I was sick for the entire first month I lived in Asia. I got some weird cough/throat/whole body infection the day before I left New York (which made for the most miserable 19-hour plane ride in history), and it just wouldn’t go away. In fairness, I was eating like shit, going out every night and barely sleeping, so I deserved every sick-feeling moment I earned myself. I figured it would just go away on its own, so kept popping Dayquil and hoping for the best.
Finally, after four weeks (and a ruined Valentines vacation in Langkawi) my boyfriend was fed up with my coughing all night and pretty much forced me to go to the hospital. I did not want to go. I really, really hate hospitals (as any child of a cancer patient can understand), and the thought of going to one in Malaysia terrified me. But I love my boyfriend and felt bad for keeping him up all night, and also was kind of sick of being sick, so I agreed to make an appointment.
I got in touch with ISOS, a membership-based emergency assistance agency, who got me an appointment at the emergency room at Prince’s Court Medical Center within 20 minutes.
The hospital was clean and efficient, and I was in with one of the ER doctors within an hour of making the initial phone call. They put me on a gave me an entire pharmacy’s worth of medicine, then told me to come back the next day to meet with the respiratory doctor.
Day two in the hospital, I met with the respiratory doctor and got an X-Ray of my chest, which indicated that I had bronchitis. He prescribed me an inhaler, and told me to come back in a week.
A week later, I felt ok, but was still coughing a little bit. He prescribed me more cough and phlegm medicine, and gave me another round of anti-biotics that I should hold onto “just in case,” since I was leaving KL for Vietnam the next day.
After the appointment, he hugged me and told me I should keep in touch.
So, just to sum it up, In the course of a week I had an ER visit, two appointments with a specialist a chest X-ray, and EIGHT different medication prescriptions (… Jeeze, I let myself get really sick), none of which was covered by my insurance. Want to guess how much it cost me?
The clean, amazing, fast hospital with nice doctors did all of that for less than what it costs to get a nice steak in New York City. I put off going to the hospital for so, so long for all kinds of reasons, but was really impressed by how efficient and cost effective the services were. I am also very confused why the same services in the US cost 15 times as much, but will Tweet my concerns about that to Donald Trump (who will no doubt respond within minutes).
Moral of the story: If you get sick while you’re traveling, suck it up and deal with it. Especially if you’re sharing a bed with another human being.
SO, with that in mind, here’s exactly how to handle things if you get sick while traveling.
Pack A First Aid Kit
There’s no need to go totally crazy with this, but it’s a good idea to stock up on a few necessities before you leave home to avoid trying to translate medical terms on pill bottles from the local pharmacy. You can usually get what you need at the local pharmacy, but 1) It may require translating medical terms from a foreign language and 2) If you’re sick, there is no way you’re going to want to get out of bed to go to the local pharmacy. Cold medicine, allergy pills and a diarrhea kit are my personal must-haves. NyQuil or any other kind of sleep aids are helpful, too, because they don’t sell those types of things OTC in foreign countries (at least not that I’ve been able to find).
Google Your Little Heart Out
Usually, Googling symptoms can turn into a terrifying black hole in where you’re convinced you’re dying (I’ve spent a lot of hours on the internet trying to figure out whether or not a pimple was trying to kill me) but when it comes to illnesses abroad you’re better safe than sorry. As a general rule, when it comes to foreign illnesses it’s better safe than sorry. A stomach ache may be a sign of Dengue Fever, or something much more serious, so it’s important to stay on top of what’s going on with your bod, care of the Interwebz.
Hit Up The Local Pharmacy
Though there may be a language barrier, many pharmacists really know what’s up. They’re great at suggesting local remedies that you may never have thought to try— especially in Asia, where Eastern Medicine is king. If you’re willing to experiment, give it a shot. That stuff has been around for centuries for a reason!
Go To The Doctor
Hopefully, my long-winded account of my experience in a foreign hospital has helped you to realize they really aren’t that bad. Get in touch with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate for a list of local healthcare providers and medical facilities, or if you’re staying at a swanky hotel ask the concierge to help you out (some 5-star spots have their own doctors on call who will come to your room).