Monday, 23 May 2011

Once bitten, twice shy: A cautionary tale...

WARNING: There are some disturbing pictures included in this post. Not for the faint of heart.

I was in two minds about whether or not to write up this account but I realised I needed to document my experience as I seemingly did not learn from the countless other times... Plus it's a long story to have to explain to people from home! Ok, so there were a few national holidays in South Korea and it just so happened to work out that I would be able to join my 2 older sisters in Hong Kong, as they were going there on holiday (they actually booked their tickets before I'd booked mine for South Korea!). It did mean having to take a couple of days off work though (during term time) - no mean feat according to my co-teacher, Wendy. Miracles do happen it seems - the Principal gave the ok (apparently he's changed...) and I flew out on Friday 6th from Incheon.

Spent the first couple of days on my own where I made sure to cram in as much sightseeing (and eating of course) as possible. Met up with a jetlagged Yick, Shue and Ian on Sunday. They were staying with some friends in the New Territories so we all ended up going back there. I will blog properly about Hong Kong itself soon - but long story cut short; I'd received a few mosquito bites on Saturday (no big deal - I was eaten alive periodically in Ghana but still managed to not get malaria!) and then a few more on Sunday. However, come Monday morning my legs were covered with these little bites that, whilst itchy, did not look like mosquito bites. Odd. Yet as the day went on my legs started to really itch and swell, in particular the right. By the evening a collection of bites on the area around my right ankle had started to blister and the whole foot and ankle was swollen. We were slightly concerned but figured that it would go down by the next day - joking that the blisters would probably pop during the night! Upon waking on Tuesday, I was initially relieved they hadn't popped but then realised that instead, they'd doubled in size. Now I was worried, and annoyed. I was due to fly back the following day and this was the last thing I wanted to deal with. Being Buddha's birthday we couldn't just go to see a GP, we had to go to the hospital.

Monday evening...
I figured I'd be given a few drugs and be sent on my way. However, the doctor had no idea what was wrong with me, speculating it could be some sort of allergy. I'd been bitten by sand fleas in Malaysia a few years ago and had reacted quite badly to it; however, it was nothing like this! These bites were confined to my legs but it was mainly the right that had swollen and blistered up (there was only one blister on the left). If it was a food allergy then surely it'd be all over but why was it mainly affecting the right? It was then revealed the only thing they could do was to inject me with some drugs to lessen the swelling and itching. However, this would mean staying overnight in hospital. They could attempt to find out the cause but my flight was early on Wednesday morning and there was no way I wanted to deal with the hassle of changing flights and I was scheduled to return to school on Thursday. I had no choice but to check in and spend my last day in hospital. Thank god I'd listened to the wise one (Shue) and taken out Backpacker's Insurance.


Up close and personal

It was a teary goodbye. I cried though, not from being scared, but because I was thoroughly pissed off. What was meant to be a simple opportune break to catch up with the old ones and cram in a spot of travelling had turned into a nightmare. The plan for the day was to be huffing and puffing my way up 268 steps to see the Giant Buddha, celebrating his birthday, and eating vegetarian food. Somehow hadn't factored in being stuck in a hospital on my last day in Hong Kong. Unsurprisingly, my thoughts turned to all the things (namely foods) I had planned on buying but was waiting until the end to and the orgasm inducing mango bubble tea I'd wanted to try one last time. Seriously, it was that good! If it were not for the fear of potentially bursting the damn blisters I would most definitely have kicked myself.

Lunch :-(

Dinner :-(


Ironically I did fulfil the vegetarian part of the plan. I was staying at Tseun Wan Adventist Hospital - they only served (bland) vegetarian food. Hooked up to the meds I drifted in and out of sleep whilst watching some classic Hong Kong dramas. Got chatting to the other 2 patients in my 3 bed ward, both of whom thought I was from Singapore. Makes a change from Korean! The nurses were lovely and sorted out a taxi that would come and escort me to the airport at 6am as my flight was at 8.30am. Despite taking a roundabout route from the airport at the start (in an attempt to save money) I couldn't quite face tackling the public transport in my condition. Come Wednesday morning I was bandaged up, ready to face the long day of travelling I had ahead. As I was flying with Air China it was not a direct flight - I had to change at Beijing. This meant I wouldn't get into Incheon until 4.30pm. However, there was still the matter of getting back to Jecheon (3 hrs away). This was the part I dreaded the most as I had no idea what time the scheduled buses were. Out of the comfort of being able to speak and understand the native language in Hong Kong, I was back to being lost in translation.

Ready for the long day ahead...

Thankfully the entire journey was without incident and I managed to quite easily get the bus back to Jecheon at 5.30pm. But it was extremely difficult and uncomfortable to walk at anything other than snail pace. On route I rung Wendy to tell her what happened and to warn her I would most likely need her assistance when I got back. When I finally reached Jecheon it was close to 9pm. Wendy and her boyfriend promptly picked me up and we drove to the local hospital. Upon revealing my legs to both the doctor and Wendy, both gasped and withdrew in horror. During transit the blisters had tripled in size - joining in the process. I cried then from fear for the first time in the 2 day ordeal. Tired from having travelled all day walking painstakingly slow I just wanted the whole thing to be over. It was becoming evident I wasn't going to get an answer but I would happily settle with a solution. Unfortunately, I was going to have to wait a bit longer. Due to the time there was not an onsite skin specialist and the nearest unit was in Wonju, roughly 45 minutes away. A pit stop to get coffee and radiator fluid meant that when we finally arrived at Yonsei Hospital A&E it was after 11pm - 17 hrs after checking out from Tseun Wan Hospital. A bustle of activity led to me being swiftly stuck on an IV followed by a whirlwind of tests. The inevitable endless questioning, poking and prodding drew blanks once again. Blood, Urine, ECG, X-Ray, Blood Pressure, Temperature tests all revealed nothing other than the fact that, statistically, I was perfectly healthy. I wasn't having an anaphylactic reaction (obviously - I could have told them that without the tests) but I was without question, having a severe allergic reaction to something. The assigned doctor informed me that he was, to put it simply, baffled (my translation) and would have to call his senior for advice. More waiting ensued.


Still can't believe this was my leg...

I took in what was going on around me - a lady who was wailing when I first arrived had settled into subdued sobbing, most of the patients were unconscious; some were being tended to by their loved ones. It was nearing midnight and Wendy was still waiting outside with her boyfriend, despite my insistence for her to go home. Lying down felt odd but I needed to manually adjust the bed (no automatic controls here) and the IV poked painfully into my left hand (managed to bag a nurse with no bedside manner) so I had to settle into a half raised position on my side. My discomfort paled considerably in comparison to my neighbours though. Remembering I was no longer in a secluded ward but in the A&E department gave me much needed perspective. Apart from having a deformed leg I was otherwise fine. Still, it seemed highly unlikely I would be able to go into school the next day. Ah, I bet the principal will regret allowing me the time off now!

Finally my doctor comes back - an answer at last? Alas, it's wishful thinking. Mr Senior is equally baffled but gives his best regards. His advice - pop the monsters (sorry, blisters), pump me with steroids and send me on my way. With that stated, I am attended to by 3 nurses in unison- before I can blink my IV is yanked out, my backside is jabbed with steroids and my legs are stabbed with needles. The latter takes the longest. Wendy holds my hand whilst I cried like a baby, unable to look. It was not so much the popping that hurt but the raw skin underneath being pressed upon as the copious fluid was drained. After an agonising amount of time the nurse packs up her tools and stalks away without saying a word. Regardless of the language, I notice a stark contrast in the nurses in Hong Kong and South Korea. In Hong Kong they were all sweet, attentive and gentle whereas in South Korea they seemed to take the no nonsense approach. I know which one I preferred.

After popping...

My swollen right foot

Despite the medical coverage provided by my school, the bill comes to 117,000. Wendy gasps but explains that it's because it's A&E and all the tests that were involved. At that point, I couldn't have cared less. I just wanted to go home. By the time I dump the heavy bag I'd prepared for the assumed hospital stay on my apartment floor it's 2.30am. Due to the drugs I'm pumped with I fall instantly into a dead slumber. I awake only when Wendy rings in the morning to check I'm alive. The guilt comes back. I'm still dog tired (and I don't exactly go to bed early in general) but Wendy is someone who's disciplined enough to hit the sack at 10pm. Thank god I had enough sense to get the expensive chocolate at the airport! I wake up only to dress and get my prescription and spend the rest of the time sleeping and consuming my emergency stash of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. My fridge was in dire need of replenishment but I couldn't quite work up the energy to go to the Lotte. Luckily my wonderful fellow teachers at school arrived to save the day. Erica (Korean) and Jan (American) spend some time checking I'm ok before informing me they were taking me to dinner. They saw through my failed attempt to convince them I didn't need anything (damn, I had been looking forward to that rameyon). They'd also brought along a gift from my principal (bottles of juice in a gift box - it's a 'thing' here) and reassured me that he wasn't angry at all but instead concerned (I did still have a nightmare in the following days that he had fired me and I needed to look for another job or get deported!).

On Friday I managed to resemble something more human and visited the local Dermatologists with Wendy in tow. This time I had my long overdue answer - it was likely a combination of being bitten, then having the area irritated by foliage or something else. It was very unfortunate that my reaction was somewhat unique and severe. Not exactly rocket science. Nevertheless I was just happy that it was NOT something I had eaten. Nothing would depress me more than having food allergies; in particular seafood (Asians tend to blame seafood a lot)! Over the next few days I do little but sleep, eat, read and watch movies. My right foot was still swollen and the leg very sore making anything active a chore. The drugs I'd been prescribed also made me really drowsy so I was not the most sociable. However, I was not an invalid and scheduled to return to school on Monday. Stupidly I hadn't anticipated the Dermatologists being so busy after the weekend, thus was horribly late for school - not a good way to start after over a week off! Needless to say I was not on best form that day.

Slowly healing...

The extent of the damage...

After a week I am finally back into the swing of things. Definitely going to avoid having anymore time off during term time, not unless I can't help it. It's incredibly annoying keeping my legs covered up but I don't want to scare anyone. Almost 2 weeks since the blisters were popped now and it's not a pretty sight. The swelling has gone and whilst no longer painful, the area is tight from the tender new skin forming so it's back to being bright red. Going to start some much needed exercise this week (due to holiday + complications I've now had almost 3 weeks off Taekwondo!). Praying it doesn't scar and that the bites fade enough for me to bare and get a tan. Weather here is just about perfect but it's only going to get hotter and more humid, so I've been told. This experience had definitely taught me a much needed lesson. Research my travel destinations and stay off sugar before I go!


  1. Ah Poo Shan you poor thing, can't believe the ordeal that you had to go through in South Korea. Really shocked how the nurses treated you over there. Makes me very sad to read that you were upset. Our 2nd aunty said that this happened to you when you was a baby when you went to HK. Apparently, you were taken to the hospital back then. Like how mum misses out all the 'minor' details that is actually very vital in your case. I hope they heal soon. Love you

    Shue xxx

    P.S I didn't dob you in, guess who the big gob is that told our aunt and obviously it went from there. But mum is just worried about you so just explain to her what happened and hopefully, she will stop questionning you. You have a way with words to shut her up! ;-b xxx

  2. Oh my goodness suzypoo, u poor thing! You're so brave, I'd probably have booked a flight home there and then haha!! Glad to see it started healing, how is it all now? Lots of love and thinking of you :) Fingers crossed nothing else happens like that! Sabrina xxxxxx