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Life and death on the Pakan Baroe Railway

Life and death on the Pakan Baroe Railway in Sumatra

One day I was shaking with cold. The next day I had a strong fever. Then the next day I had no fever. A day later, the shivering started again… This feverish illness continued to repeat itself. A Dutch doctor diagnosed me with Tertian Malaria. He prescribed a lot of cinchona (kina) bark powder to swallow. We were near the former colonial cinchona tree plantations. So there definitely wasn’t a shortage of trees. We whacked the bark off the trees and laid them out to dry in the sun. With a pestle and mortar, we ground them into a dark-brown sand.

The nurses told me that I had to down half a coconut filled with this sand twice a day. That was the only way to get enough quinine into our systems. That was the equivalent to one of those luxuriously, sugar coated quinine tablets.

Quite frankly I did not take that that medicine as faithfully as I should have done, because I just couldn’t force that dry, brown sand down my throat. I believe that my malaria was aggravated by my lack of will power to motivate myself take the medicine regularly. 

I became so ill, that they pretty much gave up on me. I was moved to the corner of the barracks, where the sick normally died. 

I can remember that I was very sick. I tried to stop flies flying in and out of the mouth of someone next to me. I tried to wake him up, so he would close his mouth. Later I was told that he had already died. As we only had up to 75cm-wide berths in which to sleep, you were very close to the guy next to you. This explains in part, why I tried to swat the flies in my delirious state, as they were also biting me. 

One day a Dutch army doctor, by the name of Bakker came to see me. He asked how I was doing. I said I wasn’t doing so well. He suddenly produced ten quinine pills for me. A whole handful! He told me I needed to swallow them with water. He said “swallow these now. I’m going to watch that you take them. No more nonsense this time.” I don’t know why he chose to give me the course of the pills, but I responded well to them. Despite my desperate state in the death ward, I returned to my old place after a number of days. That was a big surprise to my buddies; they thought I was a goner.