I think most of us have come down with something at some point on our travels. Whether it be food poisoning or just a common cold, getting sick on your holiday is never fun. But what happens when you become seriously ill abroad and end up in a foreign hospital? Today, we’re interviewing Eliza McCann from My Awesome Adventure about the time her and her husband both ended up in hospital with dengue fever in Cambodia… at the same time!
When travel goes wrong: dengue fever in Cambodia
1. It’s great to have you here, Eliza! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m originally from Sydney but have lived in London, Leura in the Blue Mountains, Bali and for the last two years, Melbourne. I write and publish kid’s journals including the travel journals – My Awesome Bali Adventure and My Awesome Sydney Adventure and the recently published sporting journal My Incredible Netball Journal. I’ve also co-authored a kid’s picture book called Little Piggy’s Got No Moves with my husband, Phillip Gwynne, who is an award-winning author. I have two girls, Ruby and Ella, who are 12 and 10.
2, Okay, let’s set the scene. What were your travel plans for this particular trip?
We were living in Bali and decided that we would explore Cambodia over the Christmas holidays. My husband and I had both always wanted to visit Angkor Wat and Cambodia was somewhere that neither of us had been to. I have to confess that we aren’t very organised travellers so we had just booked a couple of nights in Phnom Penh and figured we would work the rest out when we got there. We had about a month to explore so we thought we’d go where the mood took us!
Just before we left for our holiday a friend had a paintball party (all grown-ups, by the way!) for their birthday. I’d never done it before and it turns out there’s a reason why: I hated paintball. We had to wear hot suits in 40-degree heat and after the first round, I decided I didn’t really enjoy shooting my mates. I was quite happy to be splotched with paint and leave the field. My husband was similarly uninterested. We hung out as the rest of the group joined us one by one, leaving only the alpha males left to shoot it out.
We sprayed each other with mosquito repellent while we watched everyone shoot it out under the hot sun and laughed how the unused quarry where we were playing was basically a dengue pit. We weren’t laughing two weeks later!
3. What happened?
My husband was the first to go down. There’s an incubation period for dengue so we didn’t have any symptoms or know that we had caught anything until a week later. We were in Phnom Penh and Phillip said that he was feeling poorly and stayed in the hotel room while the kids and I went out exploring. Phillip’s brother had recently died and he’d been working hard and travelling between Myanmar and Bali so I figured he might have just needed some space.
The kids and I went to the Royal Palace, caught tuk tuks, ate delicious Cambodian food and went ice skating in a shopping centre (as you do). We were travelling to Siem Reap so Phillip went to a clinic for some medication but he ended up getting his heart checked and he got the all clear.
The day we were scheduled to leave with a driver to Siem Reap, Phillip couldn’t get out of bed. I feel a bit guilty knowing what I know now because I told him to get himself together and snap out of it!
Our driver found another customer so I ran around town and found out that although it would take a bit longer, there was a bus that would get us there. I didn’t expect it to be six hours longer. Poor Phillip was suffering on the back seat of an uncomfortable bus travelling over bumpy roads and having cold sweats. The kids and I chatted with some of the other travellers on the bus and ate fried grasshoppers at a roadside stall. Every time we stopped at a local market we had buy Phillip new clothes as his were soaked through. He’s 6′ 4” so that made for some interesting shopping.
We finally arrived in Siem Reap two days before Christmas. The moment we checked into our lovely hotel, I suffered from incredible fevers, my sheets were drenched within an hour and I was hallucinating madly. The kids just ran amok around the hotel entertaining themselves as neither of us could lift our heads off the pillow.
On Christmas Day, the kids woke up excited and asked why Santa hadn’t bought them any presents and what were we doing for lunch later that day. I took the kids down to the hotel restaurant and ended up lying on the floor in the middle of the restaurant while they at their breakfast. I don’t remember ever feeling as sick as I did at that moment.
The hotel manager suggested I see a doctor (funny that!) so he put me in a tuk tuk and sent me to the local surgery. My little daughter Ella joined me and I fainted on the way there. The tuk tuk driver took me to a doctor who only spoke French. I’ve done university French so should have been able to answer my name and age but all I could do was respond in Bahasa Indonesian.
That situation wasn’t going to work so Ella and I hopped in a different tuk tuk and went straight to the hospital where I walked in and collapsed. The nurses put me on a drip straight away as I was completely dehydrated. The hospital was great and did lots of tests and diagnosed me with dengue.
I rang Phillip and told him to grab Ruby and an overnight bag and hop on the first tuk tuk and join me on a drip! The poor kids. Merry Christmas!
Phillip was also diagnosed with dengue. We were put in separate rooms and the girls were given fold-out beds. They basically spent days running around the hospital, being entertained by the nurses and eating all the mentos from the jars at the reception desk.
Phillip got better after a few days and was discharged but was still very sick as dengue takes months to recover from properly. Instead of getting better, my platelets were dropping daily. My gall bladder was being attacked and it was getting quite dangerous.
4. Did you have travel insurance to cover the medical expenses?
Thankfully we had travel insurance and they were fantastic. The insurance company was in touch with the hospital daily.
Because I wasn’t getting better and my platelets were dangerously low, the hospital and the insurance company decided it was safer to fly me to a hospital in Bangkok. On New Year’s Eve, I went on a private plane with just a doctor, a nurse, a pilot and co-pilot and was flown from Siem Reap to Bangkok. The plane could only accommodate 6 so none of my family could come with me.
I was given a crazy cocktail of painkillers and boarded the plane on a stretcher and handed my passport to immigration flat on my back. I’m not a huge fan of small planes but I was so drugged up it didn’t bother me one bit! The lights of Bangkok looked quite spectacular from above. I was rushed on a stretcher into a waiting ambulance and taken to the emergency section of the Bangkok hospital.
The insurance company arranged for Phillip and the girls to fly on a commercial Thai Airways flight but I didn’t know what time or where I was going to meet them. I didn’t have my phone charged so I spent a very lonely night in the very busy emergency room wondering where my family was.
I found out later that I was flown to have my gall bladder removed but because my platelets were so low they couldn’t operate because I would bleed out. I couldn’t even brush my teeth over the weeks I was in hospital because I would bleed so much.
We all reunited in the hospital the next day and I was delirious with joy to be back with my family! There was only one catch. My brother in law’s funeral was arranged for two day’s time. Should my husband go?
I was adamant that Phillip attend but he was uncertain as to whether he should leave me. There was the option for the girls to go with him but two things held us back on them flying with him. They had never been to a funeral before and, more importantly, I was scared to let them go. Having the kids around made me happy. They’re fun and crazy and because I was so sick I craved their energy.
We made the decision that Phillip should go to the funeral and the kids would stay with me in Bangkok. We organised a nanny to come to the hospital to look after the kids and we had two fold out beds put in my hospital room.
The minute Philip left, I had regrets. The girls started watching ‘The Amazing World of Gumball’ really loudly in Thai and began fighting over who could have a ride on my electronic bed that went up and down. But there was no turning back. Thankfully, the hospital was attached to a shopping centre so I arranged for a nurse to push me in a wheelchair with my drip through the centre so the kids could have a run around.
My lasting memory is of the kids laughing hysterically while running UP a DOWN escalator wearing a scarf that looked like it was going to get caught and strangle them. But I had no energy to yell out and, thankfully, they’re both here to tell the tale.
I begged the hospital to discharge me and thanks to my very well connected brother, I checked into his friend’s hotel, The Park Hyatt. After spending almost two weeks in a hospital room, the hotel felt ever so luxurious. We were upgraded, the girls were given ice cream whenever they wanted and the bed was the size of a swimming pool. If I was to be bed-bound, I could think of no better place to be and the girls were giddy with happiness. To this very day, if you ask them, Bangkok remains their best holiday ever. Clouds and silver linings come to mind.
I gradually got a little better but had to go back to the hospital daily for check-ups. I felt ok but every blood test came back saying that my platelets were still precariously low and the insurance company wouldn’t issue me with a ‘fit to fly’.
Every day I took the girls somewhere special; we went to the movies, to Kidzania, temples and shopping centres. They got used to life in the hotel and went down for breakfast dumplings every day and watched endless movies.
My husband’s ticket took him back to Singapore not Bangkok. Finally, after weeks and weeks of hospitals and doctors, I was given that precious ‘fit to fly’ and the girls and I went to Singapore where finally we were all back together. We couldn’t wait to get home to Bali as we’d been away for weeks by this stage.
5. How long was the recovery process?
It took a long time to fully recover. It was a slow process and I was very tired and quite weak afterwards but with lots of Bali coconuts, good food and massages, I eventually got back into shape. So many of my friends have had dengue in Bali that it’s almost a rite of passage. Welcome to the dengue club!
6. Do you have any plans to travel back to the area?
Yes, I would love to see Angkor Wat. Phillip and the kids got close. They played mini golf at a replica of it but I hear the real thing is much better!
7. Have you learnt anything from the experience?
Insurance, insurance, insurance. And if you ever have to play paintball don’t do it in a dengue pit!
A big thanks to Eliza for sharing her story here on The Department of Wandering.
Looking to read more accounts of travel plans going wrong? Check out our other interviews:
- When Travel Goes Wrong: Stranded in a Tropical Cyclone!
- A 7.9 Magnitude Lesson in Perspective: My Story of the Nepal Earthquake
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