Letters from Madagascar: Trouble in Paradise

Hannah sent her first letter from Madagascar today. When the ping showed up on my phone I had to pull over (in the middle of a five hour drive) just to be able to be a part of her world for even a moment. Things however quickly turned to larger problems and harder adventures. Here is what she had to say. 

image courtesy of Abby

Message 0.5

Today, I was going to send out the letter I’ve been adding to here and there for the past two and a half weeks.  I hope to send that out later, but this email needs to be about something else.

Two weeks is not enough time to truly know someone, but it is enough to come to care about them.

There are 13 students, including me, on this program.  It’s a small group, and after two weeks of sharing the foreign culture and every gastrointestinal abnormality, we are closer than one might expect.  Each person has their own role in the group: Kait, snarky but genuine.  Amy, sweet and optimistic.  Taylor, quiet and amusing.  Emma, kind and confident.  Jason, angsty and considerate.  Kali, giggle-filled and exuberant.  Collin, curious and relaxed.  Vicky, powerful and talkative.  Cameron, bro-ish and determined.  Lucy, feminist and realistic.  Ellen, quiet and empathetic.  Kevin, loving and sassy*.

Two weeks is not enough time to truly know someone, but it is enough to come to care about them.

Yesterday, the group,  climbed Pic St. Louis, the tallest peak on the rim of mountains surrounding the city.

Yesterday, the group, along with several of our teachers, some host families, and students from the ecological center in Fort Dauphin, climbed Pic St. Louis, the tallest peak on the rim of mountains surrounding the city.  The hike up was steep and strenuous, often requiring scrambling on all fours toward the top.  The trail was narrow and difficult to follow.

Everyone made it to the top.  Then, on the way down, Kevin became very, very sick.  Because he was so far behind everyone else, most of the group had already made it to the bottom on the top.  I was part of a group of about six or so SIT students, two CEL students and one professor who were still waiting for Kevin and the remainder of the group (the academic director and two CEL students).  We were the first to hear that he was sick.

When Kevin finally made it to the spot we were waiting, about 20 minutes down from the peak, he was almost fully supported by two CEL students, pale, shaking, and barely conscious.  He would attempt to ask for water, and his lips would move meaningless for several seconds before he was able to make the right shapes and the right sounds.  Even then, it was just a quiet, “de l’eau.”  He lay down with the group, and we created a canopy of shade out of the various articles of clothing we had.  He lay there, eyes flickering, hands shaking, sweat literally pouring down his face.  Everyone in the group provided what they could: water, cloth, shade, electrolyte replacement tabs, GORP, physical support….

It looked a lot like severe heat exhaustion or heat stroke, except that it began with convulsions…

It looked a lot like severe heat exhaustion or heat stroke, except that it began with convulsions (more or less conscious seizures).  In all likelihood, heat stroke triggered or exacerbated whatever it is that caused him to convulse.

After many, many, many long breaks and slow treks over rocky terrain (we took a different route down which was significantly less treacherous, but when supporting a 6’ 7’’ man who is barely conscious, any terrain is challenging), we arrived at the bottom.  Kevin was loaded into the truck and immediately taken to the medical center.  Victoria went with him.

The rest of the group ate lunch and cooled down.  Five of us had been in the burning sun on the mountain, with very little water, for many, many more hours than expected.  We were hot, tired, and confused by how the situation had been handled. But we were also relieved: Kevin made it to the bottom, and would soon be in the competent hands of Doctor Jane at the clinic.  We made plans to visit Kevin at his home the next day.

The condition, whatever it is, was deemed life-threatening by Doctor Jane

After we returned to Fort Dauphin, many of us met at the beach to rinse off and cool down.  Victoria showed up, after many hours in the clinic with Kevin.  He was being airlifted to Tana (the capital), and then to South Africa as soon as possible.  The condition, whatever it is, was deemed life-threatening by Doctor Jane.

Kevin is now stabilized (if that’s the word you should use).  He’s on some very serious medications, all of which decrease the symptoms he exhibited but also increase the risk that his airways will close.  As of last night, he had yet to be evacuated.  He will be leaving directly for South Africa early this morning (Sunday).

The doctors believe that he will recover.  Despite that, the situation is very, very serious.  Kevin will, in all likelihood, not be returning to the program.

we were all struggling to reconcile our grief and concern for Kevin with the anger and disappointment we felt toward the program for the way the situation was handled

The rest of the students spent the rest of the evening together.  We sat in silence, attempting to contact our families, friends, and loved ones.  We went to dinner.  We were together.  I believe I speak for the group when I say we were all struggling to reconcile our grief and concern for Kevin with the anger and disappointment we felt toward the program for the way the situation was handled.

This email is about Kevin, not about the shortcomings of the program.  I will be writing them separately and directly about those failings.  I do not want to outline them here.  I want to be sad for someone who was becoming a friend.  But, I do need to give credit where credit is deserved:

One CEL student and a friend of another CEL student carried Kevin down the mountain.  One was barefoot.  They worked tirelessly and never complained.

Victoria sat in the medical center for hours, attempting to translate medical French, act as Kevin’s advocate, and deal with the varying levels of incompetency.  She was called to act beyond her years, and succeeded.

Doctor Jane, for taking control in an abysmal situation which was handled terribly.  She is brilliant, confident, and unafraid to take action.

We are alone in Madagascar, surrounded by things which are entirely foreign, and a long distance from everything we know.  We are scared and confused.

Today is Sunday.  I will be going to church (Catholic, with my host dad), and praying for Kevin  I hope that you, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, are able to keep him in your thoughts and heart in whatever way you can.  Please also send love to the other students.  We are alone in Madagascar, surrounded by things which are entirely foreign, and a long distance from everything we know.  We are scared and confused.

I hope to write more, especially on the details of the last several weeks, later.  For now, this is all.  I miss you all and think of you all the time—when I’m by the ocean, or walking down a street, or just sitting in my mosquito net, as I am now.  I carry you with me.

Much love,

Hannah

Please hold Hannah and her new family in your thoughts and prayers, especially Kevin as he is air-lifted to South Africa. Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? Do you have any advice for her or her friends as she moves through this challenging time, thousands of miles from home, in a land so drastically different from her own?

*Names have been changed to respect privacy of individuals in the class

**update: Kevin is stable and recovering in south africa**

Advertisements