Expecting the Unexpected: Preparing for Overseas Sickness

Traveling is the most lovely, wonderful, beautiful, thought-provoking, creativity-inducing activity that I do.  Maybe you do it too.  Some people hate it – these are people I don’t understand.  I LOVE traveling.  My soul comes alive.  I feel my spirit lifting, my heart exploding, as my mind seeks to grasp new experiences, new possibilities, new ideas, new cultures.  It’s amazing what traveling can do.

But you know what traveling doesn’t do?  Make you feel happy when you’re sick!  Being sick sucks on any occassion…but it is SO MUCH EASIER being sick on your own turf, with your doctor on hand, the hospital you trust, the language you understand.  Ken and I have 2 unfortunate medical emergencies in 2015 but…

Through these medical emergencies, one in Thailand, one in South Africa, I’ve learned some very helpful tips on how to prepare yourself in the unlikely unfortunate event of a medical emergency.  In both cases, Ken and I were lucky enough to have each other (so the healthy person could help the travel partner in need!), but I especially urge anyone travelling alone to have these things prepared and WITH YOU so that if you’re in a hospital alone, you have what you need.  Your half-conscious, ill state will thank you for the pre-prep!

  1. Obviously health insurance is key to travelling, but how many of us actually take the time to go through what steps we need to take should we need to use that insurance?  Are there forms you should have printed out (i.e. for the doctor to sign?) or phone numbers to call?  In Thailand, we were lucky that the very helpful Phuket International Hospital was willing to print out these documents for us but: a) imagine if they weren’t or b) imagine if you’re alone, very sick, and unable to muster the strength to get these forms printed.

TIP #1:  Have everything on a piece of paper WITH YOUR PERSON (i.e. in your wallet) at all times. This should include step-by-step what you need to do, who you need to call, etc., in case of a medical emergency.  Need a form filled out by the doctor?  Have that copy WITH YOU!

hospital sign

2. Always carry water with you.  Anyone who has travelled with me thinks I’m borderline crazy with my addiction to always having a close supply of water. My friend Kristen who I recently visited in Swaziland (a post for another time!) mentioned that I was easy to host:  “all you need is something gluten-free for breakfast and water at all times!)  But am I ever glad that this has always been my travelling approach…

TIP #2: Always, always have drinking water with you!  It doesn’t matter if you’re in rural Africa or the middle of a modern European city…if you have to travel in a taxi to get to the nearest hospital, you don’t want to risk dehydration or worrying about taking medicine given to you because you don’t have safe water with you.

3. Be aggressively firm about your health.  I don’t mean be rude…but be aggressively firm to ensure that you completely, 100%: trust the nurse/doctor, understand what is going on, and are in agreement with the procedures.  Ask questions!  Call a friend or even your doctor from home for a second opinion.  Phrases like “I don’t understand what you mean by that” and “why are you doing this/what’s this for” will help you feel more comfortable in understanding what is happening.  This is also necessary so that you can explain to your doctor back home what happened should you need continued care.

TIP #3: Ask questions so that you understand the prognosis and the procedures to follow.  Speak up if something doesn’t feel right and never be afraid to get a second opinion.

4. Think about travel insurance on top of your health insurance.  What if you need to prolong your stay?  What if you arrive at the airport and realize you aren’t fit to fly?  Any kind of insurance can really seem like just extra money…but when you need it and you have it, boy oh boy, are you grateful!  It’s a lot cheaper to pay a bit for insurance than to pay change fees and additional airfare charges!

TIP #4: Make sure you can afford to stay extra if you need to.  Don’t have your budget completely drying up as soon as you enter that airplane.  Have some extra saved for another night at the hotel, a few more meals, and some airline change fees/travel insurance.

5. Finally, and this is a reality I always struggled with as a student and in my early career…have a plan in case you DO need to use your insurance.  Why?  Because many insurance companies reimburse you ONCE you’re home, AFTER you’ve paid and had the procedures.  Which for some people is just a happy situation where they have the credit or the dough to spare.  But for someone traveling with a smaller credit limit or budget, this can be a real problem!

How to solve it (besides magically getting a $20,000 credit increase?)  Think through this backup plan before you travel.  If you’re able, talk with a family member or a close friend, even your bank/financial advisor, and discuss the grim situation of needing a temporary loan in the case of an emergency.  Be prepared to show your health insurance as proof that it exists and there will be pay back.

TIP #5: Think through how you’re going to pay upfront for the health coverage.  Get a plan in place before you’re in the situation!

I wish you happy, healthy travels in 2016…but in the case of unfortunate medical emergencies, I hope you’re a little better prepared with these tips!

If you have any others, feel free to add in the ‘comments’ section!  Always happy to share ideas!!!




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