Being Sick Abroad: Hospitals, Pharmacies, Doctors, and Medicine (Episode 23)
We all get sick from time to time. It's inevitable. You can then go to your own personal doctor that you know and trust. But, when you get sick while traveling or living abroad, it can be particularly nerve-wracking. You have to find a new doctor and make sure that that doctor is credible and speaks your language, even just a little!
In this episode of the podcast, we talked about our own experiences getting sick in Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, and the Czech Republic. We talked about:
- Getting blood drawn from a nurse who had old dried blood on her gloves
- Traveler's diarrhea in Thailand and the best medicine to have with you to combat that while traveling
- Public vs. Private hospitals in Thailand
- Why our one experience in a public hospital in Thailand was horrifying
- Having constant colds in South Korea due to germs from children, the climate, stress, and other reasons
- Visiting private international hospital in South Korea
- Getting a basic health check for teaching English in Korea-- robe, slippers, and all
- Being able to see inside our bodies on HD TVs
- Almost free healthcare in Korea
- Feeling well in Vietnam after being constantly sick in Korea
- Then, getting constant diarrhea for 7 months straight
- Marilyn foolishly taking over the counter antibiotics in Vietnam and seriously messing with the biome of her body
- The "English translation fee" in the Czech Republic
- Paying absolutely nothing for X-rays and a doctor's visit in the Czech Republic
- Pharmacies in Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, and the Czech Republic
- Some of the best travel insurance around
And much more! If you'd like to learn more about this topic, be sure to just scroll down and check out the blog post!
Thanks for listening/reading! Cheers!
(2:55) We lived in Thailand, specifically a city called Chonburi just an hour and a half drive from Bangkok, from October 2014 to April 2015. It was our first time living and even traveling abroad, so it was a big step for the both of us.
The first time we had to go to the hospital was to do a basic health check for our future teaching jobs. We were in a city called Nakhon Si Thammarat in Southern Thailand at the time. We went to the hospital there and were surprised at what we found there, especially since it was our first foreign hospital.
Matt went first to get his blood drawn from a nurse there. He noticed instantly that on the nurse's plastic glove, there was dried blood on it! And no, it wasn't Matt's blood because it was there long before he drew his blood!
I went in after him to the same nurse, who still was wearing the same glove with blood on it! I asked her to change her gloves, which she did rather calmly (she did not seem bothered at all by the old, dried blood on her glove!).
At one point, we wanted to go to the bathroom in the hospital because we'd been waiting a long time for these tests to get done, but there was no toilet paper anywhere in the bathrooms! Now we know that this is commonplace in a lot of Southeast Asia, but at the time, we were flabbergasted and unprepared. We actually left the hospital before our tests finished so we could use the bathroom in our hotel room.
We did return to the hospital and got our paperwork together. Other than those little issues, everything else went smoothly!
(4:57) We also had a few stomach issues while there due to some ill-prepared food and other unknown things. During our second or third week in Thailand, I (Marilyn) got a nasty case of traveler's diarrhea: constant diarrhea, chills, fever, the whole shebang. We were in Koh Samui and I must have eaten something with some sort of nasty bacteria in it and was unable to leave our hotel room for almost a week! It was terrible.
Eventually, I went to the pharmacy to get something to help because we had to leave the island near the end of my sickness, but I still wasn't feeling much better. That was when we discovered Imodium. If you are ever traveling a long distance, we highly recommend you have this somewhere in your bag because it's a life-saver. It completely "plugs you up," but doesn't make your stomach feel uncomfortable. It doesn't heal you any faster or anything, though. It pretty much just delays your diarrhea and makes you feel better for about 12-24 hours. It's the best.
(8:08) While teaching in Chonburi, we got a few other sicknesses as well, undoubtedly from the children and their various germs. Matt was the first to get a nasty cold. He actually got a very high fever-- the first fever pretty much of his whole life! We ended up going to the private hospital somewhat nearby where we lived because Matt was nervous he had something worse than a cold. The private hospital was very different from the previous hospital we visited in Nakhon Si Thammarat! It was so large, clean, sparkling, new, and comfortable.
(9:21) When you're sick in a hospital, they'll give you a face mask to wear so that you won't infect other people there. So, Matt got to wear a face mask while we waited for the doctor! We also thought that this was a brilliant idea and immediately wished that that was implemented in America. People in most of Asia wear these face masks while they're at hospitals or even in public and are sick. It's a great idea!
Back to the hospital! We luckily didn't wait too long for the doctor. When he saw the doctor, he of course told Matt he just had a cold. His fever was high, though: a whopping 104°F/40°C! But, the doctor did give him a little bit of medicine and he felt a little better a few days later.
(11:00) A couple of months later, Matt had a plethora of bumps under his armpits and was nervous he had some kind of lymph node problem (big baby!). Instead of going to the same private hospital we'd previously gone to, we'd taken some fellow colleagues' advice and went to the public hospital instead to save a bit of money (not that the private hospital was that expensive; it was only $30 the last time Matt went!).
(12:00) We went inside the hospital and immediately noticed that...there was no "inside." There entire hospital was outdoors! Most of the hospital didn't even have walls. There were people strewn about, crumpled in corners, lying out on beds in the middle of the hallway (dead? Alive? No one knows!)! It was dirty and looked rundown. It was certainly not the place you wanted to find yourself if you were really sick!
We approached a nurse that was just sitting behind an old wooden desk in the midst of all of this and explained Matt's situation. She then told us that there was no doctor in today. Yes. There were apparently just no doctors at this hospital. Bizarre.
That was when we practically ran out of there and immediately went to that private hospital. Boy, was that like night and day! The private hospital looked sparkling white and clean, plus there were no sick people just lying around in the middle of the hallway. It was also indoors, roomy, and had the air conditioning running. It felt like we'd entered a dream state after the public hospital!
The best part was that it wasn't expensive to go there, once again. For us, it was worth it to spend a few more dollars for great healthcare!
(14:01) Pharmacies are vastly different than those found in America, too. You can just get antibiotics directly from the pharmacist, which probably is not the greatest thing, to be honest. However, the pharmacies are wonderful in Thailand for women: we can buy birth control without a prescription! Woohoo!
(15:27) The first time we experienced a doctor's office/hospital was when we went to get our health check done the first week we arrived (when teaching English there, they require all foreign teachers to have one done once they arrive). We went with someone from our hagwon (private academy for after school) to help us do it. He drove us there and walked us to the bottom floor of some office building, then spoke with everyone there and had us set up to get our health check done.
The first thing we did was change out of our clothes and into robes and slippers. That was a fun experience!
(16:38) We had a lot done! We had chest x-rays, blood drawn, saliva checked, temperature taken (with just a swipe on our foreheads from a little doodad! So cool!), eyesight and hearing checked, and urine checked. It was really extensive, but it was great to do because they checked such simple things to make sure that everything was alright and it's always good to learn that your health is up to par!
The nurses there were also incredibly friendly, even if some of them didn't speak English. They also were really quick to move us from station to station-- and they were packed!
(17:45) The next experience we-- more so I-- had was in an international hospital called Sun Medical Center. It's located in Daejeon, which was just a short bus and subway ride away from where we lived in Sejong. Once we walked in, we noticed how massive the hospital was, how clean and shiny it was, and also how quiet the entire (gargantuan) hospital was. I mean, it was so big, there were escalators and elevators going all over the place!
I went to the hospital for a gynecological issue and was recommended the doctor there by a colleague. While seeing the doctor, I got a pelvic exam. Normally, in America, when a woman gets a pelvic exam, the doctor just looks inside and tells you what's the matter. But, in Korea, the doctors show you what's the matter. My doctor was luckily fluent in English and during the pelvic exam, showed me on an HD TV screen what was going on. It was incredible! I'd never seen the inner workings of my body before!
(19:23) While we were working and living in Korea, we were almost always sick with a cold. It felt like there was always a cold there somewhere, lingering. It could've been from the kids and their germs, the freezing weather, or the pollution-- or all three! Who knows? One of our coworkers told us that people in Korea go to the doctor for everything, no matter how minimal. Matt had a cold then and during one of his breaks from working, he went to another floor in our office building to a doctor's office. But, when he got there, he was surprised to find a ton of parents with their kids. It turned out to be a pediatrician's office! They took him anyway, luckily.
A nurse took his temperature at one point and gasped at how high it was. He looked it up later (we don't know Celsius) and saw that it was just a small fever of 99°F. Not exactly worthy of a gasp! Then, the doctor saw Matt, and he just told him that he had a cold. Big surprise! What a waste of a break from working. The doctor just gave him Tylenol or something like it.
We found a general doctor in our city of Sejong (not a pediatrician! Yay!) and went to see him when Matt was sick (again). It was just an office in the floor of an office building and it was jam packed! But, even though they were slammed with patients, we didn't wait very long at all. If a doctor's office in America had that many people, we'd have waited at least 5 hours to be seen. But, in Korea, they are very efficient, so we only waited maybe 45 minutes-- and without an appointment!
When we saw the doctor, we were amazed at how friendly and attentive he was. He also took a machine and looked into Matt's throat. Then, he showed Matt's throat to him on an HD TV screen! He explained to him what he saw and what was going on. It was really cool to see that for ourselves! Matt even got a blood test on top of it just because he wanted one.
At the end of it, with our insurance, Matt paid $7. He paid that for seeing the doctor, the blood test, and the medicine. Incredible!
(22:50) Almost every time we went to the doctor in Korea, we would pay a maximum of $10, including seeing the doctor, getting tests done, and getting medicine! Outstanding.
In the pharmacies in Korea, they really prefer to give patients herbal medicine over Westernized medicine. Every time we were sick and wanted medicine, we'd go there and get herbal medicine 99% of the time. Most of the time, it would be little packets with these tiny gray-brown pellets. You would just have to pour them in your mouth, chew, and swallow, which wasn't very good because they tasted very chalky and herbal-y! The medicine was really cheap, though, so it was worth it!
(23:26) We went directly to Vietnam from Korea and the moment we arrived in Vietnam, it felt like our sicknesses just completely vanished. We didn't have a cold once during our time in Vietnam, compared to every other day in Korea. It was remarkable! Maybe it was the lack of stress, germy students, or the climate. Whatever it was, it worked wonders on our immune systems!
Within the first couple of weeks in Vietnam, however, I had another gynecological issue. But, I didn't want to go to the doctor once again for it, so I instead, went to a pharmacy and bought myself a round of antibiotics. I thought I could heal myself like a fool. After just a few days of taking the medication, I noticed that my issue hadn't gone away at all and now I was have intestinal issues. I was bloated, uncomfortable, and going to the bathroom. Sure, it could've been from the food, but I was being careful and the timelines coincided too closely for me to think it was something else. I ended up stopping the antibiotics midway through because of the amount of discomfort I was feeling.
It took me about a month for me to actually go to the doctor because nothing had gotten better. I looked on the internet and found a gastroenterologist at a private hospital called Victoria International Healthcare. He just felt around my stomach, listened to the symptoms I described to him, and he told me that I had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Wonderful! And yes, I still have this problem to this day. Good job, me.
Lesson: even if you are in a place that sells antibiotics over the counter, don't buy them without the consult of a doctor or if you're 150% sure you have what you think you have!
(26:42) We also went to FV Hospital, which is one of the best international hospitals in Ho Chi Minh City. We went there because we wanted the shot for Japanese Encephalitis. Even though the disease is extremely rare to get and you could only really get it in rural areas of tropical place, we didn't want to chance it because it's a nasty and deadly disease.
After arriving at FV Hospital, we ended up waiting to get our shots for a couple of hours. It was a brutal wait! Eventually, we were seen by a snarky French doctor, who continually told us we didn't need the shots. We knew that, but, hey-- we wanted them anyway! He did give us our shots, eventually, though. The hospital was incredibly clean, gigantic, and sparkly. But, it was pricey. We didn't have health insurance in Vietnam, though, so I'm sure that didn't help our case. But, we only actually ended up paying $40 each for the shots.
Let's compare that price to those same shots we got over a year previous to that in America, shall we? We had to get two rounds of shots for the Japanese Encephalitis. Each round cost $350. Yes-- we each paid $700 for those damn shots. Each! Quite the price difference, huh?!
(28:35) Another time, Matt went to see a regular doctor at Victoria International Healthcare (where I saw the gastroenterologist) and I saw a gynecologist (of course!). We both found all of the doctors to be incredibly kind, patient, and attentive. They all seemed knowledgeable, too-- both in English and the medical field!
With no insurance there, the most either of us paid was $80. Matt only paid that much one time because he had some tests done. Other than that, it wasn't too expensive to see doctors there without insurance. But, that was only for semi-routine things, not surgeries. We can't speak for those!
We never went to the public hospitals in Vietnam, though, so unfortunately, we can't give you any advice on those.
The pharmacies, though, were incredible, for the most part. Some were a bit dingier than others, which meant we just had to be selective of the ones we'd go to. However, there were so many in Ho Chi Minh City, so it was fine! They also had Xanax, Ambien, and other drugs like that you could buy over the counter. But, some pharmacies were a little stricter than others. Some will give you 50 Xanaxs no problem, and some will give you none and an attitude. It just depends on where you go.
(29:32) As for intestinal issues while in Vietnam, we had plenty. As I mentioned, I had IBS and Matt just had constant issues, too. We hardly ever had solid poops! That wasn't very fun to deal with..
(29:51) Once we went to Japan, however, our intestinal issues almost disappeared! Being that I had IBS, however, mine didn't complete dissipate. But, for Matt, he felt 99% better intestinally! I guess it did have quite a bit to do with what we were eating then!
We only lived in Osaka, Japan for about 3 months, but the first week there, we had a couple of miserable colds (are we just constantly sick or something!?).
(31:04) Matt has a vertigo issue as well where he gets it once every four years or so. He just gets an intense case of vertigo for a few days where he world is completely spinning for days on end. While in Japan, unfortunately, that issue resurfaced. We believe that that happened because we were sleeping on mats on the floor. Although they were ridiculously comfortable, maybe getting up and laying back down quickly set off the vertigo. Even I had vertigo and/or nasty migraines while we were in Japan, so it definitely was something! But, it also could've been from the fact that we were on an island and that they constantly get earthquakes there, even tiny ones no one really notices.
(34:18) Other than that, we were pretty healthy during our time in Japan! However, whenever we wanted simply medicine for a cold or a headache, the pharmacies were near impossible for us to navigate. They didn't have an branded medicine that we knew, like Advil or anything like that. They had their own medicine and naturally, it was all in Japanese! When we needed help from pharmacists, they hardly ever spoke any English, so it was difficult to get help finding the right medicine. Google Translate what our best friend in this instance!
(36:29) We only backpacked through Taiwan for 10 days and didn't visit any doctors or pharmacies, but we were sick with some nasty colds and felt we'd mention it. Throughout our entire time there, we were quite sick with fevers, chills, fatigue, coughs, the whole thing. However, Taiwan turned out to be a very comfortable place to backpack through while feeling sick. We were still able to go out to eat, wander a bit, and even hike! For whatever reason, we felt completely comfortable with exploring the country while we were sickly. It turned out to be one of our favorite countries to get sick in, oddly enough!
Their amazing noodle soups may have helped us feel a little better! Who knows?
In comparison to Vietnam, whenever we were sick, we didn't want to leave our apartment and explore because Ho Chi Minh City was such a sense-shocking place. It was loud, stinky, cramped, and overall intense. Not exactly what you want to experience when you have a fever. But, in Taiwan, we had no problem going out and enjoying ourselves even while we were sick because it was such a quiet, wide-open, and cleaner place to be. It was homey!
(39:52) We did all the paperwork for obtaining a visa in the Czech Republic. Because of that, we obtained the public healthcare! We pay just $80 per month for our healthcare and we are covered for everything except for the occasional $8 for the "English translation fee" some doctors charge. Rude, but worth it!
In Prague, Matt went to a doctor (neither of us could recall why) who caters to foreigners specifically. He was also just a minute walk from our apartment! Talk about convenient! Matt did have to pay the $8 fee for speaking English, but that was all he had to pay. Otherwise, it was completely free!
Matt went to another hospital at some point and got X-rays done of his throat because he was having some issues swallowing. He went to the ENT there, who gave him X-rays, a good look over, and excellent service. Once he was done with his appointment, Matt asked the doctor where he could go pay and she looked at him like he had nine heads, then told him that he has health insurance, so he doesn't have to pay anything. They didn't even have a cashier desk at all there! How amazing is that!? It truly was free to go to the doctor and get X-rays! Wow!
Matt again went to visit the same doctor that was just a one-minute walk from our apartment, but he just wanted to get Xanax for the flight home when my mom was very sick. Luckily, all the doctor said was, "You know that this can be addicting, right?" and Matt knew that, but he only needed it for the flight. The doctor then ever so kindly provided him with some Xanax for the flight! How marvelous! That would absolutely not fly in America!
(43:43) Finally, it was my turn to visit that doctor because I convinced myself that I had a sinus infection. Luckily, I didn't, but just like Matt, I only paid the $8 for the "translation fee!" I also got excellent service, which is key to going to the doctor anywhere! Plus, I had an expired inhaler and wanted a new one and the doctor very quickly wrote me a prescription for a new one! Fantastic doctor's visit, I'd say.
For my cold, the doctor actually prescribed me a lot of herbal medicine. Just some stuff that you can put in your water or just chew without water. Not really sure if it does much, but the Czech people really believe in herbal medicine and you will more often than not receive that medicine over Westernized medicine.
The pharmacies in Prague are great. There's a plethora of drugs, both herbal and Westernized. The pharmacists more often than not speak English and are extremely helpful.
In summation, getting sick abroad can be a pain in the butt, but you shouldn't allow that to stop you from traveling and/or living abroad. There's always a way to find a doctor or pharmacist to help you out in your time of need. If you really need to or want to, you can find someone to join you when you go to the doctor in a foreign country, like a friend or someone who speaks the native language (highly recommended!). You will be fine!
If you are just traveling for a short time or a long time to place that don't offer you insurance, check out World Nomads. They're offer great travel insurance. They offer you health insurance while abroad plus extra stuff, like if you have something valuable stolen, broken, etc. We paid $200 for 3 months while in Japan. It was worth it, we think, especially since anything could've happened at any time.
Thank you so much for listening/reading!
Have you ever been sick abroad in any of the same places we've been? Have you ever been sick abroad in any other places? What was your experience?
Wine: C.K. Mondavi - Cabernet Sauvignon (California)