Fifteen minutes was all it took for a mosquito to almost kill Stephenie Rodriguez.
The 50-year-old technology entrepreneur, now a patient at St Vincent’s Private Hospital in Sydney, has survived cerebral malaria and septic shock.
She needs her toes amputated and her heels reconstructed with thigh tissue and is facing six months of recovery and rehabilitation to learn how to walk again. But she is alive, a fact that Dr Zac Turner, her friend and medical advocate, describes as "absolutely ridiculous".
Stephenie Rodriguez photographed outside St Vincent’s Private Hospital, her first time outside in nearly two months.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
The story started in September when Ms Rodriguez travelled to Nigeria for a conference. Mindful of travel warnings about the risk of kidnapping, she spent the week in the air-conditioned hotel, stepping outside only for 15 minutes for a photo shoot. It was then that the mosquito carrying malaria most likely struck.
Stephenie Rodriguez is grateful she had travel insurance, which covered her medical expenses in the United States and repatriation to Australia.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
She then spent a week in India, returned home briefly to Canberra, and then flew to Boston for more business. She felt like she was coming down with a cold but had no inkling it was serious until she collapsed with a seizure at the airport while waiting for her flight back home.
Dr Turner said Ms Rodriguez would have died if she had boarded the flight. Instead she was taken to Massachussetts General, the largest of the Harvard teaching hospitals.
As her emergency contact, Dr Turner told the doctors where she had travelled, which helped with early diagnosis and proper treatment.
Malaria is a disease where either the host kills the parasite or the parasite kills the host. Ms Rodriguez had cerebral malaria, the severest complication of the disease where the parasite infects the spinal fluid. One in five diagnosed cerebral malaria patients die, though the true mortality rate is likely higher.
Dr Turner said Ms Rodriguez spent more than a week in a coma. The doctors treated the malaria but her body responded by going into septic shock. She was on the highest level of renal dialysis and she almost died even while hooked up to life support because her blood pressure was too low for the heart to pump.
Family and friends rallied to her bedside but the treating doctors said she would not make it. Ms Rodriguez was later told she had the last rites administered three times.
She remembers snatches of this time but a key moment in her recovery was the arrival of her 14-year-old son from Canberra.
"I remember my son's voice in my ear and I think it's very powerful, the sound of a child to a mother, it’s a unique strain of sound,” Ms Rodriguez said. "According to my sister, my brain waves were very active when I heard my son's voice."
The first sign that Ms Rodriguez would recover was when she emerged from her coma to ask for the tubes to be removed from her face.
She is relieved she had good travel insurance to cover her medical bills, though notes the insurer was "quite aggressive" in pushing for repatriation back to Australia. She had to unplug the phone from the wall because they were calling her daily rather than talking to her doctors.
The insurer organised for a medically supervised business-class flight back to Sydney, then transfer by ambulance to Canberra. She was then left in casualty for several hours.
Doctors in Canberra thought they would have to amputate to the knee but Dr Turner helped transfer her to Sydney for a second opinion.
She is relieved to only be losing her toes. "Yeah, it's unfortunate but as my son says, ‘death called for you and all he took was your toes. Mum, you got lucky!’," she said. "Just think of what I’ll save on pedicures!"
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