate from Queen’s College, Lagos. It happened in 1999. She (I will call her Eve here) was not a girl I was particularly close to or even fond of. But I had known her for nearly 3 years when tragedy befell her. Eve was the daughter of a quiet unassuming teacher who I will call Mr Brown here. Mr Brown was the complete opposite of his daughter. Where he was quiet, she was loud. Where he was always serious, she was always laughing, finding the humour in things even when it wasn’t appropriate. She was tall for a 12-13 year old and he was a short man. She was fair where he was dark skinned. The comparisons were striking being that they were father and child. Anyway, Eve was the class joker. She was always loudly laughing or telling a joke. She was always planning the next prank or calling out funny witticisms from the back of the class. Sometimes, it was distracting so I wasn’t always laughing with her but I never thought her to be malicious.

We came back for the 3rd trimester of JSS3 and Eve didn’t. Soon rumours began to circulate about her being unwell. Then we heard that she was in fact really quite sick and was admitted in hospital. Then we heard that she had been victim of an acid burn. The extent was unclear but we did not expect how grave it was. Why we asked? And we kept asking. She was only a young girl. Why would anyone do this to her? I was pretty sheltered so I had never heard of acid attacks nor did I know the usual motives behind them. My more streetwise classmates told me that normally jilted or scorned (adult) men were the perpetrators were and the victims the poor unfortunate girls/women of their affections. It was mainly a Southern thing back then so I had never come across this despite my mother’s job.

This was the perplexing issue to us, her classmates. Why would a girl so young attract such affection? Soon, we again heard that the attack was aimed at her older sister (also in our school but nearer 16 or maybe 17 year old). We were told that Eve opened the door to their home unsuspectingly and she had acid thrown in her face. We were told that she was badly burnt and had been admitted to the hospital weeks before we were hearing of it and was in a serious condition. We talked about her non-stop for a week. There was a sombre mood in the class. It was as if no one felt right to take over her role. So there was no joking or pranking in those days. We all feared the worst as the news we heard was comprised solely of rumours. Like Chinese whispers, we were unsure who to believe.

One morning, the Day students (as opposed to us Boarders) came in talking about the 9 o’clock news on NTA (Nigerian Television Authority channel, national news broadcast). Eve had been mentioned as there was an appeal for funds. The attack on her and the resulting serious injuries were so serious that the doctors in Lagos could do no more and I think the thrust of the news was that her family was appealing for donations to take her abroad. This was when we realised just how bad things were. We sat around in silence, praying for some news. Mr Brown turned up in our class that morning. For once, no one needed to ask for silence. We all sat in our seats and looked at him expectantly. He spoke to us in his quiet voice. His eyes were red…from exhaustion or from tears – it was hard to tell which. He confirmed the rumours. Eve had been the unintended victim of an acid attack. She had been home alone when the men called and as she was so sick, she could not identify her attackers. She was in hospital in a stable but critical condition. He left. For the next few weeks, we continued to whisper about Eve. What did critical mean exactly? More rumours about who the intended victim was and the suspected attackers. About the extent of her injuries. Some adults had been to visit and they all agreed it didn’t look good. Despite all our fears, she remained alive but in a ‘stable condition’.

End of term for us JSS3 students came early and on our last day, some kind soul had organised a bus for those of us who felt up to visiting to go and see Eve. Most of the Northern girls declined to come. I was the only Northerner to get on the bus. In total, out of 90+ classmates, the bus held less than a dozen of us plus a couple of adults. The bus ride was made in total silence. You could smell our fear and the tension was palpable. I mouthed prayers, praying that I could handle whatever condition she was in. I don’t remember much of the usual Friday traffic and the heat. I remember walking off the bus in a single file and how much I was dreading what I was about to see. The smell hit me first and I felt my gut roll. My nostrils curled inwards, as if to block off my nose and the smell with it. I thought I would faint. It was the smell of decaying human flesh reaching the corridor outside her room. I could hear someone whimper and start to sob within our group. We all marched on following the adult leading us in. We stopped by the door as she announced our entrance. When she opened the door, the smell hit us harder followed closely by the sound of Eve taking breath after painful breath. My knees locked and a part of me wanted to bolt. I remember telling myself sternly that I could face anything. If she had to be here, I could visit her. Even if only for a minute.

On wobbly legs, I followed. I inhaled and held my breath. The bedside cabinet was groaning under the weight of medication. Mostly topical and oral stuff with cotton wool and forceps in a metal tray. She was barely visible. Her head was uncovered and there was a lady (her mother?) whispering in her ear. Asking her to be brave, not to scream in pain as she had begun to do. ‘Your classmates have come to visit’ the lady whispered into the hole where her outer air should have been. She seemed to hear her and she lapsed into her painful breathing again. The rest of her body was covered. It was beneath a metal cage over which a sheet was draped. I could not see underneath but I was certain she had burns all over her body, which was why she was lying so. To prevent clothing coming in contact with her skin. We all took turns to step up next to her and tell her who we were. Her eyes were covered, she clearly could not see. The hair on her head was badly singed and what was left of it was in a clump, stuck to her skull. All of her skin was badly damaged. You could see bits of colour imbedded in the skin of her face and neck, clothes melted into her skin. Her nose was gone…there were holes for breathing but no nostrils. Her ears like I already mentioned were missing too. All that was left were holes leading to her middle ears. Her lips were also damaged and her mouth was hanging upon as she struggled to get air in. Through her open mouth, you could see her blackened shrivelled tongue.

She grunted when each girl said her name. We retreated to the back of the room and stood silently for some time. Her carer took a bottle from the cabinet and dropped it onto some part of her face when she started to complain of pain again. Soon, her bravery was unable to contain her pain any longer and she began to whimper. This very quickly turned into screams of anguish. She was clearly in unbearable pain. We all had tears in our eyes as we were ushered out. Her carer came to us and said ‘thank you so much for coming. I know Eve appreciates it’. None of us replied, we were too busy crying. We got back on the bus and gave way to emotion. I remember staring unseeingly out of my window as tears coursed down my cheeks. I wept for nearly an hour, until we got back to school. When I got off the bus, my face was dry. It was obvious I had been crying but the tears stopped. I had to be brave. I got my things and I went home. I did not speak much of it over the next few days except my family would ask how I was doing whenever the appeal for help with medical costs was broadcast. Her death was announced on the Tuesday after we visited. Although I didn’t say it out, I sent a word of thanks to God for answering my prayer. My prayers on the bus after we left was that He put her out of her misery. I was sad but life went on.

About a month later, 2 of my older male cousins, my foster sister, my sister and I had one of our late nights of playing cards by the light of a lantern on the veranda whilst most of Yola slept. It was around midnight and Yola was definitely in bed by then. We were suddenly famished and we rooted around in the kitchen to no avail. We decided to go out and buy some food. We walked in the quiet to the night market (‘kasuwan dare’), fearless in those days of anything untoward happening. Yola was that kind of town. Despite the fact that 3 of us were young girls, we felt safe enough in the company of 2 older boys. We bought food and came home, had a merry little feast and were in the middle of telling jokes and laughing when it suddenly dawned on me that Eve was dead. Just like that. She would have no more holidays, no more jokes, no more laughs. She was gone. Forever. The enormity of it hit me. The pain she was in, the senselessness of her death (her murder come to think of it) and the grief her family must be going through. How had she felt just before the attack happened and when she had the acid thrown at her? How had she borne the pain for so long? Could she smell her own flesh decaying? Did she realise how badly she had been hurt? Did she know she was dying?

From laughter, I dissolved into tears and I could not stop. The more I thought about her, the more I wept. The others were concerned. I told them through my tears not to worry. I was just remembering Eve. They were worried I could see but also understanding. This carried on for maybe half an hour. Eventually, my sister suggested that the boys go home. My sisters would look after me. I smiled through my hysteria and tried desperately to compose myself. I remember rocking as I sat on the ground, hugging my knees and trying not to hyperventilate. I was sobbing out loud, my eyes closed as I got flashbacks of Eve in her eventual death bed.

My sisters asked what the matter was when I did not show signs of stopping. I said ‘I will be fine. I don’t know why I can’t stop crying.’ Actually I did know. I could not stop imagining myself as her. Going through that ordeal, surviving for over 3 months with all the pain. Unable to talk, unable to move, unable to ask why. I thought mostly of her mother, who had to watch her daughter go through this. I thought about the inadequacy of treatment, how she was clearly in pain but there were no painkillers strong enough to control her pain. I thought of her sister, who was rumoured to be the intended victim. How did she feel? Did she feel bad her little sister had taken her place? Did she feel guilty by association? I thought of Mr Brown and his wife. I knew they would be devastated. I had seen it in their eyes. How were they carrying on? How could they bear the pain? If the pain I was feeling was so deep and I wasn’t even that close to her, how must they feel? How could they bear to be alive?

It took over an hour for me to calm down and stop the sobbing. I still cried. Until dawn that day but silently as my sisters lay next to me and went to sleep. I got it all out then and not once since have I shed a tear over Eve but I remember her whenever I think about life and death. The details are unclear to me now but I think her attackers were caught. Her sister was a witness in the case. I don’t know if they were convicted and what happened to them afterwards. We never got to go to the funeral because it happened over the summer holidays.

Life moved on when we returned to SS1. Without Eve. She had never made it out of her pinafore and into the skirt we were now wearing as senior students. Whenever someone said someone funny, we would refer back to what Eve would say. Mr Brown, bless him, looked devastated whenever we saw him, which wasn’t often. He did come to say thank you to all of us for our prayers and our parents’ donations. He especially wanted to say thank you to those of us who visited. He said we helped Eve. I hoped so. As the days turned into weeks and weeks into months, we gradually moved onto other topics. Other girls soon took up the mantle of class clown and the laughter returned. Still, I never forgot and I know at least within my circle of friends at least, none of us will forget her. She lives on in our hearts. What a senseless loss!

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The Expiry Date

This morning I read drkategranger’s blog regarding her expiry date (she is a doctor with terminal cancer who talks about death so candidly, it inspires. I would absolutely recommend!!!). The blog and some of the responses to it got me to thinking about death. I have already written about dying and the fact that I fear it not so much. As a Muslim, I tend to see death as just one of those certainties of life so I treat it quite matter-of-factly. This blog is will be further musings about my experiences of death. I will start with a quote from Hadith (Islamic teachings) which summarises how I generally see life and death:

Al-Hasan Al-Basrî said:
‘The life of this world is made up of three days: yesterday has gone with all that was done; tomorrow, you may never reach; but today is for you so do what you should do today.’ Al-Bayhaqî, Al-Zuhd Al-Kabîr p197

I am generally an optimist or more accurately an optimistic realist so I try not to be morbid and I am generally not one to dwell on death. However, I have had times in my life where the thought of dying has crossed my mind. Last winter was a pretty bad time for me. I was working in the hospital that inspired me to become a paediatrician (which still inspires me) but I was in a job with a particularly toxic individual who succeeded in poisoning the atmosphere. I became depressed after 6 weeks of this. So much so that I hated waking up every morning I was scheduled to work. It got to a point that I would lie in bed, sleepless and think ‘would it be that bad if I didn’t wake up in the morning?’ As soon as the thought came to my mind, I would feel guilty and terrible. Guilty because I knew that my life really wasn’t that bad and that there was so much for me to be grateful for. Terrible because I knew my death, although insignificant in the grand scheme of things, would be horrible for my nearest and dearest. My mama especially. I got through those 4 months because my husband was there and would not let me sink into the depths of depression that kept pulling at me. Thank you George!

I am now back to my normal sunny self despite some current work horrors. As a newly-qualified doctor back in 2009, I dealt with death day in, day out especially on my first job on gastroenterology at a busy inner-city hospital. After the initial shock, I got used to it. Not that I didn’t care or it didn’t bother me but I dealt ok with it. There are 2 patient deaths from those days that have stayed with me. Both died of alcoholic liver disease. Both men in their 40s.

The first patient died slowly from hepatorenal syndrome (HRS). Basically with chronic liver failure, if your kidneys too fail, you will die soon because that means 2 of your 4 vital organs are dead or dying, unless you get brand new organs (i.e. transplants). As things currently stand, you cannot be put on the transplant list for a new liver if you are still abusing alcohol because the new liver will get damaged just the same and it is considered a waste of an organ that is in high demand but short in supply. So with my first patient, who I will call Patient A, when his kidney function tests declined rapidly and nothing we could do medically fixed it, we diagnosed HRS and my registrars and consultants had a meeting with his wife to inform her of the diagnosis and what that meant for the patient. He too was told in due time but because of his liver failure, he was confused and did not fully grasp the fact that his condition was terminal.

He deteriorated slowly over a few weeks but in the meantime, he would ask me daily when he could go home and travel to India to be blessed in the Ganges River. I would mutter something non-committal and beat a hasty retreat out of his side room. Initially, it was clear that his wife knew his death was near. But even she began to belief he would miraculously recover from his liver and kidney failure. Every week, she would say something that made us worry we hadn’t prepared her for the inevitable. Every week we would remind her gently that although she couldn’t see it, he was in actual fact deteriorating judging from his biochemistry lab results and worsening oliguria (he was weeing less and less).

In the week of his death, he suddenly looked well again. If I wasn’t the doctor patiently doing bloods on alternate days and chasing those results and noting the relentless rise in his urea and creatinine, I too would have started to believe in miracles. His wife upon seeing the light return to his eyes and his demeanour brighten plunged headlong into denial and joined him in planning their trip to India to the Holy Ganges River. Less than 24 hours before his eventual expiry date, it was devastating for me to watch her grief as the light in his eyes faded rapidly and he shrunk back into himself. Within 12 hours of his final illness beginning, his strength was gone and his mind with it. His utterings became incomprehensible and he became completely disorientated. The look on her face said it all when we came in to see him on our ward round that morning. We returned the look and she ran out of the room to sob in the corner. He was anuric by then (had stopped weeing completely) with a creatinine of over 400 (in other words, his kidneys had packed up). His liver function tests painted an equally damning picture. We completed his end of life paperwork that morning and when we left work that evening, he was hanging on by the tips of his fingers. We came in the next morning to the news that he had died before the end of the day before. The side room he had occupied for many weeks stood empty, awaiting its deep clean before the next customer.

Patient B was a young alcoholic who had developed liver cirrhosis in the months before I started the job. He had just turned 40 and I don’t think had any idea how serious the consequences of regular alcohol binges could be. Reality hit when another patient who was his ‘neighbour’ on our ward developed HRS and died rather quickly. All of our words of warning had somehow not sunk but with this other patient’s death, his mortality was clear to him. He called me over urgently that afternoon and said ‘Doc, I am ready to change’. I was pleased and felt a sense of accomplishment when I referred him to the rehabilitation programme. His wife found me the next day before they were discharged home to thank me for getting through to him. I was honest to say it wasn’t anything I did.

Unfortunately, he came in a few weeks later unwell with an infection which caused his liver function to deteriorate badly. I was encouraged to hear that he had no touched a drop of alcohol since his last admission. He developed litres of fluid in his tummy and I had to put in a tube into the side of his tummy to drain out all that fluid. He was in a lot of discomfort and fearful for his life and he asked me ‘Doc, am I going to die?’ I hesitated over the words I used but in the end I made no promises. Just that I would do everything I could to help him get through this. At first, it looked like the drain and intravenous antibiotics were effectively doing the job and the next day, the fear was gone from his eyes. I was encouraged by his blood results and left having ordered some more routine bloods for the next morning. Coincidentally, at I was securing his abdominal drain, I carelessly dropped the needle I was using to suture and when I went to retrieve it, gave myself a needle-stick injury. I had to get a co-doctor to inform him and take blood samples off him to check that he didn’t have any blood borne infections I could catch. He apologised every day after the event like it was his fault I had stuck myself with a contaminated needle. He asked me about those results daily – he seemed genuinely to care for my welfare. This went on for over 2 weeks as he slowly improved.

I was doing the ward round alone one morning when I was called urgently to his side. He was in a great deal of pain and was writhing in his bed with his abdomen larger than before we drained him. He was pale and clammy and his eyes looked like a man staring down the barrel of a gun. I could barely make sense of his words and as I changed his prescriptions, called the blood bank for blood products and prepared to get a new drain inserted. I could see the life begin to ebb out of his eyes. In a panic, I called my registrars and told them I needed them on the ward ASAP because patient B had taken a turn for worse and nothing I was doing was making a difference. The registrar told me to leave the drain for the meantime and focus on reassuring the patient. After I asked the nurses to call his wife in, I went to him and I held his cold hand. I looked into those eyes and I knew in that instant that he was not long for this world. I remember saying a mental prayer that he could hang on for his wife to be by his side.

‘Doc!’ he cried. I squeezed his hand and responded ‘Yes B?’

‘I am dying aren’t I?’ he asked. I looked down and swallowed the lump in my throat. ‘I am here for you B and I will do everything I can to help you. Your Mrs is on her way in.’

‘Stay with me,’ he entreated fearfully. I nodded and again I had to look away because the fear in his eyes was too powerful for me to take in. The rest of it was a blur. His wife made it in before he died but not in time for him to know she was there. He was delirious by the time she got to the ward and as he was slipping away before our very eyes, there was little time to have ‘that conversation’ with his wife. The consultant whisked her away and broke the news to her. She could see that treatment was futile by then and knew that he was on maximal available medical treatment. We had no more to offer. She signed the DNAR (do not attempt resuscitation) forms and we set about making him less agitated. When we finally called it a day, he was less distressed, still mumbling incoherently and his eyes had started to take on that distant look I now associate with death. I came in the next morning to a request to come to the morgue to complete his death certificate and Crem forms so that his wife could lay him to rest. I got a call 3 days after his death to say his blood tests for blood borne infections had come back negative so I was in the clear. I cried in the staff toilets. He would have been relieved not to have put me at risk I think.

What did patients A and B teach me about death and dying? Firstly that when it is your time to go, it is your time to go. Life unfortunately doesn’t usually give you a clearly labelled package with an expiry date on it. Secondly, although death is scary for the person dying, it is actually worse for the person who loves them who has to watch them lose their battle to live and battle their fear of the unknown. Who has to go home and face life without them and rebuild their lives around the hole left by the dead loved one. Who for a very long time will think about their dear departed every morning when they wake up and every night before they fall asleep. Lastly, every human is unique. Despite having the same disease and modifying your risk factors, your body will do its own thing. We doctors can try to influence outcome but whether we succeed or not is not within our power to control. That is beyond science and medicine. That is life. That is God. That is reality. May we all depart this world in the easiest swiftest way possible. Amen

Save Our NHS!

Sharing this from a doctor’s facebook wall with permission because she says it better than I could express through the mounting frustration and despair I feel.

“I would like to tell you what the NHS means to me. It means that as a doctor. I get to think about what my patients need, and what is best for them. I get to think about that, above all else. Because my patients are someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s mentor, someone’s shoulder to cry on, someone’s friend. I get to value their life over all else.

I love that. I love that when I’m driving down a busy street at rush hour, and an ambulance with blue lights and sirens wailing, presents itself to this mass of people on the road – people with jobs to get to, meetings to attend, events to arrive at, exams to sit – not one of them stops in the middle of the road and refuses to let the ambulance pass.
Not one of them thinks their schedule is more important than the stranger in the back of the ambulance, fighting for their life. They, the general public, the person on the street, the people of Britain, value a stranger’s life above everything else at that moment. I love that. I love the humanity.

Jeremy Hunt says, he wants us to provide a 24 hour NHS. I think thats fantastic. I am pretty sure I have already worked every hour of every conceivable day to make up the 24/7 ideal. I work bank holidays and public holidays and religious holidays. I work often right up until I need to leave to catch a train to a graduation or a wedding. Sometimes I have an Emergnecy and I work past that. And I send my apologies and I lose my tickets. Because the person I am working on matters. Because I value their life over all else at that moment in time.

I think a 24/7 service is wonderful. It’s the dream. It’s like dubai at night. Or New York always. The service that never sleeps. I mean. I never sleep. Not on call. But, yes, sure, things can be delayed. It takes longer for one doctor to see 80 patients at night, than it does for a team of 4 to see them during the day. It takes longer for one lab technician to process 80 blood samples vs a team of 5 during the day. It takes longer for one radiographer to image 80 patients overnight than a team of 3 during the day.

The hospital is not just made up of doctors. We cannot work without our colleagues. Nurses, phlebotomists, pharmacists, radiographers, porters, health care assistants, scrub nurses, physicians assistants, and anaesthetics techs.
We all work together as a team. At all hours of the day and night. Because we value the life of the person we are seeing.
We would love a 24/7 service. But you cannot achieve it by taking the same doctor, spreading him or her thinner to cover the gaps they are already covering regularly – and then tell them that’s what they ought to have been doing all along so let’s slash your meagre pay by 1/3 for good measure.

To achieve the sort of dreamlike 24/7 service Mr hunt is selling and we all want to buy. The answer is simple. Create more training posts. Hire more doctors. Twice the current amount. Hire more nurses. I’m tired just watching them scramble night after night, running between rooms taking care of double their normal case load. Hire more ancillary workers. If you really wanted a fully functioning service, where 3am on a Sunday looks the same as 10am on a Tuesday, that’s the solution.
Don’t fillet and tenderise your already overstretched team to plug the gaps. And don’t turn the public against them because they have said that it’s not right.

What happens to our value as human beings? As care givers? As people who place others first? Where is the logic, in destroying one of the greatest legacies of modern history? In order to reappropriate the money as bonuses for management consultants who “told us what was wrong”.

I never finished my story about what the NHS means to me. When I’m done with my job. And that isn’t dictated by the clock but by when my patients are all stable. When I’m done I go home to my mother, who is terminally ill. Sometimes she is very unwell. And at those times I return to the hospital. This time not as a doctor, but as patient and family. I cannot begin to explain the relief in knowing that our arrival isn’t heralded by piles of paperwork to determine how much money we have to pay for treatment. They wouldn’t find much. I’m always overdrawn. I once laughed when I lost my wallet, because there wasn’t any point in cancelling my bank cards. They would find nothing in the account. I am 34 years old and a “junior” doctor that has been working for 10 years. But I have nothing worth stealing. That’s because I usually just get paid enough to cover my rent and bills. And when I need to do exams or get a wedding gift or live without relying on a credit card I would pick up extra shifts, working even more weekends and holidays than I normally would, which was already a lot.

Then, like a lot of my colleagues. I volunteer. I volunteer my services to local communities. I voluntarily sit on charitable boards where I help develop plans to help the most vulnerable in society. I travel to refugee camps to help those that unlike me, cannot make ends meet, have been forced out of their homes through no fault of their own, and now have no one to care for them. Very few people value them at all, these proud, resilient, insightful people in camps and on journeys – let alone above all else.

So I am grateful for the NHS. Because as a terminal cancer patient. My mum and I show up at our A&e a lot. And often at the most inconvenient times. 3am. 7pm. Weeknight. Weekday. The tumor doesn’t care. But you know who does? NHS staff. They care. They value her life over all else when she walks through the door – even if she may not have very much life left to live. They always smile. They always listen. They are always patient and kind. They are cheerful most of the time, even as their pagers bleep mercilessly through every conversation they have, alerting them to another patient in need of being valued.

They trundle away regardless of the time, tucking my mum into bed, helping her to the bathroom, taking her blood despite the fact that her veins disappeared under the influence of chemotherapy long ago. Patiently searching for those life giving green threads in her hands and arms. Listening to her chest. Poring over her substantial medical history to make sure they understand everything. Discussing the minutiae that may unveil what the cancer is doing this time and how they can best hold it at bay. There are no shortcuts even at 3am. They value their patients and the families above all else. And I love them for that.

That’s what the NHS means to me. Service that comes full circle.

I treated someone’s mum like they were the only person in the world that mattered right then. And later on that night, some other kindly fatigued uniformed intelligent gentle soul did the same for my mum. And sometime during those 24 hours someone was late to pick their kids up from school or collect their dry cleaning – because an ambulance with the most valuable person to someone else, closed off the road they were on as it whizzed past.
That. is Healthcare delivered as a right, not a privilege. That is humanity. So the only question, Mr. Hunt. (And anyone else who backs the sham of making an understaffed workforce doing the best it can to work twice as long for two thirds of the pay, and ensuring that women who have families and researchers who seek to cure terminal conditions like my mother’s can’t do their job, which is what they value – ) the only question is – What do you value above all else? Money? The bottom line? The shareholders? Your mates who run companies that want private contracts? A shot at being PM?

None of that will matter to you when you are ill, Mr. Hunt. I promise you. At that moment in time. You will value your health above all else.

More than that, you will want a team of dedicated well trained NHS employees to value you above all else.
Value.your.health.service.”

Mythical Malaria

My mama came back to London from a visit home to Nigeria in 2002 and felt feverish. Like most people where we come from, she thought it might perhaps be malaria but wasn’t unduely worried so decided to wait and see. On the Monday, she had the typical malaria vomit so she thought ‘I best get some antimalarials before it flattens me’. That evening, I came home from college, cooked dinner and waited for my mum to be home around 7pm as usual. 7pm came and went. Then 8pm which is when I realised something was up. I called her phone which went straight to voicemail. She did come home late sometimes especially on Mondays so I wasn’t all that worried but I did feel she shouldn’t work so hard.

She came in at 9pm irritation written all over her face. ‘What did she do this time?’ I asked, assuming it was the lady who had recently been promoted to the top position in their human rights NGO office who seemed to have gone power-mad and was intent on taking all the joy out of my mama’s life. My mum shook her head and over dinner told me about her ordeal in Whittington Hospital. Basically, she had tried to call her GP for an appointment and had no luck (what else would you expect in a London GP?). After work, she went straight to the closest A&E (Whittington Hospital) rightly thinking that she should not wait until her GP had an appointment for her to get treatment for malaria. Rookie that she was, she got straight to the point when asked what the matter was. I think I have malaria, she said. Pandemonium broke out. She was ushered in ahead of everyone else into a side room to isolate her. She had blood drawn before she could say ‘what’s up?’ and they were admitting her to a ward. When she finally got someone to stop and talk to her, she was informed that she would be going to the ward shortly and they would need at least 2 more blood samples off her as per the malaria protocol and she was being isolated. I wasn’t there but I know the look of amazement that my mama would have had.

Long story short, she refused to be admitted. She told them under no circumstances was her daughter going to be left alone all night, never mind I was 16 and had stayed the night alone before, in fact more than 1 night in a flat alone in Lagos at the age of 15 which was a damn sight more dangerous than Muswell Hill in London. Anyway, the doctors were beside themselves and there was a lot of hand wringing because malaria in UK is kind of a big deal and there are strict protocols and the Health Protection Agency red tape to jump through. My mama was not to be persuaded. She said she would be off within the hour and either they give her oral medication to go home with or she would walk out without. Either way, she was going to her baby. After a lot of negotiation, they gave the oral medications and she came home to tell me the story. The deal was that she had to go back in for her second blood test before work and for them to make sure she hadn’t developed cerebral malaria and died on them. Mama and I rolled around laughing at all this hoo-hah over something as simple as malaria.

So obviously we are not entirely looney and we know malaria is potentially serious and in a few cases even fatal despite medication. Since you, my readers, are not all medics like me I will explain the things that the media and doctors in the UK it seems don’t appreciate at first glance. There are 4 strains of malaria and 1 of these strains is the bad boy of malaria. It is called Plasmodium falciparum or P. falciparum. The millions of deaths from malaria are mostly due to this strain of malaria but actually most malaria is of the other 3 strains and in Nigeria, most people will get at least one bout of malaria in their lives. As children, we all got malaria several times. I think I was one of the lucky ones who only got 3 bouts of malaria in my life and the last time I had malaria was when I was in primary school (coming up to 20 years ago). Actually a lot of the malaria burden is probably not even malaria because we are so used to malaria that anyone who has a fever longer than a day and that is high enough to make them want to lie down, self-diagnoses malaria and trundles off to the chemist to get antimalarials (we don’t need prescriptions per se).

Now back to P. falciparum. This bad boy is the strain that causes cerebral malaria i.e. it likes to infect the brain and so makes you delirious and causes seizures and can rapidly kill you because the fever is so high causing all your body enzymes not to work (so your bodily processes a.k.a. your metabolism stops) and the seizures can be very hard to control so starve your brain of oxygen, turning it into mush and in most cases, killing you unless you get IV (intravenous) antimalarials and fluids very early on.

I do not make light of this malaria at all. I worked in FMC Yola for 4 months and I saw more children die from it than I would like to recall. It is terrible. But let’s put it into perspective. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (commonly known as CDC) has the following stats. Nigeria is one of the countries where malaria is endemic and transmission is rife, everywhere in the country. In 2012, there were 207 million individual cases of malaria reported worldwide and of them 627,000 died. That makes it a death rate of 0.3% – which is not as high as pneumonia or diarrhoeal illnesses. And that includes P. falciparum and the other 3 strains of malaria.

Now here are my own stats. Of all the cases I know that have died of malaria, they are mostly children or very old or people with other illnesses making them too weak to fight off malaria like those with sickle cell disease. Usually, these patients would have had the fever for longer than a week and their bodies would have tried to fight for so long and then got to the stage they have nothing left to fight it with so that by the time they are admitted, they are wasted, dehydrated and their body salts are so abnormal that this is what gives them seizures and kills them. Even those with the bad boy strain are usually completely fine if they get treatment in a timely fashion. And this treatment is highly effective for majority of cases and is just as effective given orally as long as the person is not vomiting copiously (which sadly does happen with malaria).

So I am writing this not only to debunk the knee-jerk panicked reaction of UK-trained and UK-based doctors with no first-hand experience of malaria but also to educate. Some strains of malaria can be as bad as the common cold. Some can be as bad as avian flu which although it is a ‘cold’ virus is more dangerous and needs treating. All malaria infection should ideally be treated even if it is a mild infection. People like me who lived a long time in a malaria endemic area develop resistance so malaria for us is much less of a big deal generally than for a malaria-naïve person. Also those of us with the sickle cell trait have extra protection against malaria. But for you who are not so lucky, you should absolutely take antimalarials when you travel to endemic areas. You should absolutely have mosquito repellents and in addition, wear long sleeves (or as Nigerian girls do have a light scarf wrapped over your neck, shoulders and arms) to prevent the persistent mozzies from nibbling on your ‘fresh’ blood. If you are white or even just a fair brown person, be extra careful as mozzies are attracted to fairer softer skin too. I would also sleep under a mosquito net.

Take it from me because although I am fairly immune to malaria I think, I am one of those ‘special’ people that give off the pheromones that drive the mozzies wild. It doesn’t matter if there is only 1 mozzy that gets into the room of 20 people and they are all in bikinis or even bare-chested, I will be the one bitten through my scarf and long skirt. I will be the one walking around scratching the large lumps left behind by each mozzy that found me. I will be the one waiting impatiently for my near-abscesses to heal weeks after I have come back to Birmingham. Le sigh!

Unfortunately despite your best efforts, you may still catch malaria. So if you have recently been to sub-Saharan Africa (or the other endemic regions, see CDC for more information) and you develop a fever high enough to give you the shakes (rigours), run to the doctor. If your bones and joints all begin to ache and all you want to do is sleep in addition to a fever even if mild, I would get tested. And definitely pack an overnight bag if you develop a fever then start to puke up your guts and the vomit is green has such a bitter taste it makes you want to puke again despite having nothing left. That is the malaria vomit (bilious vomiting in medical speak) and you will be admitted and isolated and the whole she-bang if you do seek medical advice which you should. In fact, pack a bag that will last at least 3 days and make sure you have books/a laptop/cards/smartphone/sketchpad or whatever else you need to keep your sanity because being in isolation is no fun. Also be prepared to be pricked several times for blood cultures. But it is for your sake that all this is being done so don’t hate on my fellow doctors ok? Stay safe!