Missionary Diary: malaria in Liberia

Hannah Mumford contracted malaria in April 2019 while serving with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) in Liberia. She suffered an acute form of the disease despite taking all the advised antimalarial medication. Four years on, Hannah still experiences side effects, and her life has never been the same. Now living in Aberdeen, Scotland, and practising podiatry, she recalls her long road to recovery and how the disease may affect her forever.

Andrew, my husband, is a pilot, and we joined MAF [Mission Aviation Fellowship] in 2012, compelled by our strong Christian faith and desire to serve isolated communities. Our first assignment was in Chad – one of the MAF’s hottest programs, and then Liberia – one of the wettest.

We moved back to Aberdeen in April 2021 after nine years with many incredible experiences and fond memories of our children growing up in Africa. Being part of MAF’s mission to reach inaccessible places using aviation was a privilege.

Andrew is now a Captain with the Scottish Air Ambulance. I have returned to practise in podiatry for the NHS [National Health Service], and our kids are settled in schools in Aberdeen. We are very blessed to be part of Gilcomston church, which has been a wonderful support to help us readjust to life in Scotland and has supported us faithfully throughout our time living overseas with MAF.

My malaria journey began in April 2019. I woke up feeling achy one Monday morning, but I ignored what I thought was the regular tiredness of a busy mum. On Tuesday, I put off my weekly food shop. On Wednesday, determined, I arrived at the supermarket feeling nauseous and dizzy.

My driver Moses warned me in the car that I had malaria. “Of course not,” I joked. “I’m just under the weather.”

Moses caught me as I collapsed in the supermarket. I barely remember the journey home, but I could hear him beeping the horn to push through the busy traffic. He wanted to take me straight to hospital, but I still refused to believe it was malaria.

Mice were running in the corridors. Someone died that night. I remember hearing them wailing and crying.

I spent the next week on the sofa or in bed. Moses faithfully did the school runs and returned one day to me having dropped and smashed a drinking glass. I was unconscious.

With Andrew flying that day, a neighbour sped me to a hospital on our compound in Monrovia, where I stayed overnight. I was confused, weak and don’t remember much. No one could hear if I called for help – but the nurses were working their absolute hardest. Mice were running in the corridors. Someone died that night. I remember hearing them wailing and crying.

I started five days of intravenous antimalarials to treat an aggressive strain of the infection. I was one of the lucky ones. Every two minutes, a child dies of malaria somewhere in the world – many of them in places where MAF carries out humanitarian work. It’s humbling that I’m here to tell my story. So many people were praying for me.

November 2017. MAF Chad Pilot Andrew & Hannah Mumford. Children: Zach, Esther and Jacob.

Ten days after my treatment, tests showed no traces of malaria in my body. I’ve known many people who bounce back quickly once the infection is gone. But that wasn’t my experience at all.

Three weeks later, I still couldn’t walk around the house. After a month, I could barely make it to the front gate. If I managed to wave my kids off to school, I would spend the rest of the day on the sofa. I nibbled crackers and our amazing community cooked meals for the family. It was a difficult and painful time, but we were well-supported.

I remember days of just listening to the waves on the sea – all I could do was pray.

I remember days of just listening to the waves on the sea – all I could do was pray. I had no idea malaria could have this kind of effect. But I’ve since discovered that hundreds of malaria survivors never return to full health. Some struggle physically, some psychologically. Others emotionally. But the scars carried by survivors like me still don’t compare to the unimaginable loss of life for those unable to access treatment.

I often felt very frustrated, and it took me a while to talk about my malaria journey. Two years on, I was a different, weaker version of myself. I often had ‘episodes’ where my brain couldn’t tell my legs to move. I remember having to sit in my front garden for hours until the sporadic attacks passed, and I could move again.

There have been other long-term effects on our daily life – simple tasks like going shopping were a nightmare for years. My brain couldn’t sporadically think about what to have for dinner, and sometimes I had to say ‘no’ to small things like making pizza from scratch.

Even 15 months ago, I wouldn’t have comprehended returning to work. There are still days when I stay in and miss family outings if I know my legs and energy levels won’t cope. I find these moments incredibly frustrating, sad, and demoralising. The kids sometimes beg me to come, but I know I can’t physically manage. I guess we have learned to accept this is our way of life. I pace myself, and Andrew often goes above and beyond to keep our busy family ticking over.

I remember having to sit in my front garden for hours until the sporadic attacks passed, and I could move again.

Aside from the physical side effects, I often experience brain fog. I sometimes feel overwhelmed making plans or being in large social gatherings. Rest is a key component to my week which must be factored in every day – even just 30 minutes of sitting down. It’s rather extraordinary that I can now work two days a week, and I absolutely love it. I’m so grateful to have come this far in my recovery. I am very blessed to have accessed treatment at the critical moment.

Perhaps I will live with the side effects of malaria for the rest of my life. But find it so sad that some people risk not taking antimalarials when they travel. This disease kills more than 600,000 people every year – I am one of the fortunate ones who made it to hospital.

I will never forget the strength God gave me in those darkest times, but equally, I won’t forget those who are less fortunate than me.