Last year’s Christmas miracle was not being left in the desert in northern Sudan. This year’s Christmas miracle is nevertheless a contender for the throne of strangest annual experience. Every time I think I might have peaked at the oddest possible thing I could have done or been involved in, the world seems to find something new.
This year, it all began two days before Christmas. Waking up, I felt a little off. The sort of off that usually spells flu. So I ignored it for most of the morning to see if I could shake it off, and by early evening was running a fever of 39 degrees and was not entirely aware of my surroundings. Somewhere in the middle of recreationally sweating and listening to my pulse in my head, it occurred to Katherine , watching me, that it might perhaps be prudent to get checked for malaria – since I had missed a couple of pill-taking appointments by a few days and been bitten more than a few times outside of a mosquito net.
And this was how, a short call to the travel insurance people later, Katherine and a very feverish me ended up at the University College London Hospital admissions lobby. The duty nurse took my vitals, made a witty comment about something cooking inside me at that temperature, and then asked me about why I thought it was anything other than flu.I had only begun a complex, rehearsed recitation of my Ugandan travels when – hearing that I had been to Gulu – she cut me short. She had come from Uganda herself, she explained, and knew the place well. She also thought it prudent that I see one of the doctors on duty.
On her return, my luck finally unravelled
The doctor on duty was a thoroughly friendly intern who quickly did all of the tapping, stethoscoping, temperature-taking and question-asking that was needed, before agreeing that I probably had flu. She left to go and ask the tropical disease people about the likelihood that I had malaria.
On her return, my luck finally unravelled. With eyes as large as saucers and a newly-donned facemask, she explained that the tropical disease people were asking a number of questions that she couldn’t immediately answer. Questions such as whether I had been anywhere rural. Whether I had been in the area during the beginning of the pneumonic plague outbreak. Whether I had been anywhere that might conceivably have had people infected with the virus.
Me: “Yes. Yes, right in the middle of it. Yes, we went to the admitting hospital to look for people to interview about it.”
Nurse: “I think we will need to admit you to the hospital overnight.”
After drawing blood for a malaria test, I was put in a wheelchair and wheeled to a bed somewhere on the eighth floor for a night of fevered dreams. Something about cupcakes I think.
The next morning, sometime around nine, I woke for a few minutes before being joined by a friendly, but serious gentleman in a rebreathing face mask thingy. The sort with air filters on the sides. I can’t remember his name (I was probably too focused on the implications of a rebreather mask for my health), but he was a ‘specialist consultant’ of some sort, and knew a great deal about Uganda. And Gulu in particular. Down to the importance of the Lacor Hospital in managing the epidemic (where we had gone to look for someone to interview). He even seemed to know the Kabera Opong district of Gulu that we had been staying in. It was simultaneously impressive and a little unnerving.
Near the end of interviewing me about where I had been, what I had done, and whether I had scratched any dog’s heads (for a change, I hadn’t), Katherine came bounding in to say good morning. And was promptly and rapidly ushered out, only to be allowed to re-enter when the specialist had left and she had been put in a protective plastic hazard suit with what looked like a clear-plastic welder’s mask.
But if I didn’t have flu, then I was facing a world of blood tests for every manner of infectious tropical heebie-jeebie that they had in their textbooks
The specialist had explained to her that I didn’t have malaria (the blood test from the night before was negative), and that I probably had flu. So they would test me for it during the day. But if I didn’t have flu, then I was facing a world of blood tests for every manner of infectious tropical heebie-jeebie that they had in their textbooks. While it was highly unlikely that I was carrying pneumonic plague/ebola/bubonic plague/(I am not making this up), they needed to put her in plastic if she wanted to hang out in the room for the rest of the day.
Which they did. And she did. And I got to sit in my bed and not be allowed to stick my head out of the door for anything. The food people would give Katherine my food at the door, because someone had apparently put a ‘High Risk’ warning sign on the front of it, and so nobody wanted to come in.
I started to feel like a leper.
This would continue all morning, afternoon and the beginning of the evening. Besides one or two doctors who seemed to have found my story fascinating and wanted to find out more, the only people besides Katherine that would enter the room would be the nurses. Who would wear pretty much every barrier plastic gown, glove and breathing mask that was available from the (considerable) selection at the entrance to my room.
Sometime around five, as it was well and truly darkening outside and I was beginning to lose hope of getting out before Christmas, a doctor came in to tell me I had flu. Influenza A to be precise. I even got a note to give to the travel insurance people to this effect. And with that, masks came off to reveal smiles all around.
And I was released out into the cold of London again.