Visiting a hospital in Thailand

It sucks to have physical pain follow you everywhere. Especially when you are traveling. And especially when you are overseas, where medical care can be hit or miss.

I have been dealing with an injured back for more than one month now. It is an injury sprung from an aggressive yoga practice in India this January, but it actually has roots in my childhood as a competitive gymnast. I sustained some back injuries in my youth that unfortunately continue to haunt me into adulthood.

Today in massage class, as I was giving another student a back massage, the pain in my lower right back flared up again. It was a pulsating burning sensation. All I could do was concentrate on my pain, not the the student’s comfort and safety. Although my teachers tried to offer alternative positions to alleviate my pain so that I could proceed giving the massage, I called a Time Out. I needed to listen to my body. I left school early and headed straight for the best hospital in Chiang Mai to see if I could get a doctor to tell me what the bloody hell was causing this pain — and how I could make it stop. I was desperate.

Amidst the frustration and pain, however, I admit that my physical therapy and doctor visits in India and Thailand, respectively, have provided some unanticipated cultural value. I get a window into what medical care and the treatment environment is like in these countries. And you know what? It’s not as “bad” as I used to think it would be. It’s also considerably cheaper. I have been impressed, and am now less apprehensive about setting foot in a hospital in this region of the world.

It’s funny that I can find some amusement in this situation. It’s easier to sulk and whine — which I am still pretty good at doing, of course. However, with this lens there is at least a unique takeaway. A sour situation becomes a novel cultural exchange.

My hospital visit in Chiang Mai was as amusing — and as expensive — as my Golden Triangle day tour. Only, I didn’t walk away from the hospital utterly spent, as I did following that 14-hour tour. I probably spent a total of three hours at the hospital, from registration to waiting to doctor consult to x-ray to assessment to payment. Not bad.

This hospital was immaculate, as a hospital should be. All of the nurses wore the old-fashioned, white nurses hats and white heeled shoes. Process and procedure was on full display, as each table and each room had a giant sign above it in both Thai and English.

My most amusing observation happened before walking into this scene, however. It was what I noticed hanging above the hospital entrance: a giant panda doctor.

I guess it’s better than a sick and dying patient? If anything, it did make me smile. Hospitals usually don’t make people smile.

The doctor who treated me (not a panda) spoke great English and conveyed an ideal balance of detached professionalism and compassion. He didn’t push me to get an MRI, although recommended it as the surer way to uncover what was going on with my back. At 15,000 Thai baht (roughly US$1500), however, this wasn’t a procedure that I could afford give the uncertainty that my traveler’s insurance would cover the expense. Instead, I opted for the x-Ray. It was about US$100, and he could this way at least determine something.

I learned that my bones and kidneys are healthy, but there is a slight curve to my spine — which was interesting to see on the x-Ray film. This small curve indicates a spasm of the muscles pulling on it. An MRI, as mentioned earlier, could probe that piece further. But at least I know that my bones aren’t the problem. It’s either the muscles or a pinched nerve — things I can tolerate and be mindful of until I get back onto U.S. soil and back on health insurance.

One of this doctor’s recommendations made me smile. It was his suggestion that I include routine acupuncture into my ongoing therapy to heal the back. I don’t think a recommendation such as this would be the norm from ER doctors in Chicago. But here I was in Thailand, sitting across from a Western-trained doctor who was encouraging me to integrate Eastern techniques into my therapy. How cool. How progressive. (To be fair, he also wanted to prescribe me anti-inflammatory medication.)

I head to China next week, so finding a quality Chinese medicine doctor for an acupuncture session shouldn’t be too difficult.

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