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Take This Thermometer And Shove It

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By Andrew Biggs

For the first time ever, in the nine years I have written this weekly column, I write to you with a temperature of 38.7 degrees.

Apparently that’s pretty high. I’m not an expert on body temperature, but it was high enough for me to end up in a special waiting room at my hospital, separated from the Samut Prakan masses, and not because I was a VIP.

At my hospital all patients are required to have their height, weight, body temperature and blood pressure measured in an alcove that is just a little too open-air for my liking.

“How exactly does my height correlate to my influenza?” I asked in a curmudgeonly fashion as I stepped off the scales this week. “Am I going to shrink because of it?” If the young man recording my height and weight found my comment funny, he certainly employed all his professionalism not to show it.

It was in that room that my temperature was recorded at 38.5 degrees. They thought I may have been suffering from a contagious disease — of all the nerve! — fearing whatever terrible disease I was harboring might spread throughout the hospital, into Samut Prakan, then out across the country. Finally I was going viral, though for all the wrong reasons.

(Life imitates art. My one foray into feature films here in Thailand was a starring role in ‘Sars Wars’, a black comedy about a mutant SARS virus that spreads throughout Thailand, changing everyone into zombies. I played the carrier of the disease.)

Thus I have not been out and about in my usual travels around town this week. No art openings, fashion events or embassy functions for me. Instead of clutching a wine glass, I have been clutching a digital thermometer purchased by one of my staff and the object of most of my attention these past two days.

“Place the device under your tongue, in your armpit, or in your anal cavity,” the instructions state. “Try alternating cavities for a more accurate reading.” Are they serious? That is not the kind of thing one wants to read when one is feeling queasy.

Monitoring my body temperature has been a little like following share fluctuations on the stock market, or the chart run of the latest hit by Taylor Swift. For a day there it went up, up, up, leveled out and, with a bit of luck, will come crashing down within a day or two as my clutch of colorful antibiotics kick in.

It did mean a trip back to my local hospital with whom I have a love-hate relationship. It started out as love; back in 2010 I extolled the virtues of the place in this column, praising it for its wonderful service at a fraction of the cost of the hospitals in, say, the United States.

That has been true right up until my last bout of flu in 2015 and annual check-up in 2016. Then, earlier this year, I went back to the hospital to get that medical certificate one needs for my work permit.

It was during that visit I received a shock. My local hospital had taken a leaf out of its very own Cosmetic Wellness Centre on the second floor. It had self-medicated and given itself a massive cosmetic overhaul.

You should see it now, dear reader. The front entrance has been transformed into a glittering lobby. I would not be surprised to see it pop up on Agoda’s list of hotels for Samut Prakan — all that’s missing are bell boys and the desk where you sign up for tours to the Crocodile Farm.

It’s all so high-tech now. The hospital has its own App. The doors have been replaced with sliding glass; to get through, one needs to press the button marked PRESS (whatever happened to OPEN?). The lobby is painted grey and duck-egg blue. The staff are all in crisp grey suits.

When I staggered in last Tuesday, I was greeted by the sight of five young women in those sensible grey uniforms standing at a counter marked “Customer Relations”. Not a hair was out of place on any of them; I almost expected them to ask if I wanted chicken or fish.

“Good afternoon, sir, how may I help you?” one asked me in perfect English.  “May I ask your symptoms?”

On any other day I’d be fawning over this young woman, extolling her perfect English, marveling at her pronunciation.

Not today. I was hitting 39 degrees.

I felt like gripping her by the shoulders, shaking her violently and saying: “This is Samut Prakan! Nobody speaks that perfectly!”

From there I had to check in, get tested, see the doctor and pick up my medicine. In and out in an hour and a half. It was when I paid the bill that I realized duck-egg paint and grey suits don’t come cheap.

The Thai medical industry has jettisoned itself into the 21st century. They have woken up to how great their service is for the price they offer. That can only mean one thing. At my hospital, the cost of seeing a doctor has doubled.

The bill for seeing a doctor this week, including a blood test, came to 3,500 Baht, roughly twice what it was last time. Seeing a doctor is no longer cheap. It’s not expensive, either, and I can’t fault the service, but it may not bode well for those in power who want Thailand to remain a medical hub.

But hey. There are only a few things I am willing to spend a lot of money on. Good shoes, for one. Nice pillows for another. Everything else – underwear, socks, life partners – can easily be picked up in the bustling aisles of any outdoor Thai market.

When it comes to health I would be crazy to penny-pinch, especially since I am living in a country with affordable health care of generally high quality.

And let’s put that price rise into perspective. It’s just a little over a hundred US dollars. I can’t imagine how much that would have cost me had it happened on a trip to the USA where I had to take out extra medical insurance to cover me for one million baht in case of an emergency – which, apparently, wouldn’t have been enough.

And the system here is sensible. You see a doctor, he gives you medicine.

Back in Australia, you’re lucky to get a strip or two of dull old colorless antibiotics from a wizened chemist who smells like a musty old used teabag. That’s after you’ve made the arduous trek from your doctor over to the drug store, clutching that prescription, since in that modern society they still haven’t found a way to place doctors next to the drugs they prescribe.

Here in Thailand I see the doctor, wait 10 minutes then pick up a bag of pills that resembles a 1970s discotheque -- blue for sleeping, green for pain, yellow for killing germs and purple just for taking the edge off daily life. Wash them all down with a screwdriver and you’re feeling fantastic in no time.

Speaking of which, from that first paragraph to now, my temperature has dropped back down to 38.5 degrees. May it continue its downward trend. I look forward to the day when I dispense with that digital thermometer because let’s face it — being sick is not just more expensive these days. It’s also a pain in the anal cavity.


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