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June 10, 2013

What to do when you get sick on the road

Getting stuck in a hospital in Argentina with pneumonia wasn't  where I wanted to be, but I wouldn't have wanted to be a hospital in the USA either.

Getting sick while traveling is probably one of the most common fears travelers have – and for good reason.  Not only does getting sick disrupt your daily itinerary, but finding a doctor can be a major challenge in certain parts of the world.  Does this mean you shouldn’t travel?  Absolutely not – it simply means that you should approach sickness with the same spirit of adventure as you approach the rest of your journey.

My family and I have traveled a fair bit over the past 30 years or so, and have been around the block a time or two.  We’ve suffered from food poisoning, limped on sprained ankles, traveled with casts (and waited out part of a journey due to a cast), and been evacuated by air ambulance due to a heart condition.  I guess you could say we’ve tested the medical care in many countries around the globe – and we’re still traveling.

So what do we do when we get sick?  That’s a hard question to answer. There have been many times on our journeys when we faced sickness or injury, and there is no doubt we will face it many more times in adventures to come. What we do depends on many factors – where we are, the availability of medical care or medications, the seriousness of the injury, and our itinerary.

Wait it out?  Or get thee to the doc?

Many times we had to make a decision – was it bad enough to go to the doctor?  Or should we just wait it out.  Stomach problems generally fit into this category.  Our typical approach is to wait it out for three or four days and, if it’s not better by then, we start looking for a clinic.  That amount of time generally gives our body time to fight whatever is causing the problem.  If we’re still sick after that, it’s time to consider drugs.  Muscle strains usually fit into this category as well.  We wait a few days to see if it is getting better – if not, we get to the doc to get it checked out.

These are the easy problems to deal with in that you have time to think, time to ask around, time to consider your options, and time to get into a city with good facilities.  Ask your hotel staff where a doctor is, and jump in a taxi – chances are there is some sort of clinic in your area that can deal with minor disturbances.

Quick!  Where’s the doc?

On the other hand, there are times when you know you need medical care – an acute ear infection, a rapidly swelling wrist, a foot that can bear no weight whatsoever…  These are the challenging situations we all fear.  Can I trust the doctor to set a broken bone?  Will he give me the right medication?

We have found that, in these situations, the local people know best.  They deal with medical situations in their communities all the time, and know exactly where to go.  We’ve also found that doctors tend to know their limits and will send you on to someone else if they are not capable of dealing with your problem.

When I severely screwed up my foot falling down some old stone steps in northern Vietnam, everyone told me I needed to get to Hanoi twelve hours away for x-rays.  We hired a taxi, I sat in the back with my foot propped up on pillows, and we made our way to the hospital in Hanoi.

When my son woke up one morning in Mexico with an excruciating earache, we were able to find a clinic a few blocks from our hotel.  Another day, my other son fell and sprained his wrist, which led to a journey to a hospital 75 miles away.  Each situation is different, and each one will require a different course of action.  Just remember – it’s all a part of the adventure.

Now what?  This is serious!

What about those times when your life is in danger?  When something goes terribly, horribly wrong and you hover on the edge of death?  Although we don’t want to think about it, we all know it could happen.  That’s why it is imperative that you have evacuation insurance.

If you find yourself in countries with limited health care, you may very well need to be evacuated.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I’m young and healthy – nothing will happen to me.”  And yet, you just never know.  One minute all is well, the next you’re in trouble.

We were living in Ethiopia when my husband’s heart suddenly went into arrhythmia.  We had gone for an 80-mile bike ride and forgot our water bottles.  I stopped at every little café to buy water; he took off to get in a good training ride.  Apparently, the exertion, altitude, and dehydration all worked against him to send his heart into an irregular beating pattern.

The good news is that the doctors in Ethiopia recognized the problem right away, and they also recognized that they were not in a position to deal with it.  That’s when our evacuation insurance came in very handy.

Within minutes of my phone call to the agency, they were on top of the situation and making arrangements.  As soon as possible, a plane left Israel to pick my husband up in Ethiopia and take him to an Israeli hospital.  The bad news, however, is that the air ambulance came with a price tag of $90,000.  That’s why you want to pay those few bucks whenever you travel!

So what’s the bottom line?

There is no one answer to the question, “What do I do if I get sick or injured while traveling.”  Just take it all one day at a time and make the best decision you can at the time.  It’s all just a part of the adventure!

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Category: Travel Health

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