I was in a wheelchair, an IV line attached to my left hand, barely able to lift my head, surrounded by nurses and doctors and being wheeled up to the Cambodian hospital room that would become my home for the next four days. It wasn’t the ideal situation.
It had started about a month before I had arrived at the hospital in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’d felt poorly; cold-like symptoms with a feeling of exhaustion as well as a curious stomach. No, curious isn’t quite the word, but I’m sure you can use your imagination. I’d done a good job at ignoring it, brushing it off as “Oh, I’m sure it’s just a cold. I’ll have a nap, take some vitamins and I’ll be fine”. The thing is, there are just too many wonderful activities that featured much higher up my list of priorities than being ill. At first the approach worked – I’d rest and feel okay for a few days. Then I’d feel just as awful again. And so I’d take another day napping; bargaining with my body, “Okay, let’s work as a team… I’ll sleep all day and then tomorrow I can go kayaking, right?”
After a month of this, it just got worse. To the point where, after a bike ride with my lovely friend Tessa, we stopped for lunch and I really, really felt like I was going to pass out. I knew something had to change. We were due to cross the border from Laos into Cambodia the next day and so I promised myself I would go to the first hospital we could find.
It’s strange, the minute I admitted that something was really wrong was the moment my body seemed to give up on me. Before the bus ride, I remember staring weakly at my backpack thinking “How on earth am I going to lift this onto my back? I can’t do that!” This is pretty unusual for me;I’ve always been proud of being quite strong and full of energy– I’m the kind of girl who would see the guys carrying beer kegs at work and think “I can do that! In fact I’ll carry two! With one hand!”
With Tessa’s help, we made the 22 hour journey across the border from Laos to Cambodia (that’ll be another blog!), and collapsed into a nearby guesthouse for half a night’s sleep. By this point, I was delirious with relief at the prospect of visiting a hospital the next day.
I had picked the hospital we were going to (Royal Angkor International Hospital) because it contained the word international and was the sister hospital of a reputable hospital in Bangkok. What I forgot, was that international just translates to expensive. But you can’t put a price on health, right?
When we arrived, the man at the immaculate white marble reception smiled at me and then handed me a little white card.
“To speak to the doctor, $145 dollars. This doesn’t include any tests.”
Times like these, I really am so thankful for living in England and having the NHS. Times like these, I am also happy I took the time to buy travel insurance.
After signing about a hundred forms, I was led through to the consultation room with Tessa for moral support. The doctor gestured for us to enter and I collapsed in his chair, listing out my symptoms, thankful to be in a place where this magical doctor would solve all of my problems. Unfortunately, Doctor Dickhead, as we later named him, wasn’t so magical. As I ended my speech, he burst out hysterically laughing and announced “Cold! You have a cold!”
No, Doctor. For $145, I do not have a cold.
I continued, telling him that I could assure him that it was not a cold – I had felt ill for a month now and it certainly wasn’t that simple. He shrugged and went on to guess a few more diagnoses’; “Maybe bad food?”… “Or maybe you don’t have strong body”. Infuriatingly, as he continued to guess what might be wrong, he spoke only to Tess. I realised how much I take good bedside manner for granted in England.
Really, I just wanted to explode, screaming at him to take me seriously and for him to look at me when he was talking, stop staring at Tess, to tell him that I know my body and that a cold was not what I was experiencing. But I was just too exhausted. I uttered “Over here doc”, hoping he would turn his head. He didn’t. Finally, thankfully, Tess said to him “She’s over there, talk to her”, pointing in my direction. He seemed to find this hysterical and exclaimed “Yes! You there! Hahahahaha” To this day, I’m not sure what was so hilarious.
After much debate, he finally admitted there was the possibility of staying overnight and running some tests. Yes! Tests! We were getting somewhere! I was led to a temporary bed and told to lay down to wait for the insurance to confirm they would cover the $600 price tag for just one blood test.
I figured this would take an hour at the most. It didn’t. It took twelve hours.
After keeping me cheerful for a few hours, we admitted that Tess didn’t really need to be there and so I continued to wait alone. And wait. And wait.
I wasn’t alone. Gemma, an English girl was in the bed next to me, accompanied by her sympathetic (stoned) boyfriend. Gemma’s ankle was bandaged up, apparently the result of a drunken dare to jump down a skate ramp. “Yeah, it was pretty epic”, she told me. “But if any of the doctors ask, I fell down the stairs. The insurance doesn’t cover me if they realise I was drunk.” Wise words.
“It’s all bullshit here though, I thought I’d done some serious damage – but it turns out I’ve just sprained my ankle. I had an x-ray, and now just need a bandage and some crutches. That cost nearly $800. Next time I hurt myself I’m going to wait at least two days before I come to the hospital”.
Less wise words.
After four hours waiting, she finally hobbled off, waving me goodbye. “C’mon Dan, let’s go get smashed!”
Anyway, EVENTUALLY, just after midnight, the insurance company finally confirmed. I was poked and prodded with needles and x-rayed before finally, at the point of near-collapsing, they found the sense to put me in a wheelchair and take me up to my swanky new overnight room.
The upshot of feeling so crappy was the room; I had my own balcony, television, kitchenette, bathroom (complete with free hotel-style products!) and bed that went up and down with a button. There were certainly worse places to be ill. I fell asleep the minute my head touched the pillow and enjoyed seven hours of glorious air-conditioned sleep.
The next morning I was woken up by a sharp jab of a nurse demanding “HOW MANY TIMES YOU PEE PEE OR POO POO?” Oh Cambodia.
For the next four days, I lay in bed while doctors fed me a cocktail of medication and conducted more tests. When I wasn’t sleeping, I entertained myself with the television, spending hours watching a strange American television show about people who are “PREPARING FOR DOOMSDAY”, building underground bunkers and hoarding months of food and supplies. It was an educational experience to say the least.
One thing I did notice was that hospitals do strange things to you. You worry about the weirdest things. My bed had rail barriers that each night, the nurse would pull up on either side of me. One night, she forgot. A sweat came across my forehead and my pulse quickened. “What if I fall out of bed?” I panicked.
It was a good ten minutes before logic kicked in and I realised that for the last 23 years I have successfully not fallen out of bed.
The doctor (a different doctor thankfully!), packed me off with a goodie-bag full of drugs and instructed me to have a week of full rest. A feat easier said than done!
My overall experience of the hospital: The Facts.
The Good: It’s a swanky hospital. Its a million miles from the image of a dirty, unsanitary clinic that so many people expect when visiting a foreign hospital, the staff speak relatively good English and I can certainly recommend the menu of food options they provide! They were extremely clean (always using new, packaged needles, gloves, etc) and excluding the initial consultation by Doctor Dickhead, they were very thorough.
The Bad: It has a price tag to match. If you’re looking to travel, I really cannot express to other travellers how important it is to have travel insurance. For just the tests and one night’s accommodation alone (and I stayed for four nights!), it cost $2800. Make sure you have insurance! Additionally, I did feel that a lot of the procedures they took were unnecessary. I think that hospitals look at tourists like this and just see “Cash Cow” and attempt to get as much money out of you, or your insurance as possible. For example, I had several x-rays that I really didn’t think were essential – especially given the original diagnosis of a cold. This was confirmed by my lovely doctor friend Hazel back home in England. Having said that, I suppose I would rather them be more cautious than less.
I would really like to end this with a huge thank you to five people.
My parents: Thank you so, so much for being so wonderfully supportive with every skype call and always making sure I was okay.
To my wonderful friend Gavin: For calling my parents when I couldn’t get a hold of them and for always being around to talk to.
To my equally wonderful friend Hazel: For being my on-call doctor from thousands of miles away and for confirming/explaining so many medical terms to me. You were so much better than the doctors here.
To my brilliant travel companion Tessa: For being endlessly patient with me when I couldn’t carry a backpack or just whined that I needed to go home and sleep. For arranging all the travel we did when I napped and for keeping me cheerful. You were so much better than the nurses here.
OH and one more thank you – Thanks to the weird American show that I watched for four days. I now have a stockpile of free shampoos, body creams and talcum powder if doomsday does arrive.
Have you had any hospital experiences? What was your stay like? Let me know!