I recently visited South Africa for a month. I had an amazing time and was able to see much of probably the prettiest country that I’ve ever visited. I did a safari, great white shark cage diving, visited several townships (poor/slum areas), wineries, and much more. It was a great trip, but I was also hospitalized during my stay.
Food Poisoning in South Africa
My heart was pounding, more loudly and quickly than normal. My stomach was empty and ached as if someone was trying to squish it so that it would fit into a body much smaller than mine. Then there was the fever and night sweats, combined with 21 straight hours of sleeplessness. I couldn’t get comfortable, continuously tossing and turning in a small twin bed upstairs in a 4 bed hostel dorm room in central Cape Town.
I had only been in South Africa for 2 days when the shit hit the fan, literally. In my first few days in South Africa, I stayed in a nice upscale community adjacent to the Sea Point area in Cape Town called Bantry Bay. I had done a lot of walking along the city’s coast, sampled food at local shops and found a nice new Spar supermarket just a few blocks from where I was staying. The supermarket was great, as the food selections were plentiful, fresh, and the premade food and salad area looked outstanding.
What I didn’t know was that Spar didn’t have a good reputation in terms of the “top” supermarkets in South Africa. In fact, many ranked it near the bottom of all the options available. Anyway, I took a hot lap around the store to see what it had, taking some photos of food oddities and prices along the way, then making my way back to the deli area. Similar to larger supermarkets in the US, there was make your own salad area (salad, chicken, other meats, etc). I thought I would be healthy and tee up a nice fresh salad and grab some Bilton (South African beef jerkey) for a snack while I walked around the city. In short, the salad was fantastic, but the I didn’t like the Biltong at all! The salad was so good that I came back later that afternoon and got another one for dinner.
The Beginning of the Middle of the End
What I didn’t realize is that the chain reaction had already started. I had some digestive issues after my first salad, but didn’t think much of it. After my second salad that night I really started having problems. Shortly after arriving back at my hostel, I now had a fever, diarrhea, was cold, weak, an my heart was pounding profusely. Food and fluids were becoming more and more difficult to hold down.
I asked some guests and staff at the hostel if they had any medication that might help, hoping that someone had some Tylenol or similar drug that would ease my discomfort. To my surprise, no one seemed to have anything that would help. Just before reaching the stairs to go back to my room, a Chinese girl staying at the hostel reached into her bag and pulled out some black “herbal” pills from China that she thought might help. She barely spoke English, and the sliver package the pills in were sealed and stored in was not marked. I’m not big on taking any drugs in the first place, but unmarked pills in a mystery package from SE Asia wasn’t my idea of fun. Desperation was growing though, and I took 3 mystery black pills and hoped I would feel better. But I never did feel better, in fact my condition was intensifying. I wasn’t sure what would make me feel better more, a diaper, pain medication, or a trip to the hospital, and IV and whatever else they had in mind.
Even as my condition kept intensifying, I held out hope that things would get better. I thought that if I wait a little longer, things would change, and I might feel better. However, things were now at the point where I couldn’t hold anything down, even water, and had run out of food and liquids hours ago. The hostel nor myself didn’t have any medication, and my health was in serious jeopardy. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through the night. For hours I had tried to avoid it, but now I knew I had to get to a hospital, and soon.
I didn’t sleep at all during the evening and was up tossing and turning in pain, and got to the point a few times that I was actually worried about if I’d make it through the night. This situation started around 8 or 9 pm and lasted until 4:30 am when I finally slowly walked down the stairs to the front desk asked the hostel’s night watchman to call me a taxi to the nearest hospital. I was incredibly weak and felt light headed, almost faint. The nightwatchman spoke mixed English which was also frustrating. I asked him to Google the nearest hospital to our hostel. He did, found Christiaan Bernard Memorial Hospital in downtown Cape Town, and made the call for a taxi. The taxi took more than 20 minutes to arrive at the hostel. I sat at the dining table with my head on the table, waiting, and waiting some more. Time seems to go by very slowly when you’re in pain. During the drive to the hospital, I could tell the driver was speeding most of the way, as he looked at me a few times to gauge my condition and probably thought it didn’t look good!
The taxi let me off in the Urgent Care/ER entrance, and after paying the taxi driver, I turned and saw large black man in a long black wool overcoat, dressed nicely with a plaid scarf and black leather gloves. In a slow, low voice, he asked, “Can I help you”?
I was very weak, and needed care immediately. I quickly scanned at his clothes, looking for a hospital ID to see if he actually worked for the hospital or if he was part of some sort of scam. I didn’t see any I.D anywhere on him.
“Do you work for the hospital?” I asked.
“Yes I do” he said, slightly annoyed that I would question him.
“Where’s your I.D?” I asked. Now the man’s face became noticeably irritated by the direct line of questioning.
“Come with me” he said, walking into the ER entrance. And I followed through the entrance doors.
I found out quickly that the man not only worked at the hospital, he was actually the man that checked me in. He was definitely the best dressed admissions representative that I had ever seen! I sat in a chair just inside the entry way, answered about 20 minutes worth of questions, and watched the man grab a calculator and start keying in strings of numbers. He then turned the calculator around so I could see it and told me, “this is how much it will cost you” and if I agreed to that amount to sign on the bottom of the sheet in front of me. I looked at the calculator screen and it read in the thousands of Rand (the South African currency). The way I was feeling it could have said 10x that amount and the answer would have been the same. The fees were divided, roughly half for the visit and half to the doctor providing the care, all payable up front. I nodded to him, and shortly after was escorted around the corner to my bed station.
Overall the hospital ER was a similar experience to what I would expect in a US hospital, with a bit less technology around, and with the exception that I didn’t see any hospital badges or ID’s on any of the people working there. They may have had ID somewhere, and perhaps I missed it, but it’s one thing that seemed odd. No ID’s in a hospital was something that I was not familiar with, and kind of uncomfortable with, since I have worked and volunteered at several hospitals in the US. But since I was in such a weakened state, they could have worn costumes, and I still would have followed their lead.
Right after being led to my care area, I was given a small plastic cup with no lid. I asked what it was for, and the nurse told me to pee in it. I was used to a hermitically sealed and secure plastic cup, complete with the patient name and identifying information on it. She motioned to the counter and told me to place it there when I was done. It was so low key and informal – and in a way, quite comforting.
After my urine test I met the rounding doc and was hooked up to an IV. She was an attractive red head, in her lower to mid 30’s, and gave me a pain reliever and fluids drip and told me to rest. Within the hour she stopped by and said that I had some sort of bacteria in my system, probably from food poisoning. I went through the list of items that I had eaten that day and the salad was suspect #1.
My overall care was very good at Christaan Bernard Hospital, and I’m thankful for the docs and nurses who helped me. I had health insurance from the US, and had called before my trip to make sure I was covered in case something happened, so I felt confident about the charges. The downside of that is I had not yet met my yearly deductable before I left for my trip, so the charges of roughly $250 for my visit were 100% my responsibility.
I arrived at the ER in downtown Cape Town a little before 6 am and was back at the hostel before noon. The sickness occurred during my first night at the hostel, and I was booked in a 4 bed dorm. When I returned, the owner (Amy) had heard about my situation, gathered up my things, and moved me into a private room down the hall by myself at no extra charge. It was really nice, very thoughtful of her to do, and basically exactly what I needed. I managed to take a good nap then walk down to a local pizza place 3 blocks away for some pasta and bread that was easy on my stomach.
My food cravings and diet changed from that point on, and to be honest, even months after my trip, I don’t eat much meat anymore. Sure I still love a nice burger or casserole dish with meat mixed in, but the thought of having a chicken breast, steak, filet, or other meat portion on its own now doesn’t appeal much to me anymore, and my body feels better for it too. I had never been to the ER every in my life before, and never thought Africa would be my first. I do regret not bringing Tylenol and other medicine with, or not buying it when I got there, as it may have allowed me to make it to the morning and perhaps feel better on my own. But thankfully, everything worked out, and I gained a new experience and newfound faith in medical care in a far away place.