Hold on tight, folks – you’re about to embark on a 3,000-word journey through my most terrifying travel experience thus far.
I woke up in a panic, clutching my stomach as if it were about to fall out of my body. Where was I? What was happening?
Rubbing my eyes, I tried to orient myself. I was in my bamboo bungalow in Pai, Thailand. The room was dark, with only the stony blue morning light creeping through the cracks in the thatched walls. A slight chill ran up my arms, which were covered in goosebumps, the thin, translucent hairs standing up like spines. There was a stabbing, sharp pain in my abdomen that had awoken me from my restless slumber. I took a deep breath – just the motion of moving my lungs sent pangs of death to my stomach. Uh-oh, I thought to myself.
This definitely wasn’t food poisoning.
After scrambling out of the mosquito netting on my bed, I tried to lift myself onto my feet. Pain, lots of pain. Grabbing the thin walls of the hut for support, I could hardly feel my legs. When I tried to step forward, my entire torso filled with excruciating pain. I fell back onto the bed in tears, fumbling in the dark for my cell phone. I need to get help, I thought to myself, right now.
Just one night before, I’d started experiencing a bit of a queasy stomach feeling right after dinner. A few friends had invited me out for a drink, but the pain worsened quickly and I decided to call it quits and take the night off to get some rest. I trudged back towards the trail, where my guesthouse was located a whole 2 kilometers out of town.
Two minutes into my walk, my stomach hurt so badly that I decided to try and stake out a moto-taxi instead. I noticed that the bumps in the road were making my gut feel really sore, like I’d been punched or something, but I didn’t really think anything of it. I’d been through a couple bouts of illness before on my travels and this didn’t seem too out-of-the-ordinary.
I’d been recovering from food poisoning just a few days before, so I figured perhaps my body was just reacting to the adverse effects and lack of good sleep. I did a few quick Google searches to see what medications people recommended for this kind of thing, and resolved to get myself to a pharmacy the next day. No biggie, probably just another bout of sour stomach.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Following a teary phone call with my mother and uncle (who was a doctor in the Air Force for many years), I decided I needed to get help. I checked the time – 6:30 AM. Shit. No one at the guest house was awake, not even the staff. Earlier, I saw the manager, May, walking into one of the bungalows near mine the day before. Even if it wasn’t her room, perhaps whoever was in there would be willing to help. At this point I was desperate, so I hobbled cautiously down the stairs and over to the next hut. By the time I made it to her door, I was practically crawling. Stay strong, I pleaded with myself, do what you need to do to make it to the hospital.
I pounded desperately on her bamboo door.
“Yes?” May’s sweet voice whispered through the frame. Thank goodness. I let out a breath of relief, then a quiet shriek of pain.
“I’m so sorry to wake you. I need your help, May. I’m very sick. I need to go to the hospital. Now,” I said.
A few seconds of silence ensued, I think so that she could get some clothes on, then she opened the door. I made a few hand motions to show that my stomach was in pain, and she immediately understood. I hopped onto the back of her motorbike, still in my pajamas. This was the only feasible choice for transportation at 6:30 AM. We raced to the nearby Pai hospital, and the whole way I was clutching my aching abdomen and praying that whatever I had wouldn’t get worse from the terribly bumpy road and my own bad luck.
We arrived at the hospital in Pai 20 minutes later, and May helped me limp into the emergency room, translating in Thai to the receptionist that I had terrible stomach pain. There were three other patients in the 8-bed room with me – all of them seemed to have been in motorbike-related accidents. The one nearest to me was clearly in a lot of pain as the doctors attended to a gaping wound in her face. She yelped in anguish as the doctors cleaned her wounds with antibiotics. Another was sleeping on a gurney, arms and legs covered in gauze.
Finally, when the attending doctor made it to me, he did some pressure tests on my stomach and asked me a few questions – Was I pregnant? What did I eat in the past few days? Did I feel nauseated? Do I have insurance? Luckily, I had purchased travel insurance for my trip, which turned out to be a very worthy investment after all of this was said and done. I’ll never go abroad without it again.
He then spoke with some of the nurses, placed a phone call, and returned to my gurney.
“We can send you to Chiang Mai,” he said, “if you have insurance we’ll bring you to the best hospital there, Chiang Mai Ram.”
“Yes, please,” I replied, “please get me there. Immediately.”
The last time I got really sick was on my trip to Pai. At 7 AM, a small passenger van picked me up from my hostel in Chiang Mai, and we set off for the 4-hour journey to this mountain town. I felt really lucky that morning because there were only a few people on my bus, and I had a whole row to myself. The good news? My ride only lasted 3 and a half hours, so I got to Pai much earlier than expected. The bad news? The ride was one of the worst I’d ever experienced.
I never get motion sickness, but on the road to Pai, it couldn’t be avoided. Twists and turns in this skinny, mountain road were exacerbated by nonstop bumps and a driver going too quickly for our own safety. And this lasted for a good majority of my 3.5-hour trip. Less than halfway in, I begged the universe to make it stop. I tried to take a melatonin and sleep. Not a chance. I tried to hydrate myself in hopes that water would help, but it just made my stomach more queasy. I closed my eyes, felt sick, and opened them again to look out the window. Nothing helped. This would be the bus ride from hell.
Finally, when I arrived in Pai, I was so nauseated I thought I’d pass out right in the middle of the road. I practically pounced on the first taxi driver I met, and paid way too much for a ride to my guesthouse. The relief was worth the money, though, and after an afternoon of laziness in a hammock, I felt rejuvenated. In the back of my mind during my whole time in Pai, I was dreading getting back on that road to leave…
About an hour after the doctor called for an ambulance, I was transferred to another gurney and rolled out to the front of the hospital. To my surprise, May returned with all of my things packed up into my backpack. I’d forgotten about them completely. I thanked her profusely with an arm hug and a pained smile.
Waiting for me in the driveway was a van that looked exactly like the one I’d taken to get to Pai in the first place. There was no way they were sending me back to Chiang Mai in that…right?
Just my luck – I was wrong. They opened the back of the van and inside they’d removed the seats and set up a medical transport system. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought to myself, I’ll die on this van if it’s anything like the last one.
At this point I didn’t have another choice.
The next four hours were probably the worst in my whole life. My gurney was firmly grounded to the floor of the ambulance, but I was not strapped into it. My saline fluid bag hung directly above me, and as the van flew around curves and over bumps in the road, the IV tube slapped me in the face. There was a nurse there, but she was listening to music and didn’t appear to be concerned in any way. Without air conditioning and surrounded by windows, the ambulance was starting to get really, really hot. Sweating, gripping the bars of the gurney for dear life, and in atrocious pain, I probably looked like the biggest mess. It definitely wasn’t one of my shining moments.
An ultimate low of my ambulance ride was stopping to use the bathroom at a rustic outhouse in the middle of the woods. Climbing out of the van, the nurse helped me to the door of the restroom, where I gazed horrified into the room – a dirty, stinky squat toilet, which was covered in a greenish mystery liquid. But I had to pee so bad. Ugh. I took my IV from the nurse and climbed into the restroom, grimacing at my situation. Here I was, in an awful, dirty outhouse in the woods of Thailand, holding my own IV fluid above my head while using a squat toilet. Yeah, ultimate low achieved.
Two hours after my terrible toilet experience, we started to see buildings. The road became smoother, the curves became slower. I heaved a painful but beautiful sigh of relief. I was going to make it. We arrived at Chiang Mai Ram Hospital and I would finally see a doctor who would diagnose me and operate on me later that afternoon.
Luckily, my aunt (who is Thai and was able to communicate easily with the Thai hospital staff) had heard of my plight from my mother and called the hospital beforehand, so I didn’t have to wait in the waiting room at all. At this point I had a lot of thank you cards to write. After a CT scan and an ultrasound, I was diagnosed with acute appendicitis and was scheduled for surgery that afternoon. Yikes.
I thought back to a childhood story I used to read when I was young – Madeline. Madeline was a young girl living in a boarding school in Paris who also got appendicitis. While she was in the hospital, all of her girl friends from her school came to visit her, cheering her up in her misery.
The only difference was that I was alone here. I didn’t know anyone in Chiang Mai, and I didn’t have a group of friends who could come visit me and bring me flowers and love me. This one I’d have to face on my own, and the first real pangs of loneliness and misery set in. I burst into tears as I sat in the hospital awaiting my surgery – uncontrollable, loud sobs that sent me into fetal position from the pain. Why did I have to be here? I wanted to die. This wasn’t worth it.
Eventually, it was time for surgery. Being in Thailand, I wasn’t sure if the surgical standards would be like the US. As they wheeled me into the operating room, I questioned whether I’d ever wake up from my anesthesia. What if I died today? Did I tell everyone I love goodbye? These are the thoughts that invaded my mind as I sunk into my anesthetic-induced slumber. The rest I’d have to leave to fate.
I woke up, blurry eyed and a little chilly. Where was I?
When my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw that I was in a hospital room with a few other people. “Recovery,” the translucent door window read. I was alive! I shifted in my gurney as pain shot through my body. Funny enough, I was so excited to be alive that I smiled at the pain. I was going to survive.
The nurses returned me to my hospital room a few minutes later, finally able to appreciate how beautiful it was. I had a giant room all to myself, complete with a kitchenette, a couch/living room area, a private bathroom, and a balcony with a huge window overlooking the city of Chiang Mai. Was I dreaming?
With the help of pain medication, some kind Facebook messages from worried friends, and a phone call to my family, I was able to sleep peacefully that night.
The next morning, I awoke to a knock at my door. Who could possibly be here? A smiling woman opened the door and peeked through the crack.
“Good morning,” she said cheerfully, “are you Kay?”
I nodded quizzically.
“I’m Wendy,” she said, revealing a few plastic bags full of DVDs, “I was told you’d be here.”
Apparently, she was the leader of a not-for-profit legal organization in Southeast Asia called BABSEACLE. She was also my uncle’s friend’s wife’s cousin’s coworker. Ummm…what? News travels quickly…
About ten minutes later, another knock came. Twenty minutes later, another. During my four days in the hospital, I met over 20 people who had heard “through the grapevine” that there was a young, American traveler sitting alone in a hospital in Chiang Mai. These visitors ranged from English teachers in Chiang Mai, fellow travel bloggers (Clelia and Alana), the American vice-consul, Mormon missionaries, NGO-leaders, and travel friends I’d met in other cities across Southeast Asia. They were friends of friends, friends of family, friends of friends of friends, and even complete strangers.
Over twenty strangers I can now call my friends. Some came more than once. Wendy came to visit every day.
There were seemingly more visitors than I had energy for. I was constantly surrounded by caring, loving, and kind people who took time to visit a complete stranger in the hospital when she was having a hard time. They brought food, magazines, smiles, and stories. They made me laugh so much it hurt. I don’t think there was a period of more than a few hours where I was alone in my room, aside from when I slept at night. During my recovery I found myself constantly amazed at how generous people are. I developed a deeper trust in the world than I’ve ever had before.
My experience wouldn’t have been nearly as bearable if it weren’t for the kindness and concern of people at home as well. My loving family, my amazing boyfriend, and the hundreds of people who send Facebook messages, texts, and emails were the saving grace in my time of crisis.
I moved out of the hospital in a record four days, spending the next two weeks moving around from hotel to hotel in Chiang Mai. Everywhere I went, I met people who were amazed and terrified to hear my story. I thanked my lucky stars for being alive. I reconnected with my new friends from the hospital. I gazed back in awe at my experience, and my survival.
In the end, I chose to continue my Southeast Asia trip. I was given the choice to go home, but I didn’t feel the need or the desire to cut my trip short. Call me crazy, but my time resting and healing actually had me feeling like a new traveler and a different person. I was so excited to continue seeing the world. So, instead, I bought a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam and continued onward. There was only looking forward now.
Brace yourself, because I’m about to get really sappy.
From this experience I learned that I am infinitely stronger that I’ve given myself credit for. I survived not only appendicitis, but a surgery in a foreign country, the worst ambulance ride known to man, and even moving forward with my travels. As my good friend Veronica told me, “in a few months this will just be an epic story of survival and grit.” It really is. It’s something I am proud of and that I have learned immensely from. It’s a story I’ll tell my children and grandchildren.
Another important lesson from this experience was that life is really fragile. I’d already learned this to an extent just reading the news and having family members I love pass away, but when my own life was threatened I really realized that things can change at the speed of light, and that no one is immune to crisis. I am so lucky I got help when I did, and that I was in a location with world-class healthcare, because if my luck were any worse I might not be here writing this for you now. I had so much help from family, friends, and even complete strangers during my recovery, and I have promised myself to pay it forward to others in the future. I am truly the most fortunate girl alive. And now I’m not afraid of anything.
In the end, I discovered that the world is small, and that people are inherently kind, and that even in the darkest moments of life, we are never truly alone.
And this is precisely the reason why I will always love traveling.
What was your most difficult travel experience? How did you overcome it? Tell your story in the comments!