Many people assume that a cruiser’s worst fears are facing big storms or pirates. To my mind they’re always possible, but probably unlikely if you take sensible steps to minimise the risk. No, my biggest fear is something happening to Bruce through misadventure or illness, particularly if we’re in a remote area with little help at hand. And now here we are in the Ninigo Islands, possibly the remotest place we’ve ever been, 200NM from the mainland with no airport, ferry service or hospital and I’m having to face my fears.
It’s the day after our arrival and Bruce has a fierce headache and fever. My first thought is “Malaria!” – I had Malaria when I was a kid living in Kenya, and believe me you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. But surely not? We have insect screens on all our hatches, we haven’t been ashore at dusk or dawn, we use mozzies coils in the cockpit and liberal quantities of insect repellant. Before leaving Australia we talked to our GP about Malaria prevention – Quinine used to be the medication of choice, but it’s no longer effective. Nowadays it’s Doxycyline, an antibiotic. Fine if you’re only travelling for a couple of weeks, but not feasible if you’re away for months, so we gave the Doxycycline option a miss. I’d also intended to buy malaria testing kits and medication, but somehow they got missed off the list in the last frantic weeks before leaving Australia.
We’re anchored off the isolated island of Ahu – it’s beautiful with great snorkelling and sandy beaches, but not somewhere you want to be if you need medical assistance. In the afternoon I snorkel while Bruce sleeps and I hope he’s just coming down with a random virus.
But that night his fever gets worse. I spend the dark hours with ‘what if’s’ swirling in my head – What if I can’t get him help here? What if I have to sail the boat to the mainland without his assistance? What if he has to be admitted to hospital in Vanimo and I’m stuck on the boat in an unsafe place? The fears multiply as the night wears on, and I feel very alone and helpless. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recall mention of a health centre on Mal Island, the big island on the south side of the lagoon, but I have no idea how to find it or even if it’s still operational.
The next morning I rouse Bruce and tell him we’re going to Mal – he helps me get the anchor up and then I motor to the waypoint our cruising buddies on ‘Field Trip’ gave us for Thomas & Elizabeth’s village ( 01’ 24.030 S: 144’ 11.580 E) – hopefully they’ll be able to tell us where the health centre is.
They’re a delightful elderly couple, very welcoming and hospitable and they give us directions to the health centre, unfortunately right down the other end of the island. We promise to be back for a more leisurely chat, and then we zoom off in the dinghy, picking our way through the reefs and bommies to get to the beach. It’s low tide so the last 200 metres we have to drag the dinghy across the shallows. Not easy when you’re not feeling well, and certainly not as easy as rocking up to your local medical centre! But we find the health centre and meet Brendan, a lovely man who runs the place with two other people. I guess he’s the equivalent of a paramedic in Australia. He tests us both for Malaria (he thinks if Bruce has it, I’m pretty sure to have it too) but both tests are negative, which is kind of a relief but also a concern. If not Malaria, what is it? Brendan thinks it might be too early to pick up the Malaria parasite in the blood test, or it could be the start of some other viral illness, possibly flu, and he suggests we come back in a few days if things don’t improve.
Well they don’t – at times Bruce seems a bit better but then the fever and headache come back with a vengeance, despite regular doses of Panadol. Two nights later and he’s alternately shaking uncontrollably with chills or sweating so profusely that the whole bed and mattress is soaked. He’s also talking rubbish (yes, I know, “what’s new” I hear you say) but this is complete delirious gibberish. It’s a long, lonely and scary night’s vigil.
By now there’s no way Bruce is well enough to travel to the clinic, so as soon as there’s enough light in the morning I jump in the dinghy and race over to find Brendan. It’s Saturday so I’m hoping and praying that he’s there, and that the tide’s not too low. It isn’t and he is, and he quickly puts together a medical bag containing not only malarial tests and treatment but IV fluids and IM injectibles in case it’s not malaria. I’m reassured by his professionalism, and we race back across the bay to the boat. Another test confirms what we suspected – Bruce has Malaria, probably contracted a couple of weeks ago either in Manus island or the Hermits. Brendan tells us it’s a parasitic disease caused by a bite from the female Anopheles mosquito which affects the red blood cells, liver and spleen. Without treatment it causes severe anaemia, coma and death. More than 2.7 million people die of malaria each year because of lack of treatment, but Bruce is one of the lucky ones – Brendan has the necessary medication. It’s three days of heavy duty stuff to knock the parasite out, and then another two weeks of Primaquine to ensure all the parasite eggs are destroyed in the liver. Nasty little critters.
Brendan also leaves us with a course of treatment for me if necessary, and some test kits. All for free, courtesy of the PNG government. We’re very, very grateful and at his request load his external hard drive up with a bunch of movies for him and his kids – it’s the least we can do.
I breathe a HUGE sigh of relief – Bruce is going to be OK. It’ll just take a few weeks to recuperate and get his energy back. I guess there are worse places to convalesce than the Ninigos Islands….