Self Diagnosis in Bangladesh

February 13, 2007

I arrived in Chittagong late in the afternoon in a BAC-111, an aircraft even our air force has retired. The aircraft touched down and immediately the passengers felt the main undercarriage touch the asphalt they were on their feet, opening lockers and surging to the front of the plane. The nose wheel had yet to touch the ground so we were moving along quite quickly. Would have been interesting if we had stopped suddenly or had to rotate and go around. Everyone on the subcontinent wants to the first in every line. It seems to be wired into their genes.

Zia met me in Dhaka and travelled down to Chittagong with me. His brother was waiting to meet us so there was no problem clearing that little airport and getting into town. Given my day had started before sun up in Hyderabad Zia was pretty sympathetic to getting me to the hotel and leaving me alone until the next day. He agreed we would not start until 1000 the next morning. That sounded like an ideal plan. I have been on the road for 4 weeks now. To the US, England, Germany, Israel and India. Now to Bangladesh and then to Thailand and other points before getting home.

I retired early for the night and was sleeping soundly when at three in the morning I was violently woken by an excruciating stomach pain that in the first instance had me thinking my appendix must have ruptured. One of the kids had a ruptured appendix and their stomach was as tight as a drum. So with the pain and the tight stomach I had now acquired in my sleep that was my first thought. I was unable to unfold and so lay in a foetus position for about ten minutes before I realised I was going to have to get to the toilet immediately if I was not to soil the bed. I crawled to the bathroom and figured after half an hour contemplation in there that I was not dealing with an unruly appendix.

Over the next seven hours I tried to work out what the problem was. I managed to crawl to my backpack and retrieve a Lonely Planet Guide but that made things worse. Everything in the medical section became my ailment. I had rabies for a while. Then malaria. Cholera. Dysentery. Giardia. I had moved from the toilet to the bath and lay there with the guide that was so unhelpful.

Soon it was 1000 and Zia was waiting for me. I had cleaned up but could not get off the floor I was so cramped up and managed to get around only by moving like a crab. After about ten minutes Zia knocked on the door. When he saw me on the floor he simply laughed and said “You have Giardia. I can fix that.” Helping me up we went down the stairs and out onto the street where he organised for me to drink coconut milk from a freshly lopped coconut. The street vendor picked up a straw from off the street and placed it in the drink – we insisted he cut a new coconut and he could not understand our objection to the “clean” straw from off the road. After a quick coconut re-hydration we walked across to a small street pharmacy where Zia asked for a tablet which proved to be the size of a dime. Large and pink. Zia seemed to know the drug so I took the tablet and hoped for the best.

October 1997

(Later in Thailand a government pharmacy confirmed they were tablets intended to treat Giardia but noted there was probably enough in the tablet to dose a small village. But I left Bangladesh three days later with a stomach that still cramped and was very tender. Knowing that it was Giardia I can only guess that I picked it up at a Russian café in Tel Aviv, which in hindsight was an entertaining but thoroughly unhygienic place. It was ironic that the incubation period had me come down with the illness in Bangladesh. But helpful that Zia’s father was the Chittagong “Surgeon general” and that Zia recognised the symptoms of Giardia from long experience.

My enduring lesson of the experience was that I should avoid any attempts at self diagnosis in the future. I was of no help to myself whatsoever).