September 7, 1976
A TWENTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD Yale biology student by the name of John Nordyke woke up at dawn at the edge of a village north of Bumba, Zaire. Rolling over in his sweat-drenched sleeping bag, he stared out through the mesh flap of his nylon mountain tent, hearing the sounds of the tropical rain forest mixed with the noises of the awakening village. A slight breeze brought the warm, pungent odor of cow dung permeated with the acrid aroma of cooking fires. High above him he caught glimpses of monkeys skittering through the lush vegetation that shielded the sky from his view.
He had slept fitfully, and as he pulled himself upright, he was unsteady and weak. He felt distinctly worse than he had the night before, when he’d been hit by chills and fever an hour or so after dinner. He guessed he had malaria even though he’d been careful to take his chloroquine phosphate as prophylaxis against it. The problem was that it had been impossible to avoid the clouds of mosquitoe5 that emanated each evening from the hidden pools in the swampy jungle.
With a hesitant gait, he made his way into the village and inquired about the nearest clinic. An itinerant priest told him that there was Belgian mission hospital in Yambuku, a small town located a few kilometers to the east. Sick and frightened, John quickly broke camp
stuffed his tent and sleeping bag into his backpack and set out for Yambuku.
John had taken a six-month leave from college to photograph African animals, such as the highland gorilla, which were threatened by extinction. It had been his boyhood dream to emulate the famous nineteenth-century explorers who had originally opened the Dark Continent.
Yambuku was scarcely larger than the village he’d just left, and the mission hospital did not inspire confidence. It was no more than a meager collection of cinder-block buildings, all in dire need of repair. The roofs were either rusting corrugated metal or thatched like the native huts, and there seemed no signs of electricity.
After checking in with a nun, swathed in traditional attire, who spoke only French, John was sent to wait among a throng of natives in all states of debility and disease. Looking at the other patients, he wondered if he wasn’t likely to catch something worse than what he already had. Finally he was seen by a harried Belgian doctor who could speak a little English, though not much. The examination was rapid, and as John had already surmised, the diagnosis was a “touch” of malaria. The doctor ordered an injection of chloroquine and advised John to return if he didn’t feel better within the next day or so.
The examination over, John was sent into the treatment room to wait in line for his injection. It was at that point that he noticed the lack of aseptic technique. The nurse did not have disposable needles but merely rotated one of three syringes. John was certain that their short stay in the sterilizing solution was not nearly long enough to render them germ-free. Besides, the nurse fished them out of the fluid with her fingers. When it became his turn, he was tempted to say something, but his French was not fluent enough, and he knew he needed the medicine.
During the next few days, John was glad that he’d been silent since he soon was feeling better. He stayed in the Yambuku area, occupying himself by photographing the Budza tribesmen. They were avid hunters and eager to demonstrate their prowess to the blond foreigner. By the third day John was preparing to recommence his journey up the Zaire River, following Henry Stanley’s footsteps, when his health took a rapid turn for the worse. The first thing he noticed was a violent headache, followed in rapid succession by chills, fever, nausea and diarrhea. Hoping it would pass, he took to his tent and shivered through the night, dreaming of home with clean sheets and a bathroom down the hail. By morning he felt weak and dehydrated, having vomited several times in the darkness. With
great difficulty, he got his things together and made his way slowly to the mission hospital. When he arrived in the compound, he vomited bright red blood and collapsed on the clinic floor.