An Ode to Bacteria

At 3:00 AM, I could feel it coming. Like the thunder in the distance the contractions that woke me from a deep sleep warned me of the approaching storm. I knew what lay ahead, I had been there before: The head-on collision of a first-world stomach with developing-world bacteria. Alone in my misery, I waited.

When it arrived, it did so violently; worse than ever before. I found myself staring down at the day’s meals, surprisingly recognizable in their new form. I found myself instantly repulsed by the idea of eating noodles ever again.

Rooted in the stubbornness of my Italian-Irish heritage, I convinced myself that the worst was over. I was supposed to attend a pagoda festival early that morning followed by a day of visiting monasteries and meeting people around Sagaing. I told my monk friends that I was fine, only to beg the driver to pull the car over 30 minutes into our journey so I could expel the remaining contents of my stomach into the brush. That was enough for us to turn around.

By noon, I was dehydrated and had a fever. I hid in my private room inside the monastery, until the worried calls and frantic knocking of my monk friend gave me a reason to emerge, wobbling on feeble legs. He told me I should go to the hospital. I refused, banking on a combination of two-year-old antibiotics, Pepto-Bismol, and time to take care of the problem. He insisted, promising to take me to a private hospital, not the government-run one that produced stories of days of waiting for inadequate care and dirty needles. More for his sake than mine, I agreed.

I soon found myself lying on a hospital bed, staring up at two timid nurses trying to shove an IV into my elusive vein. A flurry of Burmese words surrounded me, pierced by assurances from my monk friend in English, “You’re ok!” Moments earlier, Dr. Tin Ko Ko, a slim, polished Burmese consultant who spoke good English had confirmed my suspicions: Bad gastrointestinal infection, to be treated with rehydration and a course of antibiotics. Kind if somewhat dismissive, Dr. Tin Ko Ko left me with assurances I would be well looked after. As he spoke, a posse of young doctors scribbled frantically in their notebooks, only looking up to offer him looks of god-like admiration. As he left the room, the white-coated disciples scurried after him.

I quickly learned that when you are sick in Burma, you are cared for by every single person you know-and some you don’t. My taxi driver held my IV bottle as they wheeled me up to my room. My friend’s former students brought me food. His younger brother’s girlfriend mopped my face with a cool rag when I fell into a fever. It seemed every time I would open my eyes it would be to a sea of new faces, some familiar, some not, all bringing offerings of food or well wishes. Not for a second was I left unattended; girls who I had just met slept wrapped in blankets on the floor, waking often to check on me.

In the dead of night, I awoke to what I thought was a fevered vision: A monk sitting cross-legged on a chair next to me, reciting sutras in a hushed fervor. His eerie melody brought a wave of comfort over me, and I relaxed back into sleep.

The nurses came what seemed like every hour, to check my blood pressure, heart rate, and IV bottle. It was only when I complained of fever and back pain that they seemed lacking in their diligence, requiring my new friends to track them down and protest until they arrived with some Motrin.

Each person who visited had their own explanation for why I had become ill. It was the heat, the way I took a shower (you are supposed to start with your legs and work your way up), the fan in my room, the mosquito net I slept under. Only I blamed the bacteria.

Dr. Tin Ko Ko returned almost 24 hours after we first met. I was responding well to the treatment, he said, and could be released with a promise to finish my course of antibiotics. For the next week, my friends cared for me as if I was still in the hospital, treating my affliction with laughter, rice gruel, and chicken soup.

A moment of confusion came when I was handed the bill, about 230 U.S. dollars, but was asked for 400 dollars as a deposit, on top of the 100 I had already paid. Finding it strange that a deposit would be more than the price of the care, and not having 400 dollars, I gave them 200. The hospital was not too bothered by this, and I received a refund before I left.

This, along with being charged double the cost of the room as a local, infuriated my monk friend. He expressed how sorry he was for the cost and level of care in Burma, both of which I was unfazed by. To me, the care had been adequate and the cost was perfectly manageable, I was just happy to be feeling better.

Still, he expressed his sympathy while telling the story of his father, who at age 75 went to the hospital with a heart condition. A strong, proud man who had worked up until 3 days before his illness, he examined the outline of costs for his potential treatment while sitting in his hospital bed. It totaled around $50,000; like most Burmese, he did not have health insurance. He got up, dressed himself neatly in his lungyi and a crisp shirt, laid back down, and went to sleep, knowing he wouldn’t wake up. “That’s the thing about us,” my friend said, “we are always preparing to die.”

A week later, my stomach has yet to make peace with its new companions. Once it does, I’ll have to thank those pesky invaders, for showing me something I would not have seen otherwise.

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