Exactly one week after I’d left to volunteer in Chiang Rai, I was back in Bangkok. Only instead of being surrounded by drunk backpackers and food vendors, I was surrounded by three women in surgical gowns and an elderly Thai doctor. One woman walked over to me and smiled (well, I assumed she was smiling under her face mask, as I wanted comfort at the moment). She told me she was going to begin the sedation process.
I must have skipped this chapter in my guidebook.
After taking my malaria pill on the first day of my trip, I woke up feeling like something was caught in my throat. The lump developed into a searing pain in my chest and, after three days, I could barely eat or drink. I emailed my doctor in DC and she explained that since I didn’t take my medicine with water, the pill probably got stuck and caused an ulcer. She put me on something to reduce stomach acid and said I should feel better in 48 hours.
But I just got worse. At every meal, some variety of freshly made Thai food in the dining hall would try to lure me in: basil and chicken swimming in a creamy white coconut curry; spicy sautéed eggplant with red chiles; banana mango bread soaked in coconut milk. As I heated up a can of imported Campbell’s chicken broth, I apologized to them. I love you, but when we’re together it hurts. You make me cry every day. I’ve got to fix myself first. Wait for me.
After six days, I decided it was time to get myself checked out. Knowing I would need more than just a chat with a doctor, I was too chicken to go to the local clinic. Instead, I contacted a well-known hospital in Bangkok and flew out the next day.
After landing, I headed straight to my appointment. I thought the facilities would be good, but I had never seen anything like this. The corridors were lined with giant plush couches and plasma TVs. I went upstairs to register and received an ID card with my picture — laminated. In the waiting room, there were refrigerators full of free juice.
This wasn’t exactly how I imagined being stuck alone in a hospital in Thailand would look. Feeling wildly more optimistic, I was called back to see the doctor. He told me that my malaria medicine was most likely to blame, but since I hadn’t responded to treatment, he’d need to do an endoscopy to know for sure.
I was back at the hospital at 7am. After checking in, they led me to a changing room and gave me a Thai hospital gown — possibly the most complicated piece of clothing ever created. A giant poster displayed a happy (smug?) Thai woman tying all the various ribbons and strings together into a modest, fitted robe. No matter what I did, I always ended up with a boob peeking out and two leftover strings on the same side. Eventually, I just tucked everything into my pants and attempted to walk down the hall without moving my arms.
A nurse led me to the procedure room. There was a hospital bed, a heart monitor, video screens, and three other nurses waiting. I hadn’t expected everything to look so … dramatic. What had I agreed to? But before my doubts could form words, I was laying on my side with a blood pressure cuff on. One nurse wrapped a band around my head and inserted a hollow plastic circle to hold my mouth open (which conjured up feelings of being in a hospital-themed 50 Shades of Grey).
The nurse told me she was going to give me the sedative to help me relax and held up three shots. I was halfway through the third shot — and then I was waking up in the recovery room. Three hours had passed. I sat-up in the bed with a Walking Dead sort of grace. On the table next to me was a set of pictures and my results: two giant “kissing” ulcers in my esophagus (apparently going at it pretty hard) caused by one tiny pill. Just as everyone had suspected. The doctor told me I would be better by the end of the week.
As I changed back into my clothes, I realized I had essentially flown to Bangkok to have someone tell me what I already knew was probably true. Maybe I had over-reacted? Maybe being far away from home makes you prone to jump on planes just for peace of mind? Regardless, I left the hospital ready to restart my trip and get back to a certain bowl of coconut curry waiting for me in Chiang Rai.