Tyrone girl went to Africa to help young, but act of charity led to her almost dying from malaria
Earlier this year Denise Donnelly from Coalisland made a simple mistake when working in an area where the disease is rife, and it left her fighting for her life, as Stephanie Bell reports
As she talks on the phone while rushing into town on an errand earlier this week it is hard to believe that just a couple of weeks ago young Tyrone woman Denise Donnelly was close to death. You can feel the 23-year-old's energy and passion coming down the line as she talks about malaria and the terrible tragedy of how the disease is needlessly claiming thousands of lives every day in the developing world.
It was only in the past two weeks that Denise began to get back on her feet after fighting the deadliest strain of the disease.
She had spent 11 weeks in the summer on a volunteer placement with a charity in Sierra Leone and only realised she had malaria when she returned home in September.
Even though it is so very recently that her life hung in the balance, the remarkable young woman who has always had a passion for charity work, is already putting her terrifying experience to good use by supporting Malaria No More UK – the recipient charity of this year's I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.
In fact, the traumatic experience has left her determined to pursue a career with an international charity so that she can return to Africa. Denise applied for a place on a programme through the International Citizens Service last year after graduating from the University of Leeds with a degree in history and politics.
The youngest of five children says she has been involved in charity work and volunteering since the age of 11.
Her mum Theresa, a book keeper, and dad Joey, a supervisor with an engineering firm, have both been a great support to her and were not in the least surprised when she decided to go to Africa.
She says: "When I went to university in England and got over the homesickness I knew then I wanted to travel overseas as a volunteer. As soon as I graduated last year I searched and searched to find a programme and came across the International Citizens Service and applied.
"I got offered a place with the Restless Development organisation which has offices all over the developing world and which suited me perfectly as it meant working with local people at community level.
"You are paired with local people so it's not just a bunch of white people going over to work with the Africans but we had Africans working with us."
She was part of a team of 20 volunteers who worked on a youth development programme.
She says she now feels like "the biggest fool ever" for forgetting to take her malaria tablets -- a simple oversight that almost cost her life.
"I was home a week when I woke up feeling really ill and horrible. I was gasping and choking and I thought my body was coming apart at the seams.
"I knew I needed to get to hospital and I went to Craigavon Area Hospital.
"I was admitted and the next thing I had doctors around me talking about organ failure and death. All I could think was -- Denise, you have been the biggest fool on this planet.
"Of course, when we were in Africa we reminded each other about our anti-malarial tablets -- but we didn't take it very seriously. I missed a few pills here and there including a few days when I was in hospital with typhoid. I'd thought the West was too hysterical about malaria. I was so wrong."
Every day of her 11 weeks in Africa Denise saw evidence of how widespread malaria is, especially among children and young people.
She said children would come to her classes unable to do anything other than sleep because of the headache and the fever they had from the disease.
Malaria is responsible for 50% of avoidable school absenteeism in Africa. Initially when she returned home on September 16, Denise felt fit and healthy.
Shortly afterwards she developed a sore throat but assumed she had caught a cold.
Then the side of her face started to swell until it was so painful that she couldn't eat. She says: "People would look at me and say, 'Oh my God, Denise, what is going on with your face?'"
She adds: "The doctor diagnosed mumps, but in a day or two the swelling was replaced by severe fever, violent shaking and a temperature of 39.9 degrees.
"By the morning of the third day I was vomiting. Bizarrely, it wasn't until then that I thought of malaria."
When she went to A&E she was put in an isolated room and given IV paracetamol, anti-sickness pills and rehydration treatment.
She says: "My stomach was cramping and I could barely stand or walk. A nurse had to push me the five or six steps from my room to the toilet in a wheelchair.
"It didn't take them long to come back with the blood test results and confirmed I had malaria and it was the deadliest strain.
"They said a 2% parasite count in the blood was considered extreme -- mine was at 7%.
"I remember all these doctors coming in to look at me simply because they couldn't believe I was still alive with 'just' a fever. When my mum and sister came to visit, all I could do was cry, 'I don't want to die, I don't want to die'.
"My family were really worried but they are great at dealing with things and never let me know how they were feeling. They joked with me and had me laughing."
Denise was transferred to the Infectious Disease Unit in the Royal Victoria and put on quinine to kill off the malaria parasites.
It was a traumatic moment for her as the pressure her body was under caught up with her.
She says: "The moment they put that stuff in me, I had a panic attack. I think it was just everything -- the poking and prodding and the IV and the sterile ward and seeing all the blood they'd taken ... I snapped. My jaw felt as if it was stretching out of my face and I wanted to claw out of my skin.
"I went into a recovery ward, then the Intensive Care Unit, with a nurse monitoring me all the time. Every four hours or so I would start shaking and my temperature would shoot up to 39 degrees, then paracetamol would be administered and the shaking stopped and my temperature would go down. I had to use a bedpan because I was dizzy and unsteady on my feet. I left my dignity at the door of that hospital."
Within a couple of days there was a slight improvement and tests showed that the parasite count in her blood had gone down to 3%, then below 1%.
However she was still very ill. She found it difficult to eat and being told that it was important to get her glucose levels up, she was in tears because she felt helpless.
She says: "Eventually, I forced myself to eat one or two mouthfuls. The next day I was ravenous and wolfed down loads. Then a few days later the doctor told me my parasite count was 0% and I could go home."
It took another two weeks recovering at home in Coalisland before Denise felt well again.
Having seen the way African children struggle to go to school suffering from malaria because they cannot afford treatment, she feels only gratitude now that she had the benefit of being in hospital.
It's why within just a couple of weeks of such a traumatic ordeal she is already promoting the need to support the work of the London-based charity Malaria No More UK.
The charity inspires public support and political action to save lives, focusing on Africa where over 90% of all malaria deaths occur.
Malaria claims the life of a child every minute, yet it would cost less than £1 to treat each case.
Says Denise: "Simple things like a bowl of fruit and running water made me weepy when I got out of hospital.
"What I went through was depressing and then strangely quite liberating.
"When I was leaving hospital I asked the doctor to be blunt about how bad I had been and he said 'yes, you could have died'. "I just felt so blessed to have had the NHS and realised how easy we get it. It was scary and there were points when I thought I don't want to die but now I'm really glad I had this experience, as it means I can do stuff like this and talk to the Belfast Telegraph and let people know that thousands are dying in Africa when they don't need to.
"We were constantly seeing it in Africa where people can't afford to pay for treatment which just isn't right. The whole time I was in hospital, I couldn't stop thinking how lucky I was. I thought about all the children who die from this disease every day because they do not have access to simple lifesaving solutions such as mosquito nets, malaria tests and medicines.
"There is no reason for malaria to keep people poor -- yet it is a root cause of poverty in Africa, costing families up to 25% of their annual income."
Denise is now working part-time so that she can pay to go on another trip as a volunteer but hopes to eventually do advocacy work for an international development charity.
She adds: "I'd go back to Africa in a heartbeat -- but I'd bring a suitcase full of DEET (insect repellent) and take my anti-malarials religiously.
"I understand now how devastating malaria can be for the sufferer and their family. In our volunteer group, four of us who didn't regularly take pills got malaria. The three who took the whole course stayed well.
"The results speak for themselves."
HOW STARS FIGHT BACK AGAINST DISEASE
Every vote cast by viewers of ITV's "I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here" is raising funds for the charity Malaria No More UK.
Before he went into the jungle Westlife's Kian Egan pledged his support to the work of the charity in eradicating the disease in the developing world.
Kian, who is also a coach for Voice of Ireland, said: "I'm a hugely proud dad of our soon-to-be two-year-old son, so it breaks my heart to think every minute a dad somewhere in this world loses his child to malaria.
"When you have a child, them getting sick is your biggest fear. I find it hard to imagine the idea of living with the daily threat of a killer disease like malaria.
"I travelled to Africa with Westlife. We went to Namibia and South Africa and made sure we took our anti-malarials.
"It's ridiculous to hear that so many people are dying when we have the ability to prevent it. At the end of the day it is down to awareness.
"To us a mosquito bite is an inconvenience, but for families in Africa it can be an absolute killer. The fact that my time in the jungle will help save lives is pretty awe-inspiring."
Former Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Cole also famously battled malaria in 2010.
The star was so ill that at one point it was feared that she had just 24 hours to live.
She caught the disease while on holiday in Tanzania with American dancer Derek Hough in June 2010.
Five days after Cheryl's return to London, the singer was bed-ridden with a temperature of 104°F and had to be rushed to hospital where she spent four days in intensive care.