Alignment of the Stars

By: Adam Boas

All over the world people are getting burned, not only in developed countries like Australia but in underdeveloped nations, tiny atolls and most certainly in countries in the midst of armed struggle. It's something probably not often considered by us in the burns ward at the Alfred, and in my experience almost never considered in the broader community. Perhaps then it is worthwhile for me to tell a little of my story, a tale of a very lucky person burnt in one such place.

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Translations

I boarded my flight to Indonesia at Sydney airport on the afternoon of September 17th. I briefly noticed a sign advertising travel insurance and felt cause for a small, self-satisfied smile. My girlfriend had blown what I knew to be a good few months living money by SE Asian standards on insurance I figured was virtually impossible to collect on anyway. I wouldn't fall for such propaganda. When the money was running short, I'd have the extra cash to see us through (and undoubtedly some smart remark about the wisdom of the seasoned traveler).

A few months later we found ourselves on a tiny island off the east coast of Thailand. Basically I wanted to get my divemaster's license and everyone we had met said this was the cheapest place to do it. Perhaps there's another moral in here about being a cheapskate. The details of small island living are hardly germane so I will skip to the main event.

The weather had deteriorated to such a degree that, although this was a common tourist destination, no boats could come in or leave. Unable to dive many looked for other ways to entertain themselves and although many staples were running low, there was plenty of beer. One night, unable to make it home, I crashed on the floor of a friend's bungalow. From stories I was later told I understand she lit a candle and it was blown into the mosquito net during the night.

I was dragged from the fire by a neighbor. Suffering severe burns to 60% of my body on an island with virtually no medical facilities, pretty well as far from the Thai mainland as I could be, with no hope of getting transport back due to the weather, you could say at this stage things weren't looking good. It seems harsh to say it but had I been a Thai native they would have said a few mantras and buried my body. In fact, had I been a dumb white boy, without insurance and no one to help the story would be quite similar. I want to be clear that what followed was just blind luck, a perfect alignment of the stars if you believe such things.

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Firstly, the other girl who was burned was insured to the eyeballs. Still this did neither of us any good because there was simply no way to get transport off the island at any price. But secondly, a group of very eager divers had chartered a helicopter to fly them to the island that morning. The girl's insurance company agreed to foot the bill for our inclusion on the return trip and someone up there was definitely on our side.

This got us as far as a small town called Surat Thani, chiefly known for being the jumping off point for the islands in the region. There was a small hospital there and blessed morphine but no burns facilities. My partner was frantically phoning everyone she could think of who might be able to help us. A simple thing which, on its own, would be out of reach of the average Thai person.

Luck smiled again and it turned out that Bangkok of all the cities in SE Asia had a specialized burns unit. The Australian and English embassies were able to organize a light plane to take us to Bangkok and eventually we were admitted to the Siriraj burns unit.

I hate to labor the point but my survival was based largely on blind luck, the experience of a medical insurance company that didn't want anything to do with me, and the tenacity of my partner who was not about to watch any transport leave without us on it no matter what. This is Thailand, a developing nation, and like many developing countries life, and labor, is cheap. Just ask Nike.

Money talks and bullshit walks and the average Thai persons yearly wage is far less than the monthly wage of a badly paid office worker in Australia. On the burns ward, each day they calculate the medication and dressings you are likely to need and a family member must go to the cashier to pay for it. What you cannot pay for will not be issued, though usually a nurse will help you to decide what you can most do without. After my family bought special medication for my badly infected burns the nurses christened me 'The million Bhat boy' the disparity between what I, and the Thai people on the ward could afford was quite marked, even should you desperately need the medication there is no exception. No easy 12 month, interest free plan is offered.

But like the villagers I met in my travels, though the system that they live and work under may be harsh, the people are incredibly generous. One of the nurses would always go through the medication list with my mum and cross off anything that they already had in stock. Blood was incredibly expensive and sometimes simply impossible to get and I needed a lot so the head nurse made a deal with the blood bank that if people donated in my name then I could have it for free. Not only did the nurses and the doctors on the ward all donate but they herded their boyfriends and brothers down as well. After that I could have had a complete changeover and then some. When I was at my worst they pitched together to pay a monk to come up and bless my room. In fact I thought my hallucinations were getting worse when he piled in wearing his orange robes, spraying the room with holy water.

It seems unfair to me, perhaps because I've had more than my fair share of luck. That by the simple fact of your birth, instead of an accident summoning ambulances, rescue teams and highly trained medical assistance, it will summon close family and a priest. I'm not saying I have the answers or that I would reject the luck of birth that saved my life, but in those quiet times when you sit back and count your blessings, don't you wish it could be like that for everybody?

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