The Adventures of Tom: October 2014

 |  April 2, 2015

Hospitals, love them or hate them (and if you love them then a hospital is precisely the place you need to be to get a prescription to sort that out), if you live in Chiang Mai then they are as inevitable as the immigration office.

Obviously not only bad things happen in these places. Babies get born, people get bionic limbs and others are told they are not dying, they are just a bit lactose intolerant.

Hospitals are great places for getting bits of our body fixed. For at least a few, the first visit to one of the many hospitals around Chiang Mai will come shortly after they say to themselves: “So what if I’ve never driven a motorbike before? It’s 200 baht a day. And so what if the roads are some of the most lethal on the planet? I’ve got travel insurance, and this ill-fitting plastic helmet will surely protect me from everything but the very wrath of God himself. What could go wrong?”

The most common injury is usually sustained by those who quickly learn that the exhaust pipe on a bike reaches the temperature of a newly formed star a few seconds after the engine is kick-started. A whiff of burning flesh, searing pain on the inside of the calf and hey presto, you are the proud owner of a “Chiang Mai tattoo.”

But then visiting a hospital to get your new piece of unexpected artwork bandaged by a nurse is arguably as important as visiting Doi Suthep.  You can’t really say you’ve visited the Rose of the North without having had the experience. And it doesn’t cost 1,000 baht, and you won’t know what the finished design looks like until it stops weeping and the scab falls off. A bargain really.

I chose hospitals as a subject because I’ve just been to the Ram to get a health certificate. It seems that if you want to do anything ‘official’ like get a driving licence or a permit for something or other, you first need to find out if you are the proud carrier of a disease that in many countries around the world was wiped out long before the end of the 18th century.

I got tested for four such diseases. Tuberculosis – fair enough, one in every three of us carry it after all. Elephantiasis. A quick look at my arms and legs was enough to assuage the doctor. I’ve seen The Elephant Man, surely if my head was twice the size of everyone else’s at least one of my more observant friends would have pointed it out and suggested I get it looked at. And leprosy. Again, I have very little reference for the disease, but if my foot had fallen off I might have popped into a clinic for a check up pretty quickly. But the oddest one was the blood test for syphilis. Not first or second stage, but third stage, which sounds really scary. Now, I am aware that the disease can remain latent for many years, but I did what all sensible people do when concerned about possible illness and Googled it. Don’t, it’s nasty. But what was very clear is that if I was afflicted I’d bloody well have booked myself into a hospital a very long time ago. (Wear a condom, kids! There is nothing even vaguely amusing about syphilis.)

Anyway, I got a clean bill of health – except for high blood pressure, which was apparently caused by my writhing around under the examination couch screaming at the doctor to get the f***ing needle away from me while throwing kidney-dishes and test-tubes at her. She was trying to do a simple blood test and I panicked. I’m not keen on needles. My blood pressure was normal after I came round from being tasered by security.

Like most of you, I suspect, I have spent more time in the hospitals of Chiang Mai than I care to remember. Strangely the phone calls you get inviting you to come to a hospital are never as nice as an invite to a barbeque or the pub. But thinking about that makes me sad. So let’s cheer up with a bit of dengue fever? Fortunately the perennial visit to a chum who has succumbed to the bite of a naughty mosquito is always quite a jolly affair. Not the drip in the arm or the gloves they make you wear so you don’t scratch yourself, but the amenities available in the hospital room. Take the Ram – it’s like a four-star hotel in there and the rooms are huge. A family of 20 can very happily move in to look after a loved one and camp out for weeks. There’s a kitchen, beds to sleep in and a balcony to smoke fags on. And there’s even a 7-Eleven next to the entrance that sells beer and crisps. I’m still to find out if the rooms are available for birthday parties.

A fun thing about going to a hospital in Chiang Mai is informing loved ones back home that you are doing it. Now, I admit that before moving to this gorgeous city I assumed everyone got around by elephant and that I’d be moving into a treehouse, living on a mostly-mango diet, wearing a sarong and bathing in waterfalls. So I can, sort of, understand why grandma might send a horrified telegram that getting an in-growing toenail sorted out in a Thai hospital might result in a bout of the plague.

Actually, if any of you have visited the hospital in Pai, granny’s panic might be justified. I’m being terribly unfair, but when I visited for a tetanus jab after stupidly putting a nail through my foot it was a bit like the beginning of 28 Days Later.

So, what’s my point? Well, as I said at the beginning, whether we like it or not hospitals will become a part of any expat’s life. We live in a strange environment that would give the health and safety boys and girls back home peculiar paroxysms. Just one tiny little mosquito can really put a dampener on our week, and often a chicken kebab that seemed a brilliant idea at 1am really isn’t by 5am. Most of us get around on an engine strapped to two wheels, statistically the most dangerous form of travel there is, other than tigers. So here’s me raising a glass of lemon ice tea (the powers that be won’t allow me to raise a glass of something more appropriate in this column, but that’s an article to be written in gentler times) to the hospitals of Chiang Mai. You are doing a cracking job. And thanks again for the syphilis all-clear. Granny will be ever so pleased.

Now, of course some of you may have had bad experiences with hospitals here. In fact a quick look at some of the discussion web sites I constantly urge you never to read suggests that many people have. But we have bad experiences everywhere. These are hospitals. Very rarely does one need to visit one because everything is going swimmingly.

If you don’t have a totally shit time in a hospital, I reckon that’s a bonus. The doctors, nurses, porters, receptionists et al spend their lives dealing with people who aren’t feeling particularly chipper, and although everyone should of course be treated brilliantly, have a look round next time you are sitting in the waiting room with a hurty something or other. The grotesquely overworked staff are doing their very best. And it’s not for the fabulous wealth, I can assure you that.