Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

1 Nov 2012

Red-faced in Tbilisi

Posted by Will

I’m in the capital city of Georgia, Tbilisi, where I have stayed for 10 days. It has not been a trouble-free visit by any means. On the first night a small cut on my face turned into a large infected mess swelling up my nose and upper lip quite dramatically. A high temperature, an oozing wound, dodgy doctors and my own vanity are the things I’ve had to deal with over the last week and half. This post is not uplifting and may give the false impression I am not enjoying myself. In case of this impression, please have a look at the photos I have added for Turkey and Georgia which provide the other half of the story: spectacular scenery, delicious food and generous people.


The infection must come down to not eating properly on the way here. I set myself a foolish challenge when I entered Georgia. At the border, I exchanged my remaining Turkish Lira into Georgian Lari. The sum was equivalent to 7 Euros. I decided I would try to cycle the 400km to Tbilisi on this money alone, and I succeeded, by eating only bread and dried biscuits. No vitamins, no minerals, hardly any protein or fat – no nutrition whatsoever. In future, I will have to eat better.

The infected point on my face was above my upper lip, below my nose and slightly to the right. I lay in bed on the first day of the sweaty swelling feeling rather sorry for myself and secretly glad of a reason to watch TV all day. I whizzed through the BBC’s 510 minute adaption of Bleak House. However, on the next morning it was clear I would have to visit the doctor as my top lip would not move, my nose had grown and the fever felt worse. So, feeling even more sorry for myself, I dragged myself 50 paces up the road to a clinic where I was quickly looked at by a very nice doctor. A nurse came in to translate. A course of antibiotics, some kind of antifungal pill, salty solution, bandages, vitamin supplements and a bag full of Lemsip were the prescription. 10 Euros to see the doctor, 25 Euros for all these wonders from the pharmacy.


The next day I returned to see the same doctor. The swelling had reduced a fraction but the clinic were worried. They told me the infection sat in a particularly dangerous place as it was right on top of the blood flow to the brain. With this concern they sent me to Tbilisi central hospital for a second opinion. I was sent there in the back of an ambulance which was quite exciting (no flashing lights, just a free taxi service). At the hospital, I had an unfortunate glimpse of the Georgian healthcare system.

Upon arrival, I was laid down on a bed in the emergency area and made to wait 2 hours to see a doctor. Finally he arrived but he spoke no English at all. Further to this, it was explained that no one who could speak English was or would be available. Communicating my symptoms and receiving my diagnosis in sign language would have to do. After barely a glance at the infection and without hearing about the antibiotics or understanding the swelling had partially reduced, the doctor proclaimed I should have an operation on my face. I insisted I didn’t think this was necessary but he kept miming how my brain would be infected if I didn’t. He then brought a few other doctors to confirm his diagnosis and they, again without looking closely or listening to me, nodded that I would need an operation. I decided I might at least hear out their proposal.


However, as soon as it looked like I was warming to the idea the doctor hurried to fetch a series of forms that he indicated I should sign. All the forms were in Georgian (which does not have the same alphabet as English). I refused and he started to become agitated. He fetched the side-kick doctors again. There were a group around my bed thrusting a pen at me, laying the forms on my lap and speaking Georgian in raised voices. I told them I would speak to the British consulate and my insurance company before signing anything. One of the nurses then hurried off and brought back an English speaking doctor 5 minutes later. That annoyed me because I had been told no one was available. This guy was not much more help though as all he kept repeating was that if I did not sign the form and have the operation then the infection could spread to my brain. I knew this was ludicrous though. For starters, the doctor back at the clinic hadn’t been nearly so concerned and had only really sent me to the central hospital because an ambulance was heading there anyway. Second, I knew the antibiotics had reduced the swelling and it seemed ridiculous to have an operation before seeing whether antibiotics could help further. Still, it’s hard to feel sure when there are a load of doctors talking over each other in raised voices to convince you the other way.

I could ask the English-speaking doctor how much the operation would cost. The doctors all conferred in Georgian before answering my question which made me even more suspicious. 1000 Euros was the answer I received. They had essentially tried to trick me into signing a contract that would bind me into paying a huge amount of money. I picked up a pen, wrote in block-capitals ‘I would not like treatment in this hospital’ and walked out of the hopsital. Before I made it out the head doctor gave me his personal card in case I changed my mind. It turned out he would be the one performing the surgery and would gain personally from the operation. Dodgy as hell. Still I couldn’t leave though. I was marched to the front desk and charged 30 Euros for the doctor’s time and for the 2 hours waiting for him to arrive. Suffice to say, I was not a happy chappy walking out into the car park and it took a fair amount of willpower to remain polite. I continued with the antibiotics for a week after that and the infection is now completely gone.


I found two parts of this experience particularly interesting. First, it is surely a flaw in privately run national health systems that patients should have to make an enormous financial decision while they are ill. Patients must weigh up the cost of treatment with the likelihood they will regain their health without intervention. A healthy person untrained in medicine is not well-placed to make this decision and an ill person is even worse-placed. In theory, doctors should make this choice on a patient’s behalf. But how can a patient trust a doctor with a vested interest? Second, I am vainer than I thought. An ugly physical mark on the face turned me into an anti-social person who wanted more than anything to be out of sight.

I shouldn’t really have let this incident hijack all the attention. So many people have been kind to me recently yet it is a group of unsavoury healthcare professionals that have taken the spotlight. I’ll just have to tell all the stories I’ve neglected here when I return.

Three quick shout-outs.

1. Jamie MacDonald and Kev Brady (Cycling Bangkok to Gloucester)
2. Five guys from Middlesborough, UK, cycling around the world (Mission Oz)
3. Happy Birthday Rosie Johnston!

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3 Comments already on “Red-faced in Tbilisi”
  1. 10:55 ampermalink
    01 Nov 2012


    Glad you didn’t come to our door last night trick or treating! Very good to see Mum and Dad and Rose in CWall last week. All well here. xxxC

  2. 11:56 ampermalink
    01 Nov 2012


    So sorry to hear about your ordeal, you poor thing, and well done for standing firm. What a corrupt load of doctors!
    Eat properly!
    Love from us all,
    Fran xx

  3. 9:00 ampermalink
    02 Nov 2012

    Andrew J

    what are you talking about – you look great!!
    Eat properly yer skinny bastard!