Saturday, July 31, 2010

Unexpected Adventure

Just as quickly as I ascended the Marina Bay Sands resort, I shortly thereafter hit rock bottom. I had contracted a virus somewhere along the way and had a fever that would not go away.

Now, living in the third world one gets exposed to all kinds of….well, let’s say foreign entities. I was fortunate enough to have been born here so I’ve retained some immunity, I think, from the older pathogens. Except that these days there are new, more potent, varieties like SARS, the bird flue and dengue fever.

If you remember there was an outbreak of SARS here in the early 2000’s where Vietnam, especially Hanoi, gained worldwide acclaim for its early detection and containment of this potentially global disaster. So, it should be no surprise to you that Hanoi has some of the most well prepared facilities to treat these ailments.  

And it was at one of these facilities that I experienced my greatest adventure so far in Vietnam. Think of sweaty palms before a long climb, sleepless night before a grueling marathon or butterflies in the stomach before a big presentation. I had all these as I walked pass the “National Center for Infectious Tropical Diseases” wing of Hanoi’s Bach Mai Hospital on my way to my hospital room.

I was thinking, “You’ve done some tough things in the past and you’ll get through this too.” And, “How bad can it be compared to the things that I’ve seen in my travels?”

This last question though got me even more anxious. For what is an adventure without an unknown element or two? I had no idea how it was going to be. The doctor who had examined me said they’d need to keep me here for a couple days at least and asked if didn’t mind sharing my hospital bed with 3 or maybe 4 other patients.

“?????” I thought!

Maybe I misunderstood her because that happens quite frequently here for me. But then I remembered what the doctor said at the French Hospital-next door and infinitely more expensive. “If you can persevere at Bach Mai, they have just as good if not better treatment for such sickness.”

Having to share your hospital bed with 3 or 4 other people is perseverance, even to a Vietnamese, who is accustomed to personal contact. Imagine sitting, half lying there with an IV sticking out of your forearm and your bedfellow’s feet jabbing into your ribs every so often because he too is uncomfortable and incoherent.

Here you can count 8 people with four beds. But in actuality there are 10 patients assigned to this room. The other two are hanging out in the hallway-like me.

Maybe at this point I should try to answer the question, “why?” Why would hospital administrators allow for such crowded conditions?

Well, the answer is quite simple if you think about it. You have a throng of sick people waiting and the longer it takes for these folks to get admitted the worst their conditions will become. At least if they’re in a hospital room where doctors can take blood to ascertain the root of the illness, give what is called supportive care like IV’s and pain relievers and basically watch over them, they’d have a better chance of healing than not being allowed in to begin with.  

I for one felt better instantly after taking in two bags of fluids. It had been 4 days since the onset of the fever and I was apparently really dehydrated. I also felt better because the other part of the unknown was going be revealed to me shortly-what the heck did I contract?

That morning my blood was being tested. I got a chest x-ray and an ultrasound of my abdomen later in the afternoon. And by the late afternoon, Dr. Thuy, the only doctor on duty that Saturday, revealed to me the results.

She asked if I had been recently exposed to mice or rat feces.

“!!!!!” I thought. 

Surely it wasn’t at the 5 star accommodations of Singapore…..Nor the damp environment of Ha Long Bay…...It must have been my climbing equipment!

Often I leave food in my climbing pack and forget about it until the next time I go climbing when I repack. I recalled that when preparing for the Marina Bays Sands climb there were some rodent poop in my big climbing equipment bag, but I never gave it a second thought as I pulled out the essentials. Until then.

I believe what I got was the Hanta virus, although I couldn’t get a perfect translation from the Vietnamese word. And luckily it was cured with antibiotics and lots of intravenous fluid, which by the way is my new favorite way to hydrate.

But this wasn’t the only new discovery on this adventure. I learned how a group of people, of diverse backgrounds, could rally together and help one another heal.

Along side me were a well to do family from the central region tending to a daughter, next to them a friendly, always smiling couple from a farm up north near China looking after their father and a well dressed Hanoian mother seemingly idling her time with her well groomed, and equally well dressed son.

I was the only one without a family member nearby helping. Mandy was down in Saigon working and I couldn’t bring it upon myself to ask any of my friends for help. One, I didn’t need it like the others here. I still had plenty of strength. And two, I didn’t want to expose any of my friends to what was flying around in the air in this ward. Still, everyone who knew I was alone took turns to make sure I was ok.

When it came time for meals, mine was brought up and delivered by one of these family members. They’d make room for me when I needed “space” on one of the beds to get my IV. And as night fell, they told to me get permission from the doctor to have a cot to sleep on. I’d have to buy it myself and bring it up but I’d need the doctor’s permission to get pass the security guards. But a cot alone was probably way more comfortable than a shared hospital bed.

And this was the view from that cot the first night as I laid outside the hallway looking for fresh, cool air. Being in the hospital in Vietnam is being in a big slumber party.

The second day I found out that the reason that the well dressed son and mother looked the way they looked was because they lived nearby and only stayed during the day to get treatments. At first they stayed overnight just because he was weak but now that he’s better they could return to the comforts of their own bed at night. So, I did the same that Sunday night because the hospital is a mere ten-minute taxi ride to my home.

Monday morning when I returned to the hospital, the ward was greeted by a full staff of nurses and doctors who after surmising that I no longer had a fever and that I was feeling fine released me.

And when it came time to leave I gave my cot to the girl of the well to do family from the central region. She too has been trying to share her bed with two other ladies and she has been here for over 20 days.

It’s not that they couldn’t get one of the rooms where there was only one person to a bed with ac and a TV. It was more that there were none available, or at least none of us knew the right person to bribe. And this would’ve gotten us let’s say at least 2 star accommodations, but I for one learned a great deal more from what we expats here call Vietnamese level accommodations.

I got a better sense of the Vietnamese culture of community/family, the one that will accept outsiders as one of theirs. And I learned that under dire circumstances I could withstand more discomfort than ever before. 


  1. The times we suffer the most make great stories don’t they?
    Makes the complaints most people in the USA have about medical care seem trivial.
    I wonder how some of my patients from Beverly Hill would deal with that situation? Glad you feel better. See you in December.

  2. Wow, Linh, Dave and I always joke about not wanting to contract hanta virus out here in the canyon. Well, you one upped us and actually contracted it.
    I am so glad you are recovered, and that the hospital was equipped to handle it. Never mind all the people, they sound like they were good company considering that they were ill as well.
    There is that old saying "misery loves company"!