Malaysian Hospitals: Incredible, Affordable Care


While freeing an endangered sea turtle from a discarded fishing net, I learned three key things:

  1. Some fish can be real assholes.
  2. The Malaysian ambulance and hospital system is incredible and amazingly inexpensive.
  3. My awesome friends are able to find humor in painful situations, and they take great footage for future laughter. (No wonder why we’re friends)

After the turtle was cut free, I hauled the gigantic net to shore to prevent it from ensnaring any other wildlife. As I was cutting out and freeing many flopping fish that had become entangled, a rabbitfish misunderstood the efforts. Now I don’t speak “fish,” but as I gave him a little whack to pop him off the net and into the water, I’m fairly sure he shouted: “I won’t be your kebab – you’ll be MINE!” and proceeded to skewer the hell out of my fingers with the venomous spines on his back.

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And that earned me my first ride in a Malaysian ambulance to Gleneagles Hospital! Intermittent surges of excruciating pain shot down my now-sausage-sized-fingers, through my hand and into my arm. It felt like my hand was about to give birth to an adult porcupine, which produced projectile tears and left me sweating, shaking and wailing. With each painful convulsion, the ambulance driver flicked on the siren and lights to get us to the hospital faster, which was a nice touch and a great distraction. And the on-board nurse was very professional, and made sure the venom wasn’t sending me into cardiac arrest, or Alien-like porcupine-hand-birth.


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This was when I stopped wondering if amputation would be necessary and started hoping for it.

Immediately upon arrival, a large, attentive staff of doctors and nurses swarmed the gurney and inserted a line into my arm, and pumped me full of antibiotics, steroids, painkillers, antihistamines and a tetanus shot. In the U.S., I’ve never been treated that quickly in an ER. Their staff was totally in synch and on top of the situation, which is a very reassuring thing when you’re facing an injury.

Meanwhile, my amazing friends, Jays and Rainer, identified the asshole fish on Google, and the doctor got on the phone with the fisheries department to determine how to counteract its debilitating venom.

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Common name for Rabbitfish: “Asshole Fish”

At this point, my fingers looked like miniature evil purple piñatas. Luckily, the doctor and my friends found out that soaking the hand in hot water and vinegar would help break down the venom. Within a few hours, the pain was gone and my parting souvenir was a puffy bear-like paw for a hand, and a pharmacy of pills to take home for continued treatment.

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Total bill for all that: 833 ringgit. That’s $194 USD. And yes, that includes the ambulance, all the treatments, the prescriptions, and several x-rays (to make sure the fish didn’t leave any pieces of bone in my hand). Incredible, right?!

The care I received at Penang’s Gleneagles Hospital was truly fantastic. The doctors, nurses, orderlies and ambulance staff were thorough, attentive, intelligent, diligent and caring. Really top-notch care!

So if you were wondering how the healthcare system is in Malaysia, I can attest that it’s pretty darn incredible and amazingly affordable. I didn’t lose my fingers, and I also didn’t lose my shirt.

Note though that if you’re going to the hospital for non-emergency services, it can take a while. Appointments aren’t the norm here – you usually call ahead and get a four-hour time block in which your chosen doctor will see you, and when you arrive, you take a number and wait. The downside is that your butt will likely get numb waiting, but the upside is that you get lots of time with the doctor – they don’t rush you in and out to get to the next appointment since there aren’t “appointments.” I’ll do another post about health check-ups soon, which are unique half-day experiences unto themselves.

Special thanks to Jays and Rainer for helping me throughout this ordeal and documenting it all for future laughter. They are such great friends and truly wonderful people. 🙂



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