Adventures in a Third World Medical System

Writing from 3.387° S, 36.683° E

Fun fact: I almost booked a flight to come home from Tanzania last month. Just 12 days after my less-than-ideal start to 2018, I had the scariest moment of my life when I woke up the morning after my 23rd birthday unable to breathe.

I had started having chest pain five days before, which had escalated throughout the week until I could barely take anything in: food, water, or oxygen. Even my special birthday brunch that my friends prepared for me (thanks guys!) was impossible to enjoy. So, on the morning of January 12th (after a momentary panic attack), my friend Lena called a taxi and took me to the hospital.

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Birthday brunch — my friends rock

While ambulances do exist here, it would be laughable to try and get one back through the maze of bumpy roads to where our house sits in Mianzini. A taxi who knew where we lived already was our only option aside from grabbing a pikipiki (motorbike taxi), which would have been ideal — and twice as fast — had I not been afraid of passing out and falling off the back.

After arriving at the hospital, we waited in the first of many lines to talk to the reception desk nurses, who were moving at typical Tanzanian speed: really, really slow. Lena talked for me while I stood there looking pathetic (and probably a little purple), and after hearing that I couldn’t breathe and taking a quick look at my pale complexion, they had me walk around the back and into the emergency room.

Now, let me just pause to say that the hospital here (as with any medical centre in a third world country) is doing the best they can with the resources they have. I got lucky to be living in a city with several hospitals close by, whereas if I was placed in a rural village the closest medical help could be located hours away. It is not the type of care I am used to, but it is by no means a bad place.

After being poked with countless shots (including a particularly painful one in my back), I was sent to the laboratory for a blood test.

Did I mention that I had a crippling fear of needles growing up?

If I hadn’t gotten over it already from all the vaccines I had to get before coming here, I’ve definitely gotten used to it since.

What followed was three hours in the waiting room before finally being called back to be told by the doctor that the tests found nothing. They would send me home with painkillers and steroids, and the issue “should go away on its own.”

Patients get told that a lot here. Unless it’s an easy diagnosis like malaria or typhoid — which everyone is ALWAYS tested for regardless of their symptoms — I’ve seen a lot of people sent home and told to wait it out. In this scenario, you have three options:

  1. Go home and wait it out.
  2. Go to another hospital (or the same one) and try again.
  3. Go to the pharmacy and bribe them to get whatever medicine you think you need, since prescriptions aren’t really necessary here.

Because the steroids had at least made getting air a little easier, I took option one and headed home to rest. What followed was two more days of zero food and water, continued difficulty breathing, panicked calls home to my parents, and an evening of searching flights back to the US. I decided to try the hospital one more time, but if I didn’t get any answers I’d be on a flight to Chicago the next morning.


Real footage of angry Lauren searching flights to come home

Luckily, this time we had some help. Our hostel owner’s sister works at the hospital and walked with me between all the different doctors to help translate and make sure they ran every test possible. I also had decided to be more aggressive this time in asking for what I needed.

After another round of tests and hours of waiting, they were going to send me home again but I demanded a chest X-ray first. Did they have a lead vest for me to wear? No. Did I finally get some answers? Yes.

Turns out I had some sort of viral lung infection that was affecting my esophagus (hence my inability to eat for days — I was starving by this point). I got the right medicine, went on bed rest for a week, and have since made a full recovery.



I used to get sick all the time when I was younger. After getting my tonsils out when I was 20, I was convinced that wouldn’t happen anymore, but here I am — in my last week in Tanzania, sick for the seventh time in five months.

It’s not entirely surprising that my weak immune system has had a hard time here. I live in a cloud of dust and sleep in a hostel where colds spread to everyone in less than a day.

It’s also not surprising that my first instinct when faced with a significant illness was to go home.

There’s something comforting about being sick in a place that is familiar. It’s a routine that you know well (if you have a crappy immune system like mine): your favorite clinic to go to, the convenience store down the street that carries the juice you like, a constant stock of the best ginger tea on your shelf, and family members or roommates who know how to make the perfect soup. You can sleep in your own bed, go to your own doctor, and get better in your own home.

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Bailey: my #1 caretaker when I’m sick at home

Living abroad, that isn’t an option. The comforts of home aren’t there to make you better, but that is by no means a reason to give up and travel less.

I’ll probably get sick again in the coming months, and it will probably be in a cool place far from the US. I’ll have to miss out on something I really wanted to do, and I’ll have to track down soup and ginger tea that are close enough to my favorites.

It won’t be fun and it won’t be home, but this is my life now, so to my body: suck it up.

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