The Trauma of Third World Medical Treatment

In our January issue of Undercurrent, we describe the difficulty of getting emergency medical care in Fiji. Here’s a story by one of our writers 36 years ago. Not much has changed, he says.

Taveuni, New Year’s Day 1988, 6 AM,

I woke up with acute appendicitis. The manager got me a “cab,” and we bumped along a two-rut road to the clinic. We were met by a doctor wearing a once-white tunic and a pareo. He poked and prodded me to confirm my diagnosis. He advised me to have it out ASAP.

Worried, I asked if he could do it.
“I can, but you don’t want me to.”

Back at the resort, my wife hurriedly packed, and a cab took us to the dirt strip airport. I limped to Sunflower Airlines. The Aussie pilot checking people in looked up.

“I have to get to Nadi.”
“Plane’s full, mate.”
“I have appendicitis, and if I don’t get to the hospital, I could die.”
“Plane’s full, mate.”
“You don’t understand. I am going to die!”
“What do you want me to do, kick somebody else off so you can get on?”
“I’ll sit in the jump seat.”
“No can do, mate. Regulations. But don’t worry, if you do die, we’ll fly the body out for free.”

My wife asked, “What are we going to do?”

“I want you to go back to the desk and start to cry in front of everyone. Men can’t stand that.”

A minute later, I heard my wife’s voice hysterically pleading with the pilot. They agreed to phone the next scheduled stop, and he’d put us on if the ticketed passengers hadn’t checked in.

In Nadi, the hospital was a cluster of white two-story post-WWII buildings sided in clapboard. They checked me in immediately. In my private room, I noticed the windows had no screens. The surgeon walked in, large and of Indian descent. He set up the IV drip and inserted it into my right hand.

In the OR, the window had a sheet of 3/4″ plywood covering it with a window air conditioner occupying a rectangular hole.

“Sorry, but since the coup, the Commonwealth isn’t sending us parts for the systems.”

“That’s OK. Can I get a Valium, please?”

“Valium. Ha ha. They stopped sending us drugs, too.”

“N-n-n no anesthesia?”

“Oh, we have anesthesia. He can give you a spinal,” and he gestured to his assistant, a strapping young man the size of a defensive lineman for the 49ers.

“And if I don’t want that?”

“Pentothal and curare.”

“I’ll take it.”

They heaved me onto an ice-cold table while the aide prepared the curare. A nurse walked into the room and murmured an aside to the doctor. And they rolled me out of the room.

“Very sorry, but a 12-year-old boy needs his gall bladder removed immediately.”

I waited in the hallway contemplating eternity while the next victim was wheeled in. An hour later, the surgeon emerged and asked how I felt.

“Better. The pain’s gone.”

“Aah, this is what we call the Fool’s Paradise. Your appendix is about to burst.”

Later, coming out of a nasty drug hangover, the surgeon smiled.

“We got you just in time. Your appendix had just burst, and your abdomen was infected, and you were full of pus and blood and things.”

“What kind of things?”


I lay in my un-air-conditioned room for the next four days, watching geckos chase the mosquitoes around the ceiling. Birds roosted on the wooden slats of the windows at night, and at dawn, they screeched and flew off.

Back stateside I claimed the costs on my medical insurance. The cost was 400 Fijian dollars or 300 US. I attached the receipt to the claim and dutifully noted the total as $300. The insurance just as dutifully sent me a check for $400. So, I am the only person who ever made a hundred bucks on his appendectomy.

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2 thoughts on “The Trauma of Third World Medical Treatment”

  1. Glad you made it. I have a similar story with my wife. DAN saved her life with a medivac.

    Rating: 5.0/5. From 1 vote.
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  2. Glad you’re still with us.

    Rating: 5.0/5. From 1 vote.
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