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Encountering Illness Abroad

Written by  Lisa Gaudry September 13, 2012

When it comes to self-diagnosis, there's a fine line between caution and hypochondria.

When it comes to your health while living abroad, where do you draw the line between being cautious, or being a hypochondriac? I often ask myself if there is really a difference.

Symptoms experienced abroad not only seem to consume most of our headspace but they also seem to be much more severe than the ones we experience at home. Every little bump, insect bite, skin irritation, headache, or stomachache is always more worrisome when abroad. At home, these symptoms often pass unnoticed. However, abroad, they leave you feeling like you are one step away from contracting [insert name of any scary tropical disease].

When I began experiencing troublesome symptoms while living in Rwanda, I wanted to inform myself on potential health risks, so I decided to Google my symptoms. A word to the wise: Googling lists of diseases and symptoms online does nothing but make you realize that you are experiencing nearly all—if not all—of the symptoms for [name of scary tropical disease].

Headache? I did have a headache this morning—it can’t be because I haven’t had a latte since I’ve been in Rwanda. Loss of appetite? Wait a minute, is that why I ate less this morning? I only ate half of a North American portion-sized breakfast. Stomachache? It can’t just be bloating from all the beans I’ve been eating. Nausea? I thought I felt a little queasy—definitely not dehydration. Fever? I am feeling warm and sweaty! I knew it had nothing to do with the 40 degree Celsius weather. Shortness of breath? I thought I was just out of shape walking uphill at a higher altitude, but I guess not! Skin irritation? It’s not just a heat rash after all! Oh my g…! I practically have all of the symptoms of [name of scary tropical disease]…Yup, I’m pretty sure that’s what I have. I knew it! I definitely have to go to the doctors—that’s the smart thing to do.

Though I left the clinic with a negative test result for malaria, a wishy-washy response as to whether or not I had contracted any scary diseases or parasites (something along the lines of “no, you’re fine,” which of course was wrong based on my own research and self-diagnosis), and a funky rash (heat rash) on my leg, I left the local pharmacy with multiple bubble packs of temporarily satisfactory mystery pills and an eerie, suspicious-looking tube of cream that appears to have lived through the 1970s. The box said hydrocortisone, but the tube said “dawa,” a Swahili word that literally translates into “medicine.”

The same feeling of uncertainty that arises when I take a bus for the first time in a developing country seems to arise every time I’m prescribed pharmaceuticals in a developing country. If what they say is true—that it’s the journey not the destination that counts—sometimes, peace of mind means going along for the ride.

However I was going to reach whichever destination—or, health condition—I was headed for, at least there was comfort in knowing I had a tube of “medicine” for the ride.

As Rwandans always say, “This too, shall pass.”

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