CHICAGO — It’s not something urban doctors see very often but that didn’t stop a local team of specialists from helping a scientist suffering with the extreme effects of malaria.

Lindsay Maess loves her work.

“I am a field biologist, but I specialize in the rescue and rehabilitation of African primates,” she said.

And she knows the risks.

“One of them is getting tropical infections,” she said.

In the 20 years she’s been traveling to Africa, the Quad City native has weathered multiple illnesses. Her latest was malaria, even after taking preventive medication.

“I took my first malaria medication and it didn’t work,” she said. “My Nigerian doctor believed it was a counterfeit medication.”

After two more failed treatments, her symptoms grew worse, impacting her central nervous system.

“Just searing nerve pain into the face, the head, deep inside the tongue, still down my spine and left arm,” she said. “I could barely hold my head up. I couldn’t speak. I had onset of extreme vertigo. My heartrate dropped to 30.”

Nigeria alone accounts for 31 percent of global malaria deaths. Ninety-seven percent of the population is at risk for the mosquito-borne infectious disease that typically causes fever, headache and vomiting. 

“It breaks my heart for the people that go on to suffer from these infections and to not be able to have that help,” Maess said.

She considers herself lucky. It took two-plus years and several trips to tropical disease centers around the country until she found some relief.

Dr Ryan Smith is facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Rush Hospital.

“Essentially her face was completely locked in, it was tight,” he said. “There were nerve signals going to muscles that shouldn’t be happening. And it was causing her a lot of quality-of-life issues.”

Smith helps relax the muscles in face with botulinum toxin – or Botox — injections. It’s just one of the treatments the now 40-year-old will need indefinitely to help improve her swallowing function and facial spasms. Every three months, she also sees pain specialists for nerve blocks.

“I’ve not treated or seen someone with such devastating effects from the illness this many years after requiring this constant treatment,” Smith said.

“To get through every moment of every day in extreme pain and no one knowing what they could do to help me, it was a really difficult time,” Maess said. “And so I just feel so grateful for the team of doctors I have here.”

Maess now works with the Nigerian Red Cross to draw attention to the threat of malaria, particularly among children in the region. She’s hoping her story will help spread awareness.

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