This blog post and the one that follows it are about a time in my life when I felt very vulnerable. These posts will be longer than usual and emotionally charged. They are more for my own records. However, I don’t want to hide an entire month of my exchange from my blog. This terrible experience has shaped who I am and I am so much stronger than before this. I hope this can one day help other exchange students who get sick deal with the aftermath and inspire them to stay on their program if they can.
Sickness is something us YES kids were advised about before our travels. We had several sections in our program preparation informing us to avoid ice from restaurants or to eat toast and applesauce on a upset stomach. We had all had several vaccines and meetings with travel doctors before leaving. What I was not prepared for was missing about a month of my exchange for doctor appointments and hospital stays.
In early September, I began to get nose bleeds constantly for no apparent reason, up to four or five times a day for about ten minutes at a time. Eventually, my host parents and my advisor had each witnessed a fit of my nose bleeds and we collectively dismissed it as a result of humidity or something in that vein. Both of them, having had extensive experience with exchange students, assured me this was nothing unusual. However, my health became more concerning when my throat was routinely sore and raw. I wasn’t too worried, as my host sister had a cold too. I assumed this fit of illness would be brief and about time, considering I really hadn’t been sick since arriving in country. The rest of my cohort had been sick almost instantly as they got off the plane to Thailand or had minor colds already, whereas I had been a little jet-lagged at the worst. I opened my AFS and YES briefings to the sickness pages and was prepared for a couple of sub-par days.
Eventually, with no recovery yet, my host dad took me to to see a specialist at a nearby hospital. I nodded along as the nurses checked me in and took my vitals. As they asked my host dad questions about my health and where I came from, I chimed in as much as I could in Thai. Before I even got to see a doctor, I had another nose bleed and the nurses ushered me onto a stretcher. People were quickly giving me toilet paper and telling me to lie down. I very nervously protested, afraid that I would choke. This was hurriedly debated in Thai until my doctor witnessed the scene from his office and hurried to my side. He agreed with me, telling me to sit up straight and apply pressure to my nose and then returned to attend to the patients ahead of me. My host dad sat by me, feeding me toilet paper as I needed it. We laughed nervously at the scene I had created and he told me I had nothing to worry about. As the bleeding slowed up, I looked down to see my beautiful dyed blue and yellow dress, a gift from my mother on our trip to France the previous summer, now stained with blood, along with both my and my host father’s hands. I lamented the loss of the gift and apologized profusely to my host dad for the gross ordeal. He said that everything was fine and we were called into the doctor’s office. After a brief look at my throat, he determined I had a throat infection and that the blood vessels in my nose somehow were damaged. We were sent home with antibiotics that dulled the pain and for the most part, stopped my symptoms.
By the second day of North Camp, my throat had began to hurt again. It progressed into one of the only things on my mind, as I was always trying to numb the pain. It was not the soreness I had previously felt, as it was degrees worse. P Bia and the AFS staff bought me lozenges (by the way, future exchange students, I stand by Strepsils and you can find them at 7/11 usually) and made me hot tea. Sof and I had a great time at camp, but often she served as my voice while I whispered to her. I had another bloody nose during one of our language sessions, which led to me resting on a couch and then in bed for about an hour. My energy was usually wasted by midday and I was falling asleep all of the time. It became difficult for me to physically get out of bed or stand up by myself, as if I had bricks weighing my shoulders and back down. I left camp with no voice still and foreboding sickness.
The next day, my host father took me to a doctor, a throat specialist in town who examined me and even used a camera to check my throat. He determined that I had a minor infection which would be cured in a matter of days with antibiotics that looked like little yellow cubes. I followed the doctor’s instructions and hoped for the best.
Luckily, per doctor’s orders and my host father’s insistence, I did not have to attend school and I woke up at 11 pm. I felt nauseous and I had a headache and sore throat. Getting out of bed took upwards of fifteen minutes, as my muscles in my head, neck, shoulders, and back could not be forced up. My legs were so heavy and tense that I cried out of frustration for not being able to stand and eventually, retired to my bed yet again. I called my natural mother and heartily complained for a while, to which she advised me to cheer up and watch a silly movie to pass the time until I regained my strength.
I reluctantly followed her advice, turning on the 1974 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie and lost myself in the whimsical story. The heat, though I had my air conditioning on, was unbearable and only further induced me sleeping every half hour or so. The loud calls of the tropical birds and lizards continually woke me and I rewinded the movie to catch up again. Eventually, around 2 pm, I saw a strange mark on the inside of my thigh. Thinking it was dirt or something, I tried to brush it off. When it didn’t wipe off, I flicked my light on for the first time that day and saw red spots, which I now know are hives, all over my thighs. I freaked out and started looking it up on the Internet, which I now know is quite possibly the worst idea in medical emergencies. Scarlet fever and other infections caused by strep throat came up and I read that the rash or hives usually appear on your arms, elbows, knees, and thighs. I checked my arms and elbows and found more hives. I descended into panic and and frantically called my host dad, who works at my school only five minutes away. However, his phone was turned off because he had class. I then texted Kru Nok, who also works at my school to no response. I called my host mum, who teaches at a school fifteen to twenty minutes away. She picked up and told me she would get my host dad to come home early to help. I got dressed and waited for him. I heard the front door slide open and I dragged myself downstairs to find Kru Nok. She had received my text and came as soon as she read it. She told me she would take me to the hospital and my host parents would meet us there later. She and her husband bought me some yogurt, which always calms my nerves, and we made the long drive an hour and a half away to the nearest hospital.
When we arrived, I had my vitals taken and explained my symptoms. I knew some of them in Thai but Kru Nok and I quickly translated all of them together on a piece of paper, laughing at poor translations from the Internet. After a little while in the waiting room, I saw my doctor, a skilled woman who spoke fair English. She reaffirmed what my previous doctor said about my throat and suggested I have a blood test to determine the cause of my hives. She also said I should stay for a few days due to my other confusing symptoms. I changed into hospital clothes and was put in a wheelchair. I have a phobia of needles and injections so I got extremely anxious about the test. On the way to the lab, Kru Nok kindly arranged for me to have a cheek swab test instead. I felt immense relief and I was very pleased to be getting treatment. We went up to my room, a VIP suite. It had a couch, table and chairs, a TV, a refrigerator, and a nice bathroom. I was beyond lucky to have insurance from my scholarship to afford in-patient treatment. Kru Nok and her husband left a little while after to take care of their three-year-old daughter. My host parents called to check on me and asked if I wanted them to come or stay the night. I declined, knowing the distance from our house and that they should take care of my younger sister.
In the early evening, I was informed that the doctor’s orders were insisting on me having an IV, which I very reluctantly consented to with the promise of being able to move again soon. One panic attack later and my left hand was being taped up. However, my energy was renewed and sure enough, I could walk again after a few hours with only a little pain. Exhausted and bored out of my mind, I tried to sleep early. It was a restless night, as my nurses woke me up on the hour to check my vitals. I was shivering from a fever, as well as tossing and turning to find a position that didn’t make my body ache even further and agitate my IV. I was relieved when the sun began to come up through the blinds of my windows as it meant I could stop pretending to be asleep.
I had a breakfast of rice and pork strands. I shortly received a call from my host father saying that he would visit me in a few hours. He arrived at around 10 am and stayed with me for most of the day. It was a never-ending day, as my phone was dead and I didn’t bring anything to entertain myself. The television only had Thai programs without subtitles and so my host dad turned the channel to music videos. I drifted in and out of sleep with country and early 2000s pop in the background for hours. I missed lunch, as I didn’t have much of an appetite. I managed to convince one of my nurses to take off my IV because it was bothering me an exorbitant amount.
Around 12 pm, I had an appointment with a different doctor, accompanied by a very kind and young Filipino woman who spoke perfect English. She told me she wasn’t a doctor, she actually worked for the hospital’s international insurance department. However, in this instance, she could function as my translator. For the purposes of this story and to protect her privacy, I will call her “Lily,” a fake name. Lily informed me that I had to have another injection of antibiotics, which I protested, and again eventually conceded to. I deeply regretted my mistake of asking to take my IV out and my doctors left, along with my host father briefly. I appreciated his absence as I tried to calm myself down but then eventually had a panic attack with the nurse who gave me the injection.
I felt silly panicking at even the thought of needles. I was hospitalized for a few days when I was seven years old during Halloween for an unusual infection. During that time, I received shots and blood tests every few hours. Before I left for Thailand, my phobia was actually getting more manageable as I trained myself to refrain from panicking during vaccinations. After this injection, I knew that uphill battle was sorely lost and my phobia was now re-cemented.
My host father returned after twenty minutes and we subsequently spent two more hours just staring at each other or the television. There was nothing to say really. I knew all the news of my town– in fact, I was the news of the town that week. While we can communicate virtually anything with time and effort, my host dad’s English skills and my Thai skills aren’t the best. However, I appreciated that the silence wasn’t awkward at all.
At 2 pm, my host dad informed me that he had to pick up Peem, my younger sister, for school. He turned off his phone and double-checked that I didn’t want anyone to stay with me that night (I didn’t). My host father moved to get up and then sat back down and said, “Kenna. Don’t worry. You are my family and I will take care of you.” After three months of living in their house, I honestly did not know very much about my dad. He liked football, he would take me on bike rides, he would do anything to make Peem happy. In that moment, I knew everything I needed to know. We were family and he would help me no matter what. I smiled as bright as I could and said thank you. He waved goodbye and I was alone again, but I didn’t feel alone.
Afternoon turned into evening and evening turned into night. I nibbled on a dinner of pasta and chicken, which I thought was very good. At around 8:30 pm, I had a surprise visitor! The host family of my friend, a fellow exchange student also admitted to the hospital, came to see me. My heart nearly stopped when I first discovered my friend was ill, thinking I had somehow been the cause. They informed me that my friend was there for a completely unrelated cause and asked me how I was doing. We made small talk for about ten minutes and I thanked them for their company. They returned to my friend’s room with a promise to visit me again tomorrow before their host child was discharged. At this point, I was praying for sleep, a speedy diagnosis, and easy treatment so I could also be free of this terrible experience.
I was exhausted and sunk into my bed sheets, which were essentially beach towels. Minutes before I lulled into sleep, a nurse I had befriended had to check on me. As she checked my blood pressure and temperature, she asked me questions. How old are you? Fifteen. Who did you come here with? I came alone. Where are your family? I don’t know. In America. Have you called them yet? No… They don’t even know I am in the hospital. Do you miss home?
I remembered sick nights in America: having hot cheese and broccoli soup at night, hiding under blue and yellow blankets knitted by my grandmother on the couch, watching movies with my dad. My mother drawing me a hot bubble bath. I would relax, change into soft pajamas, and tuck into bed. My dog would lie on the floor next to my feet. My mother and father sitting on the edge of my bed, giving me medicine, saying goodnight, and that they love me. I would play The Beatles softly and descend into sleep. Home, even feeling my worst, was still home. I said nothing.
She unclipped my finger from her machine and told me I still had a fever. She said goodnight to me and as she opened the door to leave, the fluorescent light shined on my face. She saw my face streaked with tears, looked at me sadly, and slipped away. I curled up into my bed, shivering, and slept. The nurses did not wake me once that night.
I woke up later that day, at around 10 am. I had breakfast, the same as the day before. I was feeling better and convinced that I would be leaving the hospital either that day or the next. My friend and their host family visited me and we hugged each other. I was happy that both of us would be out of the woods soon. My doctor and Lily visited me at 12 pm and told me that I tested positive for an allergy to macrolide antibiotics, which I had last taken days prior for my throat. At this point, my hives were almost gone, merely traces on my skin. My fever and throat infection went away and I could move completely fine. I begged that she allowed me to go home later that day and she consented with the condition that I would follow up in a week. I excitedly called my father, who agreed to pick me up after school. I changed into my normal clothes for the first time in days and called my natural parents about what happened. They had already heard from AFS but I relayed to them that I would be going home and we chatted for a while. I happily waited until my entire host family arrived. They checked me out and I thanked my nurses, doctors, and the insurance agent. We drove off and I texted my friends, happy to put this terrible time behind me forever. Little did I know, I would be back two days later.