Let me begin this post by saying “I’m OK, no one on my group is hurt or sick”. Don’t panic. Now, back-tracking to the story. A group of CIEE-ers (all American students studying abroad) and I went to the Khon Kaen hospital to get malaria pills for our travels to rural areas the CDC marked as having malaria. We arrived at the hospital, ten lost Americans with two Thai roommates who came along to translate that this group of Americans were not tourists who wandered in by accident looking for Pad Thai, but rather all wanted to see the doctor.
We were signed in and our passports scanned, then were led upstairs into some sort of waiting room where we sat for about half an hour before one by one being led behind a curtain and a nurse took our blood pressure, height and weight. I once again forgot about the metric system before realizing my weight was displayed not in pounds, but kilograms.
Then we sat. And sat. For about an hour, we chatted in the waiting room area with Thai nurses in crisp uniforms and sailor caps bustling by, giving long, searching looks at the farang (foreigners) sitting casually in the hospital. Then a man, the first one I had seen so far that was not a patient, came out from behind a closed door. I am pretty sure he was the doctor because everyone else I had seen were women in nurse’s uniforms. He gave a long spiel about how he was happy to give the ones who requested typhoid and Japanese Encephalitis vaccines. However, he did not think we needed antimalarial pills. Malaria, he claimed, was nowhere in Thailand and so we did not need it. We explained that we were going to very rural areas, and the CDC said we should take them. He still declined, saying that there was no risk of malaria for us.
The doctor went on to say that even if there were, it would be better to treat malaria than prevent it. This was one of the more interesting comments because once a person gets malaria, they may not be able to entirely get rid of it and it comes back throughout your life (http://www.cdc.gov/malaria/about/disease.html). We pressed him, telling him that our government recommended anti-malaria pills and that we were also travelling to Cambodia and Laos. At this, he acknowledged that Cambodia had malaria, but Thailand was fine. This approach appeared nationalistic to me; the fact that we were foreigners probably played into his response.
We were called back individually into his office, where a female nurse stood guard over the doctor like a sentry as I asked for the malaria pills directly, because I knew more about the CDC’s website and why it recommended pills than I knew about this man that I was not even sure if was a doctor. He consented to giving me the pills. Success! After another hour of waiting to get the pills, fellow students discovered our favorite room; a free snack room. Since by now it was around 3:30pm and none of us had had lunch, expecting our visit to take a lot less time, we fell on the food like sharks smelling blood.
I’m not sure what I ate, but it was one of the most delicious things I had ever eaten. And very nice that the hospital provided such a service.
Eventually, I was led to a check-out station where I paid for my visit and 7 weeks worth of malaria pills (812 baht total, or $22.55USD) and was able to escape to the beautiful, wonderful outdoors where the weather had turned to a cool, pleasant 85 degrees. Overall, while the experience was by no means pleasant, I felt very privileged. I was able to obtain information about the potential hazards to my health on my own with my own sources, and was treated with respect once I asserted my decision to buy malaria pills. I was also able to experience another health care system first-hand, without being sick or injured. Let’s hope that I don’t have to go back for more serious reasons – I learned enough the first time around!