At this very moment, Jamey and I were supposed to be sunning on the same beach in
Huatulco, Mexico where Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna frolicked in the movie “Y Tu Mamá También.” I was pretty sure that pristine environment would cause us to be just like them–young, tanned, and carefree (minus the shenanigans with an older woman).
I’ll admit that when we booked the trip a month or so earlier, the only health concern on our mind was how Montezuma’s Revenge might impact our beach time. Little did we know that a somewhat larger health concern would lead to a trip cancellation and, well, a cancellation of everything else except sitting on our couch watching marathons of Storage Wars or Beachfront Bargain Hunt (seriously, 3,000 channels and this is the best we can find??)
Global pandemics have a way of making you think about your health. Like every two seconds. As in, when I coughed a minute ago, was that just my iced tea going down the wrong pipe or was that a dry cough and should I start looking for the other two symptoms? Or, as in, don’t touch that letter in the mailbox—let me get the Lysol Wipe and rub it down first!
To be honest, having lived and worked and traveled in so many places around the globe, I always did have a worry in the very, very back of my mind about falling ill or getting injured far away from home. When we hiked a day into the remote hills of Thailand to stay with a tribe, or stayed in a tiny village on the desolate east coast of Greenland, or spent time on Easter Island–the most remote inhabited island on earth–what if we broke a leg or had an appendicitis? Fortunately, we escaped major medical emergencies abroad, even in our time living in Mali when there was an Ebola outbreak.
But there have been minor health-related incidents abroad, and they were harrowing enough. A few summers ago Jamey and I decided to take a breather and spend a month in the lovely medieval city of Ghent, Belgium. Just prior to the trip my U.S. doctor found a bit of skin cancer on the upper part of my left arm. Another doctor removed it and stitched me up. After two days at our Airbnb in Ghent, it was time to have the stitches removed. Since everything looked fine, Jamey snipped them away with a special pair of scissors. Easy peasy.
At bedtime I clicked off the light and reached down to put my iPad on the bedside table. That was when I heard a strange snapping sound. Since it was dark and Jamey was asleep, I made my way to the bathroom and flicked on the light. That’s when I saw that the surgery site had completely opened up, giving me a great view of the inner part of my upper arm. That’s a view I won’t forget.
Of course, here we were in an unfamiliar apartment in an unfamiliar town after midnight. I could only find paper towel to slap over my arm, while Jamey frantically combed through the binder of helpful information the apartment owner had left. Amazingly, he found a number for hospital with an emergency room that was open and where they spoke perfect English. The he found a number for a taxi service and ordered a cab. We dashed to the street in the shorts we were wearing earlier that day and awaited our driver.
But 30 minutes later the taxi hadn’t arrived, and we were shivering in the now really chilly night. It was past midnight and the only people on the street were drunk college students and tourists who thought I’d been shot. “That’s gangster!” one of them said to me as he passed by.
“Hey, do you know where the street is with all the prostitutes in the window?” another guy
asked me, apparently not put off by the blood running down my arm. At least not enough to keep him from asking a sex tourism-related question.
“Next block down, then turn left.” I answered. Bleeding wound or not, I am always great with directions.
Jamey ran back into the apartment (through a gate requiring a code, then a dark hallway, slow elevator to third floor, another dark hallway, and a door that was tricky to unlock) to find another taxi. At which time, of course, our original taxi pulls up as I stand bleeding and ask him to wait just a minute.
Soon we were off on our ride to the ER in our unmarked taxi that smelled like cigarette smoke with a young driver who most certainly was stoned or very tired (it was past 2:00 AM now). He didn’t say a word the whole time, and of course my mind raced with thoughts of him driving us to a construction site where he’d rob us and dump us in a vat of concrete, or delivering us to an underground clinic where they took our internal organs (I already had some of their work done for them).
After another 30 minutes or so the high/sleepy driver grunted and pointed. We were in a very dark residential area, but way off in the distance I could see an illuminated sign, and as we got closer I could see it was in fact the emergency room of a hospital. Once inside the man at reception spoke perfect English and checked me in, then led me to a nurse who also spoke perfect English and checked my vitals. He then led us to an exam room to await the doctor. Along the way we noticed a large group of police officers surrounding a young guy. As the nurse put us into the exam room, he said, “Just remember that what you see inside a hospital is private.” Had we just seen Justin Bieber in a Belgian hospital crisis? Or one of the Belgian king’s kids? We would never learn the truth….
After a long wait, a young doctor came into our room, again speaking perfect English. I liked her—she was confident and to-the-point. She took a look at my arm and told me that the U.S. doctor should have used internal stitches as well as the external ones. She explained that she would staple the wound closed, that there would be an “ugly scar,” and that I should wait until we were back in Shanghai before having a doctor remove the staples. Fine, fine. I promised I would comply.
As I awaited the sharp sting of a needle to numb the area, I heard a loud CLICK, and saw that she was already stapling my wound closed. CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, CLICK. Six staples, no numbing first. I guess my shocked surprised acted as an anesthesia. She said she’d be right back and returned in a few minutes with directions for wound care written in both French and English.
While we checked out, I noticed the sky was getting light and the next day was almost here. The bill for an emergency room visit in the middle of the night with staples: a whopping $95 U.S. The receptionist said I didn’t need to pay right then—they would email a bill. (Note to self: Should have just paid then and there, as my bank’s transfer fee for sending the $95 was another $100). I followed the doctor’s instructions and had the staples removed by a doctor back in Shanghai. Which means my ordeal spanned three continents: original operation in North America, staples applied in Europe, staples removed in Asia. And FYI, I don’t think my scar is ugly at all.
I’ve had other non-hospital-related health situations while abroad. And though none of them spanned three continents, they were eventful.
Location: Belgrade, Serbia
Affliction: food poisoning
Likely cause: eating undercooked fish at a riverside cafe
Note: Happened at 8:00 PM, then had to take a five-hour bus ride at 5:00 AM the next day on winding roads to Sarajevo as part of the tour we were on.
Note 2: It was there in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I may or may not have encountered a phantom child while in the midst of a feverish flu-based delirium. You can read more about this in my blog post “Chapter 23: Scary Monks, Food Poisoning Hallucinations, & Man-eating Alligators: My Inspirational Summer Vacation.”
Location: Barcelona, Spain, New Year’s Eve
Likely cause: who knows
Note: This is where I learned that guzzling giant, dark beers works just like Tylenol.
Affliction: bacterial infection/diarrhea
Likely cause: swimming in the River Kwai (should have used the damn bridge)
Note: This illness almost led to a car-poo for me and my similarly afflicted travel mate Ilean when our driver’s vehicle stalled in the middle of a busy six-lane highway while we were in the midst of this “stomach evacuation emergency.”
Note 2: A few hours later, after a bumpy speedboat ride to an island resort, I was sitting on the beach with my friends when the urgent need to visit a toilet became readily apparent (I’ll not share these details). As I dashed to my room through the lawn, I ran smack dab through a colony of fire ants. They were still clinging to my feet and legs, biting away with their painful stings, as I made it to the toilet just in time. The resulting bite blisters lasted longer than the diarrhea.
Location: Mali, West Africa
Affliction: malaria (twice)
Likely cause: An evil female Anopheles mosquito who somehow found a way around the bed netting
Note: Thank goodness a few pills cured this in three days, but only because I caught it in time.
Affliction: food poisoning
Likely cause: Chicken foot soup? Guinea pig intestines? Fish head soup? Horse meat?
Note: I was an exchange student living in a host family’s home. In the middle of the night I awoke with horrible stomach pains and wandered downstairs to get a drink of water. I ended up sprawling on the tile floor of the office where it was cool and pitch black. Some time later my host parents entered the office, turned on the light, and screamed when they saw me, apparently thinking I was dead.
Location: North Korea
Likely cause: student in my class who was sick and should have stayed home
Note: Our tour guide allowed me to stay in the hotel room and skip an afternoon tour to
recover, but warned me, “DO NOT LEAVE THAT ROOM.” The hotel called my room three times in two hours to make sure I was there. The phone was in the bathroom, next to the toilet, so I had to get out of bed to answer each time.
Note 2: I took my temperature with a thermometer Jamey had bought in Shanghai that only measured in Celsius. Not being an expert in converting from Celsius to Fahrenheit, I mistakenly thought my temperature was 112 degrees so I got into a tub of cold water thinking I was going to experience spontaneous human combustion.
Note 3: Our tour guide’s “minder,” a former military guy whose job was to make sure she only said positive things about North Korea or he would send her to prison, bought me some medicine. See, even scary guys have a heart.
Note 4: To read more about the whole North Korean adventure, check out my blog post “Chapter 33: Flu Time in a Totalitarian Dictatorship, or Why I Came Home with Three Toblerone Chocolate Bars.”
Location: Belize, Central America
Affliction: poisonwood rash from head to toe which lasted for almost 2 weeks
Likely cause: hiking through the jungle in Belize in board shorts, on our way to inner tube down a river
Note: “Don’t wear long pants on this hike; you’ll get too hot” our eco resort owner told us.
So, as we shelter in place for the next how-many-ever-days in our cozy Mid-Century house in my little midwestern hometown, I’ll be thankful. It could be worse. I could be in a foreign country, standing on the street with blood running down my arm, giving directions to brothels to drunk college kids who think I was shot in a bank heist. Instead, I’m going to be eating Cheetos and catching a marathon of “Dr. Oakley: Yukon Vet.” Now how gangsta is that?