Tulsa writer Kristi Eaton makes strides after malaria
Tulsa journalist recovers from the disease she contracted while on assignment in Zambia — and reaffirms her career path.
Kristi Eaton contracted malaria while in Zambia on assignment for the Fistula Foundation, an organization that works to eradicate a childbirth injury. During her three-week assignment, she interviewed and interacted with families in villages (inset). Once she returned home to Tulsa, she was diagnosed. She has now recovered and continues her work with the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. She is pictured wearing a chitenge dress made for her by a Zambian seamstress.
Tulsa journalist Kristi Eaton was wrapping up a three-week assignment for the Fistula Foundation in Zambia this past October when she began to feel ill.
The foundation reached out to Eaton after seeing an Associated Press article she had written about a soccer program in Jharkhand, India, that empowers young women.
During her trip to Zambia, Eaton met and interviewed women who suffer from fistula, a childbirth injury largely eradicated in the developed world but still devastating women in the poorest countries. This issue is treatable with life-transforming surgery, the mission of the Fistula Foundation.
“I wrote about 15 stories while in Zambia that will be published to the foundation’s website,” Eaton says of her project.
On the last few nights of her trip, Eaton experienced nausea, chills and vomiting. Brushing it off as a reaction to the heat, food or possibly the flu, she flew home to Tulsa as scheduled. She then went to Urgent Care, where tests confirmed she had contracted malaria.
As an experienced international traveler, she thought she had taken the necessary precautions to prevent the illness: drugs, bed nets, mosquito spray, covering exposed skin.
Over the next three months, her treatment and recovery would prove to be harrowing.
Hospitalized three times over about a month, she remembers trying to text friends from her bed and being physically unable to type.
“It was frustrating because I wanted to communicate so badly,” Eaton says. “Later, one of my friends commented on my typos, so she knew it was affecting my abilities. I also had trouble walking.”
Between hospitalizations, she stayed at her parents’ house, where she struggled to do everyday tasks. She returned to the hospital because of the fear she might hurt herself by tripping or falling.
Initially Eaton received malaria-fighting medication and three blood transfusions. During the third hospitalization, a neurologist determined she now had encephalitis, which required injections of medication to strengthen the body’s natural defense system.
During that stay, she began to feel less ill, yet she still struggled with basic skills. Through physical therapy she relearned how to walk, text, type and even drive.
“It was like my legs just wouldn’t work properly; I would walk crooked or trip over my own feet,” she says. “It was very frustrating.”
Since her last physical therapy session in January, Eaton is doing much better. A longtime freelance writer for TulsaPeople, she also freelances for local and national publications and is a Tulsa Artist Fellow, examining the criminal justice system in Oklahoma.
Since recovering, she has started looking at ways to help spread awareness of malaria, including writing about her own experience. Despite her ordeal, she says she would definitely consider returning to Zambia and other parts of the world.
“Reading the stats has been eye-opening,” Eaton says of malaria information from the World Health Organization. “In 2017, nearly half a million people died from malaria, and there were more than 200 million cases. More than 90 percent of the deaths were in Africa.
“There are a handful of initiatives providing much-needed life-saving tools, and I’m looking at how my skill set can best help them out.”
Since 2017, the Fistula Foundation has done the following work in Zambia:
Free fistula surgeries provided: 545
Hospitals around the country participating in the countrywide network: 6
New fistula surgeons trained: 3
Number of people reached via outreach activities: 118,222