Geçmiş Olsun: When you’re sick abroad

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. What I’ve posted here is a longer version of my column for this week (the word limit meant I couldn’t tell as many stories as I wanted….):

Flu season is upon us at Georgetown. As your classmates and friends start coughing and missing class, you’re either smugly smiling about your responsible decision to get a flu shot at Georgetown or hoarding EmergenC packets and donning a face mask.

If you’ve had the misfortune of falling ill this semester, you might have found refuge in the Student Health Center. Sure, we joke about the hours we’ve all spent in the waiting room, but at least it’s familiar and predictable.

Besides being a frustrating experience in its own right, an unexpected illness can throw a dagger in a trip’s itinerary. Instead of strolling aimlessly through the Louvre or haggling for souvenirs at the bazaar, you have to spend your time struggling through body-related vocabulary at the pharmacy or – worse yet – lying on a crummy hostel mattress waiting to feel better.

Feeling sick abroad might not be ideal, but it places you in a context that you otherwise would never experience. Conceptions of human health and medical systems vary drastically from country to country and across generations. You can read theoretical works about medical anthropology, but it’s also incredibly valuable to experience for yourself how another culture understands health and wellbeing.

Beliefs about the causes of poor health differ, depending on where you’re traveling. On some level, these beliefs seem absurd – in Russia, I found out the hard way that women are not supposed to sit on the bare ground because their ovaries will freeze. I’ve laughed with friends about this, but some other health beliefs have made their way into my own conception of health and illness.

While abroad in Turkey, I was initially confused when our program adviser scolded the students for walking around the house without socks. When one student fell ill with a serious stomach problem, the program director’s response was the same: “No wonder you’re sick, your feet are bare!”

For the American students, the lack of socks never occurred to us as a cause of stomach viruses. We eventually learned to go with the cultural flow, and wearing knitted socks became a standard sartorial choice in the apartment building. Even after having been back at Georgetown for a year, I still feel weird walking in my house without socks.

Self-medication is an acceptable way of handling illness in the United States. If you’re sick, pop a Tylenol and hope you correctly remembered the symptoms it’s supposed to cure. All better!

If you find yourself feeling sick abroad, though, you have an opportunity to learn alternate methods for curing symptoms. Beware, though – local remedies range from the idyllic prescription to “get more fresh air” that a friend was told in Germany to downright stomach turning.

My friend Greg spent a year after high school in Russia’s far east, and he has many wonderful stories from his time there. When I asked him to share any remedies he came across, I expected a short list: vodka. There’s got to be a sliver of truth in stereotypes, right?

It came as a surprise when he showed me photographs of garlic instead of bottles upon bottles of Russian booze. He told me how at the first onset of flulike symptoms, his host parents applied garlic to his face. Generously. For an extra measure of security, they placed several cloves of garlic on a plate next to his bed at night. Whether the garlic helped Greg in the long run is unclear, but the smell of garlic lingered for several weeks after he came back into good health.

Sometimes home remedies just won’t suffice, though, and a visit with a doctor is in order.

Insurance logistics aside, the most difficult barrier for solid hospital care is probably linguistic. If you are traveling alone and find yourself in need of a doctor’s attention, find a native speaker pronto. This person can more accurately describe symptoms and be a source of support during a disorienting time.

Several students who were abroad with me in Turkey had to spend some time in the hospital. The private hospital in Alanya was small, but lovely – there was a woman from Denmark whose sole job was to translate between doctors and foreign patients. This lady was incredible – she spoke like 10 languages (not even exaggerating) and had such a calming aura about her.

Unfortunately, it’s not always an option to rely on a bilingual friend to help you out. While spending the weekend with a lovely family in northern Azerbaijan, I came down with a bad enough illness that a doctor (who happened to be my host’s uncle) had to come visit. I don’t speak a word of Azerbaijani, and so couldn’t tell the doctor my symptoms directly. My friend did not understand my English descriptions of my symptoms, and I didn’t fully understand the list of symptoms I acknowledged in Russian. Somehow, a diagnosis was delivered, and I was prescribed to drink a spoonful of salt water for an hour. The idea of a prescription probably helped ease my stomach ache more than the actual medicine, but several weeks later, I reflected on the experience as a victory.

There was no easy way out of the experience. I couldn’t phone a friend; I had no secret repository of Pepto-Bismol to take. Even though I was dizzy and had no idea what was going on, I had no other option but to navigate the situation. Being sick while traveling puts your flexibility and adaptation skills to the ultimate test.

At the end of the day, no one enjoys being sick. Here at Georgetown, a case of the flu or strep throat is rarely a memorable experience. You post up in your bed for three days and eat nothing but oatmeal and soup. If you find yourself feeling queasy while traveling, try to remember that there’s something to be learned from the experience. Whether it’s the phrase for “low blood pressure,” how to negotiate international health insurance, or a useful home remedy you can bring back to the States, it just goes to show that a perfectly healthy trip is not the only way to have a fulfilling experience.

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