I have shared a lot of stories on Traveling Mama over the years, some even medical related, but there are some stories that were just too raw, too painful to share. We have lived outside the US for over eight years all together and I have felt sad about missing holidays and have cried when I missed the birth of my new nephews, but the times when I struggle the most with living abroad have always been related to medical crisis in a foreign country.
I remember soon after arriving to Barcelona, meeting an American girl in our language class, who had decided to just “up and go” to Spain. She was living alone in her apartment and became so ill that she needed to go the hospital, but was so disoriented that she didn’t think to call an ambulance and had no friends to ask for help because she had only lived there a few weeks. My heart clenched in my chest as she retold her harrowing story of dragging herself along the floor, somehow finding the strength to open her front door and laid there hoping someone would pass by and help. (Thankfully her neighbors came to her rescue so she could live to share her horrifying story with us Expat Newbies!)
It was almost a year later that we had our first emergency room visit in Spain when our daughter, only 18 months at the time, woke up in the night, trembling and unresponsive with a high fever. It was terrifying but some of our closet Spanish friends came to be with us at the hospital to help translate if necessary and offer their support in the absence of our family. I remember being so grateful that they came so quickly and willingly and for the first time in my life I was learning to lean on friends in moments of crisis rather than my family.
What makes medical crisis so much worse overseas is that there are multiple added stressors on top of the medical needs themselves. Trying to think straight in another language while dealing with high stress can be really tough, but add a medical system that might be very different from what you are used to and the lack of family to depend on and you may be wishing that you could just “go home.”
Here are a few tips that can help you survive a medical crisis abroad, whether you are simply visiting for a few days or plan to stay a while:
1. You should always know the emergency numbers for the country you are visiting/living in. They vary depending on the country, even within Europe.
2. Get as much information as you can about the medical system. Sometimes it is a good idea to have added health insurance from your country of origin because in many countries the public care is simply not sufficient and you could end up with high medical bills if you take advantage of private care.
3. Know who you can lean on. If you are staying at a hotel, then the hotel staff will likely be able help in an emergency, but if you are staying in an apartment or living somewhere long term, you should think through who you would call if a medical crisis arises.
4. Learn a few key medical terms in the host language. Even if you have to grab your bilingual dictionary on the way out the door, learning a few words will reduce your stress and be more time efficient.
5. Know the location of the closest/most recommended hospital. No one wants to get lost on the way to getting medical care for a loved one, so a little research can go a long way.
6. Always share your medical information with your family/travel companions. Obviously I know that my husband is allergic to penicillin, but when my mom comes to visit she always reminds me of her medications and allergies just in case the information were ever needed.
Maybe some of you have been through a medical crisis in a foreign country? What did you do to survive?