A Heart Racing in Africa

My heart began to race… just a little more than it should. I took a deep slow breath and tried to will it back to its comfortable rhythm. I looked around me. People were still streaming into the cathedral. They came in their Sunday best. The women in multicolored hand-sewn dresses with matching scarves piled high on their heads. The children in their white and blue school uniforms, and the men clean shaven wearing their finest trousers. Am I nervous? I wondered. I didn’t think so, but something was wrong. My skin started to flush and my breathing quickened. I leaned over and tapped the arm of the nurse who was traveling on my team. “Something is happening,” I whispered. She nodded and together we made our way out the side door of the building. The congregation paused to watch the white mzungu dressed in the gift of an intricately embroidered flowing blue tie-dyed African gown make her way hurriedly through the crowd.

“Do you have Benedryl? I think it may just be an allergic reaction,” I said, thinking of the lunch we just ate at a local restaurant. A fish still intact with its eyes and scales combined with lard-laden greens and a pile of ugali, which closely resembles modeling clay in texture and color. Perhaps something disagreed with me? She took me into the nearby Bishop’s office, a small room in the back of a cement block building… bare besides a desk, three wooden chairs, a bench along one wall covered with a thin light purple cushion and a few framed images of previous bishops and Lord Christ. I lay down on the bench and bent my knees so I could fit. My eyes closed, and I concentrated on the tsumani that was rising up inside me, my heart racing more than 180 beats a minute, my blood boiling with flames that seemed to fill every inch of my being, and shakes that were moving in rapid waves from my feet to my chest. I waited for the Benedryl to kick in…  As the guest of honor, I was the next speaker on the agenda. I needed to introduce my team of 18 Americans to the Bishop’s congregation. Hundreds of villagers had come from many miles to meet and welcome us.

But it wasn’t working. The Bishop’s secretary, a lovely young Warusha woman named Margaret, called the head doctor from the nearest government hospital. He arrived with a warm smile and empty hands. No medicine, no supplies, no equipment. He pressed his two very black fingers on the inside of my now colorless wrist, and I noticed how dirty his fingernails were. Perhaps he helped his wife in their fields, I thought. That would be nice. There was nothing he could do, he said, but that we should call him if things got worse. With my fever rising and heart accelerating we were not ready to wait for worse. With no way to contact Flying Doctors, it was decided that I would be moved hundreds of miles to a clinic in the capital city of Dar Es Salaam that was run by a German friend of an American friend of ours. But first, I needed an IV. Since my teams always travel with IV needles and bags, that small miracle was possible. However, it took my young EMT friends more than 20 excruciating minutes of poking and prodding inside my arms before they successfully accessed a vein. A brief moment of relief.

Inside the vehicle, I lay across the back seats with my IV hanging on the seat in front of me and watched the landscape fly by. Bushlands as far as the eye could see were sprinkled with thorny acacias and red clay termite mounds that could reach 6 feet in height. And then there were the great Uluguru Mountains stretching high in the distance.

My sister Kim, our nurse and one EMT rode with me. Little was said as our driver sped down the Morogoro road. One of the few tarmac roads in Tanzania, the Morogoro road is also one of the most dangerous. It is overrun with too many overloaded lorries, flatbeds, local bus matatus — often so crammed that people hang off doors and out windows just to catch a ride, and other trucks and vehicles that speed narrowly close to a steady stream of bicyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians who are also carrying their large loads on backs and heads… firewood, charcoal, water, food stuff, and even family members and friends. Amputees in Tanzania are called “pikipikis” (the Swahili word for motorcycles)… because without the medical care necessary to fix broken limbs, they are most often simply removed.

The equatorial sun set and fear crept in. It is widely known not to travel this road after dark. Abductions and robberies at gun and knife-point are common. And we now had yet another problem. I needed to go to the bathroom. After taking in two full IV bags and bottles of water to try and relax my system there was little choice but to stop. “Haraka haraka” (quickly) our driver as he pulled off the road by a large termite mound that could shield me. My friends supported me while Kim held my IV bag  high. I squatted and shined my flashlight all around looking out for any lurking snakes.

An hour later we entered Dar. A star-filled southern hemisphere sky enveloped this impoverished city of millions where more than 50% of people are jobless…. Coming in streams from villages across the country in search of a better life, people are too often met with scarce resources and even less opportunity. Streets are filled with homeless, Lepers and drunks. And the air, once fresh and clean in the villages, was now filled with the stench of diesel tinged with human excrement.

The clinic was protected by two heavy iron gates. Tall walls covered with flowering vines stretched in either direction. It looked more like a home to me than a medical facility. We honked the horn and waited until the askari (watchman) let us in. A small Tanzanian woman emerged wearing a crisp white nurses uniform. “Pole mama,” she said to me sympathetically as she took my IV bag and held it high. “Kuja ndani,” (come inside) she smiled.

Inside I lay on one of the two patient beds that were separated by a simple white curtain. Mama Violet began undressing me and placed electrodes all over my chest and legs, which she then connected to what looked like car battery. My team then separated. Our driver, EMT and nurse left to take the long journey back to Morogoro to rejoin the others before morning. Kim stayed with me, sleeping in the patient bed next to mine. Mama Violet told us the doctor would see me in the morning, before leaving us alone for the night. Sleep came, and nothing else mattered.

I wish she could have knocked Kim out too 🙂