Have I ever told you about the miracle cure I performed on Rich? Years ago in Mexico, in a moment of misplaced confidence in the standards of our rural hotel, Rich ordered a plate of shrimp. As he popped the last glistening morsel into his mouth, he got the first inkling he was in trouble. Serious trouble. Four days later he was still in active torment, unable to keep down anything but Coca-Cola and crackers. Finally, in growing alarm, I said, “I’ve got the name of a local doctor...” At the prospect of receiving medical care in a small town in rural Mexico, Rich sat bolt upright in bed. “NO! I’m feeling a lot better.” In minutes he was dressed, within hours he was walking around, and the next day we resumed our journey.
Sometimes, a good scare is the best medicine. When that’s not available, what else should you do to safeguard your health on the road?
1. Before you go, check the health advisories from the US State Department. They describe, in almost ghoulish detail, current and emerging health risks (tuberculosis on the rise in Bulgaria!), potential dangers (responding to radiological and nuclear incidents!) and which destinations have such dubious medical care that you’ll want to carry evacuation insurance (if you still want to go, after reading all those warnings).
2. Should your destination pose worrisome risks, visit a travel medicine clinic six weeks before your trip to get vaccines, medications and advice such as what to add to your first aid kit and how to dodge insidious biohazards. Back in the 90s, before a trip to Ha Tien, Vietnam, we learned that the city’s tap water wasn’t just unfit to drink, we couldn’t even shower in it without risking a loathsome ear fungus. An important safety tip!
3. Check your health insurance coverage. “I once had to have emergency eye surgery in Thailand,” a woman told me. “It only cost me $7 and turned out fine. So I don’t really see why I would ever need health insurance while I’m traveling.” I give her full marks for courage – and luck – but personally I wouldn't want to risk my vision on a $7 procedure. Between our US and Spanish providers, Rich and I have abundant, almost excessive coverage; when it comes to health care, we’re belt and suspender types.
4. While you’re abroad, don’t hesitate to consult local pharmacists. They’re trained health professionals and can likely provide a useful remedy and/or timely advice about finding more specialized care if needed.
5. In an emergency, the EmergencyCall app instantly dials the local ambulance service and requests assistance at your location. Other buttons summon firefighters, police or a friend you designate.
6. According to the American Heart Association, which produced the First Aid app, “During the Haiti earthquake, aid worker Dan Woolley was trapped beneath the rubble with injuries on his head and leg. Luckily, he had downloaded this app, which guided him step-by-step—with reference images and videos—on how to stop bleeding and how to tie off wounds.” Best advice: try not to get into these situations! But if you must, have this lifesaver at your fingertips.
Local medical care doesn’t always align with our expectations, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work. The old Spanish remedy of placing a cut onion beside the bed actually does clear your sinuses, although not as well as Sudafed. In some parts of the world, urine is said to help heal broken bones, and I expect it is effective, in its own way. The first time someone offers to pee on my broken leg, I know I’ll be sitting bolt upright in bed, saying, “NO! I’m feeling a lot better. It’s a miracle!”
This post was written in response to questions I've been asked about packing for long and varied trips. Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I haven't obtained any free or discounted gear or supplies in return for promoting anything on this blog. I'm just letting you know what products and services Rich and I consider to be the most useful for our kind of travel. Watch for my upcoming post on how to stock your first aid kit to handle (just about) any emergency!
4/24/2013 01:36:59 am
You're so right, Agness! It can be very frustrating to get a huge hospital bill on top of everything else you've suffered. I hope the guy in Thailand has recovered from his injury – and his sticker shock!
4/24/2013 02:00:18 am
We have been lucky in our travels not to have been injured or ill, except the odd stomach flu for a day or so. The one place I am scared to death of going to the doctor is in the States, especially after reading the TIME article "Bitter Pill, Why Medical Bills are Killing Us" and learning about "chargemaster" lists. As a US citizen with a residency in Spain, I do not carry regular US health insurance, but I make sure to get as much coverage as possible when I visit the States. I have found that the best site for "what I believe to be" good insurance at a good price is www.usa-assist.com. But I am always looking for other options. I will check out World Nomad. Thanks!
4/24/2013 10:17:44 am
It can be truly scary dealing with US medical bills; that's why Rich and I carry so much insurance. Thanks for the tip about USA Assist; we will look into it, as we often get questions about insurance, and it's great to have info on various carriers. Of course, as you know, Steve, the best plan is not to get sick!
4/24/2013 10:25:40 am
I'm glad this is useful information for you, Emily. Taking sensible precautions helps in a lot of ways – for starters, by giving you greater peace of mind throughout your journey. Safe travels!
4/24/2013 09:42:08 am
Before embarking on our year-long life in Italy, we checked our medical insurance and saw that we were covered 90%. The following year, when we went back to revisit, I broke my leg, needed an operation and 6 days in the hospital. The bill for everything, including the ambulance, was $6,000. We paid our 10% and BC/BS of Michigan held up their end of the bargain. And both my legs are the same length!
4/24/2013 10:30:20 am
Congrats on the successful surgery! Hospitalization in a foreign country (or your own, for that matter) can be scary, but it sounds like you had good care and excellent insurance coverage. A success story by any measure!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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