These are The Times of Cholera



Fifty-six minutes later, i was still seated on the toilet seat, there were no signs the diarrhea was about to stop. I called reception with news that i was “a little unwell”. A member of the support staff showed up in my room, dressed in his work coveralls and boots. Thanks to him, i was bundled into the hotel van, and rushed to the Nairobi Hospital. “It must be botulism”, i remember telling the attending doctors in the accident and emergency. We had been served cold rice (yeah they serve cold rice in big hotels too), and i was certain it was botulism. A doctor mentioned cholera, but i brushed him off. It never occurred to me that i could get cholera, not from such a big hotel. That a hotel would promise so much and deliver cholera instead? But then i had overestimated it. After they deposited me and my stuff in the hospital, they washed their hands clean. They even refused to refund the money for the days i didn’t spend in the hotel.

The doctor performed a random diagnostic test for cholera (bless his soul!) The test turned positive! I was stunned! I thought i was dreaming. I had read about cholera, handled a case or two, now i was suffering from it. I would have discounted the test results. But my stool was the classical rice water stool of cholera; water with flecks of stool.

I was started on intravenous fluids and antibiotics. I remember calling my husband in the middle of it all. He had just received news that his father was very ill and there i was with news that i had cholera! I can still hear the shock in his voice as he asked me if i was in the hospital already. I can imagine how deeply it hurt him. Lying in the hospital miles away, i could see him pacing the house wondering how to be in two places at the same time. I have never known what lie he had to say to our children.

The Nairobi county executive commissioner ministry of health officials visited at a time when almost thirty three of us; doctors, nurses, and community healthcare workers had been admitted to various hospitals in Nairobi county. We had been attending a conference on lung diseases in a hotel in Nairobi. They were sympathetic, at the verge of tears, they promised to get to the bottom‘of the matter’, to do “something”. It broke my heart when they would later go to national television and rubbish the whole issue, deny the possibility of a cholera outbreak, call what we were suffering from ‘mere food poisoning’ and suggest that it was food we eaten in unconventional places that was responsible. In other words, we had been careless. That stung. Lying in bed with stool leaking out of my rear on its own accord, I remember asking myself why anyone who had seen me in that state would lie without even blinking.

I was moved into isolation unit on Friday morning. I had never put myself in the shoes of someone in isolation unit until i  found myself in there, this time not as a doctor but as a patient. If I say isolation was lonely, i would be understating it. But then the English language doesn’t have a better word for ‘the state of being alone in a room with just your thoughts to keep you company’.

Visits to your room are minimized and each time anyone shows up, they come dressed from head to toe in a protective gear that is designed to make them close enough to you, yet as further away from you as is possible.When they walk in, all you see is just their eyes blinking from behind protective goggles. When they talk, their voices, coming from behind a face mask comes out filtered of emotion. The only touch that you get is from hands that are gloved. Keeping people in isolation is a great way of ensuring diseases don’t spread but it is also a sure way of making someone get depressed. Being in there was hurting. It was painful, and all these months later, i just don’t know how to put all that pain in words!

Saturday was my worst day in the hospital. First off, i woke up hungry. I was getting my appetite back, but i couldn’t get anyone to bring me food. Nairobi Hospital is understaffed too! I remember calling for a nurse so many times that i gave up. I was made to understand later that they were all busy attending to emergencies. That got me thinking; no one, not even we the middle class withour insurances are safe. I mean i was in Nairobi Hospital paying an arm and a leg for staying in the isolation unit (my insurance doesn’t cover isolation so i had to pay out of my pocket). I expected to have at least one nurse assigned to me. But there was none to spare. That is why we need to speak up when public hospitals close for months on end. We need to make some noise because when they are shut, those without money don’t get help. We need to make some noise because we pay taxes.

Cholera is not something you can wish on anyone. Not even your worst enemy. No human deserves all that pain. Having diarrhea is bad enough. Having continuous diarrhea punctuated with vomiting is worse The worst thing is not even the diarrhea, it is that you are not in control. When you feel like passing stool, then you get just seconds before the sphincters relax. Cholera will make you run to the toilet but you will poop on yourself just before you sit on the toilet seat.

When i look back at that time, i shudder. At some point i thought i wouldn’t make it out alive. I thought about my children who had learnt about my illness from their friends who had seen, me on TV, speaking from the hospital bed. The ministry had insisted though that it was just an acute diarrheal disease. In fact, we never got the confirmatory stool test results from the hospital which is wrong. As a patient, i am entitled to know what was found in my stool. The country also deserved to know. We need to stop denying these truths. We need to accept that Weston, no matter who owns it, once served us cholera!