The dangers of dengue

The dangers of dengue

Interview with Sarah Elks and how MAF came to her rescue in Cambodia

About you

I live in South London, near Bromley. I’m twenty-nine years old. I’ve been working for OMF International for the past seven and a half years.

My job title is Candidate and Member Care Co-ordinator. A large part of my role is working with people who are applying to join OMF and go out as missionaries!

I’ve got a bit of a background in mission. I grew up in Thailand where my mum and dad were missionaries.

I came back to England when I was twelve years old, and that’s when I lived in Worthing for about six years before starting Uni.

I had a few other jobs in between but it was actually around that time, in 2006, that I went to Cambodia and when MAF pretty much saved my life.

Sarah on a plane

Sarah with OMF co-worker Josh

What was it like growing up as a ‘missionary kid’?

It was definitely a shock coming back to England. We’d come back for home assignments. I’d gone to primary school in England.

I loved that, but when you’re twelve, your world is changing anyway. It was a big culture shock going to an all-girls school.

Growing up in Thailand, I was home-schooled by my mum for most of that time; with my two older sisters as well. And I guess, as a kid, it’s just normal, you don’t really think ‘Oh, I’m having a different life to you’.

Because of where we lived, there weren’t many Westerners. I’d say that we were very immersed in the culture.

We still had our English things; we spoke English in the home. But I had a lot of Thai friends and spent a lot of time in the community.

Did you have a best friend in Thailand?

Yeah! Tracey! She’s half Thai, half American; her dad is American but she’d never known him that well.

We both got along because we were both different. I met her when I was five and we were best friends and are still in touch to this very day!

Sarah with Thai best friend Tracey

What influenced you to go back into the mission field?     

At the time, I didn’t like England very much! That was mainly the reason why I left Uni after a year. I was just jumping at any chance to go back out to Asia really.

My mum and dad hadn’t been out in Cambodia very long; about four or five months. They had planned to go there after I had gone to Uni. They knew that they wanted to return to Asia and they’d had Cambodia on their hearts.

It was during my summer break from Uni that, for the first time, I’d gone out to visit them in Cambodia. I wasn’t really going out to do a short-term mission thing. I did go out later to do that but not that time. This was more of a ‘Hey, I can go out to Asia’ thing!     

What did you do over there?

I had an amazing time!

I helped my mum and dad set up an English programme with YWAM, in the town they were working; I helped them around the office.

I also got to know the youth group from their church. They were a lovely group and they welcomed me in and so I became involved with them too!

We took a trip to Thailand as well and might have even gone to the beach! I was out there in Cambodia and Thailand for about six weeks as I’d planned to be out there for the summer.

Sarah and youth group in Cambodia

Sarah and youth group in Cambodia in a river

You got ill in Cambodia. What happened there?           

I’d basically come down with ‘dengue fever’ for the third time; I’d had it twice as a kid and they say that it gets worse each time you get it – you have a more severe experience.

They thought I might have picked it up in Thailand because we’d been recently, but it was in Cambodia where I really got sick.

I remember waking up and just feeling really, really bad. My whole body was aching; making me think that this was something bad. I was in bed for a few days with a horrible fever and achy pain.

We ended up going to the hospital in Stung Treng which doesn’t have a lot to it. The beds were boards with a mat on and there was no lighting really. It was very dark and dirty. They did a blood test but it didn’t show up with anything like malaria or dengue.

So I went home and had a day where I was feeling better but the fever and aches soon came back again. On the worst day, I was basically throwing up and couldn’t even keep water down and so I was becoming more and more dehydrated.

It was then that my parents realised that this was serious and that I needed to get to hospital.      

How did you get there?

At that time, it was the rainy season and there wasn’t a very good road to Phnom Penh, which is the capital.

There was a bus that only went in the morning. You could get a taxi but they also left early in the morning and they generally didn’t like to travel after lunch time. At this point it was already the afternoon.

It was going to be very difficult to find a person with a vehicle who would be willing to drive us to Phnom Penh. Some other missionaries suggested calling MAF because, at that time, MAF were still operating in Cambodia and they’d flown with them from time to time – particularly in the rainy season, when the roads were bad.

There was a guy called Winston Ussher, who is a retired MAF pilot and was very kindly covering for someone on home-assignment, and he was able to fly me and my mum to Phnom Penh.

Within a couple of hours, he was there at the old airport in Stung Treng. By the time we got to Phnom Penh airport, which instead of taking seven hours by road, took an hour and a half with MAF, I could hardly walk and Winston had to trolley me out.

We got to a clinic where they put a drip in me to rehydrate me and stop the nausea. They monitored me and found that my platelet levels were right down. They thought it might improve on its own but, overnight, it got worse.

I was in this clinic the whole of the next day and at the end of that day, my insurance were able to evacuate me to Thailand, to a hospital in Bangkok where I stayed for five nights.

Picture of MAF Pilot Winston Ussher

What as the recovery like?

I remember, when in hospital, I had a peak of feeling better but then another slump where I was just sleeping a lot. For monitoring reasons they put me in intensive care for one night in Bangkok.

Back in the UK, there was a conference that some of my family and friends were at and they were praying for me and it was that evening that everything turned around! I started getting pins and needles. By the time I’d gotten to Thailand, my platelet count had started going up again!

It was quite scary at the time. They couldn't guarantee any clean blood in Phnom Penh and the worst case scenario with dengue fever is that you won’t stop bleeding internally.

If they can’t give you a blood transfusion, you can bleed to death! Without being overly dramatic, I remember lying there thinking the worst could happen.

MAF played a big part because, in that moment, you don’t know what’s going to happen. The fact that I was getting so dehydrated and wasn’t keeping anything down meant that if MAF wasn’t able to fly me that evening, I don’t know what would’ve happened!