Getting sick away from home (Always have travel insurance!)

I haven’t posted for 11 days, because I had an accident a week ago that left me in hospital.  I was working on my new aerial act, and I fell from 4 feet onto a hard floor, landed on my head and fractured my skull.  I spent the night in A&E, and another night on a ward.  When I fell, I was sitting in an aerial cocoon, just like in the picture below, and as I went upside down as in the second picture, my leg didn’t catch me as it should have and I went head first onto the floor.

I’m recovering at home now, and it seems like an appropriate day to tell the story of the time I was admitted to hospital in Thailand.  Hospitalisation can be a scary experience in a country where you don’t speak the language, and I’ve heard many stories from friends with similar experiences.

In May 2014 I was lucky enough to be taken on a dream work trip to South East Asia.  I sell holidays for a living , and the trip was part performance-related reward and part opportunity to meet local suppliers and gain a deeper knowledge of the product.  It began with a 3 day conference in Ho Chi Minh City, during which the 30 participants were taken on a tour of the city on the back on 1960s Vespas, played scavenger hunt around the markets and tourist sites, and even arrived at dinner by speedboat.  The Vespa tour of this hectic city made us feel really part of it, as we sat at traffic lights among crowds of locals on mopeds and sped across busy junctions.

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We were then to split into groups of six, and take six day bespoke tours around different parts of South East Asia.  My group’s tour was to cover Northern Thailand and Laos.

The activity was non-stop on the four nights and three days we spent in Ho Chi Minh City.  Having gotten off our 16 hour flight from London via Abu Dhabi (on which we thankfully flew in Business Class and therefore managed to get some sleep), we went straight to a group dinner without checking into our hotel first.  We stayed at the four star Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon, where the conference was held and which provided a comfortable and central base in the city.  The next three days were a whirlwind of early mornings and late nights, with minimal spare time and never enough sleep.  I was exhausted.  It was hot and humid, and I was constantly aware that I was taking a medication that could become dangerous if I got dehydrated, so I guzzled water incessantly and was sparing with my alcoholic drinks.

The morning of our flight to Thailand, I was due to be out of bed at 6am.  I awoke shortly after 5, restless and unwell.  I was sweating and shaking and couldn’t keep still in my bed.  I went to the bathroom and threw up.  Immediately I knew that this wasn’t a hangover  – I had drunk only a little alcohol the night before and had made sure to far outweigh it with water.  I knew that my medication had become toxic and that I had to get to a hospital.

Explaining to sceptical colleagues who were unaware of my condition or my medication presented its own problems.  I faced quite a few who suggested I might be blowing a hangover out of proportion.  I had to keep insisting that I knew better, despite their understandable cynicism.  The decision I found myself facing was whether to remain behind alone in Vietnam, a less developed country, and go straight to hospital while letting my group go on ahead, or to stay with them, deal with my worsening illness for the duration of the flight to Thailand, a country with reasonably good private healthcare, and go to hospital upon arrival there.  I chose the second option.

The journey was beyond difficult.  My group leader kindly carried my luggage, took my passport and checked me in at the airport, while I sat weakly on the floor.  I was  running a high fever, shaking violently and regularly throwing up.  Colour had drained from my face and white spots appeared on the palms of my hands.  I couldn’t remember ever having felt so ill before.  We had an hour’s flight to Bangkok, a two hour connection and a further hour’s flight to Chiang Mai, a city in Northern Thailand.  The others joked around in efforts to entertain me, including caricaturing my own actions.

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During the connection in Bangkok I became particularly ill and was eventually unable to keep walking, so a member of the group even commandeered one of the buggies that  airport staff drive around in and drove me to the next terminal.  I lay down across three seats at the boarding gate and tried to sleep on the plane but kept having to get up to be sick.

On arrival in Chiang Mai, our first stop was Chiang Mai Ram Hospital, a private hospital often used by European and American expats.  The group continued on to the Anantara Chiang Mai Hotel, which I never got to see, and the leader stayed with me.

My relief upon arriving at the hospital was short-lived, and I begun to panic when a language barrier threatened to get in the way of being treated.  A triage nurse took my temperature, pulse and blood pressure.

“Blood pressure ok, pulse ok, probably just a flu”, she said, smiling.  I anxiously pushed toward her the tablets that I had already shown her, trying to explain that these were the problem.  I gestured toward my arm, begging “Take my blood, please, check my blood”.  She frowned, confused.  “You want a blood test?”

At this stage I was panicked, afraid that my inability to speak Thai would mean that I wouldn’t be able to make myself understood and wouldn’t get the right treatment, and tears spilled down my face.  Seeing my distress, the nurse quickly ran to get another.  When I handed her my tablets and she read the name, her eyes widened and she exclaimed in Thai.  A minute later, I was in a wheelchair being taken to a cubicle in the Emergency Room.

There I was helped up onto a trolley, where I lay as a doctor listened to my heart and took my temperature again.  She asked all the right questions, like how long I had been taking my medication, when I had taken the last dose, and whether it had ever become toxic before.  I relaxed slightly, knowing that someone finally understood what was happening.  An ECG revealed that my heart’s rhythm was off, and a nurse spent five minutes trying to put a line into a vein in the back of my hand as I looked away in pain, only for her to to give up and try my arm instead.  The bruises on my hand lasted over a week.

I was admitted to a private room and kept there overnight on a saline drip.  Two bags of IV fluids were slowly pumped into me to rehydrate me and bring the level of medication in my blood back to normal.  Once I was upstairs and out of the Emergency Room, all of the staff spoke good English.  I awoke early the next morning to find that a much gentler nurse already had a needle in my arm and had drawn blood so painlessly that she hadn’t even woken me.  The first blood test revealed that my medication was well over the safe level in my bloodstream, and it had thrown everything else off balance as well.  My white blood cells were much higher than normal, causing an infection in my stomach, and all of my minerals were far too low.  The second one, the next morning, showed things returning to much safer levels.  I was discharged that morning with a stash of antibiotics, vitamins and minerals, and a bill for the equivalent of only €350 for my private room, meals and all the tests that had been done.  My travel insurance didn’t cover the bill, since my illness was connected to a pre-existing condition, and I was relieved that private healthcare in Thailand doesn’t cost what it does in Ireland.

I never restarted taking that particular medication, and I switched to a new doctor at home who agreed that my condition could be managed without it.  I haven’t missed it.  The lessons I learnt were to ensure that my travel insurance covers all possibilities, and not to allow a doctor to over-prescribe where it’s not necessary, or at least to get a second opinion.

I’ve since found that OK To Travel will always cover me, at a premium, and I cannot stress enough that anyone travelling abroad should always ensure that they are fully covered by travel insurance, including for pre-existing conditions.  This may cost you extra, but if you become ill somewhere like the USA, where healthcare is extremely expensive, it will save you an enormous and often completely unmanageable bill, and some medical professionals will check your insurance before treating you and won’t treat you without it.  Trust me, it’s terrifying to be in a situation where you know you need medical care and may not be able to get it.  I was lucky that things cost less in Thailand, but this isn’t a risk worth taking.  Always cover yourself, wherever you go, and enjoy your travels with peace of mind.

One thought on “Getting sick away from home (Always have travel insurance!)

  1. Pingback: A foray into circus | Frequent Flier

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