Health is wealth
Travelling to new countries gives me an exciting exhilaration I cannot describe. I love to wander aimlessly through unknown streets, sampling local foods and embracing different cultures. It is my opinion that travelling is a holistic experience. In order to get the most from my travels I find it important to be healthy in body and mind. There is a popular saying, ‘your health is your wealth’ and it is one I live by.
Planning a trip
When planning a trip abroad it is important to research the destination in relation to it’s healthcare facilities. My travel plans required me to research Thailand and Australia and I noted the following things:
- Thailand does not have a reciprocal health agreement with the UK whereas Australia does. Research into the agreement highlights some important elements that can leave visitors such as myself out of pocket. In the event of a medical emergency it is common practice to call for an ambulance. Ambulance services in Australia are free in some states but come at a cost in others. The call out fee for a non resident in a road emergency is is $748! There is also an eye watering $6.75 p/km on top. This will cover three journeys of an unknown measure: pick-up, drop-off and drive back to the depot. Travel insurance is a must!
- There is a language barrier in Thailand but not Australia. Thailand’s main language is Thai. As an English speaker this makes expressing myself harder and seeking medical assistance is going to be more difficult as a result.
- Getting sick will cost more in Australia than the UK. In the UK I purchase medication at a flat rate per script. In Australia, prescriptions are paid for per medication. If I were to require three separate medications that is three times the cost! This kind of knowledge is a big help with budgeting.
Reaching my destinations
Starting out on the wrong foot
Three months prior to travelling I had surgery to remove ingrowing nails. All toes were healing well except for one – which I affectionally call alien toe. It became swollen and infected not once but twice and I finished my second course of antibiotics the day before flying to Thailand.
Whilst indulging in a foot massage I could feel an unbearable shooting pain through my toe and concluded that it was swollen again. I ventured to a local chemist and was able to demonstrate (using exaggerated gestures and toe showing) what the problem was. Unfortunately one week of topical gel did nothing for ‘alien’. I decided the best course of action was to ‘grin and bear it’ until I arrived in Australia.
Barking dogs seldom bite
My second health concern was due to me not having my rabies vaccination before leaving. The rabies vaccination is given in three doses over a period of 28 days. I was unaware of the course length and therefore missed the window within which to have it. There is no cure for rabies once infected and so prevention by vaccine is always the best strategy to employ.
Whilst walking ‘home’ one night in Koh Phangan I encountered a stand off between two dogs. The alpha dog stood staring at me and growling. I had visions of dying a slow agonising death on the side of the road but luckily I passed without incident. Thailand is well known for its stray dogs and I did my best to avoid them at all costs. I left Thailand believing all I needed to fix was my alien toe.
Not without my coffee
A self proclaimed gym bunny; joining the local gym was one of the first things I did. I anticipated hitting the ground running but found I had only been a handful of times after a month. I was suffering hugely with low energy and high tiredness levels. Despite getting 8+ hours sleep a night I was spending my days relying on multiple cups of coffee. This is not normal ‘Sandra behaviour’ – time to see a doctor!
Fast forward to my blood test results and my iron levels were below an acceptable range for normal functioning. No wonder I was a walking zombie! How this wasn’t picked up by the NHS when I was at home I do not know. I am big on giving blood and I do it as often as I am able. Being an O- blood type I recognise the importance of donating and blood stocks are very low in the UK. I have never been denied the right to give blood and have always passed the pre-checks (including the haemoglobin checks). I gave blood the week before travelling… It leaves me wondering.
I have been taking iron supplements for nearly three months and it is only now that I am beginning to get my ‘exercise mojo’ back. I will be going back for a levels check-up soon but thank goodness there is a reason for it and I wasn’t just turning into a foodie loving, lazy ass traveller!
I wish I could say that this is the only medical concern I have had since arriving into Australia but there is more. Apologies to any males reading but it is about to get very… feminine. I apologise to anybody who feels I might be oversharing. I will not shy away from sharing any experiences which I feel might help others.
Cancer, the big C, the silent killer. Whatever name you choose to call it, it is enough to ignite fear in the strongest of people. I don’t believe I know anybody who is not affected by this disease either directly or indirectly. For me personally I have seen friends and family battle and survive but I have also suffered losses too. In the last two years I have lost an aunt and a good friend to the disease.
According to the last recorded statistics by Cancer Research UK, an estimated 14.1 million new cases of cancer occurred worldwide in 2012. “A person’s risk of developing cancer depends on many factors, including age, genetics, and exposure to risk factors (including some potentially avoidable lifestyle factors). I believe that the best defence against many forms of cancer is early prevention/detection. It was most certainly the case for me in the last few months. Let me now tell you my ‘story’.
Prevention is better than cure
There are around 3,200 new cases of cervical cancer in the UK every day. 99.8% of these cases are preventable! Cervical screening was first introduced in the UK in 1980’s and since it’s introduction the number of cases has decreased by approximately 7% per year. This is a phenomenal statistic and with more public awareness will only make this higher. All women registered with a GP in the UK are invited for screening at the age of 25 and re-tested every three years until the age of 50.
I attend my cervical screenings religiously and it was bad timing that my next one was due three months after I was due to start travelling. The UK seem to have this strict policy of not conducting tests earlier than your due date and so I was denied mine. Three months in the grand scheme of three years does not seem like a big deal and this policy aggrieves me.
For women on the contraceptive pill we can choose to have an artificially induced bleed every month or, like me, you choose to not have one for up to three months. This decision makes it easy to know what is and isn’t normal for me when it comes to bleeding. I was halfway though a pill cycle when I began bleeding. Two weeks passed and I began to question it with some of my girlfriends. Another week passed and I thought “when is this going to end?”. At the start of the fourth week I went to my GP who referred me to the gynaecologist.
Discussing my sexual/medical history to an elder gentleman who does not display any emotion was daunting. I explained that I had been to my GP in the UK several times for pelvic pain and I have previously suffered from a condition called Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). I suspected this might have returned and I was prescribed a two week course of antibiotics and asked to attend a pelvic scan. My cervical screening test was also conducted without hesitation.
The pelvic scan showed no signs of inflammation but it did show that I had smaller than normal ovaries. ‘Dr Google’ managed to convince me that this meant I was never going to have children! I worried incessantly over this and forgot about my original worries. I was confident in my ‘self diagnosis’ of PID and that the antibiotics were doing their job.
The antibiotics did not stop the bleeding or pelvic pain and I was called back to discuss my results. ABNORMAL. I cannot convey how scared and vulnerable I felt in that moment. I didn’t recognise my own voice as I timidly asked “Do I have cancer?” The gynaecologist explained to me that I had ‘High-Grade Squamous Intraepithelial Leison and atypical endocervical cells’. Got it? No me neither. I was given a lot of information that I did not understand and I was being referred on to a cancer specialist.
I walked out of the building and called one of my best friends and my brother. Together, (despite the late hour in the UK), they both helped to calm me down as I hyperventilated my way through is one of my most emotional conversations to date.
I contacted the clinic as soon as I was home and they informed me that with my diagnosis I needed to be seen within 4-6 weeks. Words cannot begin to describe the workings of my mind during the time leading up to my consult. I have read every article going on cervical cancer and treatments – none of it was comforting.
It turned out that the general clinic for my specialist was fully booked for a good many weeks and so I chose to attend his private clinic for a $600 fee instead. There is no price high enough when it comes to health and I believe money spent on healthcare is money invested wisely.
When the day of my appointment arrived I put my headphones in and disengaged with the world. I don’t remember the journey to the clinic I only remember sitting anxiously in the chair interlocking and unlocking my hands nervously until my name was called.
My specialist is one of the most friendliest and calming of medical professionals that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I immediately grilled him with my findings from ‘Dr Google’ and was promptly met with the reply of “if you ever listen to Dr Google again I will not speak with you. It doesn’t matter whether you have big ovaries or small so long as they are working. You can have five children if thats what you desire”.
He stressed to me that the biopsy I was about to have was not painful – something I had been ‘researching’ and had become petrified about. He was in fact correct. A big cough, a slight sting and it was over. I was relieved to hear that in his opinion the biopsy looked pre-cancerous and was treatable with a small procedure. If only I was somebody blessed with the ability to not overthink things but alas, his words did nothing to stop me constantly worrying until I received my results.
I can’t explain, it’s just bad luck
My results came back pre-cancerous. The relief was instantaneous and it was at least ten minutes before I started worrying about the procedure I would need to remove the leison.
When I arrived for my next consult I was calm. I believed we would be discussing my results and then booking in a procedure for the coming weeks. ‘Oh Sandra haven’t you learned yet. You can’t predict or plan life’. Whilst my results were pre-cancerous the biopsy showed two types of leisons. I had ‘CIN 3‘ which forms and spreads in one place alongside a more unusual form ‘Adenocarcinoma in situ (AIS)‘ This form can scatter when it spreads and so this lesion was a little further up my cervix than anticipated. I asked what causes an AIS form and was told ‘I can’t explain, it’s just bad luck. It is how your body reacts’.
The recommendation was a cone procedure under general anaesthetic but the price for this is an eye watering $2100! As I said earlier, money should be no object when it comes to health, but sometimes one needs a little time to pool their resources together. When mentioning that I would need a little time before booking the procedure my specialist asked his colleague whether the procedure could be performed under LEEP. She responded that the dimensions were good but they would need to go as deep as they could with it. What happened next left me absolutely speechless.
My specialist turned to me and said “If you can be brave and have a LEEP under local anaesthetic then we will do that and I will write it up as a follow-up appointment so you only pay the follow-up fee”. He explained that he did not believe in people struggling to pay for medical treatment as he had spent time in Africa and had seen some pretty sombre stuff. I was so overwhelmed by the gesture I cried. I said yes gratefully and then he said “ok lets go”.
You can’t always be STRONG but you can always BE BRAVE
“Wait what? I’m having it now?” I was not prepared for this and I am not ashamed to say I cried a lot. I felt very far from home and I was scared to death.
So there I am, tears streaming down my face and squeezing the life out of the poor nurses hand as I have four needles of local injected in to my cervix. There was a slight burning sensation as the LEEP was performed but It wasn’t as painful as I had believed it would be. Before I knew it the procedure was over and then the floodgates opened. It felt like the weight of the world had lifted from me and I had broken the back of this whole episode.
True to their word, when I took my paperwork to the front desk and paid $49 for my ‘consult’. I cannot thank the team at the clinic enough. It would be hazardous for me to name them as I do not want to get them in trouble for their good deed. It is safe to say however that I have never received more efficient, friendly or professional care.
My experience with the Australian healthcare system in general has been phenomenal. From diagnosis to treatment it has been six weeks… absolutely incredible! It highlights for me just how much the government back home are failing the brilliant system that is the NHS through lack of funding and mismanagement.
Dear bad luck… lets break up
It has been eleven days now since my procedure and I am in the recovery stage. I feel as if I might finally be breaking up with bad luck!
Friendship is the comfort of knowing that even when you feel alone, you aren’t
I cannot stress enough the importance of having a support network for times like this. Being away from home means the experience has been a little more difficult than it might be otherwise. I am very blessed however with the people in my life both in Australia and at home.
My host family are absolutely amazing and have taken me under their wing since my arrival. They have been on hand for comforting cuddles, glasses of wine, takeaway evenings and general day to day banter. They haven’t fussed about my numerous healthcare appointments which is no small feat when you have a boisterous two year old and two full-time jobs to carry out. I really don’t know where I would be without my second family.
‘The love of a family is life’s greatest blessings’. My own family are no exception either. My brother is my rock. He is my joker who picks me up when I am down and my friend who gives me advice and comfort. I owe him so much more than he can understand. I wasn’t going to worry my parents but he persuaded me to tell them. It was the best decision because there is nothing more comforting than a few words from mum and dad when feeling vulnerable.
There is not enough praise in the world that I can give to all of my amazing friends who have been there with me throughout this whole process. It doesn’t matter what time it is or how silly and erratic the thoughts in my mind are – you are all always there. I owe so much and I am so blessed. Thank you is not enough but from the bottom of my heart THANK YOU.
The girl is coming back!
So if I have been a bit quiet on the communications front I apologise. If I have missed some important stuff happening in your life I apologise. I needed a little time to get through this stage in my life but the girl is coming back! I look forward to reconnecting with you all in the coming weeks.
Until next time, remember
Wait… what about alien?
Alien responded well to antibiotics but is still a bit misshapen – maybe it will be like that forever – always my alien friend 🙂