Life experience: I underwent surgery in a Sri Lanken public hospital

After a very long time without Wi-Fi connexion, I am finally able to update my blog. Today I go back in time. Back to Sri Lanka (I am in Kolkata, India at the moment) to tell you about how is it to undergo surgery in a Sri Lanken public hospital. It has been an amazing experience, one of those you only get while traveling! I can still feel the vibes of the hospital under my skin and the kindness and caring of the other patients towards me. I can still see their faces, their smiles and their dark eyes. Their glances reached my soul. I will never forget them.


I don’t know what I was thinking about on that day. I really don’t know why I stepped into Negombo’s public hospital instead of going to a private clinic like all the other tourists. Maybe I am just too communist at heart. I don’t know. I just don’t want any special favors because I’m white/young/fromafirstworldcountry, or any other reason. I just want to be treated like anybody else.

I actually wasn’t sure it was a hospital when I first entered the place. I had never seen anything like it. The main hall was as crowded as though the Rolling Stones were about to perform a free show at that exact place. And there I was, like a white whale in the middle, trying to understand the logic of the many queues all over the place. I approached a desk and shouted (you had to shout to be heard in this place) that I wanted to see a doctor, a gynecologist. They pointed to a corner of the room where 2 tiny tables with a man and a woman sitting at the edge were facing each other. Once I found the right queue, I waited patiently for my turn, trying not to breathe (it seemed like all the diseases available on this planet were present in this hall).

After a short time waiting, it was my turn to talk to one of the doctors sitting at a tiny table in a dusty corner. She asked me a few questions (Your name? How old are you? What is your problem? Are you on your medication? Are you married? (!)), filled in a form and sent me to ward 11, the gynecologic section. I had no idea where it was, and could hardly understand her English, but as I was the only foreigner around, everybody wanted to help. A nurse guided me through the hospital (it’s HUGE, there are a lot of different buildings). He was nice, but as I had a limp, he wanted to put me in a wheelchair. That was not going to happen.

When we got to the gynecologic department (a big hall with approx. 25 beds), silence fell at once. All the patients and their relatives around them were staring at me. The reception nurse walked me down the room to a cabin closed by a curtain. I could feel dozens of eyes following me as I was shyly following the old woman dressed in a uniform as if she had popped out of the 40’s.

Gynecologic wing
The “cabin” was actually just a 2 squared meter space surrounded by curtains that unfortunately didn’t even close properly… so while you’re half naked everybody can enjoy watching your anatomy.
She handed me something between a beach blanket and a table cloth, and made me understand I had to take off my clothes and underwear and tie this thing around my waist. Then she rushed me to “sleep” (lie down). Sleep was actually the only word she could say in English. Otherwise she told me a lot of stuff but I didn’t understood a single thing.

The table only had old, nasty sheets on it but I lied down anyway and spread my legs when she ordered me to do so (it sounds traumatic, I know. But it’s actually worse writing about it than it was in real life…)
She had a look, nodded and disappeared. Five minutes later she was back with the doctor, his four interns and the surgeon.
He had (they all had, unfortunately…) a look, he touched it (the others didn’t, fortunately), I screamed out loud and he confirmed: “Yes yes, it’s an abscess. We have to put you to sleep and do a cut.”
-“To sleep??! You mean general anesthesia?!”
-“Yes, it’s impossible to do a local anesthesia”.
-“Hell no. I’m not having a GA.”
-“But you hardly let me touch you…”
-“I’m not having a GA.”
-“Oh well” (deep sigh) “we will try a local anesthesia, but if you can’t bear the pain we’ll put you to sleep. And no screaming, eh!”
-“I can bear the pain. I’m strong. Just give me something to bite on.”

He didn’t seemed convinced. As he was walking away with his crew following him like a good breed of domesticated sheep, I shouted:

-“Wait! Sir! How much is it going to cost me?”

He turned around and replied:

-“We are a public hospital. We won’t charge you.”

!!!! Well that’s good news. Let’s do this!

The nurse rushed me (what’s with the rushing in this place, can’t they see that I’m in great pain at every step I take?) to the bed number 8. Which was already taken. So I switched to the bed next to it. Number 7 is well known to be a magic number. I’m not a superstitious person, but I really needed to hold on to something at that moment, so I took it as a good sign.
I’d been sitting on this bed for hours, not sure how many… 3, 4 hours, maybe. And although I strike myself as being a strong and independent woman, I must admit that I looked around me enviously: every patient had some relatives around her. And I didn’t even have a book. Nor a teddy bear. I think the only reason why I wasn’t crying then is that I was too busy observing everything. I hadn’t slept much the previous night because of the pain, so sometimes, especially when I got fed up of smiling to the whole room, I would let myself lie down, and close my eyes. I never fell asleep though, this moment was to be remembered, I could not let myself slip away to the land of  dreams. I had to stay alert.

There is this girl. A teenager. She seems 15 years old, but I guess she is a bit older. Anyway, not more than 20. She sometimes looks at me, and always gives me a bright, sincere smile. She is so beautiful. She has a perfect face. A perfect skin. It seems that the sunshine has been caught inside her, because she glows. And she looks really sweet.
Suddenly, while I was writing, she walks to my bed and hands me a bottle of fruit juice:
-“You like mango juice?”
-“Oh, no, no, thank you”
-“Take. Drink!” she says as she puts the bottle in my hands.
-“Thank you, thank you so much!!!”

I was so touched! That was so kind of her! I was really thirsty, and slipped the juice down straight. A few minutes later, my next bed neighbor took out a packet of biscuits and some industrial creamy cheese, and ordered me to eat, but the nurse told her I was not allowed to eat before the operation. She seemed really sorry for me but I smiled at her, thanked her and told her that anyway I wan’t hungry (liar liar).

It’s raining really hard right now, and some drops are dripping on my left arm…

Just before 15:00 the nurses started wiggling around me, because I had to get prepared for the operation. I’d been told I had to wear white clothes, so they gave me a white shirt, and a white sheet (not, they’ve forgotten) and 2 cuts of bandage. I had to change, and then they asked me if I was shaved. Nope. So back to the cabin with the bitchiest of all the nurses who started to savagely shave me (she cut me in a couple of places) – that was the most traumatizing moment in this hospital. And the more I was complaining, telling her to be careful, that it hurt, and the more she was insulting me in Sinhala. Great. I’ll kill her someday. But later, not now, I have to undergo surgery.

She rushed me back into the room and there they realized that I had done nothing with my hair, I was still holding the 2 pieces of bandage in my left hand. So my two next bed neighbors got up and started combing my hair in two plaits, tying them with the bandages and then fixing them together above my head. I joined another girl dressed all in white with a ridiculous hairstyle just like mine sitting on a chair next to the reception, and we waited. They took some blood from me, they made me sign a paper in Sinhala so I had no idea what it was about (they said it was that I accepted to be operated but it could have been an agreement to give away my kidneys that I wouldn’t have noticed) and then 2 men appeared. We followed them downstairs, out of the building, walking barefoot. A table on wheels waited, and the men told us to sit on it. So there we where, 2 bloody cinderellas on our royal carriage pulled by two nurses across the gardens and the different buildings of our kingdom.
We got to the operation room and sat on a bench in the hall, waiting to be called inside. I was looking around. It didn’t seemed sooo dirty after all. Just abandoned. And the door didn’t close completely… The other girl was the first one to be called. I kept repeating to myself that everything was going to be fine, that dozens of women were operated every day in this exact same operation room and they were doing just fine.
10 minutes later they called me in. I was still barefoot (all the medical team was wearing big boots) as I walked into the operation room. A lonely surgery table was standing in the middle of an empty room. No sheets. I lied down, legs up. Horrible feeling. Luckily an anesthetist was fluent in English and she tried to distract me all the while. They disinfected me (or maybe was it only water, who knows, I couldn’t see) and then the surgeon tried to apply the local anesthesia. I screamed like I had never screamed in my whole life. The pain was beyond everything I had experienced (and I had once broken my nose with my own knee). So they stopped everything, and the lady tried to convince me to take sedatives. I said no. They all looked at me. She said just a little, it would help me feel more relaxed and feel less pain. I agreed. Who was I fooling? I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stop crying. Boom. It was a lie. They gave me a GA. End of story. But I still have both my kidneys.

I woke up as soon as I was back in the room and directly wanted to go back to the hostel were I was volunteering, but I was groggy for hours. The perfusion in my arm wasn’t dripping fast enough. I wanted it to end as soon as possible so I could go. Unfortunately, that was not going to happen. I tried to get up, but the bitchy nurse kept shouting at me: “Sleep! Sleep!” and I kept shouting back to her that I wasn’t tired, and that I wanted to go home. So a lady two beds away stood up and came to my bed to help me sit down. I was sitting there, trying to order my thoughts in my mind, and repeating that I wanted to leave.


I begged the doctor to call the hostel. But she spoke very little English so it took hours until she understood. Meanwhile I was eating the plain biscuits my next bed neighbor had left me, and an old woman approached me with a packet of chocolate biscuits and handed it to me with a shy smile.
“Bohoma istuti, bohoma istuti (ndrl “Thank you very much” in Sinhala),I kept repeating.
It was dark outside, and I had no way to get in touch with Shehan (the receptionist) who had no news from me since I had left around 10 am. I tried to borrow a mobile phone from someone in the room but no one seemed to have any credit.

When the doctor came back I begged her again to call the hostel, and to talk to Shehan, that I had no sheets, no toothbrush, no clothes to change into, and for the first time, she seemed to understand. I handed her the number, and she said she would try and call when she finished checking all the patients. Apparently, as soon as she rang, Shehan and the owner of the hostel, Manju, hurried to the hospital with some of my personal stuff.
They arrived quite late, and the visiting time had already ended. I was fast asleep. They only let one of them enter the room, so Manju brought me 2 plastic bags full of clothes, a towel, my toothpaste and toothbrush, flip-flops, and… my swimmers (?) I guess they thought they were underwear, but a sporty swimsuit, really? I had a good laugh discovering it the next morning (I could hardly remember Manju standing beside my bed so I discovered the treasure only one hour after awakening).

After waking up around 5:30 am, I just grabbed my headphones and started listening to some tunes while everybody was busying themselves. All of a sudden, the bitchy nurse realized I was awake and shouted to me something that sounded like “GOWASHUFEIS”.


The girls around all started repeating: “Go to toilet, wash your face!” (???)
Ok, I can do this. I walked to the toilet as I could (the bandages were bothering me) and washed my face with water and no soap. Only when I came back to my bed I found the plastic bags Manju had brought me (and some of my memories by the way) so I grabbed the towel, my toothbrush, a clean t-shirt and my bra and went back to the toilet.
When I got back to my bed I put the sheet on it and sat down in the same position as the others. An older nurse came by and started speaking in Sinhala looking at my sheet (I had made my bed 5 minutes ago with the sheet Manju had brought me). The other patients then started talking all at the same time (they sounded like as if they were arguing) and she walked away. I asked the girls around if there was a problem, and they told me that my sheet wasn’t white…!!!
“It’s the only one I have… but should I take it off?”
“No no it’s ok”, they said. So then we all sat in silence until they realized I hadn’t combed my hair… So they started acting like as though they were combing their hair until I got it. I didn’t have a brush with me but what I did have was a lot of knots, so I tried to brush my hair with my fingers until the beautiful teenager got up and came to my bed with a comb in her hand. She ordered me to turn around and started pulling my hair backwards into a tight pony tail and went back to her bed. And so we waited. Everything seemed surreal. I was trying to remember all that had happened during the 24 past hours.

The doctor has arrived. She takes me to the “cabin” and takes of my bandages. She says it’s ok. The operation went pretty well. Sends me back to my bed. Half an hour later, the chief doctor  appeared surrounded by his usual breed. When he reached my bed, he asked me if I had let the surgeon do the operation without an anesthesia. I hated to admit he was right, but when he told me I could go I forgot all about it and started packing. I went to say goodbye to all of the patients one by one and walked out to take my bus back to Katunayake under the burning sun.

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30 years of sweet-crazy-twisted experiences around the world. From my native village in the Swiss mountains to the city of Dubai, across the continents, from North to South and West to East and the other way round, I enjoy sharing some of my adventures with you. Passionate about cultures, languages, writing, calligraphy and pizza, I am the happiest when sitting on a train with a good book in my hands,

2 thoughts on “Life experience: I underwent surgery in a Sri Lanken public hospital”

  1. Several places made me smile others worried. Hope you are well and happy with your experience. One must admire you sense of adventure ship , bringing a picturesque description from the inside of a health care system with the strictest minimum of suplies
    and how people still are happy about the treatment.

    1. Thanks, dear Erni! I am fine now, they really did a good job. It was a very interesting experience. A bit scary at time, but at last very interesting 😉

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