Appendectomy Abroad

Chaing Mai, Thailand

I was out for another massage. When an hour-long, full-body massage only costs six dollars, it’s unavoidable that you have one at least once a week. As you walk into the parlor, you hear subtle instrumental music and the trickle of a fountain somewhere in the distance. Tiny Thai women with warm smiles greet you and tell you to take your clothes off. The blackout curtains are pulled together making the space dark and you feel the room wrap its heavy arms around you. You do as you’re told and climb under the blanket as delicate Thai hands begin to have their way with you. You drift off to somewhere else, somewhere further away than Thailand. You smell the incense burning and imagine the smoke swirling around dragons as they dance to songs sang by xylophones and oboes. Only the tiny zaps of the electrified tennis racket remind you that there are mosquitoes to be killed. And that’s when the pain started.

After my hour was up, the tiny hands brought me a cup of jasmine tea and I sipped it, shifting my weight, trying to get comfortable in the chair. I brushed it off as gas and walked back to my hotel. Annie was there, singing an NSYNC song and prancing around the room like a fairy through the trees. It felt like a normal start to an evening. I sat down trying to think about something else but the pain was getting worse. And that’s when I did the thing you’re never supposed to do—I went to WebMD.

I had begun having pains prior to the trip. Somewhat freaked out about it, I had rushed myself to an Urgent Care twelve hours before my flight. Thinking that it was simply an ovarian cyst, and relatively harmless, they gave me some horse pills to swallow and a shot in the rump. “You should be fine,” they said. “Have fun in Thailand.”

So I searched ‘ovarian cyst’ on the internet. The internet had a few things to say about it. If a cyst, ‘pain can be very normal and will pass,’ or ‘cyst is bursting, seek immediate medical assistance,’ and finally, ‘if pain is on the right side of the abdomen, it could be the appendix, seek medical assistance immediately.’ In a state of panic, I looked to Annie.

Annie!” I said. “This says if the pain is on the right side, it could be appendicitis!”

Complete with an eye roll, Annie replied to me, “It’s not appendicitis. If it was appendicitis, you would know.”

She told me to get off WebMD, so I did, and we started to chat about the weekend trip she was planning with some friends of ours to Tonsai Beach in the southern province of Krabi. But the pain wasn’t going away, it was getting worse, and I decided that I should at least go get it checked out.

We left the hotel and traipsed down the block to Zoey’s Corner, the city’s rowdy bar neighborhood, where we could easily catch a tuk-tuk—a rickety three-wheeled vehicle that sounds like a motorcycle and is used to shuttle folks around the city. Many drivers will deck them out with flashing neon lights and blast loud music to make a more memorable experience for you, you easily impressed tourist, you. Because of our location near the bars and the time of night, we climbed into a spaceship of a taxi and sped off hell-bent for Mars, I mean, the emergency room. Every bump in the road—and there were a lot of them—twisting the knife further into my abdomen.

When we arrived, the waiting room was surprisingly empty. I approached the nurses' station and began to explain the pain I was experiencing when I burst into tears. They effectively ushered me into a private room (so as not to disturb the other patients) and I explained my problems to a nurse, whom, I will note, spoke incredible English. Within twenty minutes, I was chatting to a doctor and within one hour of arriving, I was in for a CT scan. I had never in all my history of broken bones and crazy infections been treated as quickly and with as much compassion as I was being treated at that emergency room.

Not too long after the CT scan, the doctor returned. He calmly sat down on a stool and took in a deep breath. Then he said to me, “you have appendicitis.”

Now...with this new information, and before responding to the doctor, I turn to Annie and with a high-pitched, mocking tone, snarled, “You don’t have appendicitis. If you had appendicitis, you would know.”

She hit me back with another eye roll and the doctor began explaining the surgery I was going to have and asked me when I last ate. The gosh-dang Oreos I gobbled down on the tuk-tuk ride, not knowing when I would eat again, postponed the surgery until the next morning.

The doctor returned twenty minutes later to tell me, “you also have an ovarian cyst.”

Oh, great, I thought. He said they weren’t worried about it. It should go away on its own.

They moved us up to the 11th floor and we watched a simply glorious sunrise. The room was incredible and gigantic, complete with a queen sized bed for your visitors. It felt like an apartment more than a hospital room. I found out later that they put me in the VIP ward. Must have had something to do with the American passport. I shut my eyes and tried to rest for a few hours, the morphine calming the storm in my belly.

The nurse woke me up just to explain the procedure a little bit more and told me that they were ready to put me to sleep again. Soon the mask went over my nose and I began to count backward from ten, nine, eight…seven…


When I woke up, I was confused and groggy, but feeling slim and sexy sans appendix. JUST KIDDING. I felt like someone cut me open and ripped my insides out. Which is interesting because they didn’t actually cut me open. They performed a laparoscopic surgery, where they poke three holes in you. One they use to pump a bunch of gas into ya, creating a balloon for the doctor to work in. Through the second hole, they feed in a camera with a light on it so the doctor can see what in the hell he’s doing. And through the third hole, enters the robot. The robot that the doctor controls to cut out the aggravated nuisance of an unnecessary organ that wants to kill you out of your body.

The first twelve hours, post-surgery were rough. It hurt to move.

But Annie was there! And there’s really no better caretaker than Annie. She brought me treats and told me jokes. The food at the hospital was awful. Something I have decided is consistent worldwide and used as a technique to get you out of that bed as quickly as possible.

After four hours, I told the nurse I had to pee. She brought me a bedpan, which quite honestly grossed me out so I told her I would use the bathroom but just needed help. She called in another nurse and together they helped me as I attempted to shuffle across the floor toward the bathroom. I didn’t even make it half way when I was overcome with nausea and covered in sweat. I gave up on the bathroom and changed paths back to the bed. I accepted the bedpan.

A little more morphine and I closed my eyes to sleep. I woke up to another glorious sunrise over the city. I felt peace and calm. Mid-day, we were evicted, it was time to go. The recovery time after an appendectomy was surprisingly fast. We gathered my things and headed down to the billing I learned that I was no longer covered by my travel insurance.

We purchased travel insurance along with our flight over to Thailand which would cover up to five thousand dollars in medical expenses but it only covered us for thirty days. That was because our simple tourist visa would only allow us to stay in Thailand for thirty days. So after that period we flew to Myanmar and obtained a new travel policy which would cover us there. From there we went back to Thailand by land and obtained a new tourist visa. Which meant, no insurance prompt with the flight purchase and ultimately, without a thought about it, no insurance. Annie squirmed in the corner while I challenged every single charge of the thirty-six hundred dollar hospital bill—still only about a third of the cost of an appendectomy in the States—but I didn’t have three thousand dollars. So I did what I had to do, and I called my dad. What I’m saying is, buy the travel insurance when you go to a place like Thailand that doesn’t have universal healthcare. Fifty dollars is better than thousands.

We exited the hospital and I crawled into another tuk-tuk. I held on for dear life but the driver was a bit more delicate than the last had been. After just a couple of days of shuffling around Zoey’s Corner like a hip grandmother I was back on my feet! Annie took off on that trip to Tonsai with our friends. I was getting by alright by myself and during my two week recovery period I coincidentally had three separate friends that just happened to be passing through the city at the same time. My days were full of company and much better food now that I was out of the hospital. (Perhaps you’ve seen my Thai soup photo series?) I even found an English-run bookstore around the corner and filled my days not spent with friends with Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries and George Orwell’s Burmese Days. In the evenings I’d shuffle over to the North Gate Jazz Co-op and nod my head to live local and international music.

Ultimately, my appendix removal and recovery was pleasant. The quality of the hospital was really top-notch. I never once questioned whether or not I was going to be receiving proper medical care; there were no indicators that I would receive anything less. I was incredibly lucky that this happened in a major city and not off in the jungle somewhere. I felt like the doctors and nurses genuinely cared about me and listened to what I was saying. Which is in direct contrast to how doctors in the U.S. have made me feel in the past; like a waste of time and a burden.

What I’m saying is, if you're thinking about getting appendicitis, consider Chaing Mai, Thailand as a destination—it’s a beautiful place, and quieter without your nagging mother.

Gabriella GaugerComment