TRAVEL: Surviving a malaria scare in Minnesota

Nicholas Ibekwe
Nicholas Ibekwe

Unlike the United States government, which releases travel advisories for its citizens, in mostly Third World countries, the Nigerian government rarely wastes time penning such “nonsense”. At least, I can’t remember reading one in my life time.

The Nigerian official is too busy penning prolix intended to pamper the ego of his principal to be worried about such fiddling inanity like warning Nigerians traveling to US to stay away from the dangerous neighbourhoods of Chicago where 500 people have been murdered this year alone, for instance.

Nigerian government’s ineptitude aside, the unwritten travel advisory for Nigerians traveling to Europe, Canada or the U.S. is constant – don’t travel without your malaria medication.

I took this advice for granted and unleashed a wave of panic that could have had me quarantined for days, if not weeks.

Two weeks before my trip to the US, I had taken a prophylactic dose of anti-malaria medication, just in case. Nigerians like to joke that almost every Nigerian runs around with the malaria parasite. We would say if one tested 10 Nigerians for malaria, nine of them would probably come back positive for malaria.

I was supposed to carry an extra malaria medication along with me. I forgot. When I remembered mid-flight, I did not fret too much about it. I assured myself that the prophylactic dose I took just two weeks before would have killed off any strain of the disease that might have been incubating in my bloodstream before. I also avoided being exposed to mosquito bites. But you never know.

Everything was fine for three weeks. Then there was trouble.

It was the last day of first phase of the World Press Institute fellowship, which I was taking part in. We had spent three weeks in the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. In that time, we had travelled up county Minnesota to Woody Ely and to Tracy – Soybeans and cornfield county.

The second phase – a whirlwind trip across nine states in the US starting from a trip to Washington DC- was to start the next day. Like we say in Nigeria, my village people chose this day to pay me a spiritual call.

I remembered feeling too tired to leave the bed that morning. I laid in bed yawning and stretching, like a bored and hungry dog. I soon realised I was feeling cold. By mid-day I was down with the chills. I was shivering and sweating.

“Please, this should not be malaria,” I muttered, my jaws clattering like a jalopy.

See, I have heard stories of how people are quarantined and treated like they got the plague when diagnosed of malaria in the West. This is something I’d rather read about and not experience. Also, I didn’t want to miss the trip across the US.

I rushed to the University St. Thomas’ Anderson Students Centre to buy some aspirin (the WPI fellowship is residence at the university). “Never! This cannot be malaria, I repeated”. The plan was to keep the fever in check until we got to DC and if it persisted then I’d surrender myself to be treated in a hospital there for malaria treatment, with all the consequences.

I fell asleep on the couch on my apartment for about 30 minutes, wrapped in duvet. I was roused back to consciousness by a knock on the apartment’s door. It was one of my host moms, Susan Wolkerstorfer, 65. I had told her earlier that I had a fever. I must have looked like I had a brawl with death from the look on her face when I opened the door. She had promised to come with a thermometer to check my temperature. She almost immediately stuck the tiny glass rod underneath my tongue. After three minutes she checked my temperature had climbed up to 101.1F.

“You certainly have a fever,” she said after checking.

I said it was nothing and that I should be fine enough to make the trip to DC. She was having none of that. Immediately she started looking for the nearest hospital on her GeoBlue app — fellows were also using the same medical insurance provider. After searching and making calls to the World Press Institute’s Programme Director’s Doug Stone, she eventually decided to drive me to Regions Hospital, in down town St. Paul. Regions hospital was a public hospital and the nearest health facility with a round the clock ER.

We arrived at the ER section at about 9.45 pm. At the Check -in counter a friendly nurse asked if I had been outside the U.S in the last three weeks. Affirmative. I only arrived the US three weeks ago. My temperature was taken. Though it has subsided some notches the nurse still agreed that I still had enough fever to be looked at.

I was given a very uncomfortable face mask to wear and told to wait for the room where I would be seeing a doctor to be prepared. I tried to push it below my nose once and one of the nurses gave me the look.

I took a selfie of me in the mask and shared it on the fellowship’s Whatsapp group. The messages started pouring:

“Tell us what is going on. Can we help?” Marina from Bulgaria wrote.

“I have a little fever,” I replied.

Aurelio from Argentina aid I should try and be well for the trip to DC in the morning.

“Let’s know what the doctor said. And if you need something,” added Nataly from Ukraine.

“What’s the prognosis? Hope it’s just a fever?” asked Aurelio.

Again I said that which shouldn’t have been said:

“It looks like malaria chills. I have the usual symptoms. Started today. But I’d wait for the doctor’s verdict.”
“Hope you will be fine!” Nataly wrote.

“Oh Nicholas! I hope it turns out to be not too serious!!!, added Yasmine from New Zealand. “Let us know how it goes. Hugs, and get plenty of sleep!”

“Our thoughts are with you, hopefully you get better soon,” wrote Miao, the Chinese.

When I saw the exclamation points littered all over my Whatsapp and I thought: “Oh dear. What have I done?!”

Yes, their thoughts were with me but they certainly were panicking. I later learned that while they were sending those nice messages Aurelio was asking someone to check the incubation period for malaria. They were freaking out. And they wanted to be sure I wasn’t contagious. I had become a health risk; even among my colleagues!

Even the hospital wasn’t taking chances. I was ushered into a negative pressure room – the air from the room is controlled so that it doesn’t contaminate other part of the facility. These people weren’t taking chances in case I had a contagious respiratory disease.

“These people should just tell me they are scared I might have Ebola,” I thought.

Curiously, everyone who came a metre near me, was wearing a huge mask over their face, except Mrs Wolkerstorfer. She was thinking about it too. But was too nice to complain.

I was checked into the room about 10.30pm, asked to change into a faded hospital gown. Then the wait began.

The effect of the aspirin was beginning to wane and I started to shiver again. Mrs Wolkerstorfer managed to get me a warm blanket. I shut my eyes and tried to sleep. No luck.

Doctor Hillary Simon walked in at about 11.45 pm after a staff meeting, probably related to an impeding nurses strike at another group of hospitals on Monday Regions wasn’t part of the group but I learned employees at Regions were strategising on how to handle the possible increase in the number of patients.

She apologised for the delay; ordered a blood smear test, and a faster but less accurate test. She said the tests could take about two hours because the hospital lab didn’t usually get patients with malaria (she had only ever treated one person with malaria) and because the lab had their hands full with “people who had made bad choices” at the state fair. Too much booze and large crowd of people hardly mix well, clearly.

An hour later, nurse Jessica came in to draw blood. She was nice, tried to calm me. She said her Nigerian friend told her malaria was common in Nigeria and how most Nigeria carry it around without much ado. She said she hasn’t been to Nigeria before but was fascinated by the description of Nigerians living in the US in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah”. She wasn’t wearing a face mask.

Lyme’s Disease

At 3 am, another nurse, Megan, came in. Preliminary test result for malaria came back negative! Hallelujah. She said they suspect Lyme’s disease from a possible tick bite when the group travelled to Ely or Tracy. I couldn’t remember being bitten by a bug. The only incident I had, in Tracy, was when I slipped on a rock and got thoroughly wet at the waterfall at Pipestone monument.

Forty-five minutes later, Dr Simon came in with her supervisor. They said it probably wasn’t malaria and prescribe antibiotics – doxycycline for the Lyme’s disease. She also gave all clear to travel to DC as the disease was not contagious.

I was given a malaria prescription and told I could get it in DC in case the second test came back positive for malaria. We left the room at about 4.05 to pick up the medication at the pharmacy. My last recorded temperature before we left the hospital was 98.9F.

Mrs Wolkerstorfer was with me the entire time and stay awake the entire time. She asked a pillow at about 1am to ease her next as she sat on a chair in the room. She dismissed my profuse words of appreciation with: “any self-respecting host mom would do what I have done!” Angels live among human and clearly, one was sitting by my bedside the entire night.

This article was first published on the World Press Institute (WPI) blog. Nicholas Ibekwe, a journalist with PREMIUM TIMES, is 2016 fellow of the WPI.

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  • Tosin Otitoju

    🙂