May 27, 2015

Scratch it...

Since mid-March I've had an itch. Literally. It started in the only area of my body that's never been photographed and after about 10 days was bad enough for me to go to what I was told is "a good Vietnamese hospital"... Hoan Mỹ. It was partially financed by the U.S., which is why it has Mỹ (United States) in the name. Mỹ is approximately pronounced "may-e"...

The hospital caters to well-off Vietnamese and is nice, beautiful, clean, and virtually EMPTY. Fortunately, I was with a native who also speaks very good English and was therefore able to convey my concerns to the intake nurse and to the doctor. He (doctor) looked at the itchy areas and declared that my choice of underwear was the problem. According to him, briefs do not allow for proper ventilation and drying, so I should change to boxers. I tried to explain to him (through my friend/interpreter) that I just spent over two months in Ho Chi Minh where it's a LOT hotter and more humid and where I had no itching issues. I also told him that the itching started about six weeks after I arrived in Đà Lạt. He did not reconsider his diagnosis, prescribed pills and a cream, and sent me on my way. The good news is that the total hospital charges, including the doctor and the prescriptions, were less than US$15.

I changed styles, took the pills, and used the cream while the itch took the opportunity to intensify... and spread.

Since some of you are wondering... there is nothing crawling around and causing the itch. That's the first thing I checked after it started.

As I wrote the first sentence in the previous paragraph, I remembered what is still, 38 years later, my absolute favorite bathroom graffiti... and, of course, a bit of a story. My first job after university was in Louisville (pronounced Louavul), Kentucky, with Westinghouse Electric. Since I knew no one in town, I took a night job as a bartender at an upscale (for Louavul) discotheque called Harlow's—as in Jean. This was 1976, when disco was very "in" and the place was jammin' every night in spite of, and perhaps because of, the bartenders' uniform—a custom-tailored, black, double-knit jumpsuit. There are no surviving photos of me in that jumpsuit (thank the goddess!), though I can assure you it was a chick magnet! Sorry, those stories I'm saving for the book I keep hearing I should write.

Since there are no photos of me in the Harlow's jumpsuit, I thought I'd share this same-era shot that includes my friend since childhood Steve O...

I'm even wearing my FAVORITE t-shirt of the era! It had a drawing of a wrinkled old wizard with the words "Trust Me!" People would look at the shirt, look up at my face, and say, "Uhhhhh... No." =:-0

Oh yeah, graffiti... the men's room at Harlow's featured small chalk boards above the urinals because some men apparently cannot resist a blank canvas and the chalk boards saved the painted walls. Written on one of the chalkboards one night was the aforementioned graffiti:

"Please do not throw toothpicks into the urinals—crabs can pole vault!"

I'll wait...

As the itching spread, I sought the help of another doctor in Đà Lạt. He also told me that it was heat-related and gave me prescriptions for different pills and cream.

Within 10 days, the itch spread to most of the rest of my body and became more uncomfortable than ever.


I was scratching furiously in HCMC a couple weeks ago, so I asked around and found a dermatological hospital that usually only treats Vietnamese people. Since my friends who speak English were all working, I went solo. Somehow, with a bit of help from Google Translate and a lot of charades-like movements, I got through the admissions process. It looked like, and I'm guessing here, I was put to the front of the queue because it was less than 10 minutes before I was sitting in front of a doctor who spoke passable English.

After looking at the spots on my chest

he declared them the results of a food allergy. Finally, a diagnosis that might have legs!

I immediately asked what "we" could do to determine the food to which I am allergic. His response pretty much sums up my impression of medical care in Việt Nam: "You will have to leave Viet Nam to determine that. Westerners' bodies are different that Vietnamese's bodies and we are not equipped to work with them." He then handed me my third set of prescriptions for pills and cream and dismissed me.

WHAT??? An "educated" medical doctor practicing at a dermatological hospital in the largest city in Viet Nam thinks that allergy determination is different for different races? We're the same fcuking species, Doc!!!

Hoping that maybe there was something to the food allergy diagnosis—probably because I thought of it earlier myself—I decided to stop eating the one thing that I did not eat before moving to VN... chicken.
Making phở at home
I figured I'd give it 10 days to work any toxins out of my system and if the itch persisted, I'd cut out something else.

When I mentioned this to a few Vietnamese friends, the response was always the same: yes, I know many people who cannot eat chicken because it makes them itch. Okay...

These are the pills and creams I didn't get to because the next doctor gave me something different...
After a week of no chicken and a total of about 10 weeks of itching, I was scratching myself raw in a couple places. My friend My (pronounced "Me" and no relation to the country) said she knows a good doctor who could possibly help me. "Why didn't you say something 10 weeks ago?" was the question I did not ask. It was Saturday, so the offices of the doctor she knows and three others we rode to were all closed. Another doctor was open, but his receptionist said he doesn't treat Westerners... cause we have different bodies, remember? (She didn't actually say that and as I wrote it, my tongue was planted firmly in-cheek.)

The next (5th) doctor's office we went to was open and apparently he will treat anyone. He smiled when I walked in, spoke passable English, and took the time to look at all of my itchy places, not just the unphotographed ones. He declared the cause of the itch, et cetera, as dermatitis. While giving me six different pills and a cream, he told me not to eat chicken, beef, pork, ocean seafood, or eggs while taking the 10 day's worth of pills. Fortunately, I'm still allowed fruit and there are at least three decent vegetarian restaurants in town.

At this point, the latest meds seem to be working—the itching is less every day and I'm only five days into the meds. FINALLY!

As you may guess, I'm telling this story to give you a feel for what it's like finding good medical practitioners in much of the third world... many more misses than hits. Every ex-pat I've talked to has a similar story and I've said since day one here that if I ever need "serious" medical care, I'm using my Global Rescue policy and heading for Bangkok.

For those still focused on the chicken head, someone else cut up the chicken and tossed it into the pot for the phở broth. I found it while stirring and HAD to take a picture! =:-0

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