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What If ... You Get Injured While Traveling

July 23, 2014

What If ... You Get Injured While Traveling

July 23, 2014

Get hurt on your vacation? Injured during your trip? From travel insurance to medical evacs, here’s what to do when you’re injured and far from home. 

Broken Jaw X-Ray (Photo by Thinkstock)

I’ve bungee jumped, parasailed and jumped off the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. I scuba dive and surf whenever I get the chance. I climbed Kilimanjaro. I’m taking flying trapeze lessons and have gone to stuntman school. The only real injury I got in 12 years of adrenaline-seeking travel? Breaking my jaw after slipping on a polished parquet floor in Buenos Aires.

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Stuff happens. No one expects to get injured, and certainly not while on vacation, especially in one’s room at a five-star hotel. But the world is an imperfect place, and freak accidents happen much more easily than we think.

Six years after my encounter with the floor, I still tell people: if you have to get injured, do it at a five-star hotel. The Park Hyatt’s whole staff impressed me with their trauma-related services: the butler who rode with me to the hospital and made sure I got the “good plastic-surgery stitches”; the housekeepers who somehow got the bloodstains off my white pajamas (I’d bitten through my lip); the bartenders who made me smoothies; and the concierge who got me on the next flight home, along with a premium seat and lounge access.

I asked Park Hyatt about their training for such things. A spokeswoman told me they had no specific emergency protocol but “their sense of individual empathy creates a very powerful, thorough and, particularly in the case of an emergency, incredibly memorable experience.”

Related: Is An Alternative Doctor Right For You?

Obviously, not everyone has the good luck of having bad luck in a luxury hotel. But what you do in the next few hours (and ideally before your trip) can have a big effect on how things turn out. Here are some tips from my experience and industry experts:

First aid kit (Photo: Thinkstock)

Proper preparation prevents poor performance

Easy to say that in hindsight, I know. But taking a few basic precautions before any trip is worth the investment of time. Buy travel insurance; it’s cheaper than many people think and it’s easy to comparison shop at InsureMyTrip. Make sure you have phone numbers for your doctors with you, in case whatever happens requires quick follow-up at home, and research local hospitals in advance. Keep your vaccinations up to date. And pack an emergency medical kit with an antibiotic, anti-diarrheal, antihistamine and painkillers (at least over-the-counter, though some doctors might prescribe something stronger to have in reserve).

(Photo: Thinkstock)

Consider spending more for safety

That doesn’t mean all your travel has to be luxury; I still play it scruffy in cities. But my Buenos Aires experience has made me more likely to upgrade on things like hiking and bicycling trips. Higher-end outfitters like CW Adventures don’t just offer niceties like lavish mountain picnics; many of them include travel-medical and evacuation insurance in their packages. In addition, their local trip leaders are prepared for mishaps.

CW’s director of operations, Jamen Yeaton-Masi, says: “CW Adventures create emergency plans that they provide to the main office in Vermont. Many companies create basic emergency preparedness documents, but it is the responsibility of a CW Adventures guide to create their own plan based on the trip. Since CW Guides are from the region/country in which they are giving tours, they are best equipped to know information like the nearest hospital on any given day or where on the trail has the best phone service. The guides carry a first-aid kit as well as information on who to call in an emergency.”

Think about an exit strategy

(Photo: Thinkstock)

If you travel regularly to remote or high-risk destinations, it can make sense to invest in a MedjetAssist membership ($260 per person or $395 per family per year). It’s a sort of AAA for the body that provides no-cost bed-to-bed air transport to any home-country hospital — something that can otherwise cost up to $100,000. COO and transport expert John Gobbels says: “Our savvy members have taken a pre-emptive strike when it comes to being stranded with a medical emergency away from home, family and personal physicians.” 

Medjet member Marv Freedman was glad he’d done that when he suffered a bad infection in St. Petersburg, Russia.  “It’s crucial to plan for such a contingency before you even leave home,” he says. “Medjet’s coverage at first blush may seem to be too good to be true, but it works just as represented at a cost that is amazingly affordable.”

 Once you’re there, if something feels funny, don’t ignore it

sick-on-vacation
sick-on-vacation

Photo by Thinkstock

Whether or not you planned ahead and got insurance, take whatever happens seriously. Some injuries, like my broken jaw and gushing lip, are impossible to ignore. But it’s easy to ignore an achy foot that turns out to be broken, or an upset stomach that Imodium won’t help. Don’t. “It’s important to act as soon as you realize that you’re dealing with a serious problem before you aggravate the condition,” says Gobbels of Medjet.

Don’t let local remedies beat common sense

That foul-smelling medicinal tea the Ecuadoran shaman is brewing? The Chinese bonesetter? That safari guide’s offer to “clean out” a wound with his all-purpose knife? Not a good idea.

But do ask for help

If you have access to a good guide or concierge, use it. These people have doctors’ and hospitals’ numbers on speed dial, and many hotels have doctors on call to make house calls. At least accept their sympathy. Hotel executive Katherine Melchior Ray remembers recovering from (planned) knee surgery in 2008 at the W Union Square in New York. 

“They were also incredible,” says Ray. “To this day, I have the teddy bear with a Band-Aid they brought up to my room, in addition to many other things they did to make my convalescence go well. Premium hotels make a point of going the extra mile, and the emotional intensity around emergencies make those efforts all the more memorable.”

Seek help at home

Call or email your doctor to make an appointment as soon as you’re back. If you can, contact them while you’re getting treated so they can provide their medical input.

Get online

symptoms-online
symptoms-online

Photo by Thinkstock

WebMD is notorious for encouraging hypochondria and paranoia (and reportedly has ties to Big Pharma). Mayoclinic.org is more levelheaded and trustworthy.

Gobbels of Medjet also suggests visiting the State Department’s Doctors/Hospitals Abroad page.

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Be prepared to fight with your health insurance company at home

While my health plan officially covered emergency care overseas, I spent months doing paperwork and arguing that there was no one in Argentina I could sue for medical expenses.

It all goes to show you that everything is either a good time or a good story.

My experience in Buenos Aires is definitely the latter.

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