Colombo, International

On Dengue Fever and Other Observations

Colombo 2012

Mosquitoes, bites, blood, pain, even death.

I take absolutely no precautions when it comes to Dengue fever, except that I try to surround myself with air conditioning whenever possible.

I’ve seen stories about Dengue in the newspapers – in the Daily Mirror and elsewhere.

I thought it was probably just the flu, but I decided to go get my blood drawn anyway. Two hours later I’m back at my apartment, reading The Beautiful and the Damned and wishing that I was with Fitzgerald in Paris. My cell phone starts to ring.

“Hello, sir?”


“Yes, right, well, we got your test back from the lab and….where are you now?”

“I am at my house. Is there a problem?”

“Would you be able to come back to the hospital to meet with one of our doctors? There is a problem with your blood; something is out of order.”

I drop my book and head to the hospital immediately; it’s within walking distance.

“How are you sure I have Dengue? I haven’t even taken the official test yet?”

“You don’t need to. Given these test results, there’s nothing else that this could be. How long did you say you had been sweating?”

“Off and on for over a year.”

“I see; that sounds quite uncomfortable.”

“But I’ve been especially sweaty for three days; that’s why I wanted to get checked. I’m used to being hot, just not this hot.”

“Given your current Platelet Count, you are already near the point of hospitalization. You will need to come back tomorrow to take another blood test. If your Platelet Count falls below 100,000, you will need to be admitted to a hospital. It is for your own safety. Dengue can kill you.”

“So, I should just come back tomorrow morning for the blood test and bring a small bag of personal items in case I have to be hospitalized?”

“Well, sort of. You are more than welcome to return here to have your blood drawn, but we would not admit you to our hospital under these circumstances.”

“Under what circumstances? That sounds pretty unhelpful.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t admit Dengue patients. It’s our policy.”


“Because they are too unpredictable; you just never know what’s going to happen. Now, would you please excuse me? I have other patients I must speak with.”

“Thank you very much for your help, doctor.”

I anxiously walk back to my house. The pain is coming, although I don’t know what exactly that means.

That evening I am lying on my bed trying to figure out if The Economist would be a more interesting read if it included bylines…and then it hits me.

I feel like my forehead is about to explode and that my eyes are going to fall out. Just having the lights on in my room is disturbing. I take a couple of pain killers (acetaminophen) and that doesn’t work. I take a couple more. That doesn’t work either. The only other viable option is booze, but that seems like a bad idea. I’m supposed to go see the doctor tomorrow and if he were to smell liquor on my breath (after having been told I have Dengue and need to drink copious amounts of water) he might think I need to go to a different kind of hospital….a special kind.

About a day later, the severe discomfort subsides. I don’t feel great, although the pain killers start to work again.

I think this is a mild case; I am getting better. At least this time, I have been lucky. Some people had told me that “getting Dengue feels like you’re going to die.”

“Hi doctor. I just wanted to let you know that I’m fine now. It wasn’t that bad; there was only one day when I was really hurting.”

“Okay, thanks for calling. Please take care of yourself. Subsequent infections are usually much worse. If you are infected again, it’s unlikely that it’ll be a mild case. You will have much more pain. You understand? That’s how it normally works. ”

Great, now all I have to do is avoid mosquitoes entirely or swim to another island.

Colombo 2013

But I’m just starting to get the hang of things. I’ve finally learned the basics of Sri Lankan English. I’m now able to walk the streets of Colombo without feeling like I’m about to be hit by a car. I’ve even learned how to eat rice with only my right hand.

On the other side of the world, I wish I could at least say that Sri Lanka was a misunderstood place. Unfortunately, I think that that might be setting the bar too high.[1]

Generally speaking, Sri Lanka is more likely viewed as an exotic and sophisticated stop on South Asia’s backpacker circuit. Spices, tea, terrorists, coconuts, cricket, and curry; that probably covers the panoply of thoughts I usually hear about the country. The fact that there is more is not surprising. What’s surprising is that there’s so much more.

There are layers of complexity here that I will still be navigating my way through in five or ten years. It’s been nearly four years since the end of the country’s civil war. I’ve been told that some things have changed since then; I’ve been told that some things haven’t. I suppose it just depends on who you talk to….

I had read a lot about Sri Lanka before my arrival, some of which was helpful. However, there is no substitute for being here, for actually living it. I have been regularly reading the papers (and Groundviews), walking Colombo’s chaotic streets, wondering how people get any sleep on those Colombo-Jaffna “luxury buses,” speaking with a variety of people, wishing I knew more Sinhala and Tamil – listening, observing, reflecting and learning. Sri Lanka has been my classroom. And, as “a student of life,” it’s an experience that will be difficult to walk away from.

[1] Based on numerous e-mails I have recently received, it appears that the impeachment of the Chief Justice has allowed several people (outside Sri Lanka) to draw some more general inferences about the rule of law and broader trends in governance.