Hospitalized Abroad: My Horror Story... and 3 Ways to Make Sure You're Covered

I knew a 107-degree fever could not be good.

“Do you think you can manage to take a taxi to the hospital, or do I need to call you an ambulance?”

Definitely not the words you want to hear when you’re about 6,000 miles away from home in a place where no one knows you. Yet there I sat, shivering from a fever in a doctor’s office in Reykjavik, trying to figure out what to do.

Traveling nearly 200 days a year as I do, you’re bound to get sick from time to time while out of the country. The key is knowing what to do, how to pay for it... and praying that you haven’t gotten anything truly serious.

In this particular instance, the trouble had started a few days earlier when I came down with a fever and sore throat. After a few days of ups and downs, my fever began to spike without breaking, and I asked my hotel to track down a doctor I could visit. The medical man in question practiced in a clinic just around the corner. But only from the hours of 1:00 and 5:00 p.m. on Tuesdays, which this was. So I bided my time, and then dragged myself through the streets and sat myself down in his waiting room to hope for an opening in the schedule. 

Luckily, it was a slow day, and I was soon shown into an office where a man whose looks I can most accurately describe as a department store Santa Claus on his day off, with a huge white beard and a patterned sweater, was sitting by a desk. After asking about my symptoms he said it was likely just a little bug and I should just wait it out.

“Shouldn’t you at least take my temperature?” I asked meekly.

After considering me for a moment over the top of his spectacles, he said, “I can, certainly. But we usually take the temperature anally.”

Excuse me? “Ah, no, that won’t do,” I replied. “Don’t you have an electronic thermometer you can stick in the ear or something?”

“Let me see,” he said, groaning as he stood up from his desk and wandered out into the hall. A moment later, he came back bearing what looked like a traditional thermometer. Before inserting it into my mouth, I double-checked that this was indeed only used for oral temperature-taking, and he reassured me that it was.

A few moments later, he took the thermometer and read it. His expression changed immediately, and that’s when he asked me how I would get to the hospital. I said I thought a taxi would be fine, but asked why — and he told me my temperature was 41.6 Celsius. Even though I was almost delirious, I still knew that was approaching 107 Fahrenheit. Yikes! Still, I was able to bundle up, get a taxi from my hotel and go to the nearest emergency room.

The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. There was a nurse who basically had to translate the names of American medications into what I’d find them under in Icelandic pharmacies. I had mono and strep tests and a chest x-ray to make sure I didn’t have pneumonia. My doctor and attending nurse both looked like they’d walked off the pages of an Icelandic saga, flowing blond braids and all. I asked the  doctor what he thought I had and he simply said, “I don’t know. We don’t have pathogens like this in Iceland.” Well, you do now, buddy!

My favorite moment was when he ordered the x-ray and I asked why, since I clearly didn’t have lung congestion. He said, “Don’t worry, our medical system isn’t like yours in the U.S., it won’t cost you much.” He was right. My bill for about 10 hours and several tests? Just $400, half of which was covered by my insurance eventually.

In the end, I was sent home, told to take my Acetaminophen, drink fluids and come back if I wasn’t better in a few days. Luckily, I did get better and was able to leave the country by the end of the week, Icelandic medications and all. 

Since then, I’ve had to visit doctors in France, Australia, and Thailand. I’ve been bedridden at gorgeous hotels in Hong Kong, India, Oman, and Portugal (through no fault of the hotels, mind you). There’s nothing like having a butler deliver a fresh pot of chamomile tea to your room every hour on the hour to make you feel both pampered and ridiculous. 

I once dropped a pack of antibiotics I was taking for a sinus infection off the side of a ferry in New Zealand… right as I was about to take one of the pills. With the clock ticking, I had to find a medical clinic ASAP, explain to the doctor that I’d been sick and lost my medication, and try to find a similar one with the same dosage. That was a bit of a wild goose chase, but luckily it worked out in the end. Thank goodness it wasn’t in the wilds of Greenland or something!

I’ve been very lucky that I’ve only gotten seriously sick a few times in my life as a travel writer and that when it’s happened, I’ve been in places with advanced medical care and facilities. But these experiences have taught me a few things about making sure you’re covered when traveling and things everyone can do to obtain the proper medical care abroad.

1.  Find out whether your insurance covers you abroad.

At the time of my Iceland episode, I had a fantastic healthcare plan that covered me all over the world. At other times, though, I’ve had plans that have only covered me within the U.S., or even just regionally. Before you travel, review the terms of your health insurance policy and determine whether you will be covered while traveling, or if you need to take any further action.

2.  Your credit card may cover you.

Folks often forget that many credit cards, and especially travel rewards credit cards that earn airline miles or hotel points, often have decent travel protections. Those include things like checked-baggage delay or loss, but also things like trip cancellation and trip delay insurance for when you have to change your plans due to illness. It pays to go over your benefits package, or just call customer service and ask them to explain it to you in detail to see what circumstances will cause a card’s protections to kick in and what documentation you’ll need in order to make a claim, such as having a doctor’s note.

3.  Consider travel insurance.

I think people tend to associate travel insurance with going on cruises. First, because a lot of old people with medical issues go on cruises. Second, because it involves a lot of moving parts like flights to and from different airports, the possibility of missing the boat, and myriad other concerns. However, travel insurance policies are widely available, easily tailored to your specific trip (including by value, destination, your age, and the extent of coverage), and are generally cheap. My plan for a recent three-week trip to India that covered medical care up to $250,000, travel-plan changes, and emergency evacuation cost a mere $212. Not bad in case something went wrong and I had to cancel flights and hotels, not to mention potential hospitalization and evacuation.

Being sick sucks. But getting sick or injured while traveling is not only an inconvenience, it can be downright dangerous, expensive, and harrowing. You’re far from home. There can be language barriers. Medical care is costly. And you could be far from proper facilities. All that makes it essential to know your coverage, have a plan, and make sure someone knows where you are each day of your trip. Luckily, with more insurance options and better phone and data plans than ever, it’s easier to prepare for travel and to handle any medical situations that might arise so that you make it home in one piece if something does go wrong.

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