God Rescued Me from the Valley of Death

But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
Isaiah 43:1-2

“Call the doctor. I can’t breathe,” I pleaded with the head nurse in short sentences using the little air that I have left. “Don’t leave. I might die.”

March 2, 2021, 4 PM, Nairobi, Kenya, Aga Khan University Hospital. I was lying on the hospital bed in the general ward with 20 other patients in a large room with Annie by my side. I felt I was close to dying.

On February 19, I started to have fever and chills, and constant hiccups. On February 21, I went to a nearby hospital (Coptic Hospital) and was told that I had severe malaria which requires three IV injections over a 24-hour period and taking malaria medicine for 3 days. On February 26, I decided to go to another hospital because I was still having a fever and couldn’t eat, sleep, and urinate for the last 7 days. At 11 AM, my host drove me to the emergency room of the best hospital in all of Kenya and East Africa – Aga Khan University Hospital.

Admitted to a Hospital for the First Time in My Life

“You have severe malaria. And your kidney is no longer working,” the emergency doctor, Soud Yassar, told me gravely after looking at my blood tests. “The toxins in your blood are very high. You need to be admitted to the hospital right away and start dialysis immediately.”

The blood test result came back showing my kidneys were non-functioning. The Creatinine (toxin) level was 1170 (10 times above normal).

I was in shock.

Don’t people here get malaria all the time? In Uganda, our hosts in Kampala and Arua all recently had malaria and after resting for a few days, they were all well. I thought that after taking the malaria medicine I will be well in a few days again. But now you are saying that my kidneys have failed. Isn’t dialysis for someone who has a really serious problem.

“How long will it take before I recover,” I asked the doctor.

“Usually anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks,” the doctor replied.

I was in shock again. I had already booked plane tickets to Ethiopia in less than 2 weeks. We were getting ready to go to Lamu Island, Watamu Beach, Mombassa…

“We need to put an emergency catheter into the juggler veins on your neck now,” the doctor advised me. “It was be done by Dr. Sokwala, the Nephrologist.

At the emergency room, the doctor implanted an emergency catheter on my neck to start dialysis.

Soon I was douched in antiseptics and my face was covered by surgical cloths. I felt the two cuts on my neck and two tubes being pushed into my veins. I was so scared.

After Annie scrambled around the hospital to pay for different expenses and putting a deposit for the hospital admission, I was wheeled off to the dialysis room. By that time, it was close to 9 PM. We had been in the hospital for almost 8 hours now. As the Covid curfew starts at 10 PM, Annie and the host were able to stay with me for the 4-hour dialysis so they left for home. I was alone.

Hooked to the dialysis machine with my blood going in and out of my body.

It was the longest and most agonizing four hours of my life. I was told not to move my legs, body, and neck, or else the dialysis machine would beep loudly. So for four hours (equivalent time of two movies) I half sat on the hospital bed, watching my blood leaving my body into a machine, staring aimlessly across me wishing that time would go faster. My back and my muscles were aching, uncomfortable, and tense. My mouth and throat were burning dry. I had time for my mind to ponder all the possibilities of what I might have to suffer long term and felt 99% it would end badly. I felt like there was only one small path to recovery but everything has to be all just right. Many times I asked God to take my life because I lost all hope.

I was taken to the men’s general ward after dialysis.

After the dialysis, it was 1AM. I was wheeled off to a big room with 20 other patient beds. I lied in bed but couldn’t sleep because of my constant hiccups, counting the minutes. Throughout the night, nurses would come to take my blood pressure, temperature, and oxygen level. At 4 AM, a technician came and draw two vials of blood for lab test. As it turned out, for the next 13 days in the hospital, every 4 AM, my blood was drawn everyday.

Into the Valley of Death

The next two days, Saturday and Sunday were full of confusion and anxiety. It was my first time in the hospital and I didn’t know what to expect next. All morning I sat in the bed, waiting for the “doctor” to come but no one came. Due to Covid, one family member can only visit from 1 PM to 2 PM each day, so Annie had to wait outside of the ward most of the day. It wasn’t until 4 PM on Saturday, a consultant “doctor” came with his students because Dr. Sokwala was not on duty that weekend. I felt like a case study specimen. They were more interested in “learning” than in “treating” me.

The view of the general ward from my bed.

Sunday, no doctor came. I was just sitting and waiting. Every day I had blood tests but no one showed or explained the results. Meanwhile, I had no appetite. I didn’t urinate. I couldn’t sleep for a week. My mouth was so dry that my lips cracked and bled. I was told to drink only as much as I can urinate. But how can I urinate if I don’t drink? Finally, I resorted to putting throat candy in my mouth to relieve my thirst.

Feeling that I was left to rot in the hospital, I decided to take some action. I accepted an offer from a friend in HK who might have connections in Kenya. After emails and calls by the friend, I was connected to the CEO of Africa Healthcare Network (AHN), Nikhil Pereira, who introduced me to Dr. Vincent (also CMO of AHN) who knows well the nephrologists at Aga Khan University Hospital because AHN works with many hospitals in East Africa trying to bring better renal care to the most vulnerable. Dr. Vincent helped to make some calls to the nephrologists, including Dr. Sokwala to make sure that I am well taken care of. On Monday at noon, Dr. Sokwala came and clarified that he is my main physician and told me his plan of treatment for me, the length of treatments, and gave me directions on what I can or can’t drink. Finally, I felt clarity although the treatment sounded very long and arduous and the final result of my health uncertain.

Every day, they took 2-3 vials of blood from me. My arms were full of needle holes.

I thought I might die during my second and third dialysis. Halfway into my second dialysis, the machine blared loudly because my blood was clotting in the machine. The nurse was very nervous, which made me more nervous. She told me afterward that she was trying her best to manually pump my blood back into my body because it was clotting more. As she was doing it, somehow the catheters on my neck came loose and blood spurted out onto my hospital clothes and my arm. I felt sure that I was going to die on the spot. During the third dialysis, the same thing happened again halfway. After 30 minutes of scrambling, the nurse said that she had to restart my dialysis. So a four-hour agony turned into five hours.

My poor arms, full of needle holes.

The next few days, I was tested for everything. I had urine test, feces test, blood test, chest x-ray, covid test, HIV test, liver ultra sound, and chest CT-scan. Meanwhile, I was thinking to myself, for the money I am paying for one hospital bed, not including all the tests, I can stay at a luxury five star hotel in Maldive. But all I am getting is an industrial looking small cramp room. Plus, I am paying money for people to poke me and take blood from me every day. As a low-budget backpacker with a budget of US$20 per day per person, I was having a hard time reconciling my spending.

Olivia reminded me to think of things to be thankful for. After some reflections, I wrote down:

10 things I am thankful while sick in Nairobi

  • A top hospital in East Africa that is familiar with treating malaria
  • Have a supportive Christian community in Nairobi
  • An affordable hospital room compared to the US
  • A caring Annie
  • Have understanding children
  • Have kind hospital staff and doctors
  • Have understanding parents
  • Many people praying for me
  • A nice place for the family to stay during my sickness
  • Learn to rest, take one day at a time, take one victory at a time

At the Brink of Death

On March 2nd I was at the lowest point of my life.

I haven’t slept for two weeks due to a constant hiccup that wouldn’t go away. My hair was so dirty that I kept thinking I was wearing a hat but it was just my dirty hair. To reduce my water intake while relieving my dried mouth that felt like snakeskin, I would put some water in my mouth, tilt my head in all directions as I swish the water to cover all corners of my dried moth, then I would spit out the water into a jar. I laughed to myself that I am conserving water even better than Mongolians when we were there in 2015. Once in a while, I would swallow the water. I never knew water can taste so good like I was drinking an icy vanilla latte at Starbucks.

I had this IV attachment on my right hand for 10 days straight.

I was given a stronger medicine to stop my hiccup, but it is also used as a psychotic drug which made me feel even more anxious and made my heart race to 130-140 even lying down. As I wasn’t able to pass urine, my lung started to drown itself in water, but no one told me what was happening so I felt I had no air in my lung. As it turned out, the chest CT-Scan I did earlier was to estimate how long I have left before my lung will drown itself in water but I was not told the reason. If I caught COVID while in the general ward from the other 20 patients, nurses, or visitors, I surely will not make it.

At one point, I felt I will die from lack of oxygen as I gasp for air from the constant hiccups and was getting ready to say goodbye to Annie, my children, and my parents. I wanted them to know that I have tried my best and gave it my all. I endured all the agony not for myself because I felt I had already lived a full life, but for them so that they can grow old with me and for me to be there during their milestones in life. I was sorry that I had to leave them from the earth this way.

My feet was swollen because I was not able to urinate.

A Touch from God

However, earlier that morning, something miraculous happened.

As I wasn’t able to sleep due to the constant hiccups, I listened to my Christian playlist on Spotify around 2 AM. Even though I had the playlist on shuffle, I felt as if God was using every song to speak to my current desperation. One song that really spoke to me was “No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus”:

If my heart could tell a story
If my life would sing a song
If I have a testimony
If I have anything at all

No one ever cared for me like Jesus
His faithful hand has held me all this way
And when I’m old and grey
And all my days are numbered on the earth
Let it be known in you alone
My joy was found
Oh my joy, my joy

Let my children tell their children
Let this be their memory
That all my treasure was in heaven
And you were everything to me

No one ever cared for me like Jesus
His faithful hand has held me all this way
And when I’m old and grey
And all my days are numbered on the earth
Let it be known in you alone
My joy was found
I’ve found my joy

As I was thinking about the possibility of death and what I want to say for my last words, the song just spoke so beautifully what was in my heart.

And then for 15 minutes, I fell asleep.

When I opened my eyes, I felt different. Everything around me was in silence. I felt a shift in the spiritual atmosphere. I felt as if God had touched my body and woken me up, and my fever left my body. I felt peace for the first time. I felt an assurance that He will rescue me.

Joani told me that people in every continent except for Antartica have been praying for me. I laughed to myself, “With so many people praying, if God doesn’t rescue me, then He is going to have a publicity crisis!”

I didn’t realized how traumatic the near-death experience had been for me until I was listening to the same Christian playlist few weeks later and I just started crying. The memories of desperation and agony rushed back. The last time I cried was 5 years ago. Now the tears were tears of joy because God rescued me from the depth of my despair.

The Turning Point

Then at 5 pm on March 2nd, there was a turning point.

Dr. Sokwala finally came to see me at my bedside. He changed to a gentle tone of voice when he saw how desperate I was, “Why don’t you go for dialysis right now. You will feel better.”

Dr. Sokwala

I went for my 4th dialysis. I was given a nice bed with a table for Annie and me to watch a movie and also enjoyed a delicious dinner while doing the dialysis to pass the time away. The nurse told me that as a “gift” from Dr. Sokwala, I only need to do 3 hours instead of four. Although Annie was standing right in front of my dialysis machine, the nurse was very chill about it. The nurse Catherine helped to set up the machine was very quick and professional and for the first time, there was no unexpected emergency throughout the 3 hours.

Then it happened. Right after the dialysis, I had a really nice long urination for the first time in 2 weeks. I begin to feel more energy and appetite after passing urine for the first time!! The hiccups also went away. The dialysis was like a heart resuscitation. The 1st time my kidneys got an “electrical shock” but no response. Then I had to wait with a dead “heart” in my body for at least one day until the next “shock”. Then I got another resuscitation. Still dead. Finally, after the 4th resuscitation, the kidneys came back alive! There was no guarantee that it will ever come back. Praise God! God answered everyone’s prayers by allowing me to pass this critical milestone.

Every day I urinate into this cup to measure my urine output.

Another miracle happened that same night.  I was sleeping at a non-private ward so Annie wasn’t able to stay overnight with me. There was a 10 pm covid curfew and Annie already missed the curfew hour to return home. We were hoping to change to a private room but after the nurse called around, she told us that private rooms are still full so I would have to still stay at the non-private ward. I was feeling despair that I have to go through another night by myself. The night before when I was alone in the ward hiccuping and not able to sleep, I told myself I would never want to go through another night like this. But when we got to the general ward after the dialysis, we were told the good news that a private room just opened up! We were so joyful because God answered our prayers and the prayers of many people.

Annie was exhausted taking care of me day and night.

After so many days in the hospital, the hospital bill was piling up. I kept asking the doctor when I can be discharged so that I can be an outpatient to keep the cost down. My travel insurance only covers trip up to 180 days and I just missed the 180 days limit. My HK health insurance covers very little. The children suggested that we can fundraise through GoFundMe website. So on their own initiative, they wrote a description and we all started sending out the links to their friends and family. My parents also shared my situation to their friends. Praise God! Within 24 hours, we exceed our donation goal. Now I can focus on recovering instead on the medical bills.

Disappointments

So on March 2nd, I moved from a life-critical phase to a recovery phase. I was hoping to be discharged after one week in the hospital but my kidney was still not functioning well and requires more dialysis. The doctor decided to take off the emergency catheter on my neck and replace it with a permanent catheter from my chest (which connects to the heart). The word “permanent” sounded scary because I felt I would be tied down to a dialysis machine for the rest of my life. However, the chest catheter was much more comfortable so I was starting to not be afraid to go through dialysis sessions anymore.

The permanent catheter enters my chest, goes up, and enters the top of the heart.

After two more dialyses, my kidneys started to clean the toxins in the blood on their own! Praise God, the doctor told me that I don’t have to do anymore dialysis and can be discharged to become an out-patient. However, I started to have a low-grade fever once a day for three days. So the Infectious Medical Team spend several days examining me and doing all sorts of tests to figure out the cause. More waiting. The lesson of slowing down and being patient was very difficult for a go-go person like me. Olivia read me the chapter “An Unhurried God” from the book Liturgy of the Ordinary, which was very insightful.

Right after the children came back from their trip to Lamu Island and Watamu, they rushed to the hospital to see me and hear my stories.

Meanwhile, Annie has been taking care of me non-stop for so many days that her body and emotion were wearing out. So the children took different night shifts. It was a joy to be able to interact with each one of them individually and to bond in different ways. They would prepare food for me from home, bring games to play with me, and download movies for us to watch together. They also appreciated Annie much more realizing how taxing it is to care for a patient like me.

The children brought food and games to play with me.

After my fever stopped after three days, I thought I can be discharged. Then my hemoglobin (red blood cells) became critically low, almost 1/3 of normal. The Hematology Team came and started to do more tests and recommended a blood transfusion. Each time was a scary experience as it took 3-4 hours for each transfusion and for some unknown reason, the transfused blood starts to clot after 2 hours, and sometimes blood was wasted. One day, the nurse said the blood bank refused to provide more blood unless I can get more blood donors to replenish the blood bank. Luckily, the three members of the Chinese church community that had been supporting us came and gave blood. Many members also brought delicious Chinese food for me to eat! Those were some of my highlights in the hospital.

I got tired of the hospital food very quickly.

Discharaged at Last

In the end, I was finally discharged on March 11, after 13 days in the hospital. I was so happy to be out of that small room that costs the same as a 5-star hotel in Maldive. I was so happy to be surrounded by family. I was so happy that I can eat delicious Chinese/Korean food instead of the hospital food that grew old very quickly. The children made a “Welcome Back, Mr. Brave” sign to welcome me.

Mr. Brave finally came home.
Li Wei hosted our family for one month while I was in the hospital and when recovering.

Since my hemoglobin was low, Annie did research and bought many Chinese herbs and rich food to increase my red blood cells. However, the result was that although my hemoglobin level improved, my potassium level became too high. So she did more research on how to cook so as to limit my potassium intake. The result became my hemoglobin went down again while my potassium level became normal. It was a lose-lose battle.

I walked up the stairs everyday in the apartment to regain my muscle.

I lost 9 kilograms during my stay in the hospital. My muscle shrank and became weak. I looked like a shriveled prune. To regain my strength, Annie accompanied me as I walked around the apartment complex where we were staying or walked up the stairs slowly to the 12th floor. Because of my low red blood cell level, my heartbeat was elevated, whether at rest or while doing exercises. I also woke up every hour at night to urinate, not able to get a good sleep. It was frustrating to go from a very healthy body where I was able to hike up to 6100 meters to now being out of breath just going up 4 floors of steps.

My daily exercise.

Going to Ethiopia?

While recovering as an out-patient, our family was looking forward to continuing our travel to Ethiopia if my health condition is stable. But God had another plan for us. On March 26th, the president of Kenya announced a new lockdown, including not allowing people to go in and out of Nairobi. Because of the lockdown, we would not be able to travel out of Nairobi to use the tickets we had already bought before I got sick to fly from Mombasa to Ethiopia. For the third time, God stopped us from going to Ethiopia: 1st time was the civil war at Tigray; 2nd time was being sick with malaria; 3rd time was the Kenya national lockdown. God must have a reason even though we don’t understand.

Having farewell dinners with the Chinese communities in Nairobi.

On the other hand, right after the lockdown, California announced that those ages 50+ can start receiving COVID vaccine on April 1st and those ages 16+ can start on April 15th. It seems like God opened the door for us to come back to the US to be vaccinated so that we can continue to travel to Central America afterward with more protection. God also provided me to have health insurance in the US so that I can continue to monitor and recover from my illness.

More farewell meals.

During the next out-patient visit on March 29th, the doctor said that although I still have quite a long way to recover fully, my condition is stable and he agreed that I can travel.

So on April 1st, exactly 60 days in Kenya, we flew from Nairobi to Los Angeles via Doha on a 29-hour flight. It feel surreal to be back in the US so soon, but after discussing and praying as a family, we have peace that this is what God wants us to do.

After 2 months, we finally flew out of Kenya back to the US.

Why Did God Allow this to Happen?

I ask this questions constantly: “Why did God allow this to happen?”

For 7 months, we saw God working in our family. We saw many miracles. We ministered to others together. We enjoyed many unforgettable moments. So why on our 8th month, God stopped our travel and seemingly stopped all the wonderful things that He is doing to us and through us?

I don’t think I will truly know for sure the reason, but I firmly believe that it was not a mistake for us to take this year off and travel as a family. Looking back at all the growth we had and all the experiences we shared, I know for certain that it was not a mistake. We started our one-year trip with peace in our heart and knowing that God wanted us to “go” because it is through traveling that our family experience God and grow closer together.

When I was resting in the hospital, some reasons that came to my mind on why God allows this to happen were:
1. God wants me to slow down.
2. God wants me to think about how I want to live my “second” life after my near-death experience, whether to be less adventurous or to go all out without reservation.
3. God wants me to think clearly about my future.

I wouldn’t have been able to weather through this storm without the unity of our family.

When people prayed for me, they also shared what they feel God says to them about our current situation. One consistent sharing from others was that Satan wanted to destroy our family travel ministry. That was why Satan attacked me, the head of the family, and not Annie or the children. God didn’t stop us from traveling (although He allowed it to happen). It was Satan.

Someone also shared that maybe God allowed me to be vulnerable so that others have a chance to serve and minister to others. Indeed, during the past 1.5 months, we were blessed with prayers from all over the world, having places to live, donations of money and even blood, and sharing of wonderful food with us.

Living out God’s Words

When we first arrived in Nairobi, Annie and I were asked by the Chinese church here to speak on Sunday. We both felt strongly to speak on Isaiah 43:

But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
Isaiah 43:1-2

For our sharing to the church, we emphasize that God loves, cares, and calls us individually by name. We shared that God loves each one of us so much that he would pay ransom to Egypt to redeem us. Ultimately He gave himself for us. This passage didn’t promise that we would not pass through waters or walk through fire. But it promises that God will be with us and that God will open a way for us to come out victoriously through water and fire.

Sharing at the Chinese Church.

Few days after our sharing of this passage, I literally passed through the rivers and fire because of the attack from Satan through malaria. But just as God promised, God was with me and He didn’t let Satan’s attack to sweep over me and my family or to set us ablaze. Reading the same passage again, I feel I am able to testify even more powerfully because I just lived out what God promised us.

May His name be glorified. Amen.

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4 thoughts on “God Rescued Me from the Valley of Death”

  1. Tears and lots of tissues:), Almighty God! really really appreciated the miracle done by Him and helped you from the death!

  2. Jonathan, thank you for your sharing. So often we take things for granted, aren’t we? I could feel your pain and agony as I had walked through the valley of death many years ago. You suffering is a lot more intense though! Praise Him for rescuing you from malaria. Stay safe and healthy. May HE watched over you and your family in the days ahead. Finally, I will fly back to Toronto April 4. Alice Ho (from Hong Kong April 2)

  3. Wow. Thank you for documenting this and sharing it. You and your family are amazing. To God be all the glory! Pat P

  4. Thank God you were able to walk out of the hospital with your family! Your experience truly reminds me that God is watching over us ALL the time and will never dish out more then we can handle. Continued thoughts and prayers that He will heal you in His time. Hope I can visit you while you’re in Cali!

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