Getting Sick and Getting Better in Thailand

Originally posted on March 31, 2011

A few weeks ago a friend went to Chiang Mai Ram Hospital for a simple procedure and dropped me an email about it. He complained about how the prices at the hospital and gone up considerably and how he opted to go to the government hospital for his treatment. He was very happy with his treatment there and with the cost.

Now it’s my turn.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Thailand was a good place to stay healthy. But sometimes our health just seems to want to remind us how impermanent all physical things really are. I wish it weren’t so, but occasionally this 65 year old body does break down and I do get sick (which is why this latest post took so long in coming). So, with the object of continuing to give you information about the Thai medical system here so that you can make informed decisions for yourself, I’ll relate my story.

I’m not one for getting headaches, only one or two in the last 5 years, so when I woke up one morning a few weeks ago with the worst pain in my head that I have ever felt I knew something wasn’t right. The pain shot up the left side of my neck and up to the top of my head. It wasn’t one of those inside-the-brain kind of pains so I knew it wasn’t a migraine and the best way to describe it was that it felt like someone hit me upside the head with a lead pipe.

A couple of days later, after lots of pain killers and heat pads, with the pain seeming to get worse if that were possible, I broke down and did what I should have done in the first place. I consulted the Internet.

I’m pretty good at searching for answers on the Internet since I worked for 20 years creating databases for large corporations. I know how searches work. So I was able to find some conditions that fit my symptoms – shooting pain on one side of the head, neck and throat pain, sensitivity to light, and a burning sensation to touch of any kind on my scalp – like my hair was on fire. I thought of the Arnold Swarzenegger movie quote “Maybe it’s a tumaaaa”, and hoped that wasn’t it. The Internet treatment suggestion: Get thee to a doctor. Which is what I finally did.

I went to the above mentioned Chiang Mai Ram Hospital.

A little aside here – Chiang Mai Ram is a private hospital and is more expensive than the local government hospital. A friend of mine just recently went to the outpatient clinic at the government hospital and his wait was many hours, to get an appointment to see a specialist, and then he came back a second and third time and did finally get good inexpensive treatment after that. In America I would have had to see a general practitioner (about $100) who would then recommend a specialist. I would call the specialist and probably wait a number of pain-filled weeks before I could see him (a couple of hundred dollars) and finally get drug prescriptions (lots more money), then follow-up appointments at hundreds of dollars each.

Here is what happened at Chiang Mai Ram. I went to the receptionist and told her my problem. She immediately suggested that I see their neurologist. No problem with that I said; I would have requested one if she hadn’t suggested it. I went up to the 4th floor, told the nurse who I was, and was told to wait. I got out my book, which I found impossible to read because of my head pain. But before I could put on the earphones of my mp3 player I was called into the neurologist’s office – total waiting time, 3 minutes.

My doctor was a young, pretty, woman, who greeted me warmly and asked which language I preferred to use with her. Since I had spent all morning looking up the Thai words for my symptoms I asked if we could speak Thai (to give me some practice). She said fine although I believe she would have been just as comfortable in either language.

Now I had an idea of what was wrong with me but kept quiet about my self-diagnosis just to see what she would say. I told her my symptoms but before saying anything she gave me a simple neurological exam, checking deep into my eyes and then checking reflexes and asking all kinds of questions. When she was sure I didn’t have a “tumaaa” she offered her opinion. “I believe you have what is called Occipital Neuralgia”, she said. Exactly what my Internet expertise led me to believe.

In my searching through the Internet I found so many people with just this condition. A common complaint heard was that it took so long and so many visits to many doctors, and so many weeks of pain, before they could get the correct diagnosis of Occipital Neuralgia. That was probably because it is a somewhat rare condition and they had seen lots of non-specialist doctors before getting to see a true neurologist. Knowing this, I was quite impressed with my doctor and the hospital overall.

To conclude, my doctor showed me some pictures of the scull and spinal column to illustrate what might be causing the problem. She assured me that it was treatable (remember, I still felt that lead pipe bouncing off my head at this time), and prescribed some medication (muscle relaxants, neuralgia meds, pain killers) and scheduled a follow-up appointment.  After a few days the pain had decreased until it was like a simple wooden paddle hitting me upside the head. The doctor was quite pleased during our follow-up and said I was on the way to recovery.

It is a few days later now and the pain is about 95% gone.

Cost for all this: Doctors fee 300 baht per visit, 2 weeks medication (4 different kinds) 1,700 baht. Total cost about $77. Being pain-free, priceless.

Just to prove how successful my treatment has been – note that I have been able to keep it all together long enough to write this post – something I couldn’t have done a few days ago.

Here’s wishing good health to you all.