© 2015 by Kathleen Kemsley, from 2008 trip journals
Toward the end of our month-long visit to Thailand, we settled into Rich’s guest house in rural Non Sung for a few days’ stay. I went for a run along the reservoir’s levee, water and waterbirds on one side and blindingly green rice paddies on the other. Along the way, I kept my eyes peeled for dogs; a pack of them had attacked me a few days earlier. They ran at me from a hidden driveway and the dominant one bit me in the leg. I picked up a stick and beat at them, shouting some choice cuss words. Though the dogs didn’t speak English, they finally understood and backed off. I still had bruises on my thigh.
Back at the ranch, our host Rich, who had been my engine foreman in Alaska, put me to work with the hose, watering plants on his eight-acre homestead. I spent half a day picking cherry-like fruit off trees scattered in the yard, and boiled them into syrup which we poured over raisin bread. The result was way better than the other fare offered at the local outdoor market: fried insects, ant eggs, big white mushrooms, grubs, and tom sum soup so hot it burned my tongue.
Then my husband Brian came down with some kind of upper respiratory infection and cough, and began complaining a mile-a-minute. Not that I blamed him: his lungs were already weak with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and he couldn’t afford to get pneumonia. So the next morning, we made a snap decision to do a 911-demob from Rich’s place. His wife drove us to Khon Kaen and put us on a plane back to Bangkok, where we were picked up by a staff member of St. Carlos Hospital.
It was a hospital for “Farang,” or white foreigners. The nurses wore old fashioned crisp white dresses and hats, the kind you only see any more in porn films. The doctor, who looked about 14 years old, had limited English skills. They took an x-ray of Brian’s lungs, diagnosed pneumonia in his right lung, and hooked him up to an IV.
Later in the day, I learned that this hospital did not provide food or water, but rather expected the family to bring it. So I went out and wandered the streets of a section of Bangkok that was definitely not in a tourist area. Under the freeway overpass, I located a marketplace. By pointing at items and holding out a handful of Thai coins, I managed to buy some bread and fruit, though I’m pretty sure I paid too much for it. Then I went to a gas station a few blocks away and purchased bottles of water and diet Coke.
The nurses barely spoke just a couple words of English, and had no way to take a history, answer questions, or even explain what medications they were pushing. But, by God, they checked Brian’s blood pressure every 15 minutes. They told him what it was, but they didn’t write anything down. Hence the need to come back fifteen minutes later and check it again.
I slept on the couch in Brian’s room, and awoke the next morning feeling punky, tired and irritable. This lady who had met us at the airport and spoke some English came in and asked me how I was doing. In response, I started crying. My throat hurt, my skin hurt, I was so tired, and I was most of all stressed out about Brian’s pneumonia. (Was he going to die in Bangkok?) I was also angry to find myself sitting in a hospital room for four or five days, instead of floating on the Mekong River as I had planned for the last part of our trip. Brian, happily drugged up and getting all the attention, was grooving on the nurses and ignoring me.
The lady freaked out because I was crying and called the nurses. Since they couldn’t ask me what was wrong, they insisted on admitting me to the hospital. They weighed me, took my blood pressure, and gave me a chest x-ray.
Of course I didn’t have pneumonia, it was only bronchitis. They put me on an IV filled with Vitamin B (because I was tired), but it had the effect of putting me to sleep and I slept most of the day. Then a nurse showed up late in the afternoon to give me a shot of what turned out to be steroids. I felt a sting as it went into my arm, burned all the way up, then exploded pins and needles in my head. I became dizzy and short of breath.
The air-head nurse kept patting my shoulder and saying, “Are you all right?” She handed me some water which I couldn’t hold onto, along with one square of toilet paper for who knows what. “Madam, Madam, are you all right?” she said. I felt like I was in a Stephen King novel, featuring Asian nurses who lock the hospital doors from the outside and come at you with cups full of pills and a syringe.
The 14-year-old doctor showed up after a while and tried to convince me to take more drugs. My nostrils were dry, he said, so therefore I must be dehydrated. Even though they just finished pumping a gallon of Vitamin B into my veins, he wanted to administer another bag of saline. I promised I’d drink more water, if he could just tell the nurse to bring more than a pointy-bottomed paper cup full. He then pronounced me vitamin-deficient. You think? Maybe because we were being slowly starved to death. All I had to eat all day was a couple finger-sized bananas from the food I had bought under the freeway yesterday.
His response was to give me what he called a “Vitamin Nerve” pill. I guess he thought I was having a nervous breakdown. And perhaps I was. Getting admitted to an Asian hospital where no one speaks enough English to find out what’s wrong, can have that effect.
Next thing I knew, the nurse brought in this brown bottle of medicine for me to take. I looked at the label – most of it was in gibberish Thai script – but the contents section was written in English and I saw the word “Opium.” Oh no, I said, pushing the bottle away. The nurse looked at me blankly. “OPIUM – NO!!!” I shouted. She replied, “Sawhadee Kah”, or “thank you, ma’am,” before turning tail and running out.
Now, I know sarcasm when I hear it. I was sure that all the nurses were whispering about me at the nurse’s station in the hallway where eight or ten of them gathered, gossiping in between their every-fifteen-minutes visits to the Farang room. Some of them certainly were plotting to get rid of me (whining emotional menopausal complaining rich bitch that I am) and land my old man, take him home as their prize.
I had been in Thailand long enough to know exactly what was happening. The nurses were vying for Brian’s favor; he looked like a possible meal ticket for them and their extended families. Some of them actually made some headway with their idiotic smiles and sing-songy little Asian voices. Two of them would come into the room while I was away and dab at him with sponges. Ripped on sedatives, he was all smiles to them.
All they needed to do was get some opium into me, then I’d be permanently out of the way. When I refused, they sent in their leader, a Nurse Rached who tried to force me to drink from the brown bottle. I picked up Brian’s cane and waved it at her, shouting no!! No more drugs!! Like the Thai dog pack, she got the message and stormed out of the room.
Finally, after four days imprisoned in St. Carlos, they said we could leave… as long as we promised to head right home to the USA. I had no problem with following those directions. After a month in Thailand, I had had my fill of Asia. It was too crowded. There was too much weird food, too strange of an alphabet, too many hostile dogs and nurses, too many old Farang men foolishly courting a young girl or boy, and too many phony “Sawhadee Kahs.”
A thirteen hour flight later, we landed in San Francisco. I kissed the ground and vowed not to leave my side of the world for a long, long time.