Almost Going Under the Knife in China and Dodging an $8,000 Medical Bill in Singapore

The needles and probes I could at least understand, but the Vasoline on my belly just didn’t make any sense. I was getting an ultrasound and, had anybody at the hospital spoken English, I would have been able to tell them that I probably wasn’t pregnant.

(Update: I wasn’t.)

The story of my Chinese ultrasound, and the subsequent removal of my gallbladder in Singapore, actually begins two years prior in Queenstown, New Zealand, where I found myself on the opposite end of a thrown fist. A temperamental bouncer at a nightclub landed me in the hospital (I still swear it wasn’t my fault), and I didn’t have any health insurance.

Luckily, I was in New Zealand where, even as a tourist, all my care was covered.

In another show of why New Zealand is awesome, it turns out that the healthcare system there is comprehensive enough to cover all people who are legally in the country. I couldn’t believe that my bills were being footed by the government because, frankly, as an American, I’m just not used to that kind of thing.

Queenstown, NZ
Overlooking Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, NZ.

A while down the road, after the dust had settled, I took to my blog and wrote all about what had happened. I hit the “Publish” button and quickly garnered some responses to the unpopular opinion that travel health insurance may not, after all, be worth the investment. After such a positive experience in Queenstown, I was convinced that there couldn’t be any need for it.

My mother, however, did not agree. I awoke the next morning to find an unsolicited email in my inbox, thanking me for my recent purchase of a travel health insurance plan.

Guess who?

It Began With A Chinese Ultrasound

I was to spend the next six months teaching English in Xi’an, China, and my first order of business upon arriving was a medical exam. In order to be granted a residence permit, all my vitals needed to be checked. I was dragged through about an hour’s worth of medical exams, most of which I had never seen before nor understood the function of, and set free to go about my day.

When my results came back, though, one word stood out: GALLSTONES.

It was also a very good explanation for the uncomfortable pains I had recently been dealing with. Let’s call their discovery a lucky coincidence.

So, I had just arrived in central China. I didn’t know where anything was, nor did I speak the language. I didn’t even know how to order food without pointing at faded photos on the restaurant wall—how on earth was I supposed to find a doctor?

Chinese Restaurant
A traditional Chinese restaurant in Yangshuo, Guangxi, China.

Some other expats gave me the phone number for an English-speaking “Dr. Jerry” who was a graduate from medical school in the United States. I visited his office at the hospital, only to learn, later, that his team actually specialized in women’s health.

Not quite what I needed.

On top of this, I was feeling uneasy about undergoing any sort of major surgery in China. Though this hospital seemed hygienic, I had seen plenty of medical centers around the city that looked like something out of the movie Saw. I had also been informed about the deplorable conditions of medical care in some places in China.

I’ve heard of doctors reusing syringes, nurses smoking cigarettes during operations, and even first-hand accounts of reckless and unhygienic gynecological exams.

I decided to pass.

It Ended With A Singaporean Surgery

After doing some research and discovering that Singapore’s medical care rivaled that of many Western countries, I secured a last minute appointment with one of the country’s most prestigious doctors and flew out two days later.

Having never gone through major surgery before, I didn’t want to chance a botched incision.

I know chicks dig scars, but I’d rather get mine from a knife fight or an insane accident on a 4-wheeler. Bragging about my gallbladder removal probably wasn’t going to do it for the ladies. It was just a hunch, but I figured I’d try to keep my scarring to a minimal.

Though my insurance plan covered evacuation, it only stipulated that my medical coverage would be extended to the nearest medical center, not necessarily the nearest one that was reasonably safe. This meant that, if I wanted to be covered in Singapore, I had to find my own way there.

Gardens by the Bay
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore.

I booked a flight, checked into my hostel in Singapore, met with my doctor, scheduled surgery for the next day, admitted myself to the hospital, and put my body in the hands of the nation’s best. The surgery would be a laparoscopic operation (aka minimally invasive surgery, or keyhole surgery), which meant they would make four small incisions around my abdomen and remove my gallstones using telescoping lenses and fiber optic cables.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? To be honest, despite the jarring pain upon regaining consciousness, it kind of was.

Two gallstones, three days, 14 movies and a lot of drugs later (and I do mean a lot), I was released from the hospital. With a week of free time before my followup, I took my time exploring the city!

I walked the streets, ate traditional Malay food and bummed around Little India. I ate well and made sure to visit the Raffles Hotel, home of the famous tipple, the Singapore Sling.

To be honest, though, for a $32 cocktail, I was severely underwhelmed.

But the Gardens by the Bay were unlike anything I’ve ever seen and the Marina Bay Sands was glorious just before Christmas.

Marina Bay Sands
The Marina Bay Sands hotel through the “trees.”

I’m still dying to make my way up to that famous infinity pool, but, since my swimming day was ambushed by a torrential rainstorm, I guess that will just have to wait for my next surgery.

Long Story Short: Travel Insurance Saved My Ass

The total cost of my operation was about $8,000 USD, including the inpatient stay. While I did have to put up about $500 for the flights (plus food and accommodation in Singapore) I very easily could have gotten stuck with a much larger medical bill that I would have been entirely unable to pay.

(Or I could have ended up with a half-smoked Chinese cigarette sewn inside of my abdomen.)

Either way, the cost/benefit analysis of this situation is pretty clear. We never know what is going to happen while we’re overseas and, though we may not ever actually end up using our travel health insurance, emergencies and accidents do happen, and it’s always better to err on the safe side with a policy from a good travel insurance company.

In four years of traveling, I’ve only needed health insurance that one time. I can’t, for the life of me, though, imagine what would have happened if I didn’t have it. So, I guess I should take this moment to say “thanks,” Mom. I probably don’t say it often enough, but you definitely deserve it this time!

READ NEXT: I Was on My Way to China, Got Stuck in Colombia, and Ended Up in Israel

About the Author

Jeremy Scott Foster

Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today.
  1. thank god for moms, they know better, should have asked me about the drinks at the Raffles, def not worth the price for the atmosphere.

  2. I never travel without health insurance and I also buy an annual subscription (if that’s the right word) to MedJet. They will evacuate you to the hospital of your choice. In your case the $500 in fees wasn’t too bad to go to Singapore but if you get in a bad car crash (as one travel blogger recently did in South Africa) and you don’t have evacuation insurance it can destroy your health and your finances. I hate buying all kinds of insurance but my travel goal is to not be in an ambulance in any country I visit so if I succeed in that I won’t feel that I wasted money on the premiums! Glad it all turned out well for you.

    1. Thanks, Blonde! After the whole fiasco, I’ve realized how important travel insurance really is. Not having it could be totally debilitating, both physically and financially. I’m going to look into MedJet! 🙂

  3. The whole ultra sound thing is very common outside of the US – for everything, even the flu. When were were adopting our daughter in Russia we had all kinds of ultra sounds on a two-year-old. Apparently it’s only a rarity to do here in the US.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with this article, because it is worth it to secure a travel insurance especially if you’re a traveller. We never know what might happen when we are travelling and got sick in other country which we might end up spending more in a medical center but if you’re secured with a medical insurance then you don’t have to worry much. Although i am not a Singaporen but as i know Singaporean is required to secure their travel insurance before leaving the country for their own safety. Being prepared is much better for your own benefits.

  5. Wow that sounds like an awful experience. I had to get a tooth extracted once while in Nepal so I know the situation well.

  6. The travel insurance really saved you a ton of money. Thanks for sharing your story and educating me on the important of buying travel insurance xD

      1. WOw. Such a waste. Since you were in china u should have gone to one hospital in Canton. They extract just the stones preserving the gallbladder. It costs 2k usd roughly. Anyway how is your life after gallbladder removal ?

        1. It’s hard to know which hospitals I can trust, especially as a foreigner who didn’t speak any Chinese at the time. Life afterwards is relatively normal, though I do wish they would have left the gallbladder!

          1. I do believe you. However there is only one hospital in China who performs such op. It is located in Canton. The doctors and staff speak good english. The op is paid for foreigners. However, I think it is worth try since they preserve your GB.

  7. Mr foster.
    Your words exposed your unkindness. You said bad things you should not just because you heard of or your poor knowledge.

    Actually, the best medical practices for gallstones currently is in China. Your unkind nature just let you loose the chance to preserve your gallbladder.

    1. Yes, that is correct Bob. Chinese docs researched a lot about the gallbladder and it’s disease including removing gallstones and preventing the organ itself. I am targeting at the beginning of January to have this op done.

  8. Can anyone tell me name of dr and hospital that does the operation that only removes the stones but spares/leaves the gallbladder intact. I need this operation. Thanks.

  9. QRT – Are you sure the gallbladder preserving surgery in China (cholelithotomy) is only $2,000 USD? It says $6,700 USD on their website. You also said it’s “paid for foreigners” – what does that mean, free?

    I wanted to ask, although travel is unlikely during the pandemic — especially for Americans.

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