This is the story of my recent hospitalization abroad, the steps I took to receive adequate care and the reasons for my decision to return to the United States as quickly as possible.
I arrived in Singapore on Saturday morning, on a Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur. I hadn’t slept much the night before, but still hoped to have a productive day exploring the city.
After lunch, I began to experience some minor to moderate chest pain. It caught me off guard, and I decided to lay down in the hopes that it would go away. I fell asleep for several hours and awoke refreshed and pain-free.
Later that evening, I took advantage of the delicious spread in the executive lounge at the JW Marriott Singapore South Beach Hotel.
The pain returned, and it was severe. Because I had pain occurring for the second time following a meal in the same day, I assumed it was related to something I had eaten. Perhaps the honey-roasted cashews I ate with lunch were the culprit? Perhaps this pain was the heartburn I hear about from friends, but had never experienced myself?
I rolled across the street to the 7-Eleven and purchased some antacid tablets at exorbitant prices (16 tablets for about $11 U.S. Dollars). I chewed a few tablets, and waited for relief.
That relief never came, so I decided to lay down again. It was nighttime and I wanted to be well-rested for the next day in Singapore.
About 20 minutes after laying down, I began vomiting. A lot. My trashcan was filled with about 3 to 4 inches of the stuff. Gross.
Around 2 or 3 a.m., I fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion — 4 to 5 hours after the pain had struck.
When I woke up Sunday morning, I was a bit sore, but otherwise OK. “That will be the last time I eat honey-roasted cashews,” I mumbled while climbing into my wheelchair.
I had missed breakfast, and decided to jump straight into my activities for the day. I visited the iconic Helix Bridge, toured the Asian Civilisations Museum and rolled around Singapore before returning to the hotel for afternoon tea.
For nourishment, I had a glass of chamomile tea and a few sandwiches. No pain, which was great. I remember thinking, I’m glad that episode is behind me now.
I then visited Fort Canning Park and the National Museum of Singapore, before attending the 5:30 p.m. Mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. I was delighted by the accessibility of the church, which had automatic doors and a clearly designated space for wheelchair users.
Following Mass, I rolled back to the hotel and enjoyed another meal in the executive lounge. I ate a salad, some chicken wings, prawns and beef kabobs.
The pain returned, beginning in the stomach, and was moderate at first. Having learned my lesson from the previous night, I decided not to lay down. I took a couple of antacid tablets and went out to explore the casino at Marina Bay Sands. I played baccarat for three hours and was up on the casino by about $150 USD, but my chest pain was increasing.
After returning to the hotel, I took stock of the situation. Thinking out loud, I said, “I have a high pain tolerance, but I’m doubled over. I just don’t believe that this level of pain is typical of acid reflux, and I don’t believe this is what heartburn is supposed to feel like.”
At 5 a.m. on Monday, I checked-in to the emergency room at Raffles Hospital in Singapore.
I had a room within minutes and was quickly seen by a doctor. An IV was inserted and my blood was drawn for lab tests within 25 minutes, and a chest x-ray was taken within 35 minutes. No pain medicine was administered, but I was given Nexium to help calm my stomach. It was not effective.
After about three hours of continued suffering in the ER, the doctors referred me to a gastroenterologist. I paid for my ER visit, which cost 885 SGD, or about $634 USD.
By 9 a.m., I was talking with the GI doctor, who had reviewed my bloodwork and remarked on indications of “reduced liver function.” He believed that a gallstone might be the issue, and ordered some additional tests.
I was admitted to the hospital at 11 a.m., and a CT scan was administered. It revealed some inflammation in a passageway to/from the liver, and I was scheduled for an endoscopy shortly thereafter. Anesthesia was necessary for the procedure and I awoke at around 2 p.m.
While waiting for the results, I decided that my trip to Australia a few days later would have to be cancelled. Getting back to the United States, my family and medical providers was a priority, and I tentatively booked a flight that would depart from Singapore in less than 12 hours. Using American Airlines frequent flyer miles, I purchased a Japan Airlines business class ticket from Singapore to New York for just 70,000 miles and about $70 USD in taxes and fees.
At 5 p.m., my doctor in Singapore informed me that more tests would be needed the following day — an MRI to examine my gastrointestinal system in greater detail, a more invasive scope and, potentially, the surgical removal of my gallbladder. Alternatively, I could travel home for a second opinion and further treatment — a risky proposition.
I was given the choice of remaining in the hospital overnight or going back to my hotel. I chose the latter, and paid my bill for my treatment. The cost was 3,220 SGD, or about $2,322 USD. This brought my total for medical care in Singapore to nearly $3,000 USD.
By 7:00 p.m. on Monday — 14 hours after going to the hospital, I was back in my hotel room. The flight I had booked earlier in the day was set to depart in less than five hours. Since my pain had subsided, I took a calculated risk and decided to leave for America.
At approximately 1:50 a.m. on Tuesday, Japan Airlines flight JL 38 pushed back from the gate at Singapore’s Changi Airport. I was aboard the flight of seven hours to Tokyo, Japan, where I had a one hour layover before the departure of JL 6, a 13-hour flight to New York City.
I slept comfortably in the lay-flat business class seat for six of the seven hours to Tokyo. I chose not to eat any food, so as not to aggravate my stomach before the long-haul flight to New York.
About halfway through JL 6, I was hungry and decided to eat a light meal. Pain presented itself in moderate form thereafter, but only lasted two hours. I reclined my seat a bit and watched two movies — the Lady Gaga flick, A Star is Born, and Robert Redford’s The Old Man & the Gun. Before I knew it, we were on final approach, had landed, and I had re-entered the United States. My calculated risk paid off.
By 9 p.m. on Tuesday, I had checked-in at a hospital emergency room in the State of Florida. I handed over my medical records from Singapore and doctors ordered the full spectrum of tests.
I was admitted to the hospital and, over the course of Wednesday and Thursday, had x-rays, a CT scan, an ultrasound, a MRI and multiple rounds of bloodwork. The results confirmed the work of my doctor in Singapore, and my pain was found to have been caused by a stone released from the gallbladder.
It is now Friday, six days after my symptoms first presented themselves on another continent. In just a few hours, I will be taken to the operating room to have my gallbladder removed. The procedure is routine, with minimal risk, and should prevent a repeat occurrence of the pain that led me to cancel a trip to Australia.
Following my surgery, I will submit records of my expenses to my medical and travel insurance providers for reimbursement. I hope to detail that process and the outcome in a future article.
If you are planning to take a trip of your own, don’t forget to purchase travel insurance. Check out these travel insurance recommendations for people with disabilities. The unexpected can happen to anyone and at any time, so it’s important to be protected.
Thanks for your kind words, prayers and support over the past few days — I look forward to getting back to blogging soon!