Monday, October 24, 2011


My nephew's five-year-old daughter spent several days in the hospital recently, reminding me of every parent's heartache when a child gets sick and my own distress when our daughter Tina fell ill in Cameroon at about the same age.

Today's excerpt "Quinsy" comes from Part Three: Cameroon Tales, Chapter 11.


After the wet season, we could enjoy afternoon barbeques again. At a cookout at the Grimstes' Tina left her group of playmates and slumped down beside me.

"Mommy, my head hurts."

My hand on Tina's forehead registered fever. I called to Fred and Dakota and we said our goodbyes to the other guests. Once home, I gave Tina a dose of Tylenol and tucked her in bed where she went straight to sleep.

In the morning I knew she had a serious illness. Not only did she have an unusually high fever and complained of headache and sore throat, she had also wet the bed. This is the girl who had slept dry since age two. I took her to the embassy medical unit.

The nurse, Barbara Koch, referred us to a British doctor downtown. Dr. F. palpated the swelling on Tina's neck and stated that the obscuring of her jaw line suggested mumps. She advised us to push fluids, encourage Tina to rest, give her Tylenol for pain, and wait for the disease to run its course.

Instead of getting better, Tina got worse. The fever rose. Tina stopped eating. She sipped water only if I begged her. I radioed Nurse Barbara, who called the Regional Medical Officer stationed in Lagos, Nigeria. He immediately booked a flight to Yaounde and examined Tina the next day. In Dr. R's opinion, Tina's illness was not the mumps. He diagnosed a peritonsillar abscess, an illness also known as quinsy. The doctor said that under normal circumstances he would recommend admitting Tina to the hospital, lancing the abscess, and initiating treatment with penicillin. Given the deplorable conditions of the local hospital, Dr R. suggested either a medevac (medical evacuation) to Army medical facilities in Frankfurt or forgo the lancing in favor of home treatment with antibiotics.

Fred and I couldn't approve of taking our sick child on a long plane trip from the tropics directly into winter in Germany, so we chose the home treatment. Tina's allergy to penicillin required an alternative antibiotic. Barbara volunteered to stay by Tina's bedside throughout the first night of treatment with a tracheotomy kit ready in case of allergic reaction to the penicillin substitute.

I lay awake that night, listening to Tina's every breath. In the morning, Barbara closed her trache kit and went to work as usual. Fred took Dakota to school and went on to his office. I continued my vigil with Tina. Dr. R. had instructed me to record her temperature every hour and get her to drink fluids as often as possible. He told me to take her to the Peace Corp lab every day for a blood test to monitor her white cell count.

Tina did not complain, but she didn't eat either. She survived for three weeks on sips of water and four or five tiny bites of yogurt a day. She lay on the couch and listened to the recorded book "Tina the Ballerina" over and over.

The antibiotic did work and her white count came back down to normal. The abscess disappeared and Tina's appetite returned. Months passed before she regained her health and her weight. Her knees stuck out like knobs on her matchstick legs, and her complexion held the pallor of sickness for weeks.

Before her recovery was quite complete, I wrapped our little ballerina in a blanket and carried her to the embassy Christmas party. She laughed for the first time in a month when she saw her slim Daddy dressed in a pillow-padded Santa suit, distributing gifts to all the embassy kids. She laughed again when I asked Joseph to pot a banana tree and bring it in the house. And she giggled while I sewed Christmas ornaments on the broad leaves of our unorthodox Christmas tree. I laughed with her, so happy to see her getting well.

We went all out for Tina's fifth birthday in January 1979. We invited the whole kindergarten class as well as our group of friends and their children. Tina chose a Winnie-the-Pooh theme and I drew a big picture of Eeyore for pin the tail on the donkey. While everyone else sang happy birthday, I silently sang a prayer of thanksgiving that our daughter had survived quinsy.

Voluntary Nomads: A Mother's Memories of Foreign Service Family Life is available in paperback at Amazon and Barnes and Noble as well as in eBook formats at Smashwords and in PDF at Outskirts Press

Next time: an excerpt from Part Four: New Zealand Yarns

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