Medical Problems Abroad

I’ve lived for periods of time in four countries and traveled to 13 others and thankfully, I’ve never had any serious medical emergencies. While I’ve certainly dealt with my fair share of medical issues when abroad, nothing ever required me to go to a local hospital. (Just between us, foreign hospitals scare me on a plethora of levels.) The main fear factors are, naturally, language barriers and cultural differences. A terrific blog I follow (Katie Not in Prague which you can access here) recounts the frustrating experiences she encountered during a recent hospital stay at a Malaysian hospital in the capital of Kuala Lumpur.

A friend of mine whom I met in Costa Rica completed an internship in a rural village in Nicaragua. There were no 21st century medical facilities for hundreds of miles. Rather, one doctor and a few nurses served entire communities. I’ll never forget when she shared the story of a woman who had gone into labor on the porch of the medical building and while the “physical relics” of the woman’s labor were mopped up, my friend said nothing was sterilized, washed down, etc. This was disturbing seeing as how in many developing countries, especially those with high temperatures year round like Nicaragua, footwear is generally more on the optional side, especially for children.

When I studied in Spain for the semester I contracted food poisoning. While I know on a world scale, this is fairly common and occurs even at the ritziest of restaurants, I had never gotten it before and it was truly one of the sickest periods I have ever had in my life. For the first week after the initial “onslaught,” I remained in a weakened state, consisting on a bland diet of rice, plain potatoes, and yogurts I bought for myself at the local supermercado. At that time, olive oil, an ingredient used in just about every Spanish dish, was my nemesis. Every day my host mom would ask me if I was up for returning to normal eating, and each time I would respond with “no, solamente arroz y papas” (no, just rice and potatoes). Although I felt bad about having her prepare me special foods in addition to what she cooked for my American roommate, the one saving grace was that due to the special needs of my host brother (he had severe Down’s syndrome and could not eat most things due to his gastrointestinal problems), she was somewhat used to it. I unfortunately didn’t get “better” per se, although thankfully, for some reason my issues temporarily abated when I traveled on the weekends to other countries.

After a month had passed since my bout with food poisoning and I still wasn’t cured, I reasoned it was time to go to the doctor. My study abroad program offered medical assistance including free doctor’s visits, so one day between classes a friend of mine accompanied me to the doctor. The physician, an older gentleman who was very nice, didn’t speak any English and just like when getting a hair cut in a foreign country, your Spanish classes don’t always prepare you for extensive medical related conversations besides saying me duele en el estomago (my stomach hurts) and being able to identify the parts of the body. I managed to convey my symptoms to the doctor and also my history of symptoms and was given a prescription for two medicines. One was oral tablets, the second an excessively large glass bottle whose liquid contents tasted like cod liver oil. As I had to take the liquid medicine four times a day, I unfortunately had to carry it around with me since my host family’s house wasn’t close enough to stop in-between classes for medicine time. My friends always laughed whenever I removed the glass medicine bottle from my bookbag. Thankfully, the medicines seemed to do the truck, and when my dad visited a few weeks later and we were touring throughout the country, I could actually enjoy myself, eating and all.

My other major medical issue was in Mexico (go figure), although it wasn’t because of intestinal issues. I arrived in Cuernavaca at the end of the rainy season and the house I stayed in was anything but “well built.” The interior wals were damp to the touch (a round of mold anyone?), clothing never dried after washing it, and the pages of paperback books I had brought with me curled up on the ends. This naturally didn’t bode well for my allergies and sinuses and I had one bout of “upper respiratory infections (a fancy term for head cold) after the next, followed by a full blown case of the flu at Thanksgiving.

I saw the doctor who came to the orphanage once a week. She gave me some medicine but I didn’t feel better. I asked the orphanage’s office staff for their recommendations-they advised seeing the orphanage’s main doctor who practiced at the principal home (I was living and working in the secondary home). He examined me, gave me medicine and sent me on my way. After still being sick and not feeling remotely better, I decided to take matters into my own hands and consulted a phone book for the chief purpose of finding an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist, as I had one I visited once a year back in the United STates, While there were a ton listed in the Cuernavaca Yellow Pages, I decided to call the one whose picture advertisement stated “English spoken.” As my experience with medical personnel in Spain showed me, going to a doctor where your native language is spoken is a definite plus. Unfortunately, his ad was a bit erroneous as far as his English speaking skills were concerned. My Spanish was far superior to his English which defeated the whole purpose of going to him. He prescribed yet another medicine for me to take and just like everything else, it didn’t rid me of my perpetual head cold ailments. Sadly I came home from Mexico with sinus and allergy issues I had never had before and probably will never be entirely rid of.

While medical tourism abroad is on the rise with everything from plastic surgery to heart surgery to weight loss surgery, I personally could never try it. I know that sometimes cost factors serve as the prime reason as to why people travel abroad for medical procedures since they’re often significantly less than what they could cost in the United States for instance, I would still never willingly opt to visit a foreign hospital if I didn’t have to.

Have you ever had to visit a foreign hospital? If so, where was it? Was it an okay experience or something you would entirely forget?


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  • Reply
    November 16, 2012 at 10:08 am

    I’m very lucky that I’ve never had a major issue while travelling (although I always make sure to have medical coverage just in case!), but I had an ex-colleague who raved about his hospital stay in Bangkok after a major stomach issue, so maybe they’re not all that bad!

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    November 16, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    They are probably not although I would think any hospital stay would be enough to really put a damper on one’s trip! Hopefully you and I remain “unscathed” in that regard on future travels.

  • Reply
    November 16, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    I’ve heard a lot of good things about Thai hospitals. We know some people who will get on a plane and go to Thailand when they need medical assistance. Their justification is usually accompanied by an explanation along the lines of, “the Thai government pays for its medical students to go to the UK or US and study and in exchange they have to come back to Thailand to practice then they’re finished.

    I’ve actually started engaging in a sort of medical tourism myself. My new doctor is in Singapore. I love it there. Their medical system is just like the rest of Singapore: efficient and 100% functional.

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    November 16, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    I’m hoping I would never need to “try out” a Thai hospital but that’s good to hear that many people swear by them when it comes to their medical needs.

    And based on what you said of the Singapore health system, I wouldn’t expect any less from such a put together country 🙂

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