The Time I Almost Died: Saved by Mama Bridgette

This is a continuation of the story from yesterday.  Read this article first…

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Pastel blue walls surround me as does a combined congregation of people in white shirts, random children and an authority figure of some sort.  My arm is taped to a t-shirt and the bed.  I look at my hand and it has an IV stuck into it, a yellow liquid dripping into my veins.

“What’s going on?” I say to anyone who will listen.

“Monsieur,” the authority figure, who I can now tell is a doctor, says with a strong voice. “You’re in Lukala, at the hospital.  You’ve had a rough day.

I twist my back which is in incredible pain and ask the doctor if we can talk in private.  He says one word and the choir-like crowd flees the room.  He closes the door behind them.

Lukala, DRC

Imagine finding a wolverine like this in your town passed out on the street…

I don’t remember anything from the day.  I remember being at the steps of a pharmacy and it ends there.  I remember having hallucinations of people trying to travel to Malaysia.  I had dreams about my late grandfather.  I had a dream about a girl from back home.  My thoughts were so twisted they seemed to meld my whole life together all at once.

“A Red Cross truck picked you up,” the doctor says once the room is cleared aside from one lady seated in the corner. “Mama Bridgette here saw you passed out on the side of the road and flagged them down to bring you here.  She hasn’t left your side since you got here.”

I smile at the lady wearing a purple traditional dress and a light head scarf.

Lukala, DRC

Chicks dig Anne Murray

“What’s in the IV doc?”

“Energy,” he says with a bit of a laugh.  “You needed lots of it.”

“Red Bull,” I say with a smirk. “I love Red Bull, but you could just bring me a can of it, please.”

“I’m glad you’ve got a sense of humour, it makes it easier,” he laughs before continuing more seriously. “You got lucky.  You got a bad hit of malaria and judging by the state you were in when you got here, you only had about an hour or two left of life in you before it killed you.  How long had you been feeling symptoms?”

Malaria? Damn my stubbornness.  I could have stopped this all days ago, I had the malaria treatment with me the whole time.  Everything about this felt like malaria save for the fact that I hadn’t had fevers.  I had the back pain.  I had the sore joints.  I had the nausea and lack of energy.  I had the best malaria medication in the world in my backpack.  But each day, Dr. Brendan decided it couldn’t be malaria because I hadn’t had a serious fever.  Dr. Brendan, untrained and all-knowing, nearly killed me.

Lukala, DRC

Mama Bridgette and I at her house in Lukala

“About three days,” I say finally. “I started getting really sick about three days ago.”

“You know,” the doctor continues. “Usually malaria kills you in three days.  Why didn’t you get checked?”

“I didn’t have fevers. It didn’t seem like it could be malaria.”

“Yeah,” the doctor nods in agreement. “That actually confused us a bit too.  You had no signs of fever when you came in, but blood checks are standard at this hospital.  The minute we started giving you malaria treatment you responded.  You also started having massive fevers, as if they had been blocked up by something.”

I thank the doctor and he tells me they want to keep me the night to monitor me.  I agree, I don’t think I have the strength to go anywhere anyways.  When you get malaria, you not only have to deal with the symptoms, but for about 72 hours after being treated, it’s nearly just as bad.

Lukala, DRC

Girls at Mama Bridgette’s house

Mama Bridgette, the woman who saved me, brings me a bottle of water and tells me to drink.  A little later she comes back with some rice and fish and tells me I have to eat.  I don’t really have the heart to tell her that I don’t have an appetite, so I stuff a couple spoons worth into my mouth before saying I can’t eat much.

There is nothing more uncomfortable than a hospital room with malaria.  Your skin wants to crawl from your body, your insides twist as if they’re looking for a new home, and your mind wants nothing but rest and peace.

I lay in my room wanting nothing more than to be alone, but there is a constant turnstile of concerned nurses, worried attendants, and curious villagers.  Some peek their heads through the door, others just invite themselves in.  Some visitors stick camera phones in my face to take pictures.  I don’t stop them; god knows how many times I’ve photographed people in less than ideal physical condition.

Lukala, DRC-6

When the sun rises the next day I want nothing more but to leave the hospital, to get to a hotel room and some peace.  I check myself out of the hospital and back into the hotel where Anne Murray is still parked in the lobby.  But even the hotel doesn’t give me peace.  Mama Bridgette is there every 30 minutes to check on me, to bring me food I have no appetite to eat, and to tell me constantly that I need to be drinking water.  I appreciate the kindness, but truthfully I feel smothered and just need to be alone.

I stop fighting the motherly nature of Mama Bridgette and instead head to her house and restaurant where I sprawl out on the couch.  There is so much love in her family, and she has so much respect in the village.  Everyone knows Mama Bridgette, and they constantly come by to greet her.  Her children come home from school and immediately get to work cooking and cleaning.  I’m treated as more than just a guest, but a member of the family.

But still, I need to be alone.  In a region of the world where I’ve struggled with loneliness, today I just need to be by myself.  I need to find electricity and internet so I can let my family know I’m OK, and what I’ve been through.  I need to just lay in a bed watching movies that make me laugh.  I need to get my energy back.

As soon as dawn breaks after another night in the village, I jump on Anne Murray, almost too weak to steer.  I stop at Mama Bridgette’s and take down her address down and slip her a little bit of money to cover the water and food she bought me along the way.  She has tears in her eyes as I leave.  I’m blown away by her care, hospitality and by the love she’s offered a stranger.  She saved my life, cared for me, and she’s asked for nothing in return.

I drive 30 km down the road to the nearest town of size: Mbanza-Ngungu.  I find a beautiful guest house for $40 a night.  There is electricity, hot water, and a bed as comfortable as home.   For two days, I hardly leave bed.  By the time I’m ready to leave some positivity has crept back into my system.  My body feels strong and my energy levels are back, and little do I know it now, but in Kinshasa I’m going to need every bit of that energy and more.


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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40 Comments

  1. Crikey, Brendan, this is scary. Glad you’re better now and that the caring Mama Bridgette was there to watch over you.

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    • Yeah, scary situation Roxanne. I still can’t believe I let the malaria get that far when I had the treatment with me the whole time. I’m so bloody stubborn.

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    • I often wonder if my kids/grandkids will want adventure like me, or if my stories will scare them so much they’ll stay in doors wearing chemical suits haha.

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  2. Wow, so scary! Glad to hear you’re doing better and on the mend. Stay safe out there.

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    • Thanks Mark! Yup, I’m now down in the safe confines of Southern Africa.

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  3. Being sick in another country always sucks, especially when it’s so serious. I had a similar experience when I was traveling through Thailand, just over the Cambodian border. There was one nurse on the first day I was in the hospital (with what I later found out to be septicemia) that, despite a few other uncaring nurses, stood by my side until way after her shift ended so that I wouldn’t freak out. Couple days later when I had to return for some surgery I found myself surrounded by people who cared, as well as visited by a couple strangers whom I had met at the hostel who were concerned.

    Stories like these are scary for people who listen to them, but when you mix them with the rest of your experiences, they even out…usually 🙂

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    • The world is amazing isn’t it Michael. No matter where you go, and no matter how alone you may be there, you’ll always find someone to care for you. Blows my mind every time.

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  4. Wow, that is some scary stuff. I’ve heard horror stories about malaria before and I’ll be honest, it really scares me. You were so lucky and I can’t believe how caring the locals were to you.

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    • Yeah Julia, Malaria is really scary. The scariest part is that if you ignore the symptoms for a very short time it can kill you. I hope I learned my lesson this time.

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  5. Great storytelling, Brendan. I’m so glad you’re feeling better and got good care from the people when you needed it. 🙂

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    • Thanks Jenna. Yeah, I can’t thank those people enough.

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  6. You are very lucky! And I sympathise with you. I grew up in Indonesia and have had malaria more than 50 times, some times worse than others. It’s hell.

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    • You’ve had malaria 50 times? Wow! Have you always been able to catch it pretty quickly?

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      • Most times I have figured it out pretty early (it’s always suspect #1 in Indonesia whenever anyone gets sick, and the blood test clinic was down the road) and got on to the meds so it hasn’t been a big deal. But there were a few times where I didn’t catch it until later and they were not fun times. To be honest, having it that many times means that my whole immune system overall isn’t great now. Such are some of the hazards of travel!

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        • Shame Bonnie, I’ve always had an amazing immune system. In fact, my whole time in Africa (1 year) I’ve only been sick 5 times and 3 of those were malaria. We’ll see if it affects my immune system in the future.

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  7. Mama Bridgette sounds like a wonderful person. It’s so great she was there, made sure you got to the hospital and took care of you.

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    • She was awesome. Almost smothering, but legitimately concerned about me. She was a saviour for sure!

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    • shhh, don’t tell my mom I’m in Africa!

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  8. I was relieved to see you survived after the cliffhanger you left us with the other day.

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    • It would have been hard for me to write about it if I died though right? Haha

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  9. When I was in Sierra Leone for a several years working for the UN I have had malaria two times in spate I was using lariam. They told me that the lariam never will work for 100%. But because of that it was only a light version but I still did feel like shit.

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    • Even the soft cases of malaria aren’t a whole lot of fun are they…?

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      • Nope, but when you are longer then 6 months in Africa the pills will also not help anymore. Its not good to take them longer. I took them longer then a year and it did *F* me up.

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        • Btw. Are you from The Netherlands?

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          • my dad’s family is Dutch… I’m Canadian though.

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            • OK, I just saw it on your name 🙂 So speaking no Dutch I suppose.

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  10. Do you think some days you’ve got someone/something looking out for you. Brendan you certainly have tenacity (and malaria) and both keep showing up . . . diving for a basketball in a game back home to waking up with an IV in your arm (somewhere on a map in Africa) and you crack a Red Bull joke . . . safe travels.

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  11. Wow— what a story! So glad you’re OK and didn’t die out there! I guess it’s a lesson learned that while you’re traveling err on the side of caution if you think you’re sick. It COULD be a matter of life or death. Were you happy overall with the treatment you received in the hospital?

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    • Yeah Andrea, lesson learned for sure. The hospital was great. I paid a little bit for a private room so I had special treatment, but everyone was great.

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  12. What a beautiful post Brendan! A lot of people say travelling is dangerous and people always try and rip tourists off. They never talk about those strangers that make your travel experience so special. What a lovely lady! I am glad you are ok again and hope you won’t catch it again. That is quite enough of malaria you had on your trip so far!

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    • Agreed on both accounts, about the nice people and the fact I’ve had my fair share of malaria! Hope you’re well Tammy.

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  13. Great post and really nice story telling!

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  14. Amazing article – and I’m so glad you are alive and well! A good point to illustrate that typical symptoms appear in most, but not all cases.

    As a random side note: on your last picture, there’s a plastic container on the table with what looks like fried dough balls in it. I had some of those last night at an event in Ottawa where the Congolese embassy had their chef make some for the occassion and they were delicious! Hope they were on your recouperation menu! Wherever fried dough balls of some form are offered, I’m a happy gal! (Malasadas, beignets, TimBits – need I go on?)

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting Vanessa.
      Haha, you can find the fried dough balls everywhere in Western Africa. They just call them cake (gateau). They are so greasy, but perfect during a long bus ride! They just need to learn to soak them in sugar.

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  15. What a story! My son got food poisoning from bad sushi while working in Japan. He ended up in the hospital. At the time, his Japanese was not so good, so he was challenged to explain his situation. He was in dire straits. I was bitten by a feral cat in Spain, but other than that I have almost never been sick in a foreign country even though I have passed many years traveling and living abroad. Keeping my fingers crossed that good luck follows me all the days of my roaming life.

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    • Thanks for reading! Nothing like a wild story to top off your vacation right?

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  16. Truly a beautiful story. It’s amazing how angels appear when we need them most.

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