Maddy Ellis shared this inspiring story at Kol Nidre services. Below are her prepared remarks:
Love Finds a Way – How my Son and I Escaped Thailand After a Coup
Like all great adventures, the story of how my oldest son, Max, and I escaped Thailand needs some context. After all, Thailand was at that time and still is, for the most part, a beautiful and safe country. So why, then, would there be a reason that we would need to escape?
To understand that, you need to go back to 2005 when our family moved to Bangkok for my husband, Jim’s, job at the U.S. Embassy. George W Bush of course at that time was in the White House and so it was a great time to leave the United States for a few years. At that time, we only had two -year old Max. It took a few months to settle in, but once we did, I fell in love with Thailand and with being part of a large expat community where you instantly become close friends with other people who are thrown in the same boat of not knowing anyone else when they arrive. I treasured exploring Bangkok and other parts of Thailand and felt completely safe everywhere I went, even when I walked alone at night – something I could not say about living in the U.S.
So imagine my surprise when I woke up one morning about a year after we arrived, turned on the computer to check my email, and found that I had been bombarded with messages from friends and family in the U.S. asking if we were ok. We had cable news and I turned it on – CNN, BBC, all the news stations were blacked out. At the time, my husband Jim had just landed in Australia for work. I called him and told him something was going on but I wasn’t sure what. He suggested I ask another U.S. embassy employee who lived in our building what had happened so I did and was told that there had been a coup d’etat by the Thai military against the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Of course, I called Jim back and told him there was a coup. “Oh well, you’ll be fine,” he said. “How do you know?” I responded. “You didn’t even know there was a coup a few minutes ago.” But, in fact, we were fine and able to get on with our lives in Bangkok because the coup was non-violent. However, from that point forward it was clear that political stability in Thailand was deteriorating.
Fast forward another year to 2007 and my twin sons, Levi and Bram were born. Around that time Max, who was 4, was having constant ear infections. Each time I took him to see the doctor, he was given a new antibiotic ear drop and each time, it was unsuccessful. Finally, I took him to another doctor the U.S. embassy
recommended for a second opinion. He tried additional medicine but after a few weeks, he looked in Max’s ear and shook his head, saying this was beyond what he could treat. I asked him to explain, but he could not, only saying that since we were going back to the U.S. for the winter break we may want to consider seeing a specialist there. We were planning to stay with Jim’s parents who lived near Baltimore so I called the pediatric otolaryngology department at Johns Hopkins and asked if we could get an appointment. Luckily for us they had one appointment open, though unfortunately it was the day after our arrival in D.C. – not ideal for jet lag concerns, but I grabbed it. I figured that Max had some kind of bizarre ear infection that we needed the right medication for – perhaps one not available in Thailand - and eventually it would go away.
The day after our arrival in the U.S. we were exhausted, but Jim took Max to Johns Hopkins while I stayed with the twins, then six months old. About an hour or two after the appointment time, Jim called me to say Max was getting a CT scan.
“What for?” I asked.
“Well,” he replied, “the doctor thinks Max has a tumor in his ear and he’s getting the CT scan to confirm.”
We then found out that it was most likely a benign tumor, but it was doing serious damage to Max’s ear. They had to schedule a surgery soon and it would take 3-4 hours to perform the surgery because the tumor was so close to the brain. Luckily, the doctor was one of the best in the country and had performed the surgery many times. We were able to get the surgery scheduled within two weeks, but needed to prolong our trip because Max couldn’t fly for four weeks after the surgery.
Because the surgery had been scheduled so quickly, we couldn’t have it on the children’s ward, but had to go to the adult ward instead where children weren’t allowed. That meant that we could not bring the twins to the surgery floor waiting room and since we didn’t have time to find child care, Jim and I took turns
– one of us would run up to the surgery waiting room to see if there was any news, while the other stayed in a waiting room on the ground floor with the
twins. Then we would switch off. Needless to say, it was a very stressful time made worse by our unfortunate logistics and lack of help.
Fortunately, the surgery was successful although the tumor had destroyed two of Max’s hearing bones. The doctor also told us that Max was going to need a second surgery a year later that likely would be more radical as this type of tumor had a high percentage of growing back and if it did, they would then have to create a permanent hole in his ear drum after removing the tumor to hopefully keep it from forming again. They said it was very important that we come back in a year’s time.
Jim had to get back to Thailand for work soon after. Since I did not want to fly by myself with six month old twins and a son who had recently undergone surgery, we made the difficult decision, as both twins were still nursing, to have one of the twins go back with Jim until Max was ready to fly. Suffice it to say that after this incredibly stressful experience, we intended to be much better prepared for the second surgery.
The second surgery was scheduled for early December 2008 and we planned for it meticulously. We intended to stay for a month and to bring our Thai nanny with us to the U.S. Because it was a medical evacuation, we would get our housing covered by the U.S. government, so we rented a furnished house in Annapolis that would be big enough for us. We had to arrive in time for Max to get a pre- op appointment right after Thanksgiving so we arranged to get there a few days in advance of that appointment. His surgery would happen a few days later.
Meanwhile back in Thailand, political tensions had risen. On November 26 th, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, also known as the “yellow shirts”, a Thai organization that backed the military coup, seized control of the airport in Bangkok because they were not happy that--at an election that happened since the coup--Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s party won again. The protest became violent and the airport was closed for about 10 days, however at the time the protest shut it down, it was not clear for how long the airport would be closed.
Our flight to the U.S. was cancelled and it became clear to me after each passing day that Max might not make it to his surgery on time. I felt sick to my stomach
as my desperation to get out of Thailand grew. I felt powerless. I went to the U.S. embassy travel office and asked if we could fly out of Phuket, about a 10 hour drive away and the only other large international airport in Thailand. They then booked us on a flight from there, but before we left for Phuket, we found out that flight was also cancelled because most of the flights to Phuket were routed through Bangkok first. 300,000 other people were trying to also get out of Thailand at the same time and competing with them for any possible remaining airline seats that would get us home in time proved impossible. The U.S. embassy travel office told me there was nothing I could do but wait for a flight to open, but I knew that would likely be too late and to reschedule Max’s surgery could take weeks if not months – in the meantime, if the tumor had grown back, it could be destroying Max’s ear. I decided to take matters into my own hands. “There has to be a way,” I said to myself. “If I just think hard enough, I can get my child out of here.”
I got out a map of Thailand. Could I go to Cambodia and fly out of Phnom Penh? I was told that would be very difficult because the roads were rough or non-existent once I crossed the Thai border, plus most of those flights were also already full. So I looked south, even though we had been warned by the U.S. embassy not to travel to southern Thailand due to armed insurgents in that region. I went online and found that there was a ferry that went from the southern city of Satun to Langkawi, a resort island in Malaysia. I checked with the travel office – if I could make it to Langkawi, I could get a flight to Singapore and then continue on.
Travel to Satun had been discouraged by the U.S. Embassy due to safety issues, but my husband who was very knowledgeable about the area said there had not been any violence in Satun and it should be fine. That was good enough for me – I wasn’t going to let an Embassy warning get in the way of my child’s health! One of my husband’s Thai colleagues booked bus tickets for me and Max to take the
14 hour journey from Bangkok to Satun and I got a flight reserved from Langkawi back to the U.S. via Singapore, Hong Kong and then Los Angeles. We would have to stay overnight in Langkawi though. We decided that Max and I would make this crazy journey ourselves and then Jim would fly with the twins and our nanny once the Bangkok airport reopened, hopefully making it in time for Max’s surgery.
Fortunately for me, another U.S. Embassy family member, Natalia, was also desperate to get out of Thailand. She was originally from Colombia and her extended family was having a once in a lifetime reunion that involved hiking for one week through a national park there. If she didn’t make it in time for the start of the trip, she wouldn’t be able to catch up and would miss the whole thing. The travel office told her about me and she asked if she could travel with us – I said yes as I was very grateful to have another adult with me for the trip. We endured the 14 hour bus ride with 5-year-old Max and made it to Satun. Max and I referred to the whole trip as our incredible journey.
We had to hitch a ride in the back of a truck once we got to Satun as the bus station wasn’t near the ferry. When we got to the ferry, it was old, smelly and boarding required careful balance on a rickety gang plank. I was so grateful to have Natalia with me as she could help with the bags as I carried Max to get across, plus she was a great travel companion. We made it to Langkawi early enough to make a connection to Singapore that same day, which allowed us to spend the night in Singapore before catching the flight to Hong Kong. Natalia and I parted ways in Los Angeles and we are still friends today.
Max and I made it to D.C. the night before his pre-op appointment and the nurse at the pre-op appointment almost cancelled the surgery because his eyes were so red. I assured her it was from exhaustion and not from pink eye. Meanwhile, even though the airport in Bangkok still had not opened, they were operating a few flights from a military airport in Thailand and Jim was able to get himself, the nanny and the twins booked on a flight plan from there that got them into D.C. the night before the surgery. The surgery went well, but we were glad we had gotten out of Thailand in time because the tumor had grown back aggressively. If we had waited much longer, things could have been a lot worse. So, all in all, a happy ending.
As the stories keep coming out about families that have made harrowing trips from Central America to the U.S. border because of fear for their children’s safety or future, I often think back to the incredible journey that Max and I took and the times I felt powerless to help my child. Of course, I never faced the danger that many of these families face back home and had the means and documentation to allow me leave Thailand safely. I never feared that I would be exploited or that something terrible would happen along the way and I wasn’t fleeing a situation in
Thailand that put my life in danger. But still, I learned firsthand how love drives people to make desperate journeys and try to find a way out for their children’s sake.