It was October 2010 in Bangkok, Thailand, and half-term break for the local Thai school in which I taught. I had been living in Bangkok for the past two years and loved October since half-term break meant I was off for a month!
October is also prime mosquito season, but I never worried about it. I lived a privileged expat life, the landlord had exterminators routinely spray my property. I was more afraid of being bitten by a street dog than a sickly mosquito.
Aside from teaching, I was also an actor, and over the summer I had auditioned for a small speaking role in a film about the 2004 tsunami, titled: The Impossible. I was cast as “red headed lady” opposite Naomi Watts and was scheduled to film in mid-October. I decided to spend the week prior to filming up north in Chiang Mai.
I flew up to Chiang Mai, where for five days I sat in an open-air workshop and learned how to make jewellery with silver and semi-precious gemstones. It was a calm, relaxing trip and I felt energised to start filming the following week. On Friday I flew back down to Bangkok, repacked my bags and, on Sunday night, flew further south to Phuket.
An international film, the production had us staying in a lovely seaside resort about thirty minutes away from the local hospital that would be our set. It was Thursday, all was going well and I was half way through my ten-day shoot. We wrapped at sunset; I headed back to the resort and, still energised from the day, I thought I would get in a quick workout before dinner. I ordered a bowl of tom yum goong (hot and spicy shrimp soup) and exercised. Just as I was finishing my workout, dinner arrived. Perfect!
I sat down at the table to enjoy my nice hot bowl of spicy shrimp soup, when suddenly I felt odd. In a matter of seconds I went from hungry to nauseated. I couldn’t even look at my soup; my stomach was churning.
Embarrassed that I could not eat, I flushed the soup down the toilet bowl. I had to film again in the morning so I went to bed hoping sleep would cure me of this sudden illness.
Three hours later, around 9pm, I woke up. I was now not only nauseous but extremely hot and sweating profusely. I also felt sore. My entire body, especially my lower back, ached as if I had taken a hard fall. With all the energy I could muster, I googled the number for the nearest doctor and called.
Thirty minutes later, a kind, soft spoken man arrived at my room. He took my temperature, which was now 104 °F (40° C) and gave me ibuprofen to ease the pain. From my symptoms, the doctor suspected I had the mosquito-borne tropical disease, dengue fever. He advised that in the morning I see the local staff at the hospital at which we were filming.
At 5am, I woke up and boarded the van for our 6am call. For the entire ride my body throbbed in pain. When we arrived on set I spoke with the production team to tell them what was going on. They sent me across the hospital to the emergency ward. As the hospital was in the countryside, it was no-frills.
The nurse laid me down on a bare steel bed and proceeded to wrap a tourniquet around my arm to test for dengue. After a few minutes, she released the tourniquet and in the crux of my arm appeared a patch of tiny red spots. Apparently, this was the sign of dengue fever. No more filming for me!
That evening I was flown back to Bangkok and the next morning I went straight to Bumrungrad, a well-known international hospital near my house, and explained what was going on. The nurses took some blood work and, after a few hours of waiting, my results came back.
As the local hospital said in Phuket, I had dengue fever. Oddly, though, I no longer had a temperature; my aches had disappeared and I felt much better. Feeling a little silly, I went home, and, now hungry, I cut up some watermelon, but when I took a bite it tasted like metal.
I decided to go out and take some air and went to the grocery store, but now the entire store smelt foul, like rotten fruit. Something was not right, I went home and googled.
A Serious Downturn
I learnt there are different stages to dengue fever.
- The first stage, which had already passed, included a high fever and body aches
- The second stage, which I realised I was in, included a miraculous feeling of recovery with a slight alteration of the senses
I continued reading and sadly discovered that I was just at the beginning of a week of agony. The next day, Sunday, I continued feeling fairly normal Then came Monday.
Monday morning, I woke up feeling delirious and dizzy. I slowly walked to the bathroom to take a shower, but could barely stand up, let alone wash up. I crawled out of the bathtub and laid on top of a towel on the floor.
Two hours passed. I had made it back to bed when my mother called, checking in from the States. Her words will remain with me forever, “Kristen, I am not there. The only person that is going to take care of you now is you. You need to get to the hospital.” I again mustered every ounce of energy that I had and walked out the door to hail a taxi. I asked the driver to take me to Bumrungrad Hospital and collapsed over in the backseat.
When I arrived at the emergency counter, I was swooped up into a wheel chair and whisked into an emergency room.
Within an hour I was admitted. Fortunately, I had a fabulous, personable Thai doctor who trained in the UK. She gave my mother daily updates and had the nurses running blood tests to monitor my white blood cell count every few hours. For the first three days my blood cell count continued to drop and my stomach swelled to the point where I could feel it protruding out of my side.
My body broke out in a red rash and I itched as if I was covered in mosquito bites. I could not believe what was happening. I approached October with plans of travel, a part in a major motion picture and a healthy body. Two weeks in, I was at the point where if my white blood cell count dropped any further I was going to be admitted into ICU. What was happening?
Thankfully, the fighter in me finally kicked in. On day four, my white blood cell count started to turn around and rise. I was weak, at least five pounds lighter, but I was out of the danger zone. A few days later I went home.
Life Doesn’t Go to Plan
It is easy to take life for granted. Although I had been living in a tropical country I had never worried about being ill; I was a young, healthy expat and I had planned my month off to be relaxing. I expected to see myself on the big screen in an international movie.
Instead, I found out that even young, healthy expats are not immune to tropical diseases; because I could not finish filming, my small scene was to be cut from the movie; and instead of a relaxing break, I had been sent on a two week rollercoaster ride.
I learnt that it does not matter what your plans are. It does not matter who you are. Life does not care and life does not always go according to your plans. So unless you want a quick way to lose weight and a lot of bed rest, come October in Southeast Asia, you better wear your mosquito repellent!
Written by Kristen Rossi.