Raising a Traveling Tribe: Surviving A Medical Crisis in a foreign country

by Tina on September 3, 2013

in family, Raising a Traveling Tribe

Traveling Mama Medical Crisis

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?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen September 3, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Hi! Yes I’ve had many medical issues abroad, from a stomach bug in Venezuela, to a virus that attacks thyroids in Uganda, to mono in France. All of them not so fun. Although, the funniest one would probably be the French mono. I was studying for a summer there and had come down with an awful sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, headache, and terribly fatigued. So in a morning class my prof noticed I wasn’t doing well and offered to direct me to the university’s doctor. I arrived a bit haphazardly and then had to haggle with the secretary for about an hour over insurance in frenglish. I then waited for another three hours for my possible appointment. Finally the nurse emerged and called someone else’s name who was not there. I saw my chance and took it. So I hopped into the doc’s office and we talked in broken French and broken English about this illness. In the end she told me she wanted me to get blood work done and come back to see her. Silly americaine thought that the blood work would be done in the next room over, but oh no, it was across town! And they were already closed for the day. Parfait. So the next morning, early before class, my host mom and I went to another office to get blood drawn. After the needles, this office told us that they would not fax my results to the university doctor and would close before I could get back from class. Fortunately for me, my host mom stepped in and told the secretary off like only a classy 80 year old Frenchwoman can and I headed off to class expecting to see the doctor that afternoon. Yet the plot thickens! The doctor had decided to close early that Thursday and would not be open until the following week, after which they would be closed for two months! Ah les vacances! So I went back home, head hung low and ate delicious smelly french cheeses for the next four days. Monday came and I walked into the doctor’s office feeling much better. The doctor was surprised to see me so well considering my blood work came back positive for mono. However the French cheeses had cured me (yay for penicillin in rotten cheeses) and it all ended with a “vous etes tres bizarre mademoiselle”.


Tina September 3, 2013 at 7:33 pm

@Kathleen Yes, learning a whole new system definitely comes with it’s troubles, especially when if you are trying to get care it’s because you feel just awful enough to even attempt it! Even here in Denmark, the urgency and speed of care is very different than the US and I would consider it to be top notch here. I’m just so glad that your sweet host mom took such good care of you! I’m sure your mom back home was happy, too!


Gabi September 3, 2013 at 8:42 pm

I live in Uganda and developed liver failure as a result of an over the counter birth control tablet. I was days away from needing a liver transplant. THAT was fun!


Nancy G. September 3, 2013 at 10:08 pm

Such great advice for someone living or just passing through a foreign country. I just got a note form a friend staying in Florence who fell and hurt her hand today. I will forward this to her.


Papou September 3, 2013 at 10:29 pm

My brother & his wife were riding a motor cycle in Bermuda last week (even though I told them it’s one of the most dangerous things to do there) fell off and nearly seriously hurt themselves. Recently I heard of a cruise ship that left two passengers somewhere (I think) on the Caspian Sea to fend for themselves for medical attention — the ship must sail! And to name one more – my sister walked through a glass window (no safety-type glass) in Greece years ago that required stitches. She still bears the rather large scars from so-so medical attention and techniques. So, traveler beware, and be ready. (As a flight crew, we used to travel to many countries with medical supplies – including IV’s, syringes, etc.) And there are some companies that offer international medical assistance, such as International SOS Assistance, Inc. Don’t depend on the embassy!


Tina September 3, 2013 at 10:51 pm

@Gabi wow. I am so sorry to hear that. I remember very distinctly while living in Morocco having the constant fear that the doctors could not be trusted. It was why we ended up going to Spain to have our littlest. One doctor said we would lucky if he survived and the other said there wasn’t a problem… and they were in the same office! We really do have to take our medical care in our own hands and research as much as we can.


Tina September 3, 2013 at 10:52 pm

@Nancy G I am so glad the information could be helpful and hope that your friend gets the care she needs without too much trouble!


Tina September 3, 2013 at 10:57 pm

@Papou That is a good point. I think many of us feel like because we are on vacation that we must be invincible and even if we are not taking extra risks, things still happen. We have always had added health insurance and highly recommend it because it can even cover things like emergency evacuations. A little research is definitely smart because even in places like Morocco that are more developed than others, patients had to go to the pharmacy and purchase many things that would be considered standard elsewhere.


Rochelle September 6, 2013 at 8:13 am

Actually I got very ill in La Rochelle, France when my love and I were traveling in a camper-van in the nineties. Fortunately he was there to take care of me and take me to the hospital. Whilst he was trying to find an English speaking nurse I was moved in a wheelchair to an x ray room, although at the time I was not quite with it and didn’t understand a word the mail nurse was saying. I felt rather scared. All worked out in the end but the tips above are very valid.


Tina September 6, 2013 at 3:05 pm

@Rochelle That does sound scary. We learn a whole new level of trust when we simply allow someone to care for us in a foreign language. It’s definitely good if someone can be with you, though, even if it’s just to hold your hand and look for someone who speaks English. :-)


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