That couldn’t be me! My hellish experience with Dengue

Image Credits: Nadiah Halifi

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One day as I’m walking home, I breeze past the neighbourhood banner that has been haphazardly slapped on with a rather revolting (and blurry) picture of an Aedes mosquito. The colour glares back at me. Red zone? Hm… okay. Noted with thanks. I walk away.

Why? Well, I never thought I’d get Dengue; I mean, that simply couldn’t be me (i.e. a common term used to wilfully gloat on the fact that I’m seemingly impervious to disease and illness.) So I go home, gleefully tuck myself into bed after a fun day of post-final’s activities, and drift off to sleep.

The next day, however, I wake up to find myself sporting an unpleasantly high fever. I immediately lead into the default explanation of a normal flu and fever, and decide to let it stew and go away for a few days.

But by the third day, my fever kept swinging up-and-down, and the numbers persistently hovered between thirty-nine to forty. I didn’t have the flu either. Instead, my muscles were aching, eyes were burning, and headaches were intense. I think a little more, Hm…Well, it couldn’t be Dengue right? …It simply couldn’t be, right? These symptoms were just a cosmic coincidence! Google couldn’t actually be right. Preposterous.

Unfortunately, the blood test at the doctor’s said otherwise. Tsk, tsk, tsk. You have once more overestimated your immune system’s strength, Yuki. Woe it be that this girl had no idea of what was in store for her the next few days, especially with the cursed remedies and terrible recovery rash.

Dengue? Who’s she?

‘Tis me, your fellow anti-Dengue advocate who cannot get enough of ranting about this illness. I got Dengue fever once, and I’m not planning on getting it again. If I get it again, then—“It will be severe,” as the doctor says. They really mean death and internal bleeding.

You heard right, folks. Despite the waggish previews I’ve served to you on a steaming, hot plate, Dengue is arguably the most or one of the most dangerous and painful illnesses I’ve fallen prey to. Most importantly, I wish to draw attention to it because it can be more deadly if left untreated. Currently, it’s also Dengue season—and yet, nobody seems to be paying attention as catching Covid-19 seems to be ‘all the rage.’

Now, unendorsed by the government and purely fueled by post-Dengue rage, I’m bringing to you an article on the full-body experience of getting Dengue. Like every other article, however, keep in mind that I’m by no means an expert, and will only be sharing about my personal experience. I’ll also be bringing in anecdotes from a fellow writer from The Ridge—Nadya Low—who has gotten Dengue before, and to spice up these stories.

Dengue does not discriminate

As with most diseases, Dengue does not discriminate. While most of us can go the rest of our lives not catching Dengue, the likelihood is still very much there. Nonetheless, I do get the sense that for many diseases, the thought that “I can’t be so unlucky” lingers at the back of our minds.

In fact, though, it could be you. It could be me. It could be anyone. And if our Health Minister Mr Ong Ye Kung could get it, so could you. (Not the new slogan I’d like to promote, sorry Mr Ong—I come bearing peace.) Either way, simply because you’ve gone years without being sick or contracting a particular illness or disease does not mean that you are any less likely to contract it in the future. That’s pure complacency, and is what led to me getting Dengue in the first place. But this begs the question: How bad is Dengue, really? Today, Nadya and I will clear the air, and bring to you a first-hand recount of the ebbs and flows of our yucky and unforgettable Dengue experiences.

My sordid experience

Sordid is barely a touch of what we experienced. I honestly felt like we were strapped onto a rollercoaster that dashed head-first into the limited-edition, Dante’s Inferno experience. At each turn of Dengue lurked something worse, which was always ready to chew us up and spit us out alive if it wanted to. 

It started off tolerable. Body shivers and tremors, sore muscles, a fever, and sleepiness. With my fever at 38.8 degrees Celsius, I thought I could sleep off the fever. So I took a nap. As for Nadya, she decided to take paracetamol in an attempt to make her high fever less uncomfortable. Yet, she could not stop “tossing and turning,” and had a fitful sleep.

Next day, I woke up. Huh. Still sore and feverish. My eyes were starting to burn. Must be sinus. Slept again as I couldn’t stop feeling giddy. Like Nadya, I had no appetite and felt nauseous. As dehydration was a common characteristic of Dengue, we both felt thirsty and dried-up. Little to no energy at this point.

Third day. I woke up with a pounding headache and fever. My eyes were burning. I couldn’t move and my throat was dry. My body felt like it was on fire. I thought, Wow, maybe it’s because I haven’t gotten sick in 2.5 years. This was when Nadya went to the clinic to test for Dengue. At this point, though, I remained clueless.

Sadly, Nadya also got her period on the third day, which meant she had the “terrible nightmare of managing Dengue and cramps.” And while I was one of the lucky few, women are highly likely to get their period after getting Dengue, both of which are already a living hell on their own. An apt way to describe her state was “non-functioning” at that time.

Fourth day. Oh! I’m cured. I have no fever, nothing. I went to get a vaccine for something else. Same with Nadya, who thought that this was “the end of [her] long painful episode.” 

Wrong. Apparently, Dengue has this false period of well-being where you feel totally fine, before being doused in alcohol and lit on fire again. As Nadya puts it, the symptoms “come and go, and give [you] false optimism that [you’re] getting better, only to come crashing back at [you].” 

So, fifth day. We’re in hell. Everything hurts and my head has this intermittent, stabbing pain. I struggle to get up and out of bed because it hurts so bad. I desperately need water. Finally, I surrender to the pain and go to the general practitioner for the first time in eight years. The doctor offers to draw my blood to check for Dengue. The next day, it comes back positive. Dang. No wonder I feel so bad. My fever has been climbing and stayed high for five days now, including that day.

But I greet Dengue with a temporary truce on the seventh day. The fever breaks, and I feel really comfortable and at-home in my skin. And yet this detente won’t last. Soon after, I got these scathing, burning rashes that imprint themselves onto the soles of my hands and feet. Upon asking Nadya and my other friend, these sensitive rashes are common when your fever breaks. The whole night, though, I’m kept awake and could only soothe the unbearable burning with a 4AM bath, which finally put me to sleep for a mere 1.5 hours before I had to wake up to go to the clinic.

These symptoms take 48 hours to go away. Even after I get cleared to go back to work (on the eighth day of Dengue), I experience extreme post-Dengue fatigue and can’t concentrate on my work for the first two-three days. The red rash also remains on my legs for a week or so, before moving down to my hands and feet approximately a week after I’m cleared to go back to work. Currently as I’m typing, a new round of rashes came back yesterday and I’m still decked out in them. Update: They took 5 days to disappear.

Ultimately, the most painful part about Dengue is how dynamic it is. Sure, most of the symptoms go away within 1-2 weeks. However, there often persists some symptoms that can last for up to 1-2 months. For some, this may be hair loss, joint pain, or back pain. Some may even have weaker legs for up to a month or so during the recovery process. 

This time, I blame myself for not taking the recovery process seriously, and for neglecting to re-build up my nutritional intake after the fever and main rashes were gone. Seriously, make sure to build up your protein and iron intake after the main recovery process of Dengue. You still have a long way to go.

Blood tests

To plug the gap in what is conveniently left out of most stories, you also have to draw your blood at the clinic every, single, day from the very moment that you are diagnosed. Essentially, platelet count rapidly drops as the dengue virus binds to platelets; this then creates infected platelets that destroy normal platelets. If the capillaries suffer from the immune system destroying its own platelets, it can become leaky and lead to Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever. With a critical period in Dengue where your platelet count crashes, the doctor needs to make sure it doesn’t go any lower and instead, goes back up as part of the recovery process. 

In most cases, anything below 60-80 is dangerous, and for levels below 20, you need to be hospitalised. A healthy level is usually around 140-400 (in the hundred thousands, of course; imagine having only 100 individual platelets in your body). Generally, if you attempt to exercise with Dengue, you may very well die. My father, personally, had friends who were unaware that they had Dengue, and after a short run, suffered from an internal haemorrhage and died. So if you’ve been running a fever for more than 3 days, go and check it out for Dengue, and get as much bed rest as needed. 

Since Dengue patients bruise much more easily, by the end of my Dengue journey, my arms were (and still are…) bruised from all the blood-draws. (I look like I inhale substances.) What likely makes it worse is that I had small veins, so I once spent an entire day being jabbed with needles three separate times. The doctor did not manage to draw blood in the end as my hands were too clammy and my veins were too closed. How devastating. And painful.

And yet my experience pales to the likes of others. My father, who got Dengue more than 30 years ago, actually went into a comatose state because of how deadly it was. My uncle (his brother) got hospitalised with Dengue in the same ward a week later, but my father was so delirious and gone that he didn’t realise his brother was there until he recently brought it up. You can also draw on more of Singapore’s Dengue Horror Stories, here

Curse of the Papaya Leaf

We ought not to forget the worst part of the full Dengue package.

Previously, there were only two things that triggered my gag reflex: 1) sake wine, and 2) bitter gourd. I’m now adding a new item to the list: The cursed and unscientific Old Wive’s Tale of the cursed Papaya Leaf water. Even now, the memory of the taste lingers on my tongue. I lose my appetite at the mere thought of it.

Papaya Leaf, a revulsive and incorrigible concoction that aims to restore your platelet levels, is touted as a common remedy amongst the Singaporean crowd and against Dengue. Origin: Malaysia’s kampongs, which my mother and the maternal side of the family is from. Though the drink has no scientific basis, I still drank it in the hopes that I would recover quickly. (I somewhat did; I took around 8 days.)

For me, I was made to drink this three times—but even those three times were traumatising as it triggered my gag reflex each time I took a sip. As aptly summed up by Nadya, “it tasted so bad it made [her] feel sicker and more miserable than [she] already was.” I should’ve just stuck to my coconut water and vitamin Cs.

Any Blessing in Disguise?

There is nothing good about Dengue. For now, I have to get vaccinated with Dengivax three more times now because there are, to my sheer horror and pain, three other strains of Dengue I need to guard myself against. So powerful are these vaccines that people can only get them after getting Dengue, lest they are unable to tolerate it and die. Taking it before getting Dengue can also, oddly enough, increase the risks of getting Dengue. Personally, vaccination is also unavoidable as getting Dengue a second time is quite… deadly, as simply put by the doctor.

However, Dengue has made me invulnerable to the pains of other generic illnesses. Sure, a fever or flu will hurt, but never as much as Dengue. My fellow writer, Nadya, agrees that once you’ve survived the harrowing experience of Dengue, you’re pretty much made invincible to all other forms of disease and pain. At the height of my high fever, body chills, joint pain, stabbing pains, and rash, I legitimately thought that I was going to die; and if dengue wasn’t going to kill me, I was going to do it myself. So call me arrogant, but I feel like I have nothing to lose now.

Then again, time will only tell when I eventually get Covid-19. (Boo, hair loss!) Or if I get Dengue again (touch wood).

Why advocate?

The ordeal’s been waxed lyrical about. That should be enough, methinks. But why even bring this up in the first place?

Because Dengue is rarely addressed. This year, 2022 has only seen 6,000 Dengue cases, which, despite being more than 2021, is still a relatively ‘low’ number if we’re gauging it by nominal comparisons to Covid-19 numbers. As a result, each time I tried to speak to my friends or family about Dengue, I was often greeted with generic “get well soon” messages that indicated a rather low-level of awareness of what Dengue really felt like. Despite The Conflagration where I couldn’t get up from bed and had to draw blood every day, I found it hard to advocate for myself as I was, quite literally, sick. Even so, people were expecting me to immediately attune myself with work-from-home through Zoom meetings, or to recover within 2-3 days. Evidently, that was not the case.

Similarly, Nadya’s group mates had to insist on her participation in a module group work. Though she understood that the deadline was looming near, the experience was still harrowing as she was in “constant pain,” and found it hard to focus on actual schoolwork. The same can be said for me.

Ultimately, it’s “the same frustration [Nadya had] with everyone and this is what [she felt was]…a lack of empathy.” Putting aside the fact that friends who had previously gotten Dengue could empathise with me and that I was receiving lots of TLC from my family, I still felt neglected and ignored by some friends who were off-handed about my Dengue experience, even as I had to go into the A&E on one occasion. While I think it’s unfair to expect people to be fully empathetic of the experience, (duh), I still hope that you can guard against Dengue and be more empathetic when you have friends who get it. (Send care packs to them!)

On a final note, take care, do the Mozzie wipe-out, and keep an eye on your neighbourhood numbers for Dengue. You never know; there’s always the next Aedes lurking around your corner like a creep.

Fun fact: I got chicken pox the day after I recovered from dengue. Life is hard.