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What Happens if You Need Medical Treatment in Honolulu, Hawaii?

If you’re at or beyond midlife, you’ve inhabited this planet long enough to know that Woody Allen had it right when he said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” This is about what happens if you need medical treatment in Honolulu, Hawaii, a/k/a Paradise. More specifically, it’s about when I got sick in Honolulu, Hawaii.

In 2014, I had the good fortune arduous task of being a trailing spouse when Mr. Excitement did a three month sabbatical in Honolulu at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center. We found an apartment to rent across the street from Waikiki Beach. Gloating is unseemly, so I tried not to be too ecstatic when in contact with our Philly friends and family — in February. Life was tough. NOT!

Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii

The ocean view from our lanai.

About 6 weeks into our Hawaiian sojourn, we had our first dinner guests. I kept dinner real simple uncomplicated: rotisserie chicken from the supermarket, salad (with mango as the surprise ingredient), and rice pilaf from a box. Dessert was “adult” ice cream sundaes with local macadamia chocolate chip shortbread cookies.

We were having a very pleasant evening—appetizers on our lanai with ocean and Diamond Head views and then dinner. Conversation flowed and everyone was a member of the Clean Plate Club.

Diamond Head, Honolulu, Hawaii

The view of the extinct volcano, Diamond Head, from our lanai.

As I inquired as to who wanted coffee with dessert, I felt the first twinge of what I identified as an incipient GERD (gastro-intestinal reflux disease) attack, or in layman’s terms, heartburn. I developed GERD when I was practicing law full time. When I semi-retired, the symptoms vastly improved.

I excused myself and took a dose of maalox, my go to GERD remedy. I was dining with 3 medical professionals. They felt badly I wasn’t feeling well, but no one, including I, was alarmed.

The pain was bad enough for me to skip my favorite dessert. While the others enjoyed their ice cream with Kahlua or Amaretto, I settled for an over the counter acid reducer.

We bid our guests adieu and I retreated to our bedroom to wait for my symptoms to subside while Mr. Excitement washed the dishes.

The symptoms didn’t subside. They intensified. Mr./Dr. Excitment says I have a high pain tolerance. He has seen me endure kidney stones, child birth and severe GERD attacks without whimpering, even when my pulse rate and blood pressure reading confirmed my pain rating at 9 on a 10 point scale. (For me, 10 is childbirth).

He was clear I was in serious pain when I told him I needed to go to an emergency room, the only place I knew I could get the “GI cocktail” of fast-acting medications that can stop the pain associated with a major GERD attack. He was particularly impressed when I said I couldn’t even walk to go outside and take a taxi to the hospital.

Honolulu Emergency Medical Services (EMS) showed up within five minutes. The two paramedics were extremely professional and thorough. They took us to Straub Hospital, suggesting that I’d likely be tended to more quickly there than at the large tertiary care hospital.

I really appreciated that they dispensed with sirens and flashing lights once they determined I was unlikely to flat-line on their watch.

They rolled me into the triage area while Mr. E. was dispatched to tend to the paperwork. (Even in Paradise, someone has to pay the hospital bill).

Within minutes, the charge nurse introduced himself and started taking my history. He looked like a marine. It turned out he had been a marine. He seemed immensely competent and in command.

Dr. Excitement and I both expressed our opinion that based on previous experience, this was a severe GERD attack that could be stopped in its tracks by a combination of an antacid, a topical pain killer and an antispasmodic.

Nurse Marine was willing to entertain that hypothesis, but appropriately, he also wanted to rule out an acute cardiac event. Once I had a normal EKG and had blood drawn, I finally got the elixir I thought would take away my pain. Only it didn’t.

Ruh roh.

Eleven Things I Learned When I Needed Medical Treatment in Honolulu

IV cannulas at Straub Medical Center, Honolulu, Hawaii

There are some bracelets a girl would rather not have.

1) Bedside ultrasound can be a valuable diagnostic tool in the ER. It told my attending physician that I did not have gall stones, but that I had something that warranted further investigation by a CT scan.

2) You can get an emergency CT scan in the middle of the night at Straub Medical Center in Honolulu. The CT scanner machine will even talk to you! While the Straub radiologist is at home fast asleep, your digital scan will be sent winging off into cyber space to be read by a radiologist on the mainland who will diagnose a partial small bowel obstruction. A What? Why? How?

3) Once they know what’s wrong with you, you can have pain meds. Even if you’re allergic to morphine, they have other nice narcotics, like IV dilaudid. If you’re in severe pain, narcotics don’t make you feel high. They just relieve your pain. You are very thankful.

Hang loose sign, Emergency room, Honolulu, Hawaii

What a travel blogger looks like after IV narcotics.

4) The initial treatment for a partial small bowel obstruction is a naso-gastric (NG) tube. The nurse will warn you that getting a plastic tube inserted through your nose, down your esophagus and into your stomach is really quite “unpleasant”. He will say this several times. He will be 100% correct — and then some.

Your physician husband will decide he really doesn’t need to see this and will wisely decamp to the waiting room. You realize that freaking out will just prolong the agony and perhaps cause you to end up with a tube in your trachea instead of your esophagus, so you somehow suck it up (literally) and resolve to be a help, not a hindrance.

5) Once the NG tube is in place, you can be transported to your room. You will be very happy to learn that Straub Hospital has all private rooms. You’ll meet your very nice nurse who will explain that the plan of care for your small bowel obstruction is the NG tube, no eating or drinking, and IV hydration.

6) It will now be 3:00 a.m. You are aware of all sorts of noises — suction, an IV pump, and what you are convinced sounds like a cockroach walking across the pillow behind your head. You will ask your nurse if there are any cockroaches in the hospital. She’ll hesitate and tell you she saw a dead one once. Your husband will decide you’re appropriately psychotic from all you’ve been through and will patiently explain that he doubts very much that you are hearing a cockroach on your pillow. You will be very tired. Swallowing will be very painful. You will decide to let the cockroach thing go.

7) You will fall in love with your husband all over again when you look over and see he is planning to spend the rest of the night on the chair at the foot of your bed. You’re exhausted. You sleep fitfully in between very painful swallows.

8) You will decide that describing the events of the rest of the day would definitely be TMI. Let’s just say: It. Was. Not. A. Fun. Day.

9) You will send your husband home to get some sleep and spend a second fitful night, partly because you’re in the hospital and partly because your IV pump runs dry twice, emitting a suitably alarming alarm sound. You will learn there’s a shortage of “normal saline” IV solution, so the nurses have been ordered to use every drop.

10) You will learn that your diet (or rather, your lack of diet) has been advanced to clear liquids. You will actually enjoy some beef bullion and red jello for breakfast. When you tolerate this, they will advance you to a regular diet for lunch. A half an egg salad sandwich never tasted so good. When it appears this is on its way to being digested, you will be given the good news that you can go home as soon as transport brings up a wheel chair. You don’t need a wheel chair, but that’s hospital policy, so you cooperate and are deposited at the door in a wheelchair.

11)  You will walk back out into the world, whereupon you will feel immensely grateful for modern medicine, that you are no longer in pain, that you married a good great guy, that this didn’t happen when you were in Laos or Cambodia, and that so many people cared enough to wish you well. You will think about and endorse what your 89 year old mother always says, “Any day you can walk out your front door, is a good day.”

Have you ever ended up in a hospital away from home? Do you ever let a consideration about what medical care might be available influence your choice of travel destinations?

Suzanne Fluhr, Travel Editor

Suzanne Fluhr, Midlife Boulevard's travel editor, is a recovering Philadelphia lawyer, empty nester, wanderer, dog person and Zentangle® enthusiast. She also writes about Baby Boomer travels for the body and mind on her personal blog, <a href="">Boomeresque</a>. Instagram: Boomeresque2

Suzanne Fluhr, Travel Editor

Suzanne Fluhr, Midlife Boulevard's travel editor, is a recovering Philadelphia lawyer, empty nester, wanderer, dog person and Zentangle® enthusiast. She also writes about Baby Boomer travels for the body and mind on her personal blog, Boomeresque. Instagram: Boomeresque2

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Saturday 26th of May 2018

Doctor’s office in South of France for sprained ankle and emergency room in Amsterdam for kidney stones treated my husband with kindness and serious attention. Both times he did recover. Language could be an issue but for us all medical person understood and spoke english

Suzanne Fluhr, Travel Editor

Tuesday 12th of June 2018

Ouch, I can relate to the kidney stones. In western Europe, it is likely that one will find at least some English speaking medical professionals. In fact, in the Netherlands, they might speak English better than you do. ;-) In Laos----not so much.


Wednesday 23rd of May 2018

Wow! I remember you having an emergency but not those details. This will be good for fodder at our next gathering. Yes, you are very lucky to have such a caring man! I’m fortunate to not have had any hospitalizations. But when I was in Israel on an archeological expedition, I contracted an upper respiratory infection that sent me to their local medical center (kupat cholim). The doctor quickly diagnosed me and and gave me a week’s worth of anti-biotic that worked within two days. I didn’t have to pay a cent and I also didn’t need insurance as Israel has free medical care for residents and travelers. This opened my eyes to our system of expensive medical care and the inequality of ours vs. other countries. Capitalism trumps democracy. (No political pun intended).

Christine Greaves

Wednesday 23rd of May 2018

We both have health issues and need daily medication prescribed by health professionals in the UK. We love to travel. However, now only go to locations that have a good level of medical care. We cannot take the risk. A recent 3 month stay in Spain included an ambulance journey, at speed, with blue lights and two tones, to a large well equipped hospital. My husband was attended by 10 medics, and was given a full health check. Thank goodness we were taken to a modern hospital that had facilities to deal with a suspected heart attack. A medical emergency such as ours is a very scary event. Especially if you don't speak the local language.

Suzanne Fluhr, Travel Editor

Wednesday 23rd of May 2018

My husband's grandmother broke her hip in Spain. She was 91 at the time. She received excellent medical care in Torremolinos, Spain. She was hospitalized there for a month. Someone had sold her travel insurance which is a surprise. Her total bill came to $0.00! She lived to be 98.

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