China, Singapore / Updated on

Almost Going Under the Knife in China and Dodging an $8,000 Medical Bill in Singapore

The needles and probes I could at least understand, but the Vasoline on my belly just didn’t make any sense. I was getting an ultrasound and, had anybody at the hospital spoken English, I would have been able to tell them that I probably wasn’t pregnant.

(Update: I wasn’t.)

The story of my Chinese ultrasound, and the subsequent removal of my gallbladder in Singapore, actually begins two years prior in Queenstown, New Zealand, where I found myself on the opposite end of a thrown fist. A temperamental bouncer at a nightclub landed me in the hospital (I still swear it wasn’t my fault), and I didn't have any health insurance.

Luckily, I was in New Zealand where, even as a tourist, all my care was covered.

In another show of why New Zealand is awesome, it turns out that the healthcare system there is comprehensive enough to cover all people who are legally in the country. I couldn’t believe that my bills were being footed by the government because, frankly, as an American, I’m just not used to that kind of thing.

Queenstown, NZ

Overlooking Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, NZ.

A while down the road, after the dust had settled, I took to my blog and wrote all about what had happened. I hit the “Publish” button and quickly garnered some responses to the unpopular opinion that travel health insurance may not, after all, be worth the investment. After such a positive experience in Queenstown, I was convinced that there couldn’t be any need for it.

My mother, however, did not agree. I awoke the next morning to find an unsolicited email in my inbox, thanking me for my recent purchase of a travel health insurance plan.

Guess who?

It Began With A Chinese Ultrasound

I was to spend the next six months teaching English in Xi'an, China, and my first order of business upon arriving was a medical exam. In order to be granted a residence permit, all my vitals needed to be checked. I was dragged through about an hour’s worth of medical exams, most of which I had never seen before nor understood the function of, and set free to go about my day.

When my results came back, though, one word stood out: GALLSTONES.

It was also a very good explanation for the uncomfortable pains I had recently been dealing with. Let’s call their discovery a lucky coincidence.

So, I had just arrived in central China. I didn’t know where anything was, nor did I speak the language. I didn’t even know how to order food without pointing at faded photos on the restaurant wall—how on earth was I supposed to find a doctor?

Chinese Restaurant

A traditional Chinese restaurant in Yangshuo, Guangxi, China.

Some other expats gave me the phone number for an English-speaking “Dr. Jerry” who was a graduate from medical school in the United States. I visited his office at the hospital, only to learn, later, that his team actually specialized in women’s health.

Not quite what I needed.

On top of this, I was feeling uneasy about undergoing any sort of major surgery in China. Though this hospital seemed hygienic, I had seen plenty of medical centers around the city that looked like something out of the movie Saw. I had also been informed about the deplorable conditions of medical care in some places in China.

I’ve heard of doctors reusing syringes, nurses smoking cigarettes during operations, and even first-hand accounts of reckless and unhygienic gynecological exams.

I decided to pass.

It Ended With A Singaporean Surgery

After doing some research and discovering that Singapore’s medical care rivaled that of many Western countries, I secured a last minute appointment with one of the country’s most prestigious doctors and flew out two days later.

Having never gone through major surgery before, I didn’t want to chance a botched incision.

I know chicks dig scars, but I’d rather get mine from a knife fight or an insane accident on a 4-wheeler. Bragging about my gallbladder removal probably wasn’t going to do it for the ladies. It was just a hunch, but I figured I’d try to keep my scarring to a minimal.

Though my insurance plan covered evacuation, it only stipulated that my medical coverage would be extended to the nearest medical center, not necessarily the nearest one that was reasonably safe. This meant that, if I wanted to be covered in Singapore, I had to find my own way there.

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore.

I booked a flight, landed in Singapore, met with my doctor, scheduled surgery for the next day, admitted myself to the hospital, and put my body in the hands of the nation’s best. The surgery would be a laparoscopic operation (aka minimally invasive surgery, or keyhole surgery), which meant they would make four small incisions around my abdomen and remove my gallstones using telescoping lenses and fiber optic cables.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? To be honest, despite the jarring pain upon regaining consciousness, it kind of was.

Two gallstones, three days, 14 movies and a lot of drugs later (and I do mean a lot), I was released from the hospital. With a week of free time before my followup, I took my time exploring the city!

I walked the streets, ate traditional Malay food and bummed around Little India. I ate well and made sure to visit the Raffles Hotel, home of the famous tipple, the Singapore Sling.

To be honest, though, for a $32 cocktail, I was severely underwhelmed.

But the Gardens by the Bay were unlike anything I’ve ever seen and the Marina Bay Sands was glorious just before Christmas.

Marina Bay Sands

The Marina Bay Sands hotel through the “trees.”

I’m still dying to make my way up to that famous infinity pool, but, since my swimming day was ambushed by a torrential rainstorm, I guess that will just have to wait for my next surgery.

Long Story Short: Travel Insurance Saved My Ass

The total cost of my operation was about $8,000 USD, including the inpatient stay. While I did have to put up about $500 for the flights (plus food and accommodation in Singapore) I very easily could have gotten stuck with a much larger medical bill that I would have been entirely unable to pay.

(Or I could have ended up with a half-smoked Chinese cigarette sewn inside of my abdomen.)

Either way, the cost/benefit analysis of this situation is pretty clear. We never know what is going to happen while we’re overseas and, though we may not ever actually end up using our travel health insurance, emergencies and accidents do happen, and it’s always better to err on the safe side.

In four years of traveling, I've only needed health insurance that one time. I can’t, for the life of me, though, imagine what would have happened if I didn’t have it. So, I guess I should take this moment to say “thanks,” Mom. I probably don't say it often enough, but you definitely deserve it this time!

If you're traveling soon, I really do recommend picking up health insurance. World Nomads is the go-to choice for comprehensive medical and travel coverage. Click here to get a quote!


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