Posted by: sean | December 3, 2009

There’s an ‘I’ in ‘Malaria’

One downside of taking an open-air boat for three days down the Niger River is that it’s almost statistically impossible not to contract malaria.  After waking up one morning to find twenty two mosquito bites below my left ankle, I knew that in seven to ten days time I would be in for some kind of illness.


Few words come before the word ‘net’ and also after the phrase ‘I do not want to contract’.  Malaria does.  You can take all sorts of medications to prevent malaria, but invariably they come with some sort of warning such as “The FDA has only approved this drug for six months of use” or “psychotic depression may result” or “you will be inclined to kill your loved ones.”  Knowing that I was going to be in Liberia for an extended period of time, I decided not to take drugs to prevent malaria…because their side effects sounded worse than actual malaria.  I also believed that I would be able to reason with any mosquitoes I encountered and dissuade them from puncturing my skin.   

Back in Monrovia, roughly seven to ten days after my trip down the Niger River, I began to feel unwell.  I suspected the worst, but initially did not have the classic symptoms: nausea, headache, feeling hot and cold, anthropomorphizing cutlery, etc.  After two days of feeling not so well, I went to a local Chinese clinic at the end of my street because a) I had heard good things about it from my boss, and b) it was cheap.  The fact that it was cheap may have been the good thing I had heard about it from my boss.

The staff at the Chinese clinic were cheerful and Chinese.  They did not test me for malaria, since I had none of the symptoms, but instead determined that I had an infection of some sort in my lungs.  They put me on an IV then sent me home with a bucket load of traditional Chinese medicine.

The variety of medicines the Chinese clinic prescribed...

By serendipity, Vishal was back in Liberia on a short visit and staying with me.  He speaks Chinese and helped me decipher the ingredients of the medicine.  One contained artificial powdered bull gall stone.  I am all for exploring other cultures, but decided that artificial powdered bull gall stone would not help my situation.

The next day I went back to the clinic, lying through my teeth that I had taken the medicine.  They determined that I had malaria and put me on another IV and gave me more medication.  Back home I promptly put the medication to one side and called around town to see what I should take for malaria.  As it turns out, the Chinese clinic prescribed me with a type of drug and dosage that could have resulted in me developing immunity to the drug…which would leave me unable to treat any future malaria…  In that moment I felt like a Tibetan.

The medication I eventually took was a three day regime of drugs with unpronounceable names.  I lost all appetite.  To make matters worse, my friends Lizzie and Jenny dropped off a pumpkin pie at my house.  I knew that I wanted to eat it, understood that I should eat it, and felt that not eating would go against all previous declarations I had made regarding pumpkin pie…but I could not eat it.  Instead, I lay immobile on the couch, trying to drink water or eat something small without having to run immediately to the toilet.

They were dark times.  I cursed my decision not to take preventative medicine, even if it would have resulted in psychotic depression.  I cursed pumpkin pie.  I cursed the Chinese.  Every morning I wandered down the street to the clinic.  I cursed the weird brown liquid they put in the IV that made my veins ache.

“Stop! Stop! Is it supposed to sting like this?”
“Sting? Yes, it is traditional Chinese medicine”

I had no argument to counter their cunning Traditional Medicine Proof.

“What’s in that syringe?”
“Traditional Chinese medicine.”
“It is good.”

What could I say?  I know nothing about traditional Chinese medicine and I was too weak to suggest that they use modern, scientific Chinese medicine.  In the end I had to suppress all my thoughts about tainted milk and lead paint in toys and accept that the Chinese clinicians knew what they were doing.

They were dark times.  I cursed the pumpkin pie in my freezer and my lack of desire to put whip cream on the top of it.  I cursed the Chinese.  I cursed my ‘couch’ which anyone who has been in my house can tell you more closely resembles a ladder that has been lashed together and adorned with a thin layer of cushioning.

But then there was light.  Laying on the couch, a ladder rung protruding into my back, I looked up at the chipping paint on my living room wall and found Jesus.  At first I thought it was the malaria medication playing with my mind, but on closer inspection I realized that it was in fact Jesus.  He had appeared on French fries, toast, and other walls, but now he was on MY wall.  If you don’t believe me, look at this.

See the eyes, the nose, the mouth?  It is, indisputably, Jesus.  If you still don’t believe me, what about this?


No need; I have already written the Vatican.

And lo!  Things improved.  After three days the malaria subsided and in the end I was bedridden for a week.  It took me two more weeks to regain my full strength and accept the possibility that maybe Jesus was not on my wall.  Accept ‘the possibility’.  I mean, look at it.  It’s uncanny.

I would like to say that I now take anti-malarials and sleep under my mosquito net, but I appear to have an inability to learn from experience.

Postscript: Though everything ended well for me, the pumpkin pie sustained severe freezer burns and became inedible.



  1. Uncanny!

    And how could you not take the powdered bull gall stone remedy? Now you will never know the magical healing powers of bull…


  2. I’ve been having night sweats, and I finally went to the doctor. He’s an old man, asked me if I ever traveled. I started listing off countries, and his eyes got big, and he started scribbling furiously (no computer for this fellow). He got fixated on my trip to Senegal in 2006. Seems to think I have a suddenly emerging case of malaria. Maybe I should visit a Chinese clinic?

  3. Dear Sean,

    I have recently been anthropomorphizing cutlery myself. Should I be worried that I have malaria if I find Beaver the Cleaver increasingly dull and Matt the Spatula constantly burns my grilled cheese…? If you don’t mind, please ask around in the Chinese Liberian community.

    Thank you.

  4. Sean, I unearthed some undisputable statistics which clearly vindicate your decision not to start taking anti-malarials:

    75% of the times I have contracted malaria have been while on anti-malarials, 50% during the dry season while sleeping under mosquito nets, and 100% in Liberia. So clearly doing nothing is the best course of action.

    btw, you mentioned drinking water in your post. I thought I should warn you than 96.5% of people who have ever drunk water have died. Water is deadly…and clearly even more dangerous than malaria!

  5. While I am sure you are doing amazing things in your work in Liberia, I think you should devote all of your attention to comedy writing.

  6. “I am all for exploring other cultures, but decided that artificial powdered bull gall stone would not help my situation.”

    What? I’d like to point out that the feverish, pre-Jesus Sean was not as measured and lucid as he is making out. If I recall correctly, after I told you that the medicine contained a heady mix of caffeine, artificial cow bezoar, anti-histamine and paracetamol, you asked “what’s the dosage?”

    Still, out of the five kinds of medicine they gave you, my favorite was the unmarked white bottle with a piece of medical tape stuck to the side on which was written “cough”.

  7. It’S uncanny, and you know the Macleay family are experts on Jesus!

  8. […]  This one, here.  Sean's in Liberia, and due to the malarial incident that has me riveted to the Internet and not to my work, I didn't get to know him all that well when I was there.  Which is too bad, […]

  9. really really funny.

  10. Okay, this one made me laugh so hard I was afraid I would pee my pants on my office chair in my cube at work. Yes, it’s just that good. I’m wondering, however, what we should call your Jesus Wall?

    In Glee a Jesus in a sandwich was called a Grilled Chee-sus. I propose Jes-wall Cristo. Thoughts?

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