Carry on doctor: Vietnam

Musings from a Vietnam hospital

Robin Spurr

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

3 April 2017

Had I been told I would be spending 48 hours in a Vietnamese hospital during my travels, I would have refused to leave Australia. But, I survived the experience, and now am only horrified by my preconceptions.

Sprawled on my bedroom floor in the hotel, strategically placed between bed and bathroom, my room-mate walked in and trod on me. It was at this point I admitted that I needed medical help. For six hours, I had played a humiliating game of musical chairs and heads down thumbs up, with the toilet, and wasn’t winning.

But I did not want to go to hospital in Vietnam.

I pictured over-crowded hallways, filled with loud noises and bad smells, and questionable cleanliness. I woke up the next day, without the faintest idea how I’d passed out, and couldn’t feel my hands or feet.

Fast-forward two hours, I am in hospital, foreign words flying over me. I’m being spun over onto my front (none-the-wiser) having my shorts pulled up. Flailing weekly, and mumbling a language even I didn’t understand, a needle was put in my bottom. This woke me up. If the bright lights, magnified by the clean white walls and off-blue, glittery lino hadn’t already.

Spurr Hospital

TMP’s writer Robin Spurr upon admission to hospital

Soon, I had the first of seven drips in one hand, a pot of Cháo (rice soup) in the other, and was being wheeled out of the emergency room. The journey was short, if slightly bumpy, over cracked tiling. The first stop was an X-ray, where my interfering necklace was shoved into my mouth. Then was the ultra-sound, where I looked affectionately, if dazed, at my swollen insides.

I was by no means alone here. New friends and old came to distract me. The Vietnamese students and staff from An Giang University (AGU), gave me so much support when we had only just met. Even other visitors to hospital were quick to offer me advice and assistance. Despite the language barrier, the kind intentions were felt.

The doctors and nurses were approachable. As I became more hydrated, I became more helpful, miming what did/didn’t hurt. This communication was largely successful, aside from one confusion.

Small pots had been pushed coyly in my direction. Having only ever peed into these, I assumed that was what was wanted, especially as my offerings were accepted. It wasn’t until we got Google translate out, that confusion cleared. The nurse’s phone repeatedly shouted; “s**t…S**T!”. I laughed; dehydration making me hysterical. I could be of no service in this department, having taken enough costive medicine to block up a drain.

It wasn’t until leaving I found out what illness I’d had; gleaned by the translation of my supervisor from AGU and me Googling my pick n’ mix bag of medicine (including a veterinary grade muscle support for cows). I had a strong bought of Gastroenteritis –“Gastro”, a tummy bug. Which annoyed me, as it didn’t exactly capture the experience; a tummy bug on steroids.

Writing a Trip-Advisor review about my time in hospital, I would probably give it a solid 4/5. It defied my expectations. Guilty at my reluctance to be treated, which had made me more ill, I reconsidered my preconceptions.

Returning home, everyone’s reaction to me being hospitalised were the same; horror.

But my time on the ward showed me that we need better education about countries harshly labelled “third world”. Our view of ‘abroad’ encourages us to believe our standards are above all others. As I learnt, hospitals everywhere will treat everyone to the best of their abilities.

Even in my dehydrated state, I remember being put at the front of queues, and given a private room. Was this cultural courtesy favouring guests, or a need to give me a positive outlook on the medical service to take back home? I received a level of care equal to the NHS in the UK (in its current state, probably better), even if it was a little rough around the edges.

I cannot deny who I was might have played a part. I was a Caucasian traveller in a private hospital. The CIA World Factbook defines density of doctors/population as 1.19/1,000 and hospital bed density as 2/1000 in Vietnam (compared with 2.81 /1,000 and 2.9 beds/1,000 in the UK). This would make hospitals crowded and understaffed as I expected. But not where I was.

My two-day stay, including my medicine, food, treatment and transport to and from hospital came to A$ 100. That seemed cheap (especially with health insurance). But for many locals, that would be a month’s wages (approximately A$168), and would mean a stay in a public hospital, which is not free. As researcher on healthcare in Vietnam, Quan Hoang, argues “Be rich or don’t be sick.” This is where the scare-stories have stemmed from.

Development is needed in Vietnam’s healthcare, particularly in the public sector, to protect people from the ‘medical poverty trap’ that Vong describes. But it also needs support from the outside world; not tearing down by fussy tourists.

I will never let my preconceptions make me ill again. It won’t stop me travelling. I will just pack more Imodium and painkillers and hope that the St Christopher my mum gave me (in desperation) will save my iffy immune system from future travel drama.

If not, I will head straight to hospital.

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