WARNING! This post contains images and descriptions that may be upsetting or gross to some readers! Please continue with caution and don’t say I didn’t warn you!
You want to hear a crazy travel story? With travel, you have to accept that it won’t be “butterflies and rainbows” all the time. The pictures on social media don’t show the hardships and frustrations that most often accompany travel.
That is why everyone always asks me, “What is the scariest thing that has ever happened to you while traveling?”
And my thoughts ALWAYS go to this story where I had surgery on my ear in Vietnam because it was hands down the most frustrating and terrifying travel story I have.
How it Started
So how is it that I managed to have surgery on my ear while backpacking the world? Well, it all started in Hoi An, Vietnam. First off, let me say that this was probably one of my favorite cities that I visited in Vietnam. But that is for another blog post. Long story short, I heard of a drift dive that was a close boat ride away from the city.
I will never turn down a good dive (I’m a mermaid…duh), so naturally I jumped at the opportunity. So fast forward through the dive: it was great! I saw baby clown fish, got lost and had to ascend, waited there for a bit by myself, and got nibbled on by some sea lice. It sounds a bit dramatic, but I was not one to complain and enjoyed the float in the water. Afterward, the boat went to an island where we had food and I relaxed on a pristine beach while reading. It was an absolute dream. Everything was pure bliss…or so I thought.
Here’s What Happened
What Caused All My Problems
The real drama came afterwards. You see, a year and a half before all this I had gotten a double helix piercing. For those of you who don’t know, that is two piercings on the top of the ear. They had had a tough time healing but I didn’t even think twice to jump into that water.
I’m not sure if my goggles knocked it around and opened it back up, or it really just hated the Vietnamese water–-but two days later it was seriously infected! It was swollen and VERY tender.
I soon came to the realization that strikes fear into every traveler: I needed medical attention. Luckily, I was flying to Ho Chi Minh City the next day. Also quick tip: in smaller foreign airports, they might not have a medical center.
I wanted to wrap it or put some antibacterial gel on it for the flight and ended up getting help from a random airport staff member and his first aid kit…very helpful.
WARNING! This is where the pictures get gross! Turn back if you don’t like medical pictures! I will be showing pictures of my ear before, during, and after the surgery!
Finding a Hospital and Ho Chi Minh City
Once I got to Ho Chi Minh, I went with a Vietnamese guide to the hospital. The first stop was an American-style hospital and they proceeded to inform me that all doctors take Sundays off and that they were just on call for emergencies.
Afraid it was going to get worse, I ended up waiting about 3 hours to get into the only local hospital where doctors didn’t take Sundays off. When it was my turn, I went into a communal doctor’s room with 3 other patients. They then told me I had to be hospitalized for at least a week and get an IV antibiotic drip.
I was now beyond frustrated–I needed all that for an infected earring??
After, I decided to go back to the hostel and waited another day per instructions from my doctors back in the US. My ear was massive, inflamed, and extremely angry the next day.
Returning back to the first hospital, I received x-rays and found a doctor willing to take it out. She explained to me that it would have to be surgically removed because the back of the earring was now embedded in the top of my ear.
No worries, right? They would just numb it and they would expose the back of the earring and take it out within 5 minutes. Wrong. I was so wrong. Now this is where it gets a little crazy and if you are squeamish at all, I would advise you to go read another blog post (maybe a happier one like my flower bath in Bali). REPEAT – it gets a little grim.
Getting the Earrings Out
Still with me? Great. So the doctor and a nurse come into the room. The nurse uses her forearm to push my forehead into the table. The doctor proceeds to use the scalpel TO CUT MY EAR OPEN. Now keep in mind, I have nothing–no anesthesia, no pain meds.
Just a table and a nurse holding my head down. And it did not take 5 minutes. By the time she had gotten the first earring out it was around 35 minutes. I would consider myself a pretty tough cookie, but believe me when I say that the fear, the situation, and the pain combined was a horrific combination.
The more I cried, the harder she would push my head into the table. They were having their normal everyday conversations in Vietnamese and every once and a while they would scream, “You’re so strong! YOU PUSH THROUGH PAIN!” (a phrase that my family and I still use as a joke to this day).
After this whole ordeal, she proceeded to show me the bloodied earring (uhhh…thanks?). However, it was only one. She said that the other one wasn’t infected. But you best believe I wanted that thing OUT of my ear. I told her that she could just take it out, but she insisted that my ear was so inflamed that it wasn’t possible. So guess what? She cut that one out too.
Below is the final picture that the doctor took after removing the two earrings.
After She Got the Earrings Out
About an hour later, I honestly couldn’t even feel my ear anymore and just couldn’t cry any more tears. The nurse left and I politely asked where she was going. To that she replied, “she is going to get the anesthetics for the sutures,”
For all of you non-medical people out there, that basically means that she cut my ear open so badly that I needed stitches and the nurse was going to get the numbing medications for the stitches. At that point, I started sobbing. I had no idea why they didn’t numb me from the start but I didn’t care.
The doctor gave me a hug while the nurse came in with the topical anesthesia. They stitched my ear up, took pictures for me, and then wrapped it up. And after all of that, she gave me acetaminophen (Tylenol or paracetamol) for the pain. In a word it was…well…traumatic.
Within 24 hours, I was on a bus all day crossing the border into Cambodia. It then took about 30 minutes for my poor guide (and the doctor on the phone) to cut the wrapping away from my ear because she used non-stick gauze and it had stuck to the dried blood from my ear (see the lovely pictures below….).
I cried to my mom for an hour, my roommate was puking from a stomach bug and then had a cockroach run across my bed. I really can’t make this stuff up. Needless to say, I was living my best life.
Getting the Stitches Out in Cambodia
After about a week, I was dropped off in the middle of nowhere to a clinic that could take out my stitches per the doctor’s orders back in Vietnam. The staff then told me that they had no sterile tools and one of the technicians would bicycle down to the next village to pick them up.
Yep–you read that right. He picked up sterile tools by bicycle. At this point, it all felt like a giant prank show and I was waiting for the host to jump out and say, “We got ya!”
I was told to return to the clinic later that day and when I did return, I made good friends with the nurse! She even offered me a snack from her village that was nearby. I eagerly said yes, grateful that she would offer to share her snacks with me.
My enthusiasm instantly turned to shock when she pulled out a tarantula. For those of you that are used to eating tarantulas, good for you! I, however, am not used to eating such cuisine…but I felt rude not to take it!
During all of this, I thought to myself, “How did it get here? I am in the middle of Cambodia waiting to take stitches out of my ear and am eating a tarantula while I wait,” Now THAT’S an adventure.
The Healing Process
The doctor in Vietnam told me that I could not get it wet for 3 months…but I was still traveling that entire duration of time. Cue the pictures of beautiful locations and me featuring a shower cap or a wrapping made out of band-aids. As with anything in travel–you make the most out of what you have and carry on!
What I Learned and How Can You Learn from Me
Looking back at the whole experience, there are definitely things that I would have done differently. Therefore, I hope that my hardships can help you and I hope that you can learn from my mistakes!
Always buy Traveler’s Insurance
ALWAYS buy traveler’s insurance! Although the prices may be cheaper (or more expensive) than in your home country, it is always good to be covered for those unexpected costs! I was the first person to skimp out on insurance but not anymore! Also, this just gives you peace of mind for anything that you might need.
A quick tip: when choosing insurance, I would also look to see if it has 24-hour support and access to doctors. With my insurance, I was chatting with my doctors and the doctors from the insurance.
They provided me with very helpful advice and guided me through the entire thing! Although they were slow to respond due to time differences and luckily I was traveling with a tour at the time and had a guide!
Another tip: I would make sure that your policy includes airlifting in case you are in a location that does not have the facilities to suit your emergency! I would especially recommend this if you intend to travel anywhere remote or outdoors (camping/hiking).
Be Familiar with the Healthcare System in the Foreign Country
Know and be flexible with that country’s healthcare system. It isn’t going to be exactly like your country’s, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. Be patient with them and know that they are trying to do their best!
Have Someone with You Who Speaks the Language
Bring your guide, or a local friend, or hire a translator. I was very fortunate to be traveling with a guide at the time, but I would have been in some serious trouble if I didn’t have him. I especially ran into issues with the local hospitals and translating.
It would be very frustrating for both the doctor and me to talk about treatments, hospital policies, and care over google translate…
I have worked in healthcare for over 3 years and have been in situations where there was a language barrier and although we got to good care in the end, it definitely was an hindrance for both me and the patient.
Don’t Let your Mind Run Away with Itself
For a good week or two, my mind went absolutely crazy thinking about different scenarios.
What if it gets infected again? Whould they have to remove a section of my ear? What if I can’t find an accessible medical facility?
Even when you are in the comfort of your own home and need medical attention, it can be very scary due to a lack of control. Try doing it in a country that is already out of your comfort zone. The result can be a bit maddening.
Although these thoughts are partially unavoidable, I would encourage you to take a deep breath, recenter yourself, and try to just take the news as it comes. I found that yoga and meditation kept me sane throughout the entire process!
Stay in Contact with the Foreign Doctor as Well as Your Own
As I already mentioned with insurance, it was really helpful to have contact with either your GP or a doctor from the insurance company (or both in my case).
I would recommend this because (if you read my crazy story), I was told that I needed to be hospitalized. But by communicating the situation with my doctors back in the US, I decided against it.
Obviously, this might not always be the case depending on the situation, but I found it helpful to get the opinions of the local doctors as well as from my own doctor who knows my medical history.
I was also very fortunate to keep in touch with the doctor who did my surgery in the following months post-op. This isn’t always guaranteed but I really did appreciate her dedication and it really made my recovery better!
Although it was pretty terrible when it was happening, it also taught me that no matter what travel obstacles are thrown your way, you can handle them! Just take a deep breath and figure it out one step at a time. Plus, it might make a crazy travel story in the future!