Expat Child in Pain: Hunting Down the Doctor

by Miss Footloose

As an expat or a traveler, have you ever found yourself looking for medical treatment in an unusual, interesting or scary place? I expect you probably have a tale or two, possibly not all of the funny variety.

When you think of a doctor’s examining room, you generally envision a clean, bright place with properly sterilized and gleaming instruments, no cats, and well-trained human personnel. It is my experience that medicine, good and bad, is sometimes practiced in places that do not resemble examining rooms, such as church basements or refurbished bedrooms. Here’s a story of where the search for medical help led us one tropical morning in the Far East.

Thai Pharmacy – Photo by K. Nicoll

The Sleepy Doctor and the Achy Ear

While living in Indonesia, we once found ourselves, (one husband, two daughters and I) on vacation in Thailand on the beautiful island of Phuket in the Andaman Sea. The food was delicious, the weather tropical, the younger daughter sick. Her ear hurt. Swimmer’s ear, or an infection. She’d had both before.

After some inquiry, we were directed to a clinic. When we got there, we found it closed.

This was not good news

Back to our hotel, where a young man assured us he knew where to find a doctor and offered to be our guide.

We clambered back into our rickety rented Jeep with its faulty brakes, a relic from the Vietnam War, ended decades ago. Property of the United States of America, said a little plaque on the dashboard.

We maneuvered through narrow streets, past small houses, avoiding goats and chickens, in search of the physician who had an office behind a shop.

I wish I had a video

Deep into the labyrinthine mysteries of the village we found this commercial establishment, a one-room general store with shelves chock-full of exotic-looking cans, jars and boxes. Like a line of ducks we traipsed between the narrow aisles and out a back door into an outside passage.

We heard children, a radio, saw a little boy in his underpants run across a courtyard, and finally we found ourselves in a room that looked like a stock room. Boxes with supplies squatted everywhere. A tiny table held some doctor-type things like cotton and tongue depressors. A shabby examining couch languished in the middle of the room, holding more boxes. A limp curtain with faded purple roses enclosed a corner. The room, it seemed, was a combination of waiting room, consultation room and dispensary.

Trying not to worry . . .

Presently, a sleepy young man wearing crumpled shorts and a Micky Mouse T-shirt slouched into the room, sagged down on a chair behind a tiny desk and yawned. It was 9:30 a.m. Had we got him out of bed? Well he was young. Maybe he’d partied last night.

We explained about our daughter’s ear, pointing at it for further clarification. The young man took out a flashlight, peered into her ear and nodded. His English was not extensive, but we didn’t need much. We were not dealing with great medical mysteries, for which we thanked the gods. The doctor put a thermometer under our daughter’s arm and told her to sit down.

We waited. I studied a poster on the wall, a chart with pictures of various contraceptives. The doctor yawned some more. The room was stuffy and warm. I examined my nails.

Like watching a movie . . .

A knock on the door. Two gorgeous Thai women glided into the room and a conversation ensued. The doctor took some capsules out of a big glass jar, put them in a paper bag and handed it to one of the dark-eyed goddesses. She offered him some bills in return, which he stuffed in his desk drawer. The women glided out.

The doctor checked the thermometer, then showed it to us. Our little girl had a slight fever. Yawning, the doc rummaged through his medical supplies on the shelves. He handed us a small bottle of ear drops and three other bottles of liquid potions–one yellow (antihistamine), one red (aspirin), and one pink (antibiotic).

Scary stuff

We checked the bottles carefully, reading the labels where possible, assuring ourselves the stuff was what the medicine man said it was. In foreign lands with limited resources bottles of all kinds are used over and over again, as we experienced in African years ago. When you get medicine in beer bottles stoppered with an old rag, you might want to choose the illness over the cure. (Please do not point out to me that when you leave the comforts of the modern western world, you’re asking for trouble and you deserve everything you get. We knew that. We left anyway.)

We paid the doctor for his services and the medicine, an amount for which in mentioned modern western world you might have procured a cup of coffee and a donut. Who says all doctors are bloodsuckers? Not me.

Such a sweetheart!

Utterly relieved she was not given an injection, our little daughter wanted to show the doctor her gratitude. She searched her shorts’ pockets for a shell she had found on the beach the day before, but came up with nothing. Clean shorts, no shell.

“Oh, well,” she said, smiling prettily, “I’ll give you one next time I have an ear infection.”

We suggested that perhaps we ought to try not to have any more ear infections.



NOTE: As I’m sure you all know, Thailand is famous for medical tourism and medical care of first-class quality is available. However, I expect that ordinary Thai citizens in small villages in distant locations do not normally have these services available to them. Our adventure with the sleepy doctor took place many years ago in a small village.

QUESTIONS: Were you ever treated by an unusual or scary doctor? A native medicine man? In a strange place? What sort or medicines did you get? What was done to you?

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Such fun!

[…] in THAILAND, where trouble found us in the form of an ear ache afflicting our number two daughter (Expat Child in Pain: Hunting Down the Doctor)  we were careful about the medicine we were given by a sleepy doctor wearing shorts and a Micky […]

We got to see the best and worst of care in India. In the same day even! We arrived at a state run hospital to get some shots and were so freaked out by what we saw we left before our turn. LOL We then went to a private hospital that was far nicer than even some in the Real World iv’e been to.

Well, when I lived in China I had so much ear wax that my ears were excruciatingly painful. I went to a native doctor who removed the wax with a rusty small spoon. His advertisement about how ‘good’ he was, was a pile of perforated ear drums!!! Luckily, my ear drums survived intact… but never again!

I never went to the dentist in China during the three years I was there for obvious reasons…

I love your writing. Are these excerpts from your book? Yes, my son had to be hospitalized due to poisonwood, and my husband left him at 13, in a hospital in Belize with 2 doctors who couldn’t speak English. I was so mad that he left him there. They placed an IV, and Belize has a high concentration of AIDS patients. We yanked him out of the hospital after 3 hours.

I had terrible bacterial dysentery in Oaxaca, Mexico — so bad I lost 18 lbs in two weeks, and could ill afford the weight loss. The doctor I went to must have weighed 400 lbs — I’m not kidding. It was clearly an effort for him to rise to his feet. He wrote me a prescription for Lomotil and just the effort of writing made him break out in a sweat.

Doris Gallan

Great story Karen. We’re lucky that we don’t have kids as the range of ailments and frequency increases quite a bit! Enough that we catch colds etc. and need to have OTC meds. Although, I did have my heart checked thoroughly in Mexico and was very impressed with the doctors and the equipment they used. Doris

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