My Unexpected Journey with Illness

Recently the Lord has taken me on a very unexpected journey. The past 6 and half weeks I have gone through something I would never have chosen or expected. Yet God is good and I know he has allowed me to go through this for his greater purposes in my life.

On Thursday, August 20th, 2009 I woke up feeling tired, but fine. After eating breakfast I came down with a nasty bout of diarrhea and severe stomach discomfort. I had a lot of things to do that day, including an appointment that could not be rescheduled, so I pushed myself and went out with the car anyway (crying). I made it through the next few hours (using the bathroom at every stop) and finally came home where I was able to rest. I felt better (and the diarrhea subsided) by evening and I was able to eat a normal meal. The next day I was weak, but otherwise normal. That night I couldn't sleep because of heart palpitations that lasted most of the night. Finally I fell asleep at about 4 in the morning.

Saturday was up there with the worst day of my life, although over the past 6 weeks, there have been several close runners up. Diarrhea began, vomiting, and then HIVES! Horrible, head to toe, none-stop-itching hives! The 30 minutes before the Benadryl kicked on were literally the worst 30 minutes of my life. We naturally called the doctor at this point where he prescribed a strong antibiotic.

The following days were a bizarre repeat of these past two days. Felt better Sunday, couldn't sleep Sunday night due to a pounding heart, and woke up Monday where the exact same thing happened as Saturday (diarrhea, vomiting, hives). Felt better again Tuesday, couldn't sleep Tuesday night because of heart palpitations…. and then was admitted to ELWA hospital Wednesday morning when the "horrible day" part of the cycle repeated. (I did take Benadryl early in the morning, which at least prevented me from getting hives again). I had a fever of 103 when I went into the emergency room.

The tests in the hospital did not reveal anything too conclusive. There was no malaria, typhoid, hepatitis, etc. I was started on a very strong and thorough antibiotic and I started to improve. The doctor (Dr. Sacra, an American missionary) thought, based on the information we did have, that none-typhoid salmonella was what I might have.

I do have a history of mitral valve prolapse, which was not yet confirmed by an echocardiogram, but several doctors had noticed slight abnormalities with my heart. Because of this the possibility of endocarditis (an infection on my heart valve) was mentioned.

I went home after four days with the IV cannula still in my hand. My dad, "Doctor Daddy", would continue to give me the IV antibiotics from home. I improved daily and started doing ministry related things (around the house) that I really needed to have done by a certain date (in retrospect I may have pushed too hard). The antibiotics were stopped after a total of 11 days.

Two and a half days later the cycle started again, just the way it had before. Oral antibiotics did nothing. Friday I went back to the hospital where a cannula was again placed in my hand and I received some fluids. I went back home later in the day. Sunday was an awful day of burning fever and horrible, pounding heart palpitations.

During all of this we had been returning to the hospital about every 2 days to get the cannula replaced. The antibiotics are very strong and my veins were swelling painfully or the cannula would get clogged, sometimes even after one day. No one likes needles, but I have always tried to be brave when it came to being poked. Towards the end I ran out of usable veins and I would sometimes just cry as the nurse would poke and poke or blow my now fragile veins. I didn't know how long I would need to be on the antibiotic but I new I was running out of places to put the cannula..

Monday I went to Harbel Medical Center (Firestone's hospital, perhaps the best in the country), where I had a lot of lab work done. We were also given the same antibiotic, only produced in Europe, not India or China. Four days later we found out that I did indeed have salmonella.

Thursday afternoon heart palpitations began again, and pretty much did not stop for the next 4 or more days.

On Friday I returned to ELWA for more blood work and an echocardiogram. (The echocardiogram could only be done by a visiting Liberian doctor - the only one in the whole country trained to do these). The visiting doctor confirmed the mitral valve prolapse, as did Dr. Sacra. On the top of the valve a questionable spot was noticed. The spot could have meant endocarditis. Because of this, Dr. Sacra advised us to seek medical care in the US.

The blood tests indicated my body was still working hard to fight something serious, and also revealed malaria, something I had never had before. That evening I took a one-time malaria treatment.

Saturday I felt very sick again. I was nauseated all day and very weak. My dad booked tickets on a commercial flight for my mom and me for Wednesday, and we all hoped I would be well enough to make it to the US.

Sunday was another very difficult day. I had more heart palpitations, fever, and severe nausea. I laid in bed all day and vomited the only food I was able to eat. By evening we knew I could not make a commercial flight. By God's grace the short term medical insurance I bought covered medical evacuation to Europe, so my dad began making plans to fly me and my mom out as soon as possible. We would go to Europe to get me stabilized, then eventually make it the rest of the way to the states. I would stay in the US as long as I needed to treat whatever problems I had. Dr. Sacra agreed with this decision and also advised me to return to the hospital that evening.

My best friend Kevin, whom I had been dating for 10 months, spent the whole day (September 20th) with me Sunday (after returning from church). We had been talking about getting married but I was not expecting a proposal, certainly not then. But Kevin was prepared with a ring (and permission from my dad), to ask me to marry him, since we did not know how long I would be away and he wanted to make it official before I left. Of course I said yes! In my time of suffering Kevin's proposal was the greatest gift he could have given me. Though I was sick and being readmitted to the hospital, I couldn't wipe the ridiculous grin off my face.

Sunday I did not sleep well and Monday was another horrible day of nausea and vomiting. Since Friday I had been praying and praying that I would not feel so sick the day I had to leave. Just rolling over was nauseating and I couldn't keep any food down.

Tuesday morning I woke up feeling a little better and was able to take a bucket bath (all they offer at the hospital) before leaving bright and early for my emergency medical flight to London. Greg/Buster drove us in the Acres of Hope ambulance and also took care of our paperwork at the airport (such a blessing!). I never could have imaged 2 months earlier, as I waved good-bye to Alvin on his emergency medical flight, that I would be leaving the country the same way.

The flight went really well and the doctor and nurse took great care of me. We stopped in Morocco to refuel then made it the rest of the way to London. We landed in the Royal Air Force Academy where I was transferred straight into an ambulance. Just 30 minutes later I was admitted to St. Mary's Hospital in Paddington.

I have never seen so many tests done so fast! The night I arrived I had numerous samples taken, tons of blood, an EKG, two ex-rays, and an echocardiogram. The efficiency still astounds me, after coming from Africa!

At the hospital everyone was just wonderful. They were all so kind and considerate. Nurses from all over the world took care of me including a wonderful lady named Venus from Zambia.

The first tests showed pretty severe anemia (7.8 HB for you medical people) but nothing else too astounding. The head cardiologist looked at the pictures from the echocardiogram and said the amazing words "I don't think we are dealing with a heart problem."

The next day of testing malaria showed up - falciparum malaria (the worst and most deadly kind). Treatment was started the next day with quinine, after all the tests were confirmed and the medicine was rustled up from pharmacy.

The infectious disease doctor explained that for some reason it has been found that salmonella and falciparum malaria seem to go hand in hand. This would explain why I got malaria after never having it before in my life. Malaria could also have accounted for the severe anemia. The doctor also explained quinine would probably make me feel sick because when it kills the parasites the dead parasites will give you the symptoms of malaria again.

So the first day on the medicine I was miserable with malaria symptoms. Some magical "anti-sickness" tablets they gave me really helped with the nausea so I could still eat. Since the lab had not seen anything relating to the salmonella, they began to only give me a third of the antibiotic they were giving me before. (It seems the final antibiotics in Liberia, or soon after, finally killed the salmonella). Little by little I began to regain my strength. My anemia improved considerably every day. The doctor said malaria can hide the hemoglobin(?) in other parts of the body (capillaries?) and as the malaria is killed, those are released back into the blood where they belong. (Something like that - don't quote me word for word here). By the time I left my hemoglobin was up to about 12, which is considered normal (although normal for me has been closer to 15, since I have been very healthy in the past).

I was given a second echocardiogram one of those days, where two specialist's looked at my heart. Both said I had a very healthy heart and no mitral valve prolapse. It was thus confirmed that I have no heart problems.

By Monday evening I began to feel normal again. Wednesday (the 30th of September) I was able to leave the hospital after a stay of seven days. (My mom had been staying in an inexpensive hotel nearby.) We are now staying with a wonderful British couple who are retired SIM missionaries. They used to be in Nigeria but are now back at home here and their main ministry is hospitality for people like us - missionaries and others who need a place to stay for awhile. They have been a huge blessing to us. My mom and I both have our own rooms and they have a beautiful "garden" in the back. Plus, he is also a doctor! So I am in good hands.

Everything still feels pretty surreal to me. I was so sick for so many days I couldn't think about anything but making it through the next moment. But I have been so amazed and blessed by the many (more than a thousand, at least) people who have been praying for me, and those who donated so generously to my medical expenses.

I must say I am so privileged to have been trained in the Word of God as I have been. Through this whole ordeal I have never worried that God had forgotten about me, been angry that he was allowing this to happen, or doubted his goodness in my life. Some people think theology and a good knowledge of the Bible don't really have anything to do with daily life. But they are so wrong. It has changed who I am and gives me the strength to make it through the most difficult times. The Nouthetic counseling training I received last year has also been invaluable during this time as it also greatly influenced the way I think and significantly increased my trust in God and the way he is working in my life.

In all my life I have been very strong. Growing up in Africa I never got malaria. I have never been hospitalized or been in a car accident. I have cracked my collarbone (twice, as a kid) but that was localized pain that healed fast. I open the jars for my mom, run the house when she is away, can look after 2 two-year-olds alone and make dinner and clean the kitchen at the same time. But when I was sick my mom was feeding me, a nurse bathed me and I couldn't even use the toilet on my own. Those things are humiliating, yet I didn't feel that way when I was going through them. I was just thankful. Thankful God had provided me with such loving people to care for me in my time of need.

One thing I know is that if you have never experienced something, you can't truly empathize with a person. I consider myself a very empathetic person, but I have never had a serious problem with my health. Constant nausea and vomiting are what chemo patients deal with. Someone with Crohn's disease struggles daily with intestinal discomfort and diarrhea. My illness seemed to never end - many people have chronic illnesses. Additionally, I have been so weak I now know what it is like to not be able to bathe yourself or to even use the bathroom without help. I have shed countless tears during times I was so sick all I could do was cry. My heart has pounded so much my chest hurt, I have ached with fever over and over again, been poked and prodded countless times, and I have endured many scary sleepless nights. Though I never ever want to go through any of that again, I am already thankful for how the Lord is going to use these experiences in my life.

I have been so pleasantly surprised by the many, many caring comments people have left on my facebook page. Additionally, my dad received over 600 email responses to the update he sent out to our prayers supporters, as I was about to leave Liberia. People have shared my need in small groups, churches, and even over the radio. And those prayers were answered. The speed and smoothness in which the emergency medical flight was arranged was astounding. The care at the hospital was phenomenal. No one was ever grumpy or short with me. They took my illness, symptoms and concerns all very seriously. My favorite nurse Venus (from Zamia) was so touched by our ministry in Africa and she made me feel comfortable even in the most awkward situations. The food was amazing and tasted like a restaurant (I kid you not).

And the mitral valve prolapse and possible endocarditis? Well, I have a strong, healthy heart with not a trace of mitral valve prolapse. Was it a miracle? I could very well be. I can't explain it and I saw a prolapsing mitral valve on the screen in Liberia, and I saw a strong, normal valve on the screen in London. The discomfort I was feeling with my heart could be explained by my anemia, low potassium and low electrolytes. No matter what, I am so thankful for a healthy heart and to have been in a first-world hospital during the weakest part of my illness and so the doctors could do all their tests to see if there was anything else wrong with me.

We are planning to return to Liberia on the 11th of October. Since all my problems were addressed here we don't feel there is a need to go all the way to the states. I am very anxious to return to Liberia where my fiancé lives and to my family, friends, and ministry.

I am still so very, very weak, and tire pathetically fast, so this time in England is just what I need to regain my strength. I lost more than 15 pounds of muscle and fat, and I was actually pretty much at my ideal weight when I got sick! So I am not happy about the weight loss, but I AM happy about putting it back on! Gaining back the muscle will take time. Yesterday was a hard day for me and I was reminded that fully recovering after being so sick is not going to happen overnight.

I know I am only beginning to learn all the things God will teach me through this experience. I truly do desire to be made more like Christ, and it is times like this I realize two things 1. Becoming like Christ is very hard. And 2. God has taken me seriously! He is allowing me to experience the things he knows I need to go through in order to look more like his Son.

I also learned that God wants me (all of us, really) to trust him with the unknown. As I had a relapse of the salmonella, and then the malaria, no emotional wall was going to protect me from feeling sick, and it wasn't going to make things any easier to tolerate. At times I have wanted to sort of brace myself for the things God was going to bring my way. Yet this time around I really had to just let go and just put one foot in front of the other and hold on to the grace God gave me, one moment at a time. After 6 weeks I can already notice a change in my thinking. Again, God will use what he needs to teach us what we need to know…

I am so thankful to God for bringing me through this and so thankful for all that I will continue to learn from this in the coming months and years. I am so thankful I got insurance even though I didn't think I would ever need it. (Let this be a bit of advice for all you short termers traveling overseas!) I am so thankful for my wonderful mother who has so patiently cared for me and for the rest of my family who was there for me when I was still in Liberia and are taking care of things while we are away (including the 2 two-year-olds I mentioned). I am thankful for Dr. Sacra who looked after me so well in Liberia. I am thankful for the Jacksons who have opened their lovely home to my mom and me while we are in London. I am also thankful to all you who have supported me in prayer through this difficult time. Because of you I always felt protected. I wish I could thank each one of you individually…

Please continue to pray for me as I try to regain my strength. Just going about normal living activities wears me out.

"But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you,

for my power is made perfect in weakness.'

Therefore I will boast more gladly about my weaknesses,

so that Christ's power may rest on me."

2 Corinthians 12:9

In Christ alone,