In Sickness and In Health: 1,000 Words on Pooping

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward humanity will never be able to throw away his true calling. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

                The majority of my Kazakhstani service was a prolonged experience of intense confusion and profound self-discovery. I was only twenty-two years old and accepting my first post-collegiate job, leaving the U.S. for essentially the first time[1] in order to live in an underdeveloped nation on the other side of the planet. Said place spoke a language I didn’t know a single word of, had a cultural history of stoicism and hostility towards Westerners, and a harsh climate of sub-zero temperatures and little sunlight for most of the year. It was a perfect environment for deep reflection and critical self-evaluation, with questions like “Who am I?” “Why do I believe what I believe?” and “What the hell am I doing with this life?” inevitably occupying my thoughts after every failed initiative and cultural miscommunication.

So far my Cambodian journey hasn’t been as nearly as existential of an experience. A small part of that is (hopefully) due to a growth in wisdom and maturity over the last two years, but it probably has more to do with how much time and energy I have to put into simply maintaining my physical health[2]. It’s no mystery that there are some pretty nasty pandemics floating around Southeast Asia[3], and my current living situation leaves me in a rather vulnerable state. I’m not sure if it’s out of ignorance or just an inability to instill new habits, but most of the people I interact with on a daily basis do NOT practice good hygiene. Whether it’s patients and students not covering their mouths when they cough, market vendors not washing their hands after they use the bathroom, or my host family serving me meals with utensils that haven’t been properly cleaned, it feels like I’m being exposed to illness at every turn.

I have, in fact, gotten sick several times since arriving in Cambodia last July. This is not uncommon for volunteers serving anywhere, as new countries and new foods mean new germs and new diseases. Luckily, my first few months in country were only marred by a few minor ailments, and my collective assortment of tummy aches and runny noses where all easily managed. Things changed around the beginning of December, however, when a multitude of hostile viruses and parasites decided it was high time to attack my precious, delicate body.

Through the consumption of either contaminated water or undercooked food (or maybe both), I managed to contract a gastro-intestinal infection AND giardiasis within the same week of each other. The result was nearly two weeks of high fever, extreme nausea, and the most relentless diarrhea you could possibly imagine. To combat these infections I was given heavy doses of Ciproflaxin and Metronidazole, two very strong antibiotics whose ensuing side effects were almost as unbearable as the infections themselves. While the treatment ultimately proved effective, and my original symptoms quickly subsided, I was subjected to an additional week of migraine headaches, sharp abdominal pains, insomnia, and intense bouts of dizziness. I assumed the trial at hand was indeed finally over after my last dosage, only to awaken the next morning with a new fever and a sore throat. It proved to be nothing more than a common cold, but my immune system was so shot that it rapidly developed into a sinus infection. For those keeping track at home, that’s two serious infections and a parasitic invasion within the span of about 18 days.

The episode was far and away the sickest I’ve ever felt in my life. I had to be consulted by four doctors of three nationalities in two countries; they conducted blood work on four separate occasions, analyzed my stool twice, and even examined my prostate at one point[4]. The end result was three weeks of extreme illness followed by two and half weeks of slow, painful recovery. I lost twelve pounds (in addition to the twenty I had already shed before getting sick), missed over a month of work, and had to take “medical leave” from my site three separate times.

But, alas, I survived.

I cannot, in all honestly, claim a complete recovery just yet. My energy and appetite are still shadows of their former selves—and the stress related to the entire episode is still having some residual effects on my psyche—but I’m doing my best to remain optimistic. The quote at the top of this entry is the slight re-working of something Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning[5], and I’ve adopted it as a sort of mantra to reflect on whenever I feel overwhelmed by the uphill battle that stands in front of me. This assignment has been a trying ordeal to say the least, and my work has very little progress to show for the six months I’ve spent here, but I truly feel like this is where I’m supposed to be[6]. I’m taking comfort in knowing that I’m doing what I love, that I’m growing immeasurably as a person while I do it, and that my efforts have a 1% chance of actually changing this community for the better.


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The Hospital in Singapore I Spent Most of My New Year’s Eve in

[1] Canada doesn’t count when you grow up 20 minutes from the border.

[2] I guess it’s harder to dwell on the nature of humanity and the futility of existence when you can’t stop shitting yourself.

[3] Malaria, Tuberculosis, Dengue Fever, Japanese Encephalitis, and Chikungunya to name a few.

[4] Don’t Ask

[5] The actual quote: A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

[6] I submitted my original Peace Corps application in August of 2009. It was delayed three times. At one point I was supposed to leave in 2010 to serve in the Caucasus. Finally getting placed in Kazakhstan took over 18 months, and you know what happened shortly after that. If there is such a thing as fate/destiny/providence, it put a lot of time and energy into making sure I ended up here.

~ by Matthew on February 1, 2013.

One Response to “In Sickness and In Health: 1,000 Words on Pooping”

  1. […] the second time. As fate would have it, I only managed to complete three of those entries before a terrible bout of sickness put all blogging plans on hold. I eventually regained my full health, but—either through […]

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