It’s been almost exactly a year since I set out on my open-ended backpacking adventure in Africa and Southeast Asia, and here I am on a plane again…
I’m incredibly excited to bring you stories and pictures and adventures, but it strikes me that I never completed my story last time.
Originally it was because I was waiting for my insurance to clear, but that happened in…April? And I just seem to have never gotten around to telling this story on my blog, though I think it’s likely that many of you know it, at least in part.
However, now that I’m setting out again, and want to tell more stories, it just seems… necessary… for me to get on with it and tell this part of my last adventure.
So that’s how I find myself here today, on a pitch-black flight to Narita (they’ve decided we should be sleeping, even though we land in 4.5 hours and it will be ~9pm local time when we arrive…hrm…), with my tray table down, telling you the story of how I was medically evacuated, twice, in December 2015, and had to end my backpacking trip.
For anyone who is new to this adventure, in September of 2015, I packed up my bags and booked a one way flight from New York City, USA to Cape Town, South Africa. I was my old job as a digital marketer, working as I traveled, and I spent 3 months exploring the southernmost countries in Africa. Then in December, I applied for Cambodian and Burmese visas and headed out to Southeast Asia for the second portion of my trip.
I arrived in Burma/Myanmar, spent three days in the lovely city of Yangon, and that’s when things started to get interesting…
I was staying in this amazing location downtown at Space Boutique hostel, and I woke up in the middle of the night with the most intense stomach pain I had ever experienced, combined with severe nausea. Immediately, I replayed the day before in my head, remembered that I had eaten some eggs and rice from a street cart, and deduced that I had gotten food poisoning. I sighed and resigned myself to a night of puking my guts out, and walked/limped out of the room to sit outside the bathroom door so I could whine and not disturb anyone else.
Hours went by.
I didn’t throw up.
It wasn’t like I was trying to avoid it. I *wanted* to, because I would have given anything for the pain to stop. It felt like hot knives were being shoved into my stomach over and over and over again… When I say it was excruciating, I mean it. I play roller derby, an incredibly high-contact sport, in a position where I’m the target for consecutive hits, and I rarely complain about pain. (I’m sure if you’re a teammate of mine reading this, you’re laughing right now, and yes, I joke about my bruises, but nothing like this!) It came to a point where the pain was increasing, I couldn’t do anything, and I just started to panic.
At that point I started to panic. Uncontrollable tears of pain were in my eyes, I couldn’t stop wimpering, and I decided something else MUST be wrong. You’re supposed to throw up with food poisoning, right? I went into the lobby of my hostel (it was a small hostel, and the lobby was just around the front of the floor that the entire facility was situated on), with my computer, and I started googling my symptoms.
Intense abdominal pain.
Lower right quadrant.
Oh. My. God.
I had appendicitis. In Myanmar. Shit shit shit.
I grabbed my phone, dug through my documents for that health medical insurance that I had purchased before I went on the trip, and I called. I was trying to speak quietly to them to explain what was happening, but one of the hostel employees was woken up by my conversation and the tone of panic in my voice, and he came out to see what was wrong.
My insurance gave me the names of the local hospitals that they were aware of, in order of preference (aka standards of care, considering where I was), and when I hung up, the hostel employee greeted me and asked if I was ok and what was wrong.
I explained everything to him, and he introduced himself as Richy, the owner and asked what I wanted to do. I asked if he could help me get a taxi to the hospital that my insurance had recommended (taxis in Myanmar are paid for by advance-negotiated price, and I had no idea what it should cost to get to this hospital…). He said he would personally drive me, and to just wait a minute while he got his keys. I went to my room and grabbed a few things, and he got his keys, and we were off.
By this point, it was early morning.
We went downstairs to the street and hopped in the hostel owner’s car — I commented to him that it was incredibly nice of him to do this for me, and he just laughed. “This is what we do here. It’s not like America. Plus, you’re my first passenger in my new car!!”
Who does something like this for a person they don’t even know?
We arrive at the hospital in about fifteen minutes, and he drops me off at the door so I don’t have to walk from the lot, but he tells me to wait for him before going in, so I wait on the steps of the hospital a few minutes for him to return. We head inside, and at this point I am incredibly glad that he’s come with me, because the nurses don’t speak any English at all. He launches into rapid Burmese about what’s wrong with me, the nurses look instantly panicked, and they bring me right back into an emergency exam bed.
Once there, a female attending physician comes over and begins looking into my situation. She touches my abdomen and I wince every time she even grazes the areas in which I’m hurting. She asks me a few questions, including, “Have you ever had an ultrasound?” When I reply in the negative, she looks surprised, and says that I’ll be getting one right now.
She wishes me well and sends me to radiology, where a group of three nurses carefully administer my sonogram. The machine is old and the picture is incredibly grainy, but they’re confident it’s not my appendix. However, their abdominal specialist isn’t on call for two more days, and since they’ve determined that this isn’t a life-threatening emergency, they won’t call him in.
I’m discharged from the hospital with a prescription for some gastritis medication and some some gatorade powder (that, btw, was gross and did NOT taste like gatorade at all).
At this point the hostel owner drives me back to the hostel, and when we get there, he tells me that he hopes I don’t mind, but there was an available private room, so he had the staff move my things there so I would be more comfortable since I was ill.
I was so thankful.
He had to leave to handle something for his business, but before he left, he told his staff that if I needed anything, to please assist me as best they could.
Somehow at this point, my pain had decreased quite a bit, but I was afraid to eat anything that I didn’t peel or cook myself, and this hostel didn’t have any kitchen facilities. I also was disinclined to try and go shopping, since I didn’t know if the pain would come back suddenly… so I asked the front desk attendants if they could pick up some things for me.
And by ask, I mean we played a game of pantomime and google images. Who needs common language when you can make animal noises and hand motions to indicate bananas? (We resorted to google for “plain steamed rice). I went and lay in my room, hoping that I had done an acceptable pantomime job, and an hour or so later, this amazing human arrived with a bag of apples, tangerines, bananas and a huge container of steamed rice. And, over half of my money still, because, haggling, I suppose?
Amazed, I accepted my delivery and thanked him, probably a bit too profusely. Oh well.
Even though I wasn’t hungry, I had a snack, and tried to nap/read. Eventually, I suppose, I fell back asleep.
Hours later, I jolted awake in an almost perfect repeat of the night before. This time I went straight to the lobby and called my mom in tears. I didn’t know what to do. Should I go back to the hospital again? I knew they couldn’t help me… The hostel owner heard my tears again and he came out, again, repeating the night before. He and my mother agreed that we should go to the hospital, and so, we headed off.
We got back to the emergency room, another attending doctor looked at me, looked at the paperwork from the day before, and said the specialist would be in tomorrow and to just go home and rest. We asked if there were any other hospitals that had services that day, because the pain was incredible, and they recommended that we head to the public hospital.
So, we hopped in the car and drove over, with two more of the hostel employees meeting us there, because the owner had a few meetings in the afternoon that he wasn’t able to miss. We arrived at the public hospital and were admitted to a triage room, where I was guided to a bed that had no sanitary covering, and had a previous patient’s bloodstains visible at the foot. I unfortunately didn’t notice the bloodstain until I had a needle in *my* arm, drawing blood, so there wasn’t much I could do at that point. I also had absolutely no mobile signal in this facility, so it was as though I was completely cutoff. After the blood was taken, the nurse disappeared for about 2 hours. With me just sitting in this disgusting triage room. When he came back, he moved me to more of a traditional ER “floor” with beds all in an open area, some with curtains around them and some not. He told me to wait here, and that a doctor would come by with the results of my blood tests. At this point, my entourage rejoined me and we were waiting together for a while… and that was when I saw another patient have their blood taken on the floor, and the attending nurse remove the needle and casually toss it towards a cardboard box on the floor nearby. She missed, and seemed disinclined to put the dirty needle what I realized was the “trash.”
After witnessing this spectacle, I told my entourage that we were LEAVING. I was NOT staying to be treated in this place, as I’d probably end up sicker than I came in. They then proceeded to have a huge fight with the hospital staff, who did not want to discharge without having administered treatment. I had to sign an exorbitant amount of papers stating that I left of my own free will, refused treatment, and was leaving against doctor recommendations.
I signed them all.
HelltotheNO with that place.
We went back to the hostel and at that point I wasn’t sure what I should do… I had posted a few things on facebook about the situation, and a Sorority Sister of mine suggested that I call the local US embassy. I called and left a message with the details of my situation, and an embassy representative called me back within an hour or two. We discussed the situation and she offered to come out and meet me the following afternoon, since as part of her job she is tasked with visiting Americans in distress in the country. I agreed, and resigned myself to another night of pain.
When I woke up the next morning I rested in the hostel until noon, when the Embassy employee came to visit. She came directly to the hostel, which was amazing — we again talked about the situation, I gave her more details about the ordeal, and asked if she had any recommendations. She said that as an Embassy employee she was not allowed to dispense medical advice; however, what she could say was that most ex-pats frequent a specific French doctor, and she could contact him on my behalf, explain the situation, and find out if he could see me.
Of course, I accepted her offer. She called the doctor immediately, but was unfortunately told that he was in surgery at the moment. She explained the situation to his nurse, who assured both of us that she would pass the message on to the doctor when he got out, and asked for ways to contact us.
After the phone call, the embassy employee and I chatted for a few more minutes before she headed back to work for the day, promising to let me know if she heard from the doctor before I did.
It started to get late, and I was worried that he wasn’t going to call me back… and then around 7pm my phone rang. It was the doctor!!!
He told me that when the nurse shared my situation, he was determined to get in contact with me today. I reiterated all of the details to him, and he immediately said I needed to get out of Myanmar. Now, mind you, I had asked BOTH previous hospitals to sign medevac paperwork, but they had refused, saying that if they could not determine the cause of my illness, they wouldn’t sign the paperwork because I “could sue the country” if something happened in-flight.
Anyhow, my French savior said that he would come in to his office early the next morning to see me, and if my symptoms were as I described, he would MAKE SURE that I was on a flight to Bangkok the next day.
Well, their medical care is reputedly exceptional, and it was only a 55 minute flight away, as opposed to transfers and 20+ hours to get home when we didn’t *really* know what was wrong.
Anyhow, I quickly agreed to his offer, with profuse thanks.
Before we got off the phone he closed with, “Dara, I mean it, bring your luggage with you to the hospital, we are getting you out of here.”
I woke up at 6am the next day with my trusty advisor, the hostel owner, at my side, driving me to the hospital. The THIRD hospital.
With my gigantic medical file in hand, my luggage on my back, and a grim expression, I entered this new venue.
The hostel owner couldn’t stay with me for this one, so he dropped me off with a gentle hug and wished me luck. I thanked him, excessively, I think, and went inside.
This hospital was beautiful and clean, a complete 180 from the public hospital in the center of the city. The nurses were expecting me, and they offered me tea and magazines, and they hooked me up with the wifi password. Sweet.
The doctor arrived shortly after I did, and he ushered me into his office. I handed him my medical file, which included 2 sonograms, the blood test results, prescriptions, all kinds of intake forms and booklets, copies of my discharge papers. EVERYTHING.
He reviewed it all and said, “Ok. So. Based on all of this, you have a growth of some kind in your abdomen. I can’t tell what. Or where. It could be on your liver. It could be on your kidney. There’s no machinery anywhere in Myanmar that will be able to take a clearer picture because the medical equipment in this country is a decade behind. All of it. So we’re getting you out of here. Today.”
The relief I felt.
I can’t even describe it.
However, that relief was to be short-lived.
Up until this point, all of my medical expenses were paid for out of pocket, to be reimbursed by my insurer when I filed a claim, since all of the treatments were outpatient.
This evacuation needed to be paid for directly.
And, of course, the office is not 24 hours, and is based in the USA.
They work standard 9-5 hours.
I was in Myanmar.
By the time the office “opened,” it would be too late to get me out of the country.
I called their emergency hotline, and they said they would do their best, but they couldn’t promise that they could get me approval.
I was besides myself, talking to my family, my Sorority Sisters, my friends, everyone. The entire thing was so asinine.
The doctor came out to check on me in the waiting room after he had seen his morning patients and asked when I was flying out. I told him what happened and I could see his expression visibly change. He asked for the contact information for my insurance provider — he was calling them.
A few minutes later he came back and said that he had spoken to my insurance company and that they were incompetent, and this is what we would do…
His hospital handles medevacs frequently, so they are familiar with this problem. He said that his nurses would book me a seat on the last flight out that evening, and if my insurance didn’t handle ticketing, he would bill them for the ticket from the hospital, avoiding the need for me to pay out of pocket.
He also had ordered two lunches, so I would have something to eat.
We quickly had lunch together and he had to attend to additional patients, so I sat in the waiting room, calling my insurance company every hour, driving them insane. Whatever. I didn’t care.
Finally, it was around 4:25pm and I HAD TO GO to catch my 7:30pm flight.
Literally with moments left, my insurance called and said that they had come through with the ticket and they were emailing me the confirmation information.
The nurse was able to print the ticket for me and help me with a cab, and miraculously, I was on my way to Bangkok.
I arrived at the airport and a wheelchair was waiting for me, since I was a medevac. Coooooolll. I had an attendant push me towards the door, and I did a doubletake — the hostel owner was there!!
He said he thought he would come to see me off, since I had emailed him to say thank you again and that I was on my way to the airport.
Kindness is real, y’all.
We hugged and then I was wheeled into the airport. Flight check-in was smooth, and eventually I boarded the flight to Bangkok, to find out what the heck was happening to me.
That’s like, a lot.
Probably more than a single post should have, but how many sections can I break this into?!
I’ll continue more when I fly to Singapore tomorrow, and tell you what happened in Bangkok, and hopefully home in Jersey too!