Ralph Correa fell back on his plane seat, spent a month in a coma and woke up to discover he was totally paralysed. Weeks later, he learned he’d received the Queen’s Service Medal for serving Northland’s Indian community.
The Whangārei JP had to learn to walk and retrain his muscles after a major health scare that could have ended his life. Health experts at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland were baffled and couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong with him until blood tests revealed a small bug that gave him a Rickettsial infection.
Pathogenic Rickettsia species are transmitted by ticks, fleas, lice and other bugs, and are associated with human and plant diseases.
Correa has no idea where and when the bug bit him during his trip to India and Kenya in January. He accompanied his mother to India to see his sister and then travelled alone to Kenya for a wedding and spent 10 days there.
He then flew back to India and the mother and son returned to New Zealand. Things took a turn for the worst when Correa reached up to the plane’s overhead locker in Auckland to fetch his mother’s walking stick.
“I fell back and lost total control of my body, and then to be told that you’re totally paralysed, all because of a small bug that bit me. It took out all my organs. I can’t remember anything until I opened my eyes at Middlemore Hospital a month later. I wasn’t aware of where I was,” he recalled.
“I thought I was dead because my room was full of flowers from people who had come to see me. Suddenly I realised I couldn’t move my legs, couldn’t sit up, couldn’t walk, couldn’t do anything. I probably crossed to the other side of the world and they didn’t want me there so they sent me back to do some more work.”
When he was brought to the hospital, his heart rate was 180 for almost 20 minutes then it shot up to 220 and back down to 110. Doctors later told him it was a miracle for someone to have such a high heartbeat and to stay alive.
His family was shocked as they spoke to him hours before he departed India for New Zealand.
“I was fit and fine and playing sports and everything else and coming back on a flight from India after a fantastic holiday,” Correa says.
“This was a situation where I’d come off the plane and nobody knew what had happened to me. The bug takes out all your organs and literally paralyses you. It takes down wildebeest and other animals in the wild as part of what it does. I lost 9kg of muscle mass.”
The bug that's believed to have bitten Ralph Correa during his visit to India and Kenya.
“I can’t work because of the side effects of medication. All my skin had peeled off. I was given medication to save my life, but then, I had so many after-effects on my body that I lost hearing in one ear and floaters in the eyes.
“I realised I can’t just sleep and do nothing, I need to start moving or else I’ll be in the hospital all my life. You can’t imagine how it all happened. It shows you just how fragile life is.
“And then you get a call to say that you’ve been selected to get an award, it puts everything in perspective. Life is fragile but if you know how to live through your journey, everything will come right in the end,” Correa says.
The bug is found in Africa, India, US and some parts of Australia.
The health scare hasn’t put him off from going back to India and Kenya. He lived in Kenya for about eight years and his kids were born there but they never came across the bug.
“Anything can happen anytime with anybody.
“My recovery is going to be a long haul. My body needs to work on its immune system and bring adrenaline levels down.
“People have had diseases like cancers and stuff, which they have conquered. I was fortunate that from the time it attacked to the time I was in hospital, it was a matter of minutes. A lot of people are not fortunate to be in that situation, so there’s one miracle right there.
“That it happened while I was not in the air, during the six-hour stopover in Malaysia, while I was in India, or while I was in a flight from Malaysia to New Zealand. I believe in miracles and so should you. And they do exist.”
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