On Being Sick Abroad

Double Rainbow

Double Rainbow

I have a special knack for getting sick. Not as in, I always have a cold, or catch whatever is “going around,” I usually avoid such common illness’ that would actually make sense to contract. Instead, my body likes to play a fun game of getting seemingly random, often totally sudden bizarre illness. This makes some sense, given when I take medication I almost never get common side effects, but will get the strange, not so common ones. My body values it’s individuality. I however, do not. Except for when I take Sudafed and feel euphoric instead of anxious or jittery. Normally, my body’s penchant for uniqueness is inconvenient, and I’ve been lucky that when I do get sick that I don’t have to miss important things, or take time from school. I’m also normally home, in the states where prescriptions, referrals, and 24 hour clinics and pharmacies are a given.

The first time I was sick abroad was in Africa. But, everyone got sick and the treatment was readily available (antibiotics, of course!). I missed home, but since I was a volunteer with access to my pharmacy procured before leaving the states and the local private clinic, I wasn’t concerned. I mostly missed my bed. But the having to navigate a foreign medical system was entirely taken care of for me, so aside from a brief, “ohmygosh I have EBOLA, I just KNOW it” moment, which is typical of my disaster scenario seeking mind, I was fine. Five days of lying in bed and not being able to keep anything down was my only bout of sickness there, and I fully anticipated all sorts of illness of the course of the three months, so I counted myself as lucky.

This past summer when I was in southeast Asia I managed to live on street food for five months without even a hint of stomach upset, which would at least, make sense. Before we headed into Vietnam we were in Laos and heard about some obscure skin infection that had resulted in a handful of deaths. When I hear of these incidents I joke I’m going to get it, because, well, I just would. I’m only kind of kidding. I didn’t get it, of course. But I did manage to have tonsillitis resulting in extremely painful swelling of my entire neck, making me look like I had gained twenty pounds in my face overnight. There is still photographic evidence somewhere. On the plus side, it was retrospectively hilarious. But sitting in a (probably not travel insurance approved) hospital where they informed us “sorry, we don’t have power today” I really, really missed home. The doctor, suggested I take Cipro, which I had with me anyway, and sure enough after a few days it went away. But waking up in a “rustic” bungalow with no power during torrential downpour with my neck swelling to twice its size, realizing I had no idea how to access emergency medical care, and making mildly frantic, static heavy calls back home was more than a bit scary. I had no idea what was happening to me, or what to do about it. I felt entirely helpless. Of course, this is the risk we take traveling to countries without access to the medical care back home. I still think it’s worth it, but that’s also because it worked out.  And I was really glad I had insurance for being air lifted to Bangkok, a scenario I never considered could, indeed be a possibility.

Dublin, is not Laos. It has world-class medical care. But, it is not home. So, when six weeks ago I got sick I had my first experience with navigating a brand new health care system. I had debated insurance here, but the general consensus from locals was, if you’re young and healthy, just pay as you need it. And so far, it’s been a good choice, even the private without insurance care here costs a fraction of what it would in the states, same with prescriptions. So, there are some positives in comparison to the states. But it took a while to see them. After a week of being sick I started feeling better. A few days later I was hit with what has turned out to be the most obnoxious and resistant bladder infection. It took a few days for me to seek medical care, even though I knew what was wrong. And knew I needed antibiotics. And despite the fact that I’ve taken courses that cover barriers to health seeking behavior, and could tell I was doing the same, I let it get intolerable before finally trying to book an appointment. Which is crazy. I don’t know why I did this, but a lot of it had to do with not understanding the medical system. In the public sector the waiting lists are absurd, the student clinic appeared to be only open two hours a day, and didn’t have any appointments available in the next week anyway. Clinics close at 5pm, and on weekends, which naturally, is when one needs them. So I felt a bit helpless.  I knew I didn’t need to go to the emergency room, but I couldn’t seem to procure an appointment. I asked a friend here, who is also a doctor, for antibiotics. They sort of worked. But the infection remained after the week. So they recommended  private clinic near by. I called them up after a couple of days of generally hoping I would miraculously get better (I didn’t, obviously). When I did finally call, I was shocked I could get in with the hour. I had preconceptions that made me think I would have to wait for hours, or weeks to see someone. I adopted the mentality of “why bother?” Even though it was wrong, it left me feeling powerless, delaying my attempt to seek medical care. This was ten days ago, the antibiotics they gave me worked. But it came back. And now, on my fourth course of antibiotics, which may or may not work all I can think about is going home in nine days (!) and going to a clinic there. The medical care I’ve received here has been great, but it isn’t home, and it’s incredibly frustrating in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I’ve spent the past six weeks in various states of illness, from not being able to get out of bed, to feeling amazing and almost normal. It really is the little things, like not being able to get Benadryl without a prescription. I feel like as an expat/world traveler I should be tougher. And I feel a bit silly that this is getting to me.  I’m supposed to be resilient! Adaptable! But there’s nothing like illness to make you miss home. At least for me.

I’m a little sad to be spending the last few weeks in Dublin, until September, on my couch. But I’m really excited to go home. For all the shortcomings of the US medical system, I really, really miss it right about now. It is well adept at dealing with my random bouts of ailments.


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