I recently had an experience that, while I can't really recommend it to anyone, was still perhaps worth happening if for no other reason than I can now check “Spend a day in an overcrowded, understaffed hospital in Nepal” off my life's To Do list.
In my last blog post, I explained that on the morning of Wednesday, September 21, after a sleepless night filled with flies and endless fever-induced tossing and turning, I awoke at sunrise, my whole body aching. I told Katie that we'd have to abandon our plans to trek to Namo Buddha in favor of a much more enjoyable alternative – a Nepalese hospital.
My symptoms were unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. I had what felt like a side-ache, the kind you get if you run too fast for too long, except instead of being limited to the left side of my stomach, just below my ribcage, it was directly below my sternum, and was made more and more painful the heavier I happened to be breathing. And while it was primarily limited to just below my sternum, it would occasionally jump to my shoulders, or down towards my groin. I guess I'd never before realized this, but simply walking causes one's heart rate and breathing to climb, so the simple 15-minute walk from our hotel to the nearest place to get a taxi was a horrible, painful 15 minutes. And the hour long, bumpy-ass ride from Bhaktapur to Kathmandu was what some people would describe as agonizing.
But we made it to town, and Katie dropped my useless ass off at an internet cafe to figure out hospital stuff in Kathmandu while she went looking for a new hotel. She found and quickly decided on “Happy Home Guesthouse,” which was overall a pretty crappy hotel, but it DID have one super important attribute – the manager was the friendliest woman in the universe, and when she found that I wasn't feeling well, she threw away the rest of her day's plans to accompany Katie and myself to the Kathmandu Teaching Hospital.
I'd read about the CIWEC hospital in town that is run by Westerners – all the doctors, apparently, are European – and considered going there, but a few things ultimately directed me towards the Teaching Hospital. One: After purchasing my travel health insurance, I'd read some horror stories about them making it difficult to get refunds for hospital bills taken care of. I knew that if I went to the CIWEC hospital, my bill would be off the charts compared to what it would be at the Teaching Hospital. Two: I thought (and was correct) that it might be interesting to see what it is truly like in a 3rd world hospital.
At 1 or 2 in the afternoon, Katie, myself, the Happy Home Manager, and a random friend of hers who happened to be relaxing at Happy Home took off for the Kathmandu Teaching Hospital. The first thing I noticed when we got there was how incredibly overcrowded it was. We learned that this was at least in part due to the earthquake that had shaken Kathmandu 3 days earlier, on September 18th. So I sat down on a cot occupied by only one other person (this seemed to be a rarity) and let about 4 doctors and 53 nurses visit me in turn, asking me the same questions again and again, filling out forms, performing tests, and then coming back to ask the same questions, fill out the same forms, and perform the same tests. It was a paperwork nightmare, and by the time I left, I had 14 individual papers containing itemized receipts, test results, test request forms, EKG graphs, and a blueprint for a Soviet-era nuclear submarine.
Hours passed, during which time three angels – Katie, the Happy Home Manager, and her friend – ran from room to room and building to building, delivering test sheets, picking up syringes, dropping off vials, getting the name on my receipts changed from Chungle Louis to Glenn Lewis, and doing a pretty goddamn respectable job of keeping my spirits up in such a depressing location.
As the hours ticked away, the crowds at the hospital increased, and I eventually found myself sharing my cot with 4 other people. A man in fatigues came in with unnaturally yellow skin, and even the whites of his eyes were a yellowish color. He was unable to walk by himself, and seeing him in the condition he was in allowed me to realize that although I was in an overcrowded Nepalese hospital feeling like balls, my life was STILL better than 99% of people in the world. Who knew that a hospital visit could prove to be such a learning experience.
Some other odds-and-ends that didn't fit too well anywhere in the above story:
- The nurses at the hospital wore sarees. Not the bright red or yellow ones that Katie and I have come to love in the last few weeks, but light blue sarees with white crosses.
- I had to get an IV, and for whatever reason, the staff was unable to do so on the inside of my elbow, and instead had to do it at the wrist. It took 4 nurses 3 tries (by tries I mean stabs) to get this painful, Nursing 101 procedure taken care of.
- When picturing a hospital, most people think of a white-walled, clinically clean room with fluorescent lighting and workers in masks. Not the case in the Kathmandu Teaching Hospital. The bathroom, for instance, contained one (1) squatter toilet and zero (0) sinks. So no hand-washing at the hospital. Fortunately, I'm in the habit of carrying hand sanitizer everywhere, so this wasn't really a problem. Just kind of an interesting thing to experience.
- All the nurses and doctors speak English better than I do. WTF?
When all was said and done, I had a 9,000 Rupee ($120) bill that I'm hoping will be reimbursed, and a relatively clean bill of health. The doctors tested my pancreas, heart, and all sorts of other stuff that could have been indicative of serious, long-term health problems; everything was fine. Whew. It turns out I just had some generic virus that had given me a temperature of 101F, and gastritis that would have knocked out an elephant. I got a bunch of pills that I only finished today (October 1, 2011), and finally feel pretty much back to normal.
Overall, this was a pretty shitty day, but I've come to realize that in order to enjoy the life-changing highs that walk hand-in-hand with long-term travel, one must at least occasionally experience some of the lowest lows that similarly walk hand-in-hand with long-term travel. I realized how blessed I am, in more ways than I can count, and my faith in humanity got moved up a peg or two, thanks to Katie, my adopted Nepalese mother, and her friend.
Let's hope this is my last Nepalese-hospital story.