Marina is a Romanian citizen who was studying law at the University of Manchester in the UK when she was diagnosed with multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB). Marina was studying abroad in Lyon, France in summer 2012 when she developed a cough that would not go away. Her symptoms led her down a long road of doctors and tests as various French doctors struggled to identify a disease many believe no longer exists in Europe. One doctor even diagnosed Marina with hay fever and gave her medicines to ease hay fever symptoms.
Despite multiple doctor visits, Marina’s symptoms failed to subside. Marina began to suspect her condition could be related to her lungs – possibly TB – after researching her symptoms online. Marina found a clinic that offered TB tests and had a lung x-ray done. The x-ray established there was something seriously wrong with her lungs, and she was referred for a CT scan. The CT scan confirmed there was a problem with her lungs but couldn’t determine what it was specifically, so Marina was referred for a bronchoscopy – a procedure in which a doctor interested a tube attached to a camera through Marina’s nose and down her airways to examine her lungs, a horrible experience Marina described as “torture”.
Weeks passed in between each of the tests, and Marina grew increasingly frustrated that no one could tell her what making her ill. Still suspecting the possibility of TB, Marina decided to go back to Romania in hopes of receiving a quicker diagnosis. Marina flew to Bucharest where, upon arrival, she headed directly for the Marius Nasta Hospital, her x-ray in hand. The Romanian doctors diagnosed her with TB right away and immediately admitted her to hospital where she started a standard course of TB treatment.
Not long after having been admitted to hospital, Marina received the results of the bronchoscopy she had undergone in France, which told her that her strain of TB was multidrug-resistant. Marina’s Romanian doctors wanted to independently confirm her drug resistance but did not have the means for rapid testing, meaning Marina had to wait an additional two months before a bacteriological culture confirmed she had MDR-TB. Marina’s MDR-TB diagnosis was the beginning of an arduous two-year fight towards recovery.
Marina’s diagnosis forced her to take off a semester of university in order to undergo treatment in Romania. Part of her treatment required her to receive painful injections every day. Marina was supposed to have a total of 180 shots, but she had to stop the injectables after the first 60 because she developed tinnitus (ringing in the ears) as a side effect.
The drugs Marina had to take also came with serious side effects. Every day she had to swallow a large handful of pills. Initially, the drugs made her sensitive to light and her joints were so painful that she couldn’t move them. She battled with constant fatigue, which sapped her energy and made it difficult to study. The drugs made her feel nauseated and dizzy – side effects that Marina experienced every single day for two years. Yet Marina managed to overcome her two years of treatment and successfully completed both her studies and her treatment in April 2014.
Marina’s story in one of triumph. Countless people fail to understand how incredibly difficult the two year course of MDR-TB treatment is. Many patients interrupt their treatment because of the serious and pro-longed side effects that can also include vomiting, diarrhoea, depression and suicidal thoughts. Within the European Union, only one third of patients with MDR-TB successfully complete their treatment.
Marina told me that during those two years, one of the things that kept her going was a quote by Martin Luther King who said: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Marina said she tried to focus on whatever she could to take her forward.
Marina visited doctors in France, was diagnosed in Romania and completed treatment in the UK. Rates of drug-resistant TB in Europe are on the rise, and Marina’s story demonstrates that TB does not respect borders and that any response to drug-resistant TB in Europe must be regional. European Institutions have the opportunity to show leadership on this issue, the only ingredient missing is political will.