Story behind curious detail in photo of hospitalised Bali tourist: 'Afraid to die'

·News Editor
·5-min read

Travellers to Bali are again being warned of the dangers of drinking spirits and local liquor in the popular holiday destination after a 31-year-old tourist landed in hospital after a suspected methanol poisoning.

Steven (who asked for his real name not to be used) recounted to Yahoo News Australia how a "brain dead" decision ended with him posing in a hospital bed with a bottle of Bacardi as he tried to drink his way back to health.

That photo has caused a stir online, but the story behind it is a sobering reminder of a deadly risk many tourists blindly take in Bali.

The popular Gili Trawangan resort island is known for its nightlife. Source: Getty
The popular Gili Trawangan resort island is known for its nightlife. Source: Getty

After a night out on the popular party island Gili Trawangan, off the coast of Lombok, Steven was heading home at about 3am when he bumped into some locals and tried their local alcoholic brew known as arak.

"I thought that was kind of a nice experience, drinking with the locals – their so called arak," he told Yahoo.

"I woke up the next day at 12pm in my hostel, felt like s**t."

Thinking it was a normal, albeit horrible, hangover he went back to bed and slept until about 3pm. He continued to sleep into the night but his symptoms, including diarrhoea wouldn't abate.

He developed tunnel vision with his eyesight blurring around the edges and he still felt drunk.

Becoming panicked, he was looking for the number of a doctor and noticed a piece of paper in his hostel room that made him even more concerned.

"The paper said: 'Be aware what you drink, it might be poisoned', and then had the symptoms of methanol poisoning," Steven recalled.

Terror leads to hospital photo with Bacardi bottle

His hostel arranged for Steven to meet with a doctor, but "he didn't really seem to care," he said. "They thought I had a hangover and that arak is just strong."

The 31-year-old had travelled to Bali from Germany. He had caught up with friends from Austria, but was essentially travelling alone.

"I kept Googling and just walking up and down my room, looking for someone to help. I tried to contact a German doctor friend but was not able to reach him".

"I can't remember to ever have that much fear ... Like I was afraid to die."

Steven (not his real name) pictured in hospital after the frightening ordeal. Source: Supplied
Steven (not his real name) pictured in hospital after the frightening ordeal. Source: Supplied

He called a poison hotline back at home but those on the other end were unsure if his symptoms amounted to methanol poisoning.

Steven jumped on a ferry to head to hospital and on the journey came across a Facebook page run by West Australian man Colin Ahearn who has tirelessly raised awareness of the dangers of drinking spirits in Bali.

Mr Ahearn quickly got on the phone and urged him to find a safe alcoholic drink to consume and get to the hospital.

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, Mr Ahearn said he helped steer Steven "through the hospital system and what to do".

"A lot of his symptoms weren’t severe but he had some eye damage from the get-go."

Knowing he needed to keep drinking to combat the onset of the suspected methanol poisoning, he put a call out on Facebook to see if anyone in Bali had some reliably safe "duty free" alcohol they could deliver to the young man in trouble.

Someone responded, and after Steven had travelled about five hours to get to hospital, he later posed for a photo with the unlikely remedy.

"This woman got on a scooter with a friend and took it to the hospital. There’s some really nice people in the world who just want to pay it forward," Mr Ahearn said.

Quality alcohol can delay effects of methanol poisoning

With permission, Mr Ahearn shared the photo on Facebook but many were left confused by the detail of the Bacardi bottle in the image.

Methanol is the simplest form of alcohol and its presence in home-distilled spirits can cause serious harm or death. It is closely related to ethanol, the type of alcohol normally found in beer, wine and spirits, but is much more toxic.

In cases of methanol poisoning, drinking safe alcohol will mean your body will process the sugar-based ethanol before metabolising the dangerous methanol.

"Methanol will attack the soft tissue in your body, your eyes are often very early in the piece," Mr Ahearn explained in a follow up video to followers of his 'Just Don't Drink Spirits In Bali' Facebook page.

Colin Ahearn (left) and an Irish Bar pictured on Indonesia's Gili T island (right). Source: Facebook/Getty
Colin Ahearn (left) and a bar seen on Indonesia's Gili T island (right). There is no suggestion the bar pictured here has ever sold alcohol containing methanol. Source: Facebook/Getty

"When methanol is metabolised in your body it turns into formic acid ... So what you want to do is stop the methanol from being metabolised in your body."

Drinking more alcohol essentially acts as a metabolic blocker, buying the poisoned person some time because "when methanol starts metabolising in your body, s**t hits the fan."

Mr Ahearn knew of countless cases of tourists being poisoned by spirits purchased at local supermarket stores in Bali, so wanted the safety of duty free. While far from perfect, he said it was "the best option" Steven had at the time.

The German tourist was able to keep his alcohol levels up while his insurance company organised dialysis treatment at the Indonesian hospital where he remains.

Speaking to Yahoo from that hospital bed, Steven said he was still awaiting test results to confirm the suspected methanol poisoning with the only local laboratory requiring seven days to provide an answer.

He plans to go home to Germany at the earliest opportunity.

Mr Ahearn described the idea of drinking arak with locals as "brain dead". While a "vast majority" of spirits in the country are safe to drink, travellers run the gauntlet when they stray from beer, wine and pre-mixed drinks, he said.

It was a close call for Steven but others aren’t so lucky. Earlier this year, an expat mum of two living in Bali died of a suspected methanol poisoning.

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