The day I… Lost everything to a tropical disease

Lisa Aitken.
Lisa Aitken.

Lisa Aitken, 29, Scottish Squash Champion, Edinburgh

I was born in Dundee but I grew up in Montrose. I stayed there until I was 17 when I went to Edinburgh, the base of Scottish Squash.

After the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010 I moved to Leeds to work with a coach who was training the world number one male and female squash players.

I had already reached my highest world ranking of 38 when I went to the Malaysian Open in 2014.

I was feeling physically and mentally the strongest I had ever felt. I managed to qualify, eventually losing out to the world number one.

I had a smaller event further north in Perlas, where I was number one seed, and gunning for my first world tour title.

But I started to not feel great. At first I thought I was dehydrated.

Then, about four days before the event, I began to see two balls at training instead of one.

I was travelling to Perlas alone by taxi. Everything was remote, and I was worried about being ill and not near civilisation.

The night before the match started, I was throwing up and had a high fever. I started to panic. I got a taxi straight to the airport and booked a flight home.

Getting on the plane was the last thing I can remember.

When we touched down I was taken straight to Leeds General Infirmary by ambulance and put in quarantine.

The next thing I can recall is waking up to see someone in a contamination costume.

Doctors didn’t know what was wrong but took some blood samples. I had to wait three days for the results.

Those few days were the worst.

I suffered hallucinations and on-and-off blindness in one eye, fever and vomiting. I couldn’t move.

I was told I had contracted dengue fever from a mosquito bite and there was no medication to treat it. I was given intravenous fluids and just had ride it out.

I was sent home and told to be patient and it would get better. But I was left with debilitating fatigue.

I moved back to Montrose to be looked-after by my parents.

After a month of being bed-bound, my GP did some tests that showed I had an autoimmune condition as a result of the dengue.

That kept me bed-bound for a further 18 months.

As an athlete who is completely reliant on prize money to live, when you can’t compete you’re not making any money at all. I had to sell my car and give up the flat in Leeds.

I was back to square one. In my mind, I had lost everything. Once Lisa Aitken the squash player had gone, I felt strangely empty and lost.

But it was a blessing in disguise.

I realised that life just can’t be about the game. Over the years I had made it that way and that had created pressure on my performance. I had also lost sight of what is important, what you stand for and what you’re grateful for.

Everything had been about winning or losing and becoming a better squash player – not a better person.

Now I could get the old me back, resume my hobbies and spend time with my family.

The time I had off was full of peaks and troughs.

I went from thinking I would never get back to squash to telling myself “I will do whatever it takes to make sure I am at the top of the game and represent Scotland again”.

It took three years to get back to full fitness.

I have gained a new appreciation for life and having a clean bill of health. That has made training, competing and performing to my best a lot easier. This month it has all come full circle as I have again achieved my highest ranking – back to 38th in the world.

It was tough, but in a good way.

Getting to 38 before the dengue fever wasn’t that hard – I hadn’t had any great wins to get there. When I came back to the sport after my illness I found there were more players playing full-time and more depth to the game, so it took a lot of hard work.

This week I was ranked 37 in the world – my highest ever. I have beaten ten players who are ranked above me, and I have won six Professional Squash Association tour titles in the last 12 months.

I’ve had some great wins this season and being among the world’s top 20 is where I see myself heading.

I am also starting a degree in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University in September. Scottish Squash is based there so hopping across for a lecture shouldn’t be too difficult.

The dengue fever was awful but, looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.