by missfootloose on October 15, 2010 · 15 comments

in adventure, Expat life, Health, Indonesia

Living the expat life offers many rewards, hospitalization usually not one of them.

Once, while living in Indonesia, I suffered from a mysterious and painful abdominal ailment, which landed me in a Catholic mission hospital in a provincial town on the main island of Java.  It was a small, white hospital built around a central garden compound in the middle of which stood a pretty, serene statue of the Virgin Mary. Western medicine was practiced here, if not all was as might be expected.

Photo © Kaja Dutka used by permission

In many parts of the world, the locals have their own traditional ways of healing and the brave ones among us globetrotters might even try these at times and benefit from them.  In Indonesia, the ancient art of herbal healing is known as jamu.  Tonics, pills and powders are widely available in small stalls and from roaming street vendors.  The photo above shows a jamu gendong carrying bottles of her homemade potions in a basket on her back.

There’s a jamu remedy for everything, from simple fatigue to “bloated heart” and marital strife.  Of course, in many far and foreign places, western medicine in some form or other is available as well, if not always practiced in ways that gives us expats comfort.  So, let’s continue with my tale. (Note:  This is a story I offered up earlier, in 2009.)

The doctor attending to me was Indonesian, short, dark and seventy-two years old, I was told, and he spoke Dutch, which was a good thing because it’s my mother tongue.  In the olden days Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands and the official language, therefore, was Dutch.  It no longer is, but among the older generation, some people still spoke it.

The doctor was a university professor, a surgeon still operating regularly.  He looked old and frail.  Surreptitiously, I examined his hands.  Were they shaking?  He thought I might have appendicitis, but not acute.  X-rays were taken, and I was administered penicillin, after I was first given a test to see if I might be allergic.  I could have told the nurses I was not, but my Indonesian was not up to the challenge and they spoke no English and most certainly no Dutch (they were post-colonial), so I let them go ahead.

They were tiny, flat-chested girls and they looked to be about sixteen.  They giggled a lot.  This is an annoying (nervous) habit of Indonesian girls and not one that instills in you a lot of confidence when you’re dealing with medical personnel.

I lay alone in my private white room, feeling very sakit and, frankly, very frightened.  An older nun, in habit, came to cheer me up.  In Dutch.  It was reassuring, somehow.  She had a wonderful sense of humor and made me laugh, which wasn’t so easy considering where I was, having the threat of surgery by a shaky old doctor hanging over my head.  Having been brought up in the Calvinist tradition, I had never had a close encounter with a Catholic nun, but this one surely was a comfort to me and didn’t at all resemble some of the ones I’d heard about from American friends who’d been educated in private Catholic schools.

Being a foreigner, I served as entertainment for the nurses, whose contact with aliens of my ilk clearly had been limited.  Two at a time they gave me sponge baths, discussing my painted nails while they were at it.  I knew why.  The polish covered the entire nail.  How much more elegant and dainty the nails would look if I hadn’t polished the moon-shaped cuticle!  We all have our ideas of glamour.

They were mystified and amused by my wish to have my tea without sugar, but the greatest kick they got out of me was seeing my consternation at finding a cat roaming the halls.  Assuming the scraggly feline had slipped in by mistake, I dragged myself out of bed and immediately reported the discovery, speaking my fractured and limited Indonesian.  I had expected a certain amount of uproar from the nurses.  There was none.

They smiled prettily and giggled.

Assuming they did not understand me, I persisted.  “Kuching!” I kept repeating, gesturing wildly into the hall. “Kuching!” Finally, they came out of the nurses’ station with me and I pointed triumphantly at the feline, who, right on cue, came arrogantly strolling out of one of the little supply rooms where a cart with sterile stuff stood at the ready, possibly to be used for my surgery.  I wondered if going the jamu route might not have been a better choice.

Packages of jamu.  Photo by Mayu

“Kuching!” I said again, just to prove I knew of which I spoke.  The nurses giggled some more, and nodded.  Indeed, a cat.  They looked at me as if I were a mad woman.  I was beginning to feel like one.

Defeated, I went back to my room and contemplated the situation.  Perhaps the cat was there to keep the rats away.

The next day I was cured and released.  Don’t tell me it was the penicillin.  It was mind over matter.
NOTE:  This was many years ago.  Hopefully no more cats in Indonesian hospitals.

* * *

Have you had any interesting or scary hospital or doctor stories in foreign countries?  Go ahead, tell me your tale and terrify me.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

GutsyWriter October 15, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Good thing you escaped surgery. My 13-year-old was hospitalized in Belize after touching a poisonwood tree. He was highly allergic and couldn’t open his eyes. They gave him an IV, in a dirty hospital and I thought about AIDS. Fortunately, he came out fine, but I hate to say, I worried about the treatment.


missfootloose October 25, 2010 at 1:41 am

What a nightmare! I know of people who carry around their own hypodermic needles while traveling in Third World countries.


Ian October 16, 2010 at 1:45 am

‘I had never had a close encounter with a Catholic nun.’ Oddly, come to think of it, neither have I. I like the way you write.


MaryWitzl October 16, 2010 at 3:37 am

I’m such a cat-lover that I’d have been reassured by a feline ward patrol — just as long as she did her mousing out of my sight and stayed off the sterile equipment and linens.

When I was traveling in Mexico, I got terrible dysentery and friends managed to get me to a clinic. The doctor who saw me was so obese I don’t know how he managed to get into his office, let alone his car or public transport. He could barely move his neck without effort. He just squeezed his eyes shut, whispered ‘dysentery’ in Spanish, and managed to write me a prescription for Lomotil.

I love it that I can come here and feel as though you’ve taken me to places where I always wanted to live, but never got around to. Now I know about jamu and I’m thrilled!


missfootloose October 25, 2010 at 1:44 am

Mary, yikes, dysentery! I have escaped that one in my travels and hope to keep it that way. Glad to know you’re entertained 😉


maria altobelli October 16, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Well, let’s see, this ex-pat shifts through her encyclopedia of Mexican health tales. How about the time I went for leg surgery, the idea being to drug me from the waist down? I heard the anesthesiologist say to the nurses, “This solution is way out of date. We have a three-hour surgery here. It will never last.”

Then the time two giggling nurses (yes, they giggle in Mexico as well) tried to give my husband an electro-cardiogram while reading the instructions and Paul kept saying in his patient teaching voice, “Left. Left. Left is over here.”

During our eleven years living and staying healthy in Mexico, we’ve had health care chuckles like the two incidents above (oh, yes, I found the first story funny), one incident of horrible hospital care that almost killed Paul and just about broke the bank (he went into the hospital in an ambulance and I took him out in an ambulance), and also some of the best care a person could want anywhere in the world at a price much less than our insurance premiums in the States.

And we’ve had numerous opportunities to witness local traditional medicine. I’ll never forget the time we saw how a curandera stopped a baby’s howling mid scream after the parents practically went crazy listening to him scream for a solid month and the priciest specialists were unable to help.

It’s been an interesting ride in our expat life. Since we’re still alive and kicking, we ain’t complaining.


missfootloose October 25, 2010 at 1:47 am

Maria, you are a veritable fountain of tales! You’ve had some scary experiments. Paul’s ECG story gave me a chuckle. Thanks for sharing. Stay healthy!


Madame DeFarge October 16, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Unless you count breaking my ankle in Sheffield, I try to avoid unhealthiness abroad. it makes me think that the NHS is actually rather good, which is a scary thought.


missfootloose October 25, 2010 at 1:51 am

The NHS is fabulous compared to the health services most of the world has. Best though to stay healthy wherever you are.


guyana gyal October 17, 2010 at 8:01 am

I must speak up for our hospitals in strange lands, living in one of those strange lands myself…hmm…what can I say? Just the word ‘hospital’ terrifies me, I’m so afraid of illness, doctors, needles.

I don’t think any hospital is safe from ‘unhealthiness’…friend of mine contracted septicemia in a hospital in England, and another friend’s brother died from a wrong injection in America, so did a relative of a relative. I can think of more but now I’m scaring myself silly.


missfootloose October 25, 2010 at 1:53 am

Yes, there are terrifying stories everywhere. Hospitals are now breeding grounds for super bacteria no antibiotic can cure. It gives me the creeps.


Welshcakes Limoncello October 17, 2010 at 4:12 pm

What an experience! People still use some very strange folk cures in Sicily – one being to put a dish of heated olive oil on the back of someone with a chest complaint. I can imagine your consternation at seeing the cat!


missfootloose October 25, 2010 at 1:56 am

A dish of olive oil? Now if they’d rub the oil into your back, who knows, it might help… there are some very strange cures in the world. I wonder if there is a book about them. Would be fun to read.


Mara October 18, 2010 at 1:02 pm

I had to see a doctor while in the south of Italy a few years ago. I knew I had a urinary tract infection and needed antibiotics prescribed. So, the hotel owner phoned a doctor and when he arrived, the three of us (tiny hotelier, tiny doctor, huge me) got into the elevator to go upstairs to an empty room. The doctor wondered where the driver was and was quite surprised when the hotelier pointed at me.

After the examination (him prodding me in the abdominal area), he started asking questions. The extent of my Italian was as big as: peepee ouch, but he got what I meant. Then he wanted to know how I knew I had a urinary tract infection and I told him about my cat having had the same problem. He looked at me as if I had just turned into an alien.

Despite my cat I got my antibiotics and by the time I got back to the Netherlands, I was all better.


missfootloose October 25, 2010 at 1:58 am

Thank you for sharing…I could just see this in my mind’s eye. I once read about an American womn who had a yeast infection, and knew what it was she needed, went to the pharmacy and had to pantomime her condition in front of the other customers waiting to be helped. Oh, the things we do!


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