Two and half years ago, Charlie Webster thought she was going to die. The British journalist had just completed a five-week, 3,000-mile charity bike ride from London to Rio de Janeiro to commemorate the 2016 Olympic Games when she came down with an illness that baffled local doctors and left her on life support. At one point, doctors told her family that she had less than 24 hours to live.
Webster’s dire condition and the medical mystery that caused it would make international news. Doctors around the world were consulted, including one physician in Washington, D.C. who realized what so many other experts had not: Webster had contracted a particularly dangerous strain of malaria. The diagnosis and subsequent treatment saved her life.
Today, she has become a dedicated advocate for malaria treatment and prevention, traveling across the globe to share her story of survival and spread awareness about one of the world’s oldest, deadliest — and too often overlooked — diseases.
I recently sat down with Webster at the Nothing But Nets Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., an annual gathering hosted by the United Nations Foundation’s grassroots campaign to raise awareness and resources to fight malaria across the globe.
MA. Tell me about what happened and how you ended up in the hospital in a coma.
CW: I was meant to be broadcasting at the start of the Olympic Games in 2016, so the charity bike ride was really intense and we pushed every single day to make it in time. The route took us through the northern part of Brazil, near the Amazon. Nobody will ever know, but that’s when the doctors think I ended up catching malaria. When I arrived in Rio, our three thousandth mile was at the the top of Christ Redeemer. It was incredible to make it, but something felt wrong.
That night, I couldn’t stand up straight. I started to feel so sick and my head hurt and I just couldn’t think. But I’d cycled for five weeks straight for three thousand miles, so I just thought I was exhausted.
I was meant to be working at the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games the next day, and I couldn’t even move. I remember being crouched over, and somebody I didn’t even know trying to speak to me, and I couldn’t talk. And then I started to worry because I realized this is different from anything I’ve known before. That’s when I went to the hospital.
MA: Once you got to the hospital, you went from being told you’re severely dehydrated to being on life support. What do you remember about that experience?
CW: My symptoms were very confusing. The doctors had no idea what was going on.
I didn’t know this then, but malaria isn’t just about malaria. At that point I was also suffering from pneumonia, which is linked to malaria. I had respiratory failure, my kidneys were failing, my other organs were failing as well. My body was basically shutting down. I had hemorrhaging of the brain, which malaria can cause as well. It was the most horrific, distressing, torturous feeling I can ever try and describe to you.
Malaria can cause long-term disabilities. I would later meet a girl who had cerebral palsy caused by malaria. This disease damages people in so many ways.
MA: So how did doctors finally diagnose that malaria was at the root of all of your symptoms?
CW: My doctors in Brazil had started sharing notes about my case and symptoms with other doctors all over the world. In London. In San Francisco. There was a doctor in Washington, D.C. who read my case file and advised testing me for malaria. The local doctors in Rio tested me on a last-minute whim.
I later met this doctor at my first Nothing But Nets Leadership Summit in D.C. after I spoke at the U.S. Senate. He came up to me afterward and introduced himself and I got goosebumps.
MA: What were the long-term consequences? I believe I read that it took you nearly 8 months before you had fully recovered.
I had so much nerve damage. I struggled to walk. I had to re-learn how to put one foot in front of the other. I now have kidney problems. Not to mention the psychological trauma that I’m still overcoming.
But I got off very, very lightly. The doctors said it’s a complete miracle that I survived because on paper, I shouldn’t have. If we look at stats on malaria, I shouldn’t be here.
MA: You survived this horrific ordeal, and you’ve since become a vocal advocate for malaria treatment and prevention. Why did you decide to speak out?
I fought so hard for my life and my recovery. Now I want to make sure that it counts. My skill set is that I’m a journalist. I have a voice and so many people don’t. I went through that experience, and realized that it wasn’t about me — it was about using my story to try and convey other peoples’ stories.
When I started to get better, I realized how much my experience had captured people’s attention. And I realized that because I wasn’t the stereotypical type of person that gets malaria, maybe I could help educate others about this deadly disease. Let’s learn from it, and let’s see what we can change for the better. If what happened to me can actually help make change, then I could never live with myself if I’d just sat in a corner and didn’t do anything with it.
MA: You’ve since traveled all over the world to share your story and raise awareness about malaria. Tell me about the trip you took to Uganda last year.
CW: In the village I visited in Uganda, there were about a thousand people. Some people I met in this village just accepted deaths from malaria because it’s so common. What we have to do is teach communities how they can fight it themselves. The most powerful thing we can do is to empower these communities.
And I met a village health worker there who has the most powerful voice in his village. His community trusts him. What I learned is that when we educate him about how to prevent malaria, he can literally educate a thousand people and then they can prevent this disease themselves — simply by providing the right resources and information. So if you invest in him, you’ve invested in a thousand people. And if you invest in a thousand people, then you’ve invested in wherever they go. There’s this ripple effect.
MA: I’d love to hear what surprised you when started to take up advocacy on malaria.
CW: I think what surprised me is how important it is to make sure we invest in people, not just in resources. The mission of Nothing But Nets is incredible — we provide these nets, which communities at risk need as a resource, but we also have to educate people about how to use the nets and what malaria actually is. It doesn’t even cost a lot of money.
I think the thing that surprised me — and the thing that I now advocate for — is that we really have to engage on a grassroots level for everything else to work.
MA: This is the third Nothing But Nets Summit that you’ve attended in the past three years. What keeps you coming back?
CW: I feel so grateful to be invited to come back, and I come back every time because what I love about Nothing But Nets and the United Nations Foundation is that they’re invested in young people and everyday champions. It’s the grassroots support we were talking about.
It’s not just about the top-down work from the UN. You also need advocates within communities to spread the message and make a difference. These young people are our changemakers, so if I can pass along some of my knowledge and experience, it’s the most worthwhile amount of time I could possibly spend.