An international trip with the Huteys isn’t complete without a visit, or two, or three to the hospital. In 2011, it was a scooter accident that took us to a small rural clinic in Bali, Indonesia for stitches. In early 2014, it was Nic’s flu-like symptoms and a high temperature that prompted a visit to another small clinic but this time in Da Lat, Vietnam. And more recently (about six days ago), an infection near my tailbone landed us in a hospital in the French Alps.
Oh, the memories! Oh, the language barriers! Oh, the diagnosis that didn’t match the symptoms!
We arrived in Da Lat, Vietnam after an 8-hour bus ride through the mountains. I was PUMPED. After a few months of heat and humidity that felt like you were sitting in a sauna wrapped in a giant wool blanket, I couldn’t wait for the cool relief of mountain air. Many Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) leave the city in the summer for the mountains to escape the heat. Great idea, Vietnamese.
As soon as we stepped off the bus, we greeted the fresh air with imaginary hugs of happiness. It was almost like Christmas!
And then, it wasn’t.
That evening flu-like symptoms hit Nic without much warning. His forehead felt like putting your hand on a steaming bowl of Vietnamese pho. He was rolling around in bed with aches and pains and making trips to the bathroom far too frequently. I immediately thought it was Dengue Fever. Dengue Fever does not have a vaccination so mosquito spray with a high percentage of DEET is your only defense. It is prevalent in urban areas in Southeast Asia and the mosquitoes typically bite during the day. Outbreaks seem to happen during the rainy season when mosquitoes are more likely to be patrolling the streets. It just so happens that we had previously been traveling at the beginning of the rainy season in areas where there were dengue fever outbreaks in Cambodia. After an hour or so of Nic getting increasingly worse, it was time to figure out how to get to the clinic.
It was midnight. I tiptoed downstairs in our homestay to find all the lights out and the gates on the front door closed. Hmmmm, interesting. Luckily, at that moment the owner came out from his room in his pajamas. I explained our situation and he called us a taxi. Nic actually wanted to walk but I insisted on a taxi since it was midnight and we had no clue where we were going.
When we arrived at the clinic, half of the building was dark. The other half included a large room with about ten beds and a handful of nurses who only spoke Vietnamese. Through a combination of hand gestures and translations by another Vietnamese patient’s husband, we managed to communicate something. That something, I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure they understood my award winning charade-like hand gestures for diarrhea.
The nurse put Nic in a bed and attached an IV but not first without dropping a pair of forceps on the ground that she picked up and attempted to use without proper sterilization. And this is when I had to step in. I felt uncomfortable intervening, but I had to say something. Again, using hand movements and disapproving facial expressions, I asked her to use another set of forceps.
A blood withdrawal followed. THANKFULLY, after a few hours, the results revealed that Nic did not have a mosquito-born illness. Yahoo! But, then, the doctor revealed his diagnosis: bronchitis.
Wait, what, bronchitis? I used google translate on Nic’s phone to translate it in Vietnamese and show it to the nurse to ensure that I actually understood what they were telling me. As a freediver and spearfisherman, Nic is pretty in tune with his breathing. He didn’t have any discomfort in his chest, no feelings of wheezing, and no cough. While neither of us are doctors, we have seen a lot of medical dramas, and from our ‘expert opinion,’ the symptoms did not align with what we knew about bronchitis.
But the nurse looked at the translation for bronchitis and nodded. Ok, well, there isn’t much we can do about a diagnosis we didn’t agree with so I guess we will take it. About thirty minutes and $23 later, we were out the door with a bag full of medications and back in the taxi. We immediately googled all the prescriptions when we returned and found that they gave us broad-spectrum antibiotics. So we figured that despite our suspicions about the diagnosis, these broad-spectrum meds would cast a big enough net to cure whatever Nic was plagued with.
For the next few days, I tried to find take-out Vietnamese food while Nic stayed in bed to heal. We extended our stay and spent far too much time watching Australia’s National Geographic channel. Side story: We also came across a reality TV show about a hip-hop group teaching farmers how to dance. I mean if that isn’t great TV, I don’t know what is.
In the end, Nic was fine and we ended our stay in Da Lat by riding around on motorcycles in the countryside with two friendly guys.
Fast forward a few months. And then there was France.
France and the Tour de Mont Blanc
Towards the end of our 11-day trek encircling Mont Blanc through France, Italy and Switzerland, with our friends Ashley and Ben, The Weirdens, I noticed that something wasn’t quite right with my tailbone. However, I didn’t pay much attention to it because on that very same day, my left knee had decided that it had enough of this hike as we descended into Switzerland from Italy. At first, the muscles around my knee simply felt tight. Then came the quick, hot jolts of pain shooting up my leg and surprising me like I accidentally placed my hand on a hot stove top. I started moving slower and slower. My thoughtful team offered to take weight from pack. At the bottom, Ashley waved down a SUPER generous Swiss couple with a car who gave us a ride to our campsite, talked to the staff at the local pharmacy about my knee and gave us a peppermint ointment for treating aches and pains right of their pocket! The generosity of people, folks! It is amazing!
After a shower and night of intermittent sleep at our campsite, I rolled out of the tent and wobbled to the bathrooms where tears unexpectedly streamed down my face. I returned to the tent where I snuggled up to Nic and cried some more. We decided to take a day of rest. Perhaps things would get better and we could continue the hike, we thought.
But it didn’t. My knee was no longer the main concern. It was now the growing infection on my lower back. I felt nauseated most of the day and, consequently, spent the day lying in the tent or, once we packed our tent away, lying face down on my stomach in the grass.
So the decision to end the 11-day hike seems obvious, right? Well, at the time, we had no idea that this infection would ultimately require the intervention of medical professionals. We hemmed and hawed. We looked at the trail to see what was ahead.
The bottom line: my ego was getting in the way of doing what was right for my health. Darn you, ego! I wanted to continue. We brought our tent and sleeping bags all the way from the U. S. of A to do THIS UNBELIEVABLE HIKE WITH GREAT FRIENDS and now my body was telling me that it was time to let it go.
A lesson in attachment to outcomes? Yes, my friends. I had to let it go. So I did…after a little while and then some 🙂
Chamonix, France – An intro to socialized medicine
We arrived back in Chamonix, France relieved to have access to a bed and a washing machine. After a few days of feeling very nauseated, messaging my mom about 34 times a day, discussing the situation with Ashley, a RN, and seeing some very strange things happening to my body (I will spare you the details!), we went to the hospital. Did I mention that the towns in the French Alps are very seasonal? That explains why the hospital in the popular ski town was CLOSED! Plan B? We took a 1 hour train ride to the next nearest hospital that was reportedly open.
In the emergency room, we filled out ONE PIECE OF PAPER typed in large font! Yes, that’s it. We went on a Saturday afternoon, talked to a nurse within 10 minutes of walking in and sat in the waiting room with ONE other person for about 15 minutes until I saw a doctor. Socialized medicine win number 1.
The first doctor introduced herself as a resident, which was clear since I immediately noticed that she was wearing converse shoes. She was extremely kind and spoke very good English but I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the possibility of being treated by someone without experience. Then, the surgeon came in. Without hesitation, he suggested surgery, which I knew was coming. However, he said that the recommended surgery would take TWO to THREE MONTHS for full recovery with bandage changes daily! Right. We were suppose to be on a plane to Greece in a few days and working on an olive farm in a week. This was not going work. He mentioned that there was a different procedure with a shorter recovery time but it would require a stay in the hospital overnight due to the anesthesia requirement. Then, we mentioned we did not have medical insurance. Awesome sauce times one million cookies with a big dose of sarcasm.
The other option was to simply cut me open right there without any anesthesia. The surgeon added in a thick French accent that it would be very painful. Lying on my stomach, my head just dropped down into the chair in defeat. This. can’t. be. happening.
But it gets better, and this is why I love France. At that moment, the surgeon and resident talked at length with us about our situation – traveling for extended period, no medical insurance – and weighed all the different options and came up with one that they thought would meet my needs. Brainstorming, in English, about options for our specific case with the resident and surgeon, how amazing is that? Win number 2 for France’s medical system.
The next day we returned early in the morning. They administered anesthesia, cut a hole in my body, cleaned out the infection, wheeled me to a room to recover and served me baguettes. I was out of the hospital that evening.
Nic and I had NO idea what to expect in terms of costs. Was it going to be $10,000 or $500? I was there all day. Anesthesia and cutting were involved. I couldn’t even walk up to the billing office because I didn’t want to know. Friends in the US said that their insurance received a bill of $20,000 for ONE night in a U.S. hospital.
WHAT WAS FRANCE GOING TO CHARGE US?
$1,400 USD, that’s what.
It was a big hit in our travel budget, but considering the circumstances and amazing treatment we received at the hospital, we thought it was a deal! In fact, Nic will point out that when we came back from the hospital and spoke with friends and family everyone asked:
“How was it?”
And my subconscious and honest response was:
“It was really nice.”
Who would ever describe a hospital surgery experience as “really nice.” Well it was. Kudos France. Win number 3 for the French medical system.
We also learned that the government sets the prices for medications and medical supplies so we received our prescriptions for two pain medications for about $10 USD. Win 4 for socialized medicine.
Post Surgery: a change in travel plans
We decided to put our future travel plans on hold since there is a high risk for infection if the wound is not properly cared for with the correct medical supplies.
So, here we are in the middle of the mountains in Chamonix, France where our daily activities include: Dr. Nic cleaning my wound and changing my bandages, reading Julia Child’s account of her time in France, getting to know the staff at the pharmacy (Nic ordered all my supplies in FRENCH the other day!) and daily walks to the grocery to pick up fresh ingredients for our home cooked meals.
Nic and I often chat about how this blog will be a great way for us to reflect on our travels once we settle down at home, but it seems like our bodies are becoming a roadmap of our travels. As we look at our scars, and I mean literal, physical scars, we are reminded of our traveling detours. Where the experience is much like a physical wound; while sometimes painful, unwelcomed, and frustrating at first, overtime, they become unique and defining characteristics of who we are and at the very least, reminder of the places we’ve been.
If you’re going to get sick abroad, what better place than France
Having experienced various forms of medical treatment in the US, Indonesia, Vietnam, and France we feel pretty strongly that the French are onto something here. Take note America!
I would like to leave everyone with some fun facts and list of recommended articles 🙂
- Although it is a controversial listing, the World Health Organization ranks France as having the best medical system in the world! The U.S. ranks as #38 and it is behind countries like Costa Rica and Colombia.
- An American woman has a baby in France and learns a thing or two about socialized medicine.
- Obamacare vs. the French Health Care System