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A TALE OF THE HOSPITAL, NOT THE HOTEL
By Michael Matthews
July 17, 2008 -- This is a travel story, but it is not a column about a hotel. It's about a hospital and I think the story will open your eyes.

Our tale begins at 4:30 a.m. in Siem Reap, Cambodia. There was a wake-up call and a gentle reminder that our guide would be ready for us at 5 a.m. He'd be taking us to see the dawn and the famed sunrise over Angkor Wat.

We saw the dawn come up. It was on-time.

My thoughts were then to return to bed. But my wife had another idea. About 50 kilometers from Angor Wat is Tonie Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia and home to about 3,000 floating homes. It was there we were going, not to bed.

Awaiting us at the lake was a long-tailed boat with a teak deck and seating for four. I stepped onto the deck, which, it still being early morning, was covered in dew. My feet went from under me. I picked myself up and my first words to my wife were: "I've broken my arm."

"Nonsense," she replied.

The rest of the morning was spent cruising around the lake, followed by a flight to Bangkok in the afternoon. My hand was swelling up and my arm hurt.

"It's just a bruise," said my wife.

I didn't get much sleep that night. The next morning, I finally got an admission from the wife that we should go to an emergency room of a hospital.

On arrival at Bumrungrad International Hospital, a pioneer in medical tourism, we were met by a uniformed doorman. We were escorted up the steps and into a beautiful marble lobby. At a lovely reception desk, they take your details: age, nationality, other formalities. Elapsed time: 10 minutes.

On completion of those formalities--and, please, nothing as crass as asking how you intend to pay--we were assigned an escort. Her name was Nin, a very pretty young lady wearing a smart silk uniform and Hermes-type scarf.

We proceeded to the orthopedic wing, where my wife and I were asked to wait. After no more than five minutes, Nin reappeared and took me to a nurse. She weighed me and took my temperature and blood pressure. Then Nin escorted me back to the waiting area.

Not being stupid, my wife and I brought books to pass the time. But I hadn't gotten through the first chapter before Nin reappeared and led me to see the orthopedic surgeon. He looked happy and smiled a lot. He had an unpronounceable name. He did his residency at John Hopkins, according to a diploma on the wall behind his desk. I liked him instantly.

He felt my hand very gently, smiled some more, and, half-laughing, said: "I guess it's broken, let's get an X-ray."

My delightful escort, Nin, led me down a couple of corridors to the X-ray department. A five-minute wait and into the X-ray room. A few pretty pictures were taken of my hand and back we went to see the surgeon.

We waited perhaps 15 minutes while the film was developed. I managed to get a couple of chapters read. Then I looked up and Nin was standing there. She led me back to the doctor. Even bigger smile as he showed me the photos.

"Your second metacarpal is broken. It's a clean break. And your third metacarpal bone has a spiral fracture. Let's get you into a cast."

Now we're an entourage: Me, my escort, my doctor, my doctor's nurse--and two people who proudly wear badges announcing that they were members of the "casting department." Elapsed time: 5 minutes.

The cast room is small and the team very gently applied the cast, which is to be my companion for the next six or seven weeks. It went from the tips of my fingers to my elbow. After about 10 minutes, everyone stood back to admire their work. Big, happy, smiling faces all around. I'm surprised that they didn't each shake hands and give high fives.

I said goodbyes. They said goodbyes. Then Nin escorted me out of the orthopedic center and back to my wife, whose jaw dropped when she saw my arm. I'm sure visions of her having to bathe, feed and tend to my every need flashed glumly through her mind.

Now to the last stop. We took our seats in the waiting area of the bill-paying department. Then I realized my wallet was in my right back pocket--and it's my right hand and arm that's in plaster. It finally dawned on me: I am disabled. I will get a parking space whenever I go to the mall.

Panic set in. Not so much from my disablement or the realization that I will be a lefty for six weeks. I was worried about money. Do I have enough credit on my American Express and Visa cards to pay the bill? I didn't take any trip insurance. Bangkok jails, I am told, are not nice. Will the Embassy help?

A nervous, 15-minute wait ensued, the longest wait of our hospital sojourn. Finally, Nin appeared to take me to the cashier. My level of panic elevated.

"Thank you so much, Mr. Matthews, for visiting Bumrungrad International Hospital," said the cashier. "I hope your arm gets better. It's our pleasure to have had you as a patient."

Wow, I thought, they don't say that when you check out of a Four Seasons hotel.

I asked Nin, the escort, to reach into my back pocket for my wallet. I figured we knew each other well enough by then...

"How much is the bill?" I asked, trying not to show panic in my voice.

"That will be 4,140 baht," said the cashier. I paid by Amex.

Total elapsed time at Bumrungrad as the doorman helped me and my wife into a taxi and then joined Nin on the steps waving me goodbye? A bit more than two hours. And, oh yeah, 4,140 baht is $138.

Flash forward to last week. I had the cast removed at the Tucson Orthopedic Institute. The cost to remove my cast and have the doctor tell me I was 100 percent healed? A cool $775, more than five times the cost of the treatment at Bumrungrad.

Makes one think, doesn't it?
ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.

This column is Copyright 2008 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.