On the evening of October 16, 2007, as I lay flat on my back with an anesthesia mask freshly placed against my face, I looked up at the small group of medical professionals standing around me. It included a particularly cute nurse. My mind rapidly drifting off, the last thought I remember went something like this: “She’s about to see me naked, and will probably help flip me over in a moment onto that adjacent table, and this is a little awkward, and…wow, this anesthesia feels great….”
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
A little more than four months earlier, I had flown to Southeast Asia to start a five-month trip through several countries. For years my lower back had sometimes had problems, but not like those months in Asia. Many days were shaped by physical pain, and on a few mornings I even had difficulty figuring out how to get out of bed due to my back seizing up. (For more on the pain of that trip, see A Sample Of Times In Which Pain Or Adrenaline Went Into Taking A Photo.) Then in late September I had a small motorbike accident on what at the time was a terrible road to Thong Nai Pan on Ko Phangan, Thailand. A few days after that I made an ill-advised hike (I should have been resting) to Bottle Beach, also on Ko Phangan, where I reached the beach but then collapsed into a kind of lower back pain I had never experienced before.
Some days later I would be in Bangkok, specifically Bumrungrad Hospital, getting my first MRI. Looking at the MRI results, the surgeon turned to me and said something like, “You have two choices: Several months of disciplined rest, which may or may not make this better, and could actually leave you worse off, or surgery to remove the disc material pressed in and around your spinal nerves.”
I chose surgery, which we scheduled for two weeks later.
Ten years ago, had you asked if I would still be able to carry a backpack in 2017, I wouldn’t have known, but I’d have worried the answer was probably no. But since the surgery a decade ago, and the following months of rehabilitative stretching and strengthening, my back has done pretty well. When I do feel pain it is usually not when I’m on the road with a backpack but when I am back home sitting at the computer for too many days in a row.
This blog post, then, is simply to celebrate a good anniversary — ten years since a surgery that seems to have gone well — and to celebrate a back that still functions decently and allows me to do what I do.
Below are a few photos and an excerpt from my book 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. The excerpt is from the reason I call “Bangkok’s Hospitals,” though I should have more accurately written it as “A Bangkok Hospital,” since I’ve only been to one. All the photos in the book come from that 2007 trip.
I had assumed my back pain would go away once I returned to the States, since there I’d no longer carry a heavy backpack or contort in various positions as I took up to several hundred photos each day. But my assumption was wrong. After four months of traveling in Southeast Asia — and only a month before I was scheduled to return home — my lower back seized up in a way I never knew possible, instantly dropping me to my knees on a sandy Thai beach. Two weeks later I was on an operating table in Bangkok, a surgeon dipping his instruments into my back to remove portions of a severely herniated disc.
Of all the places I have stayed in Southeast Asia, Bumrungrad Hospital was among the most pleasant. Cable TV, doting nurses, a shower with both hot water and superb pressure. There was even a Starbucks and McDonald’s in the five-star lobby, and concierge-style services were on hand when you needed things like a visa renewal (as I did). The medical care was world-class and the cost significantly more reasonable than in the States. All of these are reasons why 400,000 people from 160 countries came to Bumrungrad in 2007, part of a rapidly growing phenomenon called medical tourism.