Study abroad: avoiding health scares

Have a plan and stick to it if you find yourself in a bad situation in another country

A sign at Nong Nooch Orchid Gardens and Cultural Park in Pattaya warns against feeding yourself to the elephants. (Marlys Klossner/The Omega)

A sign at Nong Nooch Orchid Gardens and Cultural Park in Pattaya warns against feeding yourself to the elephants. (Marlys Klossner/The Omega)

Knowing how to take care of your health while travelling is extremely important. We’ve all heard some horror stories. Our own copy editor Annie Slizak had to cope with both pink eye and a damaged root canal in Quebec and France respectively, which was a nightmare for her all on its own, but the worst health scare story I’ve ever heard came from a girl who had questionable decision-making skills.

I met this girl in a hostel in Chiang Mai, where she told me about the real life nightmare she endured in Cambodia. She had met a guy there who she developed an instant connection with. When they later attempted to have sex, however, she started bleeding an unnatural amount from her vagina. They were both concerned, so he helped clean her up and put her to bed with some water and food. In the morning she had stopped bleeding but was feeling a little lightheaded. They decided to go through with their plan to visit the Killing Fields, but along the ride she started bleeding again. Their trip ended with her lying on the ground, bleeding and in pain, while the guy tried to find someone who spoke enough English to call an ambulance. She told me people were taking pictures of her lying there, and that she had never felt more humiliated.

Finally an ambulance showed up. They put her on a bare metal stretcher and began a long, bumpy trip to the hospital. At the hospital she was rushed into surgery while the guy frantically called her parents and her insurance provider.  

Afterwards, she recuperated in a room in the hospital where another Cambodian family was living. No one in the hospital spoke English, and when someone was fiddling with her IV drip, she couldn’t tell if it was a nurse or just one of the family members. Eventually she and the guy decided that she would be safer in a hotel room than the sketchy hospital. At the hotel, she urged him to continue with his planned travels while she focussed on getting better, and they could meet up at the end of their travels or back home in the U.K. She told me that she now felt much better, but would still wake up lightheaded and had bad circulation.

Here’s the kicker: because no one at the hospital had been able to speak English, she was not able to find out what was wrong with her in the first place, or what the mystery surgery she had performed on her was.

Her reason for telling me her story was because she wanted advice on whether or not she should go scuba diving. Of course, everyone she told this to told her she was nuts. She should have gone home to Britain, or gone to a reputable hospital in Bangkok, and not continued her travels. Her reasoning was that she only had a few weeks left and probably wouldn’t get the chance to come back so she didn’t want to miss out. My reaction was somewhere along the lines of “How about missing out on the rest of your life!?”

The moral of the story is, have a plan. Buy insurance. Know which hospital you’d prefer to go to in an emergency. Before you leave, make a doctor’s appointment. Call your dentist about that filling you’ve been putting off. Most of all, value your own health and safety more than you value crossing off an item on your bucket list, especially if you want to live long enough to complete it.