I spent a week at the National Center for Mental Health. It was quite nice, actually.
It was September 2013. I had been sick for a week with a fever that refused to go down. I also got my period, and it seemed heavier than usual. Like, really, really heavy.
I would wake up to sheets stained with so much blood it looked like a small animal had died beside me. Bright red blood, the kind that looked fresh. I had to change pads multiple times a day, which should be normal, except they were maternity pads meant for really heavy flow. Now that was not normal. It wasn’t until day three or four that I began to suspect that my fever, my unusually heavy period, and the bright red blood that stained my sheets every day, might be connected.
“I think I might have dengue,” I said.
“I think you might have dengue,” my sister agreed.
I got a blood test at the infirmary of the National Center for Mental Health (NCMH). My mother and sister went with me. When we got my test back a few hours later, the guy who handed it to me looked ashen. “Check yourself in right now,” he said.
I had dengue.
Dengue fever is a tropical disease caused by the dengue virus. It is transmitted via mosquito bite. Symptoms include fever, headache (usually from behind the eyes), muscle and joint pains, and a rash. There are five strains, and I happened to have the worst one, the kind that comes with dengue hemorrhagic fever, where I essentially bleed out of yup, you guessed it, there.
Apparently, this type of dengue is not uncommon with women, and it’s very easy to mistake it for an unusually heavy menstrual cycle. Left unchecked, it could be fatal.
So I entered the Mandaluyong Mental Hospital.
The NCMH has gone through many name changes. It was known as the Insular Psychopathic Hospital and the National Mental Hospital before its final name change in 1986, but is perhaps most known as the Mandaluyong Mental Hospital, especially to folks who grew up in the 70s and 80s.
“Don’t do that or you’ll be sent to the Mandaluyong Mental,” kids would admonish each other. Growing up, I’d been on the receiving end of that joke many times.
Little did I know that, one day, I really would end up in the Mandaluyong Mental Hospital, just not for a mental illness.
What not a lot of people know is that anyone can check into the infirmary at the NCMH. It’s still a government hospital, like the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) is, despite its rather unconventional location.
The NCMH infirmary is small, a one-storey building where the institution’s inmates are brought to treat physiological illnesses. It’s also where NCMH employees, their relatives, and the people who live nearby are sent. It is functionally and sparsely decorated; its walls are government green.
After being examined and filling out the necessary paperwork, I was wheeled to my room. We passed the outpatient area reserved for inmates, two rooms on either side of the hallway where the patients are kept behind bars. They all stared at me, the newcomer. Some were seated, others leaned on the bars. They were all silent. They were all men; the women were om the other side of the building.
There was a strange smell, a gagging smell, one that I would be getting to know the week that I was there, one that I would be more than glad to be rid of once I left.
I was lucky to get a private room–they’re always taken. There was a bed, a cot, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a TV. An en suite bathroom. A window. No internet, but hey, you can’t have everything.
My attending physician was a no-nonsense guy whose charm comes from knowing how to make people feel comfortable. My sister recommended him because aside from being good at his job, “He’ll help you get well fast, and without making you spend a lot of money.”
She was right on both counts. Thanks, Doc!
My schedule revolved around two things: medication and blood tests. I had to take one pill or another every eight hours; nothing unusual–I had the same schedule whenever I had a fever. The blood tests were something else, though. First, I had them every six hours. Much later, they were scaled down to every twelve. It was agony each time.
I have small veins, which meant that I would have been a horrible heroin addict. It also meant that drawing blood is always an ordeal, both for me and for the poor person tasked with finding a vein from which to draw from. Since the vein on my left arm was occupied with the IV, the only place left was the slightly more visible vein at the crook of my right elbow. Unfortunately, this was also the only place from which to draw blood.
You can imagine, how, after having a big needle pierce the same place at regular intervals, I began to secretly hate getting blood tests. It didn’t help that the people sent to draw blood had excellent bedside manner. It was always a different person drawing blood, but they always, without fail, had the same reaction upon peeling away the bandage that covered my vein, and that was to exclaim, loudly, their eyes bulging with disbelief, that “bugbog na ugat mo!” Thanks guys, as if I didn’t know that my vein was beat up already.
We weren’t allowed to lock the door, ever, so that the nurses could come in whenever they needed to. This worried my mom a lot, especially since sometimes, you could hear the inmates howling like animals and rattling the bars of their spaces in the middle of the night. The only thing louder than the inmates (and infinitely more annoying, in my humble opinion) was the music the staff played–also in the middle of the night–making it impossible for me to sleep. Not that it mattered. I had to be up for my next blood extraction, anyway.
I also learned about backflow, a medical term borrowed from plumbing that alluded to the unwanted flow of liquid in the reverse direction. In this case, that liquid was blood, flowing into the IV instead of the saline solution flowing into my bloodstream. I was already constantly worried about air bubbles in my IV, the appearance of which could lead to an agonizing death; the last thing I needed was something else to worry over.
Fortunately, getting rid of backflow was simple: all I had to do was bend the IV line where it was clear, nearest to where the blood was and wait until the red receded back into my body. This happened many times, enough for me to stop worrying about it and admire how nice the diluted blood looked inside the IV line instead.
The reason I needed my blood tested every so often was to check my platelet count. Since I had dengue hemorrhagic fever, I was always in danger of bleeding out. I was told to drink lots of liquids, preferably water and tawa-tawa (Euphorbia hita) tea to encourage blood formation while waiting out the virus. Because that’s the only thing you can do when you have a viral infection: wait it out, and hope that it doesn’t kill you first.
My platelet count was dangerously low, reaching 26,000/mcL at one point. Just to give you an idea of how bad this situation was, a healthy platelet count is anywhere from 150,000 to 400,000 per micro liter (mcL). It was when my platelet count was at its lowest that my doctor, quite nonchalantly, asked my mom if she knew anyone who could donate platelets. That’s when I realized that I could be dying.
That’s also when I found out what a miracle modern medicine is, and how it can swoop in to save the day. The Philippine Red Cross donated five bags of platelets–five small clear plastic bags filled with translucent liquid–that my doctor proceeded to pump into me. Again, this isn’t as dramatic as it sounds. All he did was replace the saline solution in the IV with a bag of platelets. Gravity did the rest. It took a couple of days for my platelet count to reach the 50,000 required for me to go home, but I got there eventually. I had never been so happy to see my bed. That’s also when I told my friends on social media that I had just beat dengue; that I was not dead.
I am, of course, leaving out a lot for the sake of clarity and brevity–this post is long enough as it is–people, places, and events that made my brush with dengue memorable and bearable. Many people sent their love; many people prayed for my recovery. Someone paid my hospital bills; someone delivered steak. My one request when I was confined was that I receive no visitors.
“Is it because she’s ashamed that she’s confined in a mental hospital?” my sister’s friend asked when told about it.
“You don’t understand,” my sister replied, “My sister loves that she’s in the NCMH. She’s going to tell everyone about it after she’s discharged.
“What she hates”–and here, I imagine my sister pausing dramatically as she says it–“What she hates, is people.”