My hospital layover: that time I got sick at 10.000 metres

Getting sick while on holiday is every traveller’s nightmare. But what can be worse than that? I say getting sick on a long flight. Nothing is more dreadful than having to endure physical pain while trapped 10.000 metres over civilization with no possible relief until the plane finally reaches its destination. I was unlucky enough to experience this, and what was supposed to only be a layover in Abu Dhabi turned out to be a hospital layover instead. Of the hundreds of times I’ve been on a flight this was the one flight I will never forget. That one time I got seriously ill in the middle of a six-hour flight. 

I had just spent two wonderful weeks in Zanzibar. A paradise on earth. The small island has all that you expect from a tropical paradise: the Indian Ocean’s unparalleled blue waters, a breathtaking night sky and the freshest seafood I had ever tasted. Two weeks where I got to experience the perfect combination of a luxury experience and gourmet food. It’s when everything is perfect that you tend to forget that something could always go wrong. And it did.

Zanzibar, perfect blue water of the Indian Ocean
How can something go wrong in paradise?

Next level airplane sickness

In the middle of the flight back from Zanzibar, on the leg from Dar es Salaam to Abu Dhabi, I started feeling pain in my left side. What was just an annoying feeling at first, rapidly became a pain stronger than any pain I had ever experienced before. The thing that scared me the most was how quickly it escalated. In a matter of minutes it became unbearable. Barely walking, I went to ask the cabin crew for help and got a tablet of paracetamol. It produced no effect. Back in my seat, enduring a pain that was only getting stronger and stronger as time passed, I stared at the monitor in front of me. Time to Abu Dhabi: 2,5 hours.

Apart from the pain, I had the constant feel I needed to use the bathroom. Just the sensation, because every time I’d go into the toilet, nothing happened. A stewardess handed me a bottle of water and said that this was a symptom of a urinary infection, I needed to stay hydrated. I had had a small urinary infection back in Zanzibar. This was something different. This didn’t feel good at all, at that point I could barely walk to the bathroom. I wondered how worse could it get, if I would actually make it all the way to Abu Dhabi. All the while we were flying over Somalia, not an ideal moment to plan for an emergency landing anyway.

abu dhabi airport hotel
Abu Dhabi airport ATC on the horizon on the left

First aid at Abu Dhabi airport clinic

Of course this felt like the longest flight ever. Strapped in my seat I tried to distract myself with the interactive flight map and praying for Abu Dhabi to move a little closer so we could land earlier. At some point I dragged myself to the cabin crew again and told them I was in severe pain, unable to stand it any longer. They suggested that I visit the airport clinic for medical support before my next flight and instructed me on how to get there. They made arrangements for me to disembark with first class passengers in order to reach the terminal as fast as possible. An airport employee with a wheelchair would have taken me from there.

The last 30 minutes of the flight felt the longest, and by then I still didn’t know what a night I had ahead. When I finally made it to the airport terminal and onto that wheelchair I lost all sense of space and time. I was happy that I would finally see a doctor, hopeful that they would do something for this pain. While I was being ferried through what felt like the biggest airport ever, my boyfriend trailed behind us with both our hand luggages. I was so weak I couldn’t stand up and went through security sitting on the wheelchair. At some point I remember that my porter had stopped and left me for a minute, and a woman passing by asked me if I was okay. Weariness, pain, disorientation.

When I finally reached the clinic I was treated immediately. I received IV paracetamol and for a brief moment I felt a little bit better. We had a 6-hour layover and at that time I was still believing that soon I’d be well again and bound to our connecting flight. But after a fleeting feeling of improvement, the pain came back even stronger. The paramedics at the Abu Dhabi airport were wonderful and did all they could to help me, but when I started feeling worse they had to hand me over to the hospital. Deemed unfit to fly the next leg, I boarded an ambulance instead.

abu dhabi airport hotel

My hospital layover in Abu Dhabi

I had the first ambulance ride in my life one hot summer night in the United Arab Emirates. After about 7 hours since I had started feeling the pain during the flight, at the hospital I finally received morphine. As suddenly as it had come, the pain disappeared. The doctors were then able to perform all the test to figure out what I had. That urinary infection that had bothered me on the last days in Zanzibar turned out to be a kidney stone. The pressure of the flight triggered the small stone to start travelling from my left kidney to the bladder, causing 7 hours of severe pain, a missed flight and a night at the hospital. After years flying all over the world I got to experience a hospital layover.

All the time that I was in pain – or sedated, or dizzy – my boyfriend took care of all there was to take care of. In no particular order he:

  • carried my stuff out of the plane,
  • called all our parents while at the clinic,
  • tried to figure out our insurance,
  • checked me into the hospital,
  • bought me the medicines I was prescribed,
  • slept on a hard chair next to my hospital bed under the beeping machines,
  • helped me to the bathroom,
  • checked us into our hotel.

All of this while obviously worrying for me but trying to stay strong not to scare me. I have lived alone and I have traveled alone and I know how to take good care of myself. That night, though, I felt so thankful I had him. I just couldn’t imagine going through all that alone.

abu dhabi

How Etihad Airways handled my medical emergency

While my illness did not qualify for an emergency landing, I understand the trouble of having to plan for one given the difficulties of landing in the area of the world we were flying over. At first I had felt like the cabin crew was dismissing my cries for help. On second thought I realised that technically my life was not in immediate danger. It was wonderful of them to let me use the toilet in first class (shorter or no lines compared to economy) as well as let me disembark with priority and have a wheelchair waiting for me.

When the clinic staff deemed me unfit to fly the next leg, the paramedics themselves called the gate to inform that we wouldn’t make it to the next flight we were checked in for. They took care of all the communication with the hospital, basically leaving only the insurance/payment procedure to us. When the hospital dismissed me the following day, they rebooked us on the next suitable flight according to the recovery time I needed. We just got the information and didn’t need to do anything to rebook ourselves. Etihad Airways arranged for a taxi to come and pick us up when I was dismissed. It drove us to the hotel where the airline booked us for one night until our flight. The hotel stay included full board – I did not feel like eating but my boyfriend did enjoy the food.

united arab emirates passport stamps

A long layover in Abu Dhabi

So on our way back from Zanzibar we got one more adventure: our layover in Abu Dhabi. Not the typical long layover, but it made for a good story to tell. The moment I was told I wouldn’t be allowed onboard my next flight my only thought was: what now? I had no idea how things go from there in such instances. Of course I couldn’t fly, but I had bought a ticket to Italy so the airline couldn’t leave me stranded midway. A new boarding pass to Rome on a different flight was somewhat easy to expect. The complimentary taxi service and hotel room until our next flight was a pleasant surprise, considering we were travelling economy.

Unfortunately I can’t say I have enjoyed my unplanned stay in Abu Dhabi. I can’t even say I have seen Abu Dhabi at all. During the taxi ride from the hospital I kept my eyes closed, still nauseous from the morphine. Once I got to the hotel I just spent one whole full day in bed recovering. I couldn’t even appreciate much of what the hotel had to offer (except for the bed. I loved the bed). But it felt good to be well taken care of. Thank you Etihad Airways crew and Abu Dhabi airport staff!

Besides, hey, this accident got us two beautiful passport stamps. We should have only transited through Abu Dhabi airport, but in order to reach the hospital we went through customs. So we officially entered the UAE, which became my country number 31!

Getting sick while on holiday is every traveller's nightmare. But what can be worse than that? I say getting sick on a long flight.

(Except for the photo of Zanzibar, the pictures in this post are basically what I saw of Abu Dhabi. Except for the airport and the hospital, that is. The blurry one is the only I took, from the rooftop terrace of the hotel. The sudden change in temperature from the air-conditioned hotel to the +44°C (and 90% humidity) outside fogged up my lens within seconds. My boyfriend took the rest of the photos while I was sleeping and he was wandering around exploring the hotel.)

19 thoughts on “My hospital layover: that time I got sick at 10.000 metres

  1. oh no, this sounds really horrible! especially because there’s nothing you could do on an airplane but wait -.- luckily it wasn’t anything ‘worse’ and you were able to fly home after such a short stay! and now you really got a got story to tell 😀

    1. That’s exactly the way I’m seeing it now. I spent a handful of horrible hours, but now that it’s all over I got quite a story to tell!

  2. Oh my goodness, how scary! I’m so happy to read about how well the airline handled your emergency. It’s such a relief to know that you’re not alone should such a situation ever occur!

    1. It was a huge relief! When I was told I would not fly back to Italy that night the fear of having to organize an unplanned layover became greater than my physical pain. But they reassured me they would take care of everything – rebooking us, stopping our luggage from travelling to Rome without us, complimentary hotel – so I could just focus on my recovery.

  3. That’s a crazy experience! You surely deserved your beautiful passport stamp :). It’s good to know that they take care of passengers in need, though.

    1. Yes it was a relief to see that we didn’t really have to worry about too much. The airline and airport staff were incredibly helpful. And that’s huge when you are feeling vulnerable and far away.

  4. Super scary but I’m so glad your BF was with you. If this was a solo trip – idk how I personally would have handled it. Even though this situation def. stinks – you have one really crazy travel story for the book!

    1. Definitely! I totally brought back one more good story, that in a way overshadowed in epicness all the memories from Zanzibar!! 😀

  5. Wow this is such a crazy story, definitely shows that travel is not always glamorous or bright and shiny. I am glad you got through it and are healthy again. I echo your sentiments that you are so fortunate to have had someone there with you 🙂

    1. I really can’t imagine going through all of that alone that day! It was the only bright thing about the whole terrible experience: that it did not happen when I was travelling somewhere alone.

  6. OMG, this was riveting!! I’m so glad you’re OK. This is such a big fear of mine – particularly because I always seem to be having some disaster or another…..

    1. I’m sorry to hear that you are prone to experiencing disaster. It’s just so terrifying and upsetting when things slip out of control. Especially when you end up stranded somewhere far.

  7. What a terrible experience to go through. When I was reading your symptoms early on I immediately knew it was a kidney stone. My husbands mom gets them all the time unfortunately. This does make for one heck of a story though.

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