Getting By With the Help of Friends

I’m only three weeks into my summer in Madagascar, but I feel like I have made it through the hardest parts by now. The past few weeks have been difficult, physically and mentally. But I am now on an up-swing thanks to the help and support of so many new and old friends, as well as family.

For an entire week, I was sick and unable to eat much more than bread or a banana. I had stomach pains, nausea and lack of appetite. In turn, I became lethargic because I wasn’t eating. I was taking three naps a day, sleeping a full 8 hours every night and still completely exhausted. My stomach woke me up at 4 a.m. every day.

I designed this cool Madagascar comet moth on my ipad while I was sick in bed for a week!
Easily the largest moth I’ve ever seen.

The second I was feeling better, I made the common mistake of becoming less cautious with my diet. We went to town and I ate two incredible chocolate croissants. That night we had a little party and made some pizzas. I helped prep the garlic pizza, which I must say was probably everyone’s favorite. I made friends with some of the medical students who were here with global health initiative (GHI). One of the students, Emo, teased me for standing by the oven for 30 minutes waiting on the garlic pizza to ensure it was perfect.

My new friend Emo and our incredibly delicious garlic pizza.

Two chocolate croissants, two pieces of garlic pizza, one s’more and several handfuls of Doritos later, I was back in the bathroom every 30 minutes for the next 8 hours. When I told the GHI students that the pizza had kept me in the bathroom all night, they were dying of laughter. I had obsessed over this delicious, amazing, incredible pizza – which was ultimately my gastrointestinal downfall. Emo asked, “Was it worth it?” referring to the amazing pizza, and I responded with “probably.” It was a seriously good pizza. I appreciated this moment of finding the humor in a bad situation.

The beautiful garlic pizza.


Pizza preparations

On top of the stomach issues, I was taking a terrible malaria prophylaxis drug (Lariam) that basically made me cry all day, every day. The side effects can take a nasty toll on you mentally.

Ultimately, there were three things that got me out of this terrible Lariam/GI issue-induced rut.

1) I stopped taking Lariam and switched to Malarone. As a result, I became less depressed, stressed and anxious. Once the Lariam was out of my system, my head began to clear. I finally started to feel like myself again. Luckily, I’ve had no bad side effects from Malarone since starting it!

2) I took an antibiotic (cipro) and switched to a bland diet of bananas, rice, applesauce and toast (good ol’ BRAT diet – thanks for the suggestion Scott!). I slowly started adding bland vegetables to my diet to get my strength back up nutritionally.

3) I contacted my support system. And by that, I mean I literally skyped or called anyone and everyone I know.

During this difficult time, I found out how lucky I am to have so many people in my life who want to help me succeed. After my first blog posts, both Erika Weinthal and Cindy Peters from the Nicholas School reached out to me through email to make sure I was doing okay. I was skyping my parents daily. They constantly reminded me that I would make it through this. I called my sister, a navy doctor, who (lovingly) lectured me about taking my medication with food, checking my temperature regularly to ensure I wasn’t feverish and staying hydrated.

My sister being silly to cheer me up by using all the video filters while I was trying to talk to her.

I received messages of encouragement from my friends. I called Erika Weinthal who helped look up fellow Duke alums who might be in Madagascar. She got me in touch with Benjamin Freed, a Duke alum in the capital, Tana, right now. Even though I had never met Benjamin before, he was so kind to lift my spirits. He calmed my nerves and told me a lot of my anxiety was definitely coming from the Lariam side effects. I called the Duke Lemur Center (DLC) kitchen phone to see if any of my coworkers had tips for the stomach issues I was going through. Bevan and Bobby were kind enough to take time out of their lunch to talk to me about changing my diet and taking cipro.

Jesse, a CVB employee, helped translate in Malagasy to the kitchen staff what food I liked to eat. This was probably the greatest thing that has happened this whole trip because after that conversation I started receiving potatoes AT EVERY SINGLE MEAL. Saying I love potatoes might be an understatement. Mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, boiled potatoes, French fries, sautéed potatoes, you name it. At first, I had just asked for potatoes at breakfast. But I think the kitchen staff noticed that I eat every single bite and they kept making me more. I’ve started to notice that my serving of mashed potatoes is visibly larger every meal. At this point, it’s kind of ridiculous, but I’m not going to tell them to stop. Fear not, I haven’t just been living off potatoes. This trip has sincerely facilitated broadening my diet. Once I had started feeling better, I was eating exotic fruits, tomatoes, onion, bananas, lentils and many other things that I didn’t used to eat very much. I tried to get into green beans, but that’s one food item I just cannot handle. I don’t understand how a vegetable can squeak while you eat it.

A beautiful helping of mashed potatoes
Because there’s no such thing as too many French fries.
The outside dragon-like skin of custard apple fruit.
The inside of the fruit “custard apple”

I also talked to anyone and everyone that was staying at my research station. Tom, a pathologist, calmed my worries by talking through all my symptoms and ensuring me that I don’t have giardia, cholera, malaria or dysentery (lucky me). Fellow researchers Amanda and Megan donated their oral rehydration salts to my cause. When I was feeling too weak to go into Ranomafana on market day, Santi, Lydia and Sarah were nice enough to do some shopping for me. Kate and Katherine, the study abroad TAs, taught me to take the pressure off myself and worry less about things that were out of my control. And others were kind enough to check on me, ask me how I was doing and remind me to drink water every single day.

My friends (and greatest supporters) Kate and Katherine

Then, when I was stressing out about my research methods not working as I had hoped, my morale was low. Daniella, a child education researcher, forced me to get back to work (in a tough love kind of way) and suggested that I collaborate with other researchers here. I got back to work and discussed research ideas with another dozen people. This included Erin Ehmke, the Research Manager at the DLC, my primate field biology professor, Leslie Digby, and fellow researchers Steig, Mariah, Mai and Amanda. One of my GIS TAs, Emily Mills, helped me troubleshoot my GPS connectivity issues. GPS data is a key component of my research that I couldn’t afford to have fail and luckily Emily helped solve my technology problems. One of my Nicholas School mentors from last year, Nathan Walker, was kind enough to give me suggestions and mentioned getting in contact with Jennifer Swenson (the program chair for my concentration). After countless emails with Dean Urban (who is temporarily acting as my advisor) and an hour and a half call with Jen, I finally felt better.

One of my favorite salads, with tomato, onion, and grapefruit.
My favorite salad again – WITH CHEESE!

I’m finally back to my old self and eating a healthy variety of foods. I am less stressed about my research and feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I still don’t have everything figured out, but I’m in a better place to troubleshoot on my own now. I actually leave June 14 to camp remotely in the field for 11 days and make it back to the station just in time for Madagascar independence day!

Somehow “Thank You” doesn’t seem to cover the amount of gratitude and appreciation I have for all of the people mentioned above. They’ve helped me make it past the hump, out of my rut, and back into the field to continue my data collection.

Happily discovering the comet moth for the first time.