Tuberculosis or TB for short sounds like a cute acronym you would call your favorite aunt, but its not. The bacteria, if left untreated has a high mortality rate, and its high resilience means that incomplete treatment schedule will result in certain death.
I know it sounds grim but its the truth, and I know because I contracted the dreaded bacteria late in 2012.
It has been years and I am all recovered now, but I still have the scars on my lungs – and my life has changed since.
Before the tuberculosis
Before contracting tuberculosis I was quite athletic and strong. I could lift a person twice my size and go more than 10 rounds on the big mitt or heavy bag. I had practiced karate everyday since 2007 and I could say I was at my physical peak when I started feeling ill.
It started with the chills during the day and a loss of appetite. All I could eat was fruits and I felt quite weak. During the day all I could do was sleep and then during the nights I would sweat profusely. I also had nightmares and would wake up sweating. Then I’d go back to sleep and it would start all over again.
I thought my body would heal itself after a few days so I stayed at home. Unfortunately, that did not happen and things got worse. I started having devastatingly sharp pains in my left rib. At night it would feel like someone had stabbed me with a knife several times and I would wake up taking deep breaths trying to make sure I could breath. This continued for a few more nights, until I went to the hospital.
In fact, the doctor told me that it was because I was at my physical best that I could withstand the excruciating pain in my lungs and walk around.
A trip to the hospital
After a week without improvement, I finally decided to make the trip to the hospital. I know many would be asking why I had not gone sooner – well, because it can be expensive and after paying for rent and other necessaries, the little that remained could just not be enough.
So I caught the bus and went straight to a private clinic run by one of the predominant churches in Papua New Guinea (PNG). I had the option of going to the public hospital but waiting in line there would take hours, and I could not sit out that long in public especially in my condition.
It took me about 15 minutes of waiting before I was called in by the doctor. In the room I told him of all the symptoms and how I was feeling. His diagnosis was that I had some form of influenza and he prescribed some pink medication that smelled like strawberries. I was in and out of his office in less than 15 minutes, and would be on the prescribed medication for a week before going back for review.
After 3 days of taking the medication with no improvements, I wanted a second opinion and opted for the public hospital. So my wife arranged with her sister, who was a nurse, to have the doctor at the ward she works in to have a look at me.
By that time I had lost a lot of weight, my eyes had sunken in and I was quite dehydrated.
Dr Jones to the rescue
The doctor, whose name is Dr Jones (no kidding), took one look at me and said he suspected tuberculosis. He had been around the disease long enough to see the symptoms but he wanted to be sure and asked us to do a sputum test. It would take a week for the results to come back, but he immediately got me on tuberculosis treatment and I was admitted for a few days.
Those 3 days in hospital seemed like 3 weeks. I was put on a drip to help me get re-hydrated. It is depressing staying in the hospital. All around people are dying and it makes you wonder about your own life and mortality. When the time came to go home I was quite happy – and feeling better.
The doctor also wrote a note for me to get an x-ray of my chest. He explained that the pains I felt were build up of fluids in my lung, but they had to be sure. It would also take a few days for the pictures to be processed so I was discharged and would come back in a week.
After a week I returned to the hospital. My test result came back positive for tuberculosis and my x-ray revealed fluids in my left lung. However, as the doctor explained, the bacteria infected the outer lining of my lungs and did not penetrate the lungs. This explained why I did not spread the bacteria to my family members when I coughed.
I guess am alive today thanks to the decisive action Dr Jones took to administer immediate treatment. If he had opted to wait longer then I might have been another statistic chalked up to the deadly disease.
The scars on my lung
When it was confirmed that there was something in my lungs, the doctor sent me to surgery where an intern took charge of draining the fluids. I was not given anesthesia and the procedure required I be seated.
The only other person in the room was my sister Shirley who was curious to see how it would be done.
The intern took out a large syringe and needle and stuck it in my back. My sister gasped at what she was seeing but the intern was quite calm and pushed the needle further in, only asking if it hurt.
When she was sure that she had reached the target, she pulled the syringe hoping to drain what I suspect would have been abscess. Unfortunately, nothing came out and as Dr Jones would explain later, the medication I had been given at the private hospital solidified the liquid.
6 months of treatment
After confirmation that I had contracted tuberculosis I was given a note and asked to register at my nearest clinic. For me, at the time, was at Hohola and I was given a book, card and two weeks worth of medication. The treatment would take 6 months to complete but the nurses had to monitor the patients and this way they would come back for checks.
I was also given counseling about the bacteria and to be honest the counselor seemed a bit grim especially when explained the close association tuberculosis had with HIV/ AIDS.
The stats she was also throwing around was quite alarming especially the number of people with tuberculosis.
For the next 4 months I had to take my daily dose, but I had begun feeling better after a couple of weeks treatment, and started to resume some of my normal activities.
After a couple of weeks I got used taking the medication and it became instinctive. I went into autopilot after a few weeks.
Then comes the stigma
The fear of tuberculosis brings about stigma and I faced that with my landlord at the time. You could see it in the way he approached to talk to me. It clearly indicated his ignorance and I felt humiliated and hurt.
I had wanted to tell him then and there that the inhumane conditions I was living in was partly to blame for the bacteria – and it was his fault, but I didn’t. Instead I kept my mouth shut and decided that I could not live there anymore.
It’s no wonder people who are sick tend to hide and pretend everything is all right until its too late.
We live in a superstitious world
We live in a superstitious world and when I first got sick my extended family began forming their own thoughts of the cause which was mainly superstition. They came up with theories like I had been cursed by someone, or that my deceased father was angry and punishing me for something.
It is unfortunate that we are quick to associate illness with the supernatural.
They consulted seers and witch-doctors who all said I was under a curse, and they even insisted I return home and be treated there. However, all that changed when I informed them that I had tuberculosis.
It was like a veil had been lifted from their eyes and they began to see clearly for the first time. It was also then that I found out that I could be genetically predisposed to the disease.
My grandmother had it, my grand uncle and a few other family members had gotten the disease in one time of their lives – even my elder sister who got tuberculosis when she turned 30.
As I learned, many people live with dormant form of the bacteria and can be triggered by certain events. I believe mine could have been the death of my father a few months earlier, or it could have been genetic – I started getting sick after my 30th birthday!
Thinking back, our beliefs in superstition create a blindfold that stops us seeing the truth in front of us – that tuberculosis is curable and can be cured with modern medicine.
What I learned about tuberculosis
It was during the time that I was infected with the bacteria that I began learning more about it either directly or indirectly, wanted or unwanted. For example, the counselor at the clinic where I would get my medical supplies painted a bleak image when she associated tuberculosis with HIV /AIDS – but it was true.
HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis is the deadliest combination out there. Once your immune system is compromised, tuberculosis closes in for the kill. It’s not surprising that most HIV/AIDS posters have people who look more like they have contracted TB.
Then there is the fact that the tuberculosis bacteria can infect any part of the human body. I contracted it in the lungs but a neighbor of mine contracted it in her bones and went through all the normal tests undetected. It was only when blood from her bones were tested when it was discovered. However, the most frightening thing is how the bacteria can evolve.
According to the nurses at the clinic, if medication is not taken religiously, the bacteria can evolve and build up a resistance to the medicine. When this happens, medication has to be changed and treatment will take up to 9 months. But the most interesting thing I learned is that the medication does not actually kill all the bacteria.
As one nurse explained, the medication in one’s bloodstream keeps the bacteria hidden like a snail in its shell, unable to come out and feed. Usually, it takes 6 months for the virus to starve and die. However, when medication is missed, the potency level in the blood becomes less and the bacteria will actually adapt and be able to feed. This then would call for a change in medication and a longer period of dosage.
The main question many people will be asking is how I contracted the tuberculosis bacteria and answer is I don’t know. It could have been in the bus, the market or along the road. It could have been in the overcrowded unit that I was renting or it could been in my office. However, the important thing to remember is that it is treatable.
Life after tuberculosis
It has been almost 5 years since I contracted tuberculosis and I have been moving forward since. Soon after getting better I competed in the PNG National Karate Championships and won a silver medal in the 75kg division.
I then traveled to Fiji and competed in a tournament there, winning a bronze medal.
A year later I went again as a technical official for Team PNG during the Oceania championships. I have tried (and failed miserably) to get back into the physical condition I was in before.
Today, I am sharing my story in the hope that it will inspire courage in someone going through a similar situation.