Bali was supposed to be relaxing. We had planned 18-days in one beautiful rural location outside of Ubud. We wanted to be well-rested before we traveled to Assam, India, for our volunteer placement with Fertile Ground.
Best laid plans…
Truth be told, our concerns had begun before we arrived in Indonesia. In late November, Kris had been attacked by a dog in Thailand. Since we’d had all of our pre-trip vaccinations, including rabies, we just treated it like any other wound, and didn’t go to a clinic. Two weeks later, in rural Laos, another traveler informed us that we really should have taken Kris into the clinic on the day of the dog bite for more needles. So, two weeks late, Kris did get the next three required vaccinations in Laos. We hoped that would be good enough.
Kris’ bites healed well, and we were counting ourselves lucky… until one month later, in Malaysia, when his biggest dog bite (now healed closed) suddenly turned hot, red and itchy. At the same time, Kris came down with flu-like symptoms.
This was not good.
Fifty-five thousand people per year die of rabies. Mostly in South East Asia and Africa. Once you exhibit symptoms, rabies is always fatal.
So we went to a doctor. She essentially told us “I don’t think you have rabies, but if you do, there’s nothing we can do for you.” She gave Kris some antibacterial cream and told us to come back in two days if he was worse.
So, we spent our last two nights in Malaysia sleepless, thinking that Kris might be dying, but he didn’t develop a fever so we convinced ourselves that he was okay. We flew to Indonesia.
On our first day in Ubud, Finn was trying to get Dad into the pool, when Kris said he was a little feverish. Trisha, our hostess, was concerned, but I brushed it off: “He doesn’t have a fever – it’s just hot here!” It was significantly hotter than it had been in Melaka.
By the next evening, it was clear that he really did have a fever. While the kids slept, we walked out to a rice paddy crying and talking about life and death. If he did have rabies, there was every chance that he would be dead within 10 days. Kris was very philosophical, and said that Bali was a pretty good place to spend your last days, but I knew that if he died, there was no way I’d be fit to travel around the world with his body and our grieving kids. So, we decided to go to the clinic in the morning. If he did have rabies, we’d try to get him back to Vancouver as fast as possible, so his parents could at least come see him and say goodbye.
Rabies is hard to test for until you are dead. The doctor at the clinic was concerned about rabies, but he did say that he wanted to rule out a few other things first, namely malaria and dengue fever. They did some blood tests.
Within three hours, the clinic called our guest house with the instructions “Tell them to get to the clinic right now – it’s bad.” Trisha bundled the four of us into her car and drove us back to the clinic.
In the Emergency Room in Denpasar
To our surprise, they said that Kris needed to be immediately hospitalized. He had Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever, a low platelet count, and was at risk of internal bleeding. We hired a car and took him to the hospital, which was in another town, about 1.5 hours away. Very nice hospital, but it felt so wrong to leave him there and drive back to Ubud with the kids. Somehow at the hospital, eight-year old Olie learned that people can die from dengue. That was a stressful night. Fed the kids, e-mailed the health insurance folks, booked a new hotel near the hospital. In the morning, I phoned Kris, packed up, moved to the next town, and took the kids to the hospital for our first visit.
The next week was hell. Doctor Saraswati had warned us that Kris would continue to get worse until day seven, which would be the crisis day (after which he would either get better or have serious complications). She warned of bleeding, bruising, and delirium. Not things that you want your kids to see, but of course, the kids wanted to see him every day.
There was also still a chance that he could die. 22,000 people/ year die from this type of dengue (yes, much better odds than rabies, but it wasn’t quite the relief I was hoping for). I did some Internet research about how to involve your kids in the death of a parent, and read that at this age, their involvement should be by choice. If you don’t involve them, they might not forgive you. So… I had to have the talk with them in the hotel room at night, about delirium, bleeding, bruising and death, and let them decide if they wanted to be there. They both said that they did, but I told them that if they ever wanted to leave, we could. Which of course, would have meant leaving my gravely ill husband alone in a foreign hospital. Not really a great choice.
For the first three days that Kris was in hospital, I didn’t have any childcare. The kids had to accompany me to every hospital visit, which meant that they were there to overhear the doctor, and to see the nurses trying to clean the blood backed up in Kris’ IV lines. Not pretty stuff.
Of course we were all scared, but we were all pretending not to be. The kids were acting up and fighting, and the parents did not have the patience to deal with it. One night at bedtime, Olie started crying. I hugged him and immediately started crying too, which caused him to burst into laughter “Don’t cry on me!” We called Finn over, and had a big crying and laughing cuddle. That broke some of the tension. After that, we were able to have a good, calm visit with Dad every morning.
By Kris’ fourth day in hospital, I finally had things organized. My mom had decided on her own to fly around the world to help me, which was a huge relief. Whatever happened, at least I wouldn’t be alone with the kids. I’d also moved the kids into a hotel closer to the hospital that had a “Kids Club,” and hired a nanny to stay there with them until my mom arrived so I could stay with Kris during the worst couple of days. I took the kids to the hospital at 7 am for their morning visit, and then back to the hotel to spend the day with the nanny so I could return to the hospital and stay with Kris.
Kris, meanwhile, was still feverish, and getting weaker every day, as expected. His blood platelets were dropping by the day. Watching the numbers drop was eerily similar to our experience when he got a crazy blood disease (cold agglutinin hemolysis) several years ago. Like then, there was not much we could do but wait and watch the numbers, hoping that soon they’d start to go up.
Luckily, Kris made it through the critical day seven with no complications. He had a tiny bit of bruising, and it did take a little longer for his platelet levels to rise than the doctor was expecting, but after six days in hospital, he was released to be monitored as an outpatient. He was still very weak for several weeks afterwards, but has steadily gained strength and endurance since then.
Kris was incredibly lucky. Dengue can be very serious, and the best predictor of a positive outcome is getting good healthcare, and getting it early. Because the early symptoms are vague, most people aren’t treated as early as Kris was. If we hadn’t been concerned about rabies, the doctor wouldn’t have even done the blood test until Kris had had a fever for three days. Terrifying as it was, that rabies scare was very good for Kris’ health.
As it turns out, Kris had unknowingly had dengue fever before, which is why he got the hemorrhagic kind this time. Each time you get dengue, it gets more dangerous, so we made the decision to change our itinerary completely, and stay out of the tropics for now. This unfortunately changed our plans to volunteer in India, but it just wasn’t the right time for our family.
We were originally planning to go back to Canada for Kris’ recuperation period, but that 30-hour flight would have been rough, and also we remembered that January in Canada can be fairly miserable. So… we looked at closer countries, and settled on New Zealand, a beautiful country, where there are no insects, snakes or animals that can kill you.