Sometimes Things Get Complicated – KPJ Tawakkal Specialist Hospital – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Traveling is currently our life – we try not to think of this adventure as a vacation. And as we all know, life doesn’t always go as planned. On our very first flight to New Zealand, Christine’s bag never arrived… it showed up 12 hours later, but made for a very miserable first day after over a full day of traveling. Since that day, we’ve had falls, hurt ankles, cuts, bruises, ear infections, stomach bugs, sore throats, and colds. We usually choose not to write about these things – we can’t imagine that a “woe is me, I got swimmer’s ear after snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef” post would go over well when everyone is at home shoveling snow. Instead, we focus on the positive…plus, we’d take an ear infection on the Great Barrier Reef over sitting at a desk any day. Injuries and illnesses are part of the experience when you’re constantly traveling and your immune system is working overtime.

With that being said, this story is different. What happened this week is a culmination of events that have been building up behind the scenes. A few weeks ago, when we were still in Vietnam, Christine found what she thought was a pimple under her arm. Random bumps that come and go over the course of a few days are a pretty regular occurrence on this trip, so we didn’t think much of it. Over the next two days, this pimple grew into a larger bump, reminiscent of a third nipple. We thought maybe it was a bug or spider bite, or an ingrown hair. Hopefully not a botfly. When the pain and redness continued to escalate, we decided to visit a doctor in Hanoi. He said it was a skin infection, gave Christine antibiotics and painkillers, and sent us on our way.

The meds culled the pain and dried the area out, and we initially thought it was working! But the bump continued to get bigger, and a large area around it was also now red. Christine started walking around like a tea pot (think, “here is my handle..”) and relying on the only two outfits she had that didn’t rub the affected area. We hoped that the meds would eventually win out, and continued on with our sightseeing in Borneo. Christine was willing to suffer through any amount of pain to see orangutans, but the pain and swelling got so bad that we had to bring things to a halt and see another doctor. After a very confusing, interesting visit to the local hospital in Sandakan (our first taste of government-run healthcare, in an area with limited English!), we were told that the best thing to do would be to have it drained by a surgeon. We had a flight to KL the next day, so there wasn’t enough time to do it there. We left the hospital with stronger antibiotics, pain meds, and a mission to find a surgeon when we got to Kuala Lumpur. And so we did.

We spent our first day in KL in another government-run hospital, running from department to department, waiting in waiting rooms, until we eventually were told what we already knew: “you have a large abscess, and you’ll need surgery to get it drained.” At this point, large was an understatement. We were actually pleased to hear this, and we were ready to go! But there was a hitch. In the government-run healthcare system here, there’s a minimum of a 1-2 day waiting list for surgeries. You get put on the list, but can get bumped at any time if someone has a more pressing issue. They recommended that we go to a private hospital. We found a good one right down the street, and headed over there, where we met with a general surgeon who spoke English and was very precise in his diagnosis.

On a side note, while going through this process, we picked up on what we think was just a cultural thing, but it was quite entertaining. Without fail, the first questions every nurse or doctor would ask us went like this:

Doctor: Are you married?

Christine: Yes

Doctor: Are you breastfeeding?

Christine: No. I understand my husband acts like a child, but he doesn’t need to be breastfed.

Clearly Christine didn’t say that. But it seemed like if you were married, then you should be breastfeeding, not traveling the world. Anyway…

The surgeon confirmed that it was an abscess caused by a skin infection. Sonograms were taken, showing that there was a 1.5 inch long boil right underneath the skin. It was so big and infected that surgery was the only option. The only choice we had to make was whether Christine would stay awake or go under anesthesia. She opted for the nap. We checked into the hospital at 8am Thursday morning, and Christine was wheeled down to surgery at 1pm. The doctor made an incision down the center of the abscess, cleaned it out, and drained it. They sent samples to a lab to find out what bacteria caused this mess. After a long overnight stay in the hospital with a gassy roommate, Christine was released. She literally has a gaping hole under her arm that has to be dressed and packed daily. The area will continue to drain pus, so it can’t be stitched up. It should take about two weeks to heal and close. For now, it’s a new round of stronger antibiotics, painkillers, and hopes that the infection clears and we’re able to get back out there soon.

We were going to post the picture of the incision, but decided against it. Someone said it couldn’t be any more gross than the picture of Kevin’s ear wax, but we assure you, it is. Fortunately we had planned for a 10 day stay in KL, while we’ve typically been on the go every couple of days. We’re grateful to be in a country with a good medical system where we can stay put for a bit as Christine recovers. Our trip continues after this, so positive thoughts for a speedy and hiccup free recovery are welcome!