What I learned from my hardest moment in Thailand

As often happens with writing, it sits. And that’s what this piece did—sat, for months, as I adjusted to this new country and life in Thailand. I wrote this post just after one of the hardest experiences of my mom-life so far, and rereading it takes me back, as though I’m reliving it. We’re a few months in now and, rather than free-falling through our first few weeks, I feel somewhat grounded. But I wasn’t feeling that way when I wrote this post.

With that said, here’s my post from early August 2018.

When I dreamed of Thailand, of living abroad, of taking my family into new adventures and places and smells and landscapes, I never imagined we would end up hospitalized. Or at least not that three of us would end up hospitalized.

Let me back up. I’ll start with what we believe was tainted dragon fruit. Down the street from our Airbnb is a fruit stand we frequent nearly every day. We’d watched the woman who runs the stand prepare fruit—gloved hands, seemingly clean knife—and decided the food was safe to eat. Why be paranoid about a few germs? Like the many times before, this fruit in question was purchased and cut, and taken home to enjoy.

A few days later, our youngest child was horribly ill. The vomiting wouldn’t stop, and his little face was pallid. Even the tiniest sip of water would cause his stomach to convulse, and after a few hours of this, he started to deteriorate quickly. Something wasn’t right. We rushed him to the ER and he was immediately admitted and given fluids. I looked at his toddler body—so small, so helpless—lying on the hospital bed and asked myself at least a dozen times, “Why are we here? Why are we doing this?”

Soon after, blood results determined he had a virus that caused gastroenteritis. He received IV fluids overnight, and all four of us stayed in his room, split between two smaller-than-twin beds, me sleeping in Max’s child-size hospital bed with him snuggled up next to me. The next morning, he was doing much better, and we were out by evening.

A few hours later, my daughter began throwing up. Since she is older and tends to have a stronger immune system than her brother, we decided to give her some anti-nausea medicine and electrolytes to keep her out of the hospital. But within a couple of hours, we realized it was serious—she seemed even worse than our son had been.

I am the “medical parent” because I have some medical knowledge and come from a long line of doctors, so I learned to navigate the system growing up. (I am also the pushiest when it comes to care for our kids.) But I hadn’t driven in Thailand (or any developing country) before, and it was dark and I was exhausted. Still, I loaded Lily into the car, handed her a pot in case she felt sick, and drove through the unfamiliar streets of Phuket, on the right side of the car and left side of the road, forty-five minutes to the hospital.

My eyes remained fixed on the road but shifted to Lily every few seconds. She was still and quiet nearly the whole ride, which worried me. Every so often, I’d say, “Lily?” and she’d mumble a response. When we finally parked at the hospital, I lifted her out of her car seat and was struck by how limp her body felt. Walking into the light of the ER department, I saw that her face was stark white set off with dark circles under her eyes. That night, she, too, was admitted and given IV fluids. It turned out she not only had the virus but an additional bacterial infection, so she was also given a round of antibiotics.

The next day, she was doing much better, but I was starting to feel sick. The doctor decided to take her off fluids but leave in her hep-lock (basically, leave the needle in her arm just in case). By late morning, I was starting to feel the effects of food poisoning. I knew I was bound to be admitted if I didn’t try to solve it on my own, and I was there by myself, the only one who could care for Lily. I was determined to stay well.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. By afternoon, I was worse. I decided to go to the pharmacy to get medicine to treat my own vomiting. According to the nurse, the pharmacy was across the street from the hospital. “Five minutes,” she assured me.

Well, in my delirious state (it was getting bad at that point), I didn’t pause to consider that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to go out in 90-degree weather to find a pharmacy I couldn’t locate on Google Maps (I tried). But moms are tough, and this mom had to care for her daughter, and there was no one else there to get medicine for me, and the hospital would not treat me without making me leave Lily’s room to see a doctor. I felt I had no choice. After procuring permission to take Lily temporarily out of the hospital (she was doing much better and they planned to release her that afternoon anyway), I hoisted her onto my hip. Remember, she was still in her hospital gown, with her needle in her arm. I carried her across the parking lot and quickly got lost. I started to get sweaty and a bit disoriented, so I found a security guard to help.

“Pharmacy?” I pleaded with him. Yes, pleaded. I was desperate at the point, and really questioning everything. Why was I here? Why was I in this position to begin with?

He looked at me for a long moment, stared at Lily even longer, and finally hollered to his partner that he was leaving—at least, I think that’s what he said; it also could have been, “This lady is nuts!” He motioned for us to follow and, still carrying Lily, I walked behind him as he guided us toward the busy street, stepped into traffic to stop cars, and led us to the pharmacy. He held the door for us, I set Lily in the cool shop, and I stumbled in. Immediately, I was sick. (I will spare you the details.)

Skipping forward about five horrible minutes, I had my anti-vomiting medication in hand and, after asking Lily if she would be OK taking a taxi back (“no!”), I hoisted her back on my hip. I was dripping sweat, clutching my medicine as the guard took us back across the street and dozens of people stared at the crazy American lady. I’m surprised there wasn’t an accident with the number of scooter drivers craning their necks to watch us.

Later that day, unrelated to our escapade, Lily was doing worse and needed to be back on her IV. I took my medicine and was able to keep myself out of the hospital . . . until the next afternoon, when my illness got even worse. I had new symptoms, and I had to see a doctor.

So, I begrudgingly asked the nurses, who had been asking me for over a day if I wanted to admit myself, to wheel my five-year-old downstairs with me so I could see a doctor. Sure enough, my blood test revealed a bacterial infection. I was given an IV and a hospital bed next to Lily’s. The next few hours were some of the worst I’ve had as a mom, as I did my best to care for her while we were both attached to IVs and I was in the most painful stages of serious food poisoning. When she said, “Mommy, I need to go potty,” I looked at our two IV poles and nearly cried. (OK, maybe I cried a little.)

I haven’t mentioned yet that my husband, Doug, was stranded at home with Max since I had our only car and both car seats. And while Max was mostly better, Doug was ill. Once Doug started to feel better, we had to do a complicated game of “find a car seat and install it in a taxi.” A friend of ours graciously helped us procure both.

When Doug walked into the hospital room, Lily and I had both already had our IVs removed, and while neither of us felt great, we were the best we’d been in a couple of days. I’ve never been so glad to see my two guys.

Two nights in the hospital and twin IVs—that wasn’t the dream. But it’s the reality of new places, new germs, and learning hard lessons about what to eat, what not to eat, and how to navigate an unfamiliar medical system. Next time, we’ll cut our fruit at home.

Here’s where my original writing stops, and I add a little. It’s funny: I wasn’t in a state to get it quite at the time, but this experience really transformed something about our family. For the first time in our lives, we didn’t have my mom or close friends to call. I never would have had to care for Lily alone in the past; Doug wouldn’t have been caring for Max solo either. In Boise, where we lived, help was a phone call and twenty-minute drive away. This time, it was just us.

One of the things I hoped for when we moved was to develop a closeness as a family that we didn’t have in the US. Living abroad is just different—it’s hard to explain the depth that develops in a relationship when you have no one but each other. I discovered my strength as a mom; you should have seen me carrying Lily, just shy of blacking out, keeping it together because that little human relied on me. I didn’t know I had it in me.

That experience made me question our choice to move. It really did. Shouldn’t it have? There was danger in those days, and pain, and so much hardship. But the thing I keep reminding myself is that we didn’t choose this because it is easy. The kids have been hospitalized in the US too—not for food poisoning but for other illnesses and issues.

Our life in Thailand has tested us, but it’s also strengthened us. With each new experience, we grow stronger, both individually and as a family. That’s been a great gift—an expensive one, both figuratively and literally, but a great one nonetheless.

What have you gone through that has made you stronger? When did you find strength in an unexpected experience? Please share. I read every comment and love hearing from you.

12 Comments

  • Cameron Crow Reply

    Wow. What a scary experience! Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Stacy Ennis Reply

      Thank you, Cameron. I’m glad to say there have been much happier times since this happened. 🙂

  • Jennifer Wheeler Reply

    Oh wow, Stacy, what a wild early introduction to the ex-pat family life. A little different than just the two of you roaming the far corners of the earth. Hopefully, that’s the most harrowing adventure your family will have while abroad. You all are in my thoughts, especially as we approach the holidays. May you find glorious and significant ways to celebrate the strength you all have as a unit. Hugs, Jennifer.

    • Stacy Ennis Reply

      Yes, life as expat with kids is much different than when we were childless in our 20s! Thank you for this thoughtful comment, friend. I appreciate you. Happiest holidays to you.

  • Larry Mandelberg Reply

    Thankfully you and your family were able to absorb the “blows” and recover. My wife and I are actively pursuing moving outside the US as well and this highlights one of the risks that are hard, if not impossible, to anticipate.
    Thank you.
    As Mr. Spock would say, ‘Live long and prosper.’

    • Stacy Ennis Reply

      Thank you, Larry. There are so many potential difficulties living abroad, but I wouldn’t let that stop you from going for it. From my view, little compares to being out in our big, wide, beautiful world. 🙂 I hope you make your living abroad dream happen!

  • Carol S Kjar Reply

    What a nightmare! I’m so glad all of you survived it. My worst sickness was strep throat that came on while we were traveling with our small children. My husband was attending a conference so he couldn’t help me. Completely drained of energy, I was barely able to move, but had to load our luggage in the car and tend to my babies. By the time we got home, my fever was over 104 and I couldn’t get out of bed. The doctor prescribed meds over the phone which is good. I could have never made it to his office.

    • Stacy Ennis Reply

      Strep can be awful, and 104 as an adult is serious! I’m glad you were able to get medicine. Caring for kids when you’re that sick is incredibly difficult. It makes me appreciate the health I enjoy nearly every day.

  • lisa rodriguez Reply

    Oh my. hang in there. potential nightmare when you’re planning all this from US and then it comes to life! Your family is strong and one day you may be able to laugh at the memory. big hugs!

    • Stacy Ennis Reply

      Thanks, Lisa! No matter how much planning and preparation you do, there will always be things like this that you can’t avoid. It’s too raw to laugh now, but I sure hope we can someday! 🙂 Hugs back!

  • Dominique Clifford Reply

    Oh Stacy, this post is heartbreaking. As a mother I can totally understand how you felt. Feeling inadequate as a parent while our babies need us feels like a fate worse than death. Please know you are an amazing parent and have a phenomenal family that will always know how much you love and care for them!!
    On another note, we certainly miss you guys around here. It was always a joy to see the kids and Doug when he’d ramble into TriTown during the day! I do love following your adventures though so have fun, get messy and LIVE LIFE!!!

    • Stacy Ennis Reply

      Thank you for this wonderfully encouraging comment, Dominique! It made me smile. We miss Boise, and Doug talks about TriTown regularly. Boise is our home, and we will return! 🙂

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