Surgery with Dr. Chettawut
in Bangkok, May 2002

By Jo Anne

It was a bright and sunny day as I climbed the metal staircase that led from Russell Reid’s basement office. It was the 11th of February, 2002. As I reached street level, I gazed at my surroundings. Impressive houses, traffic rushing past and the good people of London going about their business. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that I would not have to make this particular journey again. Uncle Russell had listened patiently as usual, scribbling things down on his pad as I talked, nodding knowingly as I revealed my innermost feelings and desires. Most importantly, he had furnished me with the desired letter of referral to my chosen surgeon.

My chosen surgeon. Now, who would that be? Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I had laboriously studied every bit of information I could find about SRS. I felt that I knew some of the surgeons personally, having studied their Internet offerings for so many long hours! But contemplating a theoretical operation and actually doing something about it are very different things. Now, I had to put my money where my mouth was and decide which surgeon would be entrusted with my SRS and tracheal shave.

I exchanged emails with surgeons both in the UK and in that far distant place called Thailand. I soon came to the conclusion that the only option would be to go to the Far East. Not only were the Thai surgeons more competitively priced, but also I felt more confident in their abilities. Simple reasoning suggested to my mind that the more times you carry out a task, the better you will become at it, and the chaps in Thailand would certainly seem to have had plenty of practice.

My mind was finally made up when I talked to several girls who had experience in Thailand. Some had been to a surgeon called Chettawut, and praised him highly. Personal recommendation is a pretty powerful argument, so that was it – decision made. Airline tickets bought, currency obtained, count the days down.

On Tuesday the 21st of May, 2002, I boarded a plane at Manchester airport to fly to the other side of the world. I have always been scared of flying, but I knew that I had to overcome my fear. I had an appointment with a man in a strange country thousands of miles away. I was placing my life and my future in the hands of a man who I had never met and with whom I had only exchanged a few emails. I was leaving behind the things that mattered most to me in this world: my beloved partner and my beautiful dogs. To undertake this journey could be viewed by a "normal" person as insanity, but I knew that sanity and insanity are only relative terms, and that in my case, I had no choice whatsoever. I had to have my defects rectified. I am not a brave person at all, but I said goodbye to those that I love, closed my eyes and said a silent prayer as the lumbering machine powered down the runway and launched itself towards the clouds.

A few hours later, we disembarked at Istanbul and after a short wait boarded another lumbering machine for the final leg to Bangkok. My fear of flying had been rapidly replaced with the feeling of total boredom. Sometime the following morning, I looked down from the plane’s window to catch my first sight of Bangkok.

As arranged, I was met by two of Dr. Chettawut’s nurses, and we made the hour-long journey to the clinic in downtown Bangkok. From the air-conditioned comfort of the car, I gazed incredulously at this strange place. The contrast between wealth and poverty is totally amazing. I lost track of the number of Mercedes Benz dealers that I passed on that relatively short journey. Towering deluxe apartments stood a few feet away from tin-roofed shanty huts. The science of town planning has yet to be adopted here.

On arrival at the clinic, Dr. Chettawut greeted me. He looked even younger than his picture on his website suggested. I was greeted as though I was an old friend calling for a chat, rather than yet another troublesome patient bringing the necessary dollars/pounds. This friendliness was the foremost characteristic of all the Thais I met. The Thai people treat you as they would like to be treated themselves – with respect and dignity. In his consulting room, Dr. Chettawut explained in his very good English what my SRS and tracheal shave would involve. We talked about what I expected from the operation and he assured me that he would do his utmost to ensure that I was satisfied with the results. A few photographs were taken of the relevant areas of my anatomy and it was time for another short journey to the Vibhavadi hospital that would be my home for the next few days.

The hospital was rather different from what we are used to here in good old England. It was more like checking into a hotel and I suppose must be like the hospitals in the US. A liveried doorman carried my bags from the car and Dr. Chettawut’s assistant, Tair, dealt with the necessary documentation. Several floors up the high-rise building, I was shown to my room. The sign on the door announced that this would be the home for the next few days of "Miss Jo." The nurses were very excited to receive another of the visitors from the West, and the fact that the latest visitor was blonde and nearly six feet tall seemed to make the event even more exciting for them! I am sure that during the course of the evening, every nurse in the hospital must have been to my room, smiling and taking it in turns to touch my blonde hair. This is a very strange place I thought!

That night I was frightened – very frightened. I stood on the balcony of my hospital room and looked out over the rooftops towards the heart of Bangkok. It was hot. Strange music drifted through the air and I could see people milling about in the roads below my balcony. Even the smells were totally alien – the smells of people in the nearby houses cooking their meals. It was like a hammer blow to the head. I was thousands of miles from those that I loved and in a few hours a man I knew nothing about would operate on me and I would probably die. If somebody or something had offered me the chance to be magically beamed back to the place from which I had come, I would have accepted the invitation without a moment’s hesitation. The invitation of salvation never came, and the nurses soon returned me to reality by introducing substances into the rear part of my anatomy. The results were rapid and dramatic and the next couple of hours saw several visits to my en-suite bathroom.

I did not sleep well that night. I was hot and my brain was working overtime on my current situation. Had I gone through visits to the psychiatrist, countless hours of electrolysis, and tremendous anguish for both myself and my partner, to give up now? Before I could come up with any monumental conclusions, I drifted into a deep and restful sleep. It would probably be about five minutes after this that I was awoken by a man and a trolley gesturing that I should climb aboard.

Lying on the trolley, viewing the ceilings of the corridors as we sped on our way; up two floors in the lift and we were in the operating theatre. One of Dr. Chettawut’s nurses greeted me with a reassuring smile and a chap in a green gown, mask and hat said the needle that he was putting in my wrist might hurt a little bit. I have no idea whether it hurt or not. Within a couple of seconds I was totally out of it. It was six o’clock at night when I opened my eyes to look at the clock in my room. My first thoughts were that I hadn’t actually died as expected and that the back of my head hurt, probably from being moved round on the operating table.

The next few days all followed the same pattern. Lying flat on my back with various tubes emerging from different holes. The nurses would change the ice packs between my legs every couple of hours and take my temperature and blood pressure at the same time. The nurses spoke little English, but that did not seem to be much of a problem. Gesture and mime actions are a universal language and the nurses knew exactly what they were doing without any assistance from me.

It was a great relief when the good doctor came to remove the various tubes, dressings and packings, which had confined me to that bed for what seemed an eternity. Much nodding, smiling and "very goods" seemed to indicate that my medical friend was pleased with the results of his handiwork. Within seconds of the doctor and his team having left my room, I was wobbling towards the loo at my maximum velocity. My first wee in my newly altered state was, to say the least, highly satisfying. Aiming the output was obviously going to take some practice, though – I was not used to a wet bottom!

A couple of days later, Tair took me the Baan Siri Rama Hotel, which would be my home for the rest of my stay. My room was large, clean and well furnished and it had a proper bed! The hotel staff persons were highly courteous, and were as helpful as their imperfect English would allow. I think the hotel cost me about £12 a night, so could hardly be considered expensive. Being a bit of a coward when it comes to foreign food, I stuck to the small number of Western items on the menu.

Dr. Chettawut’s nurses visited me each day in the hotel, tending my wounds and doing bits of shopping for me. I was obviously still very sore and could not walk far at all, but each day I felt a little better. The hotel had an Internet connection, so I was able to email my beloved "M" on a daily basis. I purchased a Phonenet card that enabled me to ring home relatively cheaply. I think it worked out at about £5 for 15 minutes.

On my final evening in Bangkok, Dr. Chettawut and his wife took me for a very nice meal at a local restaurant. Being as adventurous as ever, I had a steak! Talking to Dr. Chettawut over the meal, I found out a little bit more about this most pleasant man. He explained that he treated his patients as friends and always did his utmost to satisfy patients’ requirements. His patients came from all corners of the world – the two after me were coming from China and the US. We talked about the other Thai surgeons and try as I might, I could not get him to criticise their work. Rather the contrary, he was full of praise for some of his contemporaries.

Later that evening, I said goodbye to Dr. Chettawut and was whisked away to the incredibly busy Bangkok airport. The flight home was about as exciting as the flight out. The seats felt even harder on the way back than they had coming, and it was impossible to get more than a few minutes sleep at a time. It seemed an age before the aircraft’s tires finally bumped down onto Manchester’s runway. To say I was glad to be home would be a huge understatement.

It is now nearly 3 months after my operation in that far-off place. Am I glad that I went? Was I scared? Did I miss my loved ones? The answers to all those questions are definitely "yes." I am extremely satisfied with the results of the procedures. The swelling of my vagina has all gone and there is virtually no discomfort whatsoever. The clitoris is sensate and the vaginal depth is most satisfactory. Even my trachea seems to have healed up nicely.

Would I recommend Dr. Chettawut to someone considering SRS in Thailand? I would recommend him without a moment’s hesitation. Not only is he a highly skilled surgeon, but his manner is so friendly and reassuring. Nothing seems to flap him and he is serenely calm at all times. The nurses, both in the hospital and Dr. Chettawut’s staff, cannot do enough for you. They are so friendly and caring, it has to be experienced to be believed. The modern hospital and its facilities make the majority of hospitals in England look decidedly second rate.

So, my defects have been rectified and my body is more as my mind thinks it should be. I will never forget my little trip to Thailand. My life is much more focused now – a once insurmountable obstacle has been overcome and I can concentrate living as best a life as I can and treasuring those that are closest to my heart.

© 2011 by Anne A. Lawrence, M.D., Ph.D. All rights reserved.