Sick and Alone in a Foreign Land

Something travel writers and other travel aficionados don’t seem to want to discuss or even think about is being seriously ill in a new place, sometimes a place where you don’t have any family or many dependable friends.

Yes, we’ve all heard stories about Montezuma’s revenge and Delhi belly, but no one wants to think about what happens when you’re seriously ill. What happens when you have to be hospitalized or operated on in an unknown place?

Having travel insurance, or residing in a country where you have state-funded healthcare doesn’t make you immune to this issue, either. Yes, the dollars and cents are resolved….but what about communication and cultural issues? What about the level of care you can expect in a given destination? Trust me, there’s a wide range to what’s considered “quality” or even “acceptable” medical attention across countries and continents. And what about being on your own, in a hospital, surrounded by people speaking a language that’s not your own?

For example, in Barcelona, in the public hospitals, nothing is included but medical care. Kleenex, diapers for babies, basic toiletries, drinks between meals, television, these things must be purchased and brought to you by friends and family members, you can’t even purchase them directly from staff, or ask for them to be added to your bill. So if you’re alone and too ill to leave your room (which is probably why you’re hospitalized in the first place), as we say in Missouri, you’re up shit creek.

Worse still is when cultural standards cause problems. You expect a certain level of care and privacy, and here are the nurses’ aids, out in the hall, yelling to coworkers about the meds you’ve just requested. And that’s without mentioning the lack of security in the hospital. There are no official visiting hours, no sign-in or sign-out sheets: anyone and everyone can come and go as they please 24 hours a day. Your roommate, an elderly local, insists on having the lights and television on at all hours and has a steady stream of visitors that keep the idiot box paid up and turned on and could care less if you’re trying to get some rest. Hospital employees are raucous and loud day and night, and some are angry that you, a foreign resident, are using up valuable hospital space and money. No matter that you pay taxes and social security, too.

You’re in constant pain, you can’t sleep, and sometimes you’re sure that your drip isn’t working. Time ticks by at a snail’s pace because you have nothing to keep your mind occupied, and frankly, you wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything, anyway. No one checks up on you in the middle of the night. Not to see if you’re alive, not to see if your drip is running on empty, or simple to ask if you need anything. Your mom/dad/sister/brother is going to fly in ASAP at great expense, but they don’t speak the local language, either.

It’s been days since you’ve had a shower or talked to anyone but hospital staff in person. Your cell phone is dead, and you’ve got no one at home to bring you the charger. This has been a nightmare, and worse still, the doctors aren’t telling you anything. They don’t know what’s wrong with you. They’re still doing tests. Please don’t let me die here in this God-forsaken place, you think. My poor mother.

Because like it or not, you’re far from home and too sick to travel. What help is to be got, has to be gotten where you are. This isn’t a movie, and you won’t be rushed via helicopter to a better hospital across the ocean. As much as you hate to admit it, this whole experience has made you reconsider where you’re willing to spend your life. This time you survived, but only time will tell if you’re truly able to put the nightmare behind you and carry on as before.

After far too many days spent in bathed in florescent light in a hospital room, life outside the hospital is gorgeous, if far from perfect. A cool breeze ruffles the leaves on tall palm trees. Vivid green tropical birds play in murky puddles with ugly grey pigeons. The language you left home to study is chattered on every corner. The bar down the street from your place has three kinds of Spanish omelet, potato with onion, spinach with garlic, and zucchini in the front window (because eggs do so well in sunlight). Children run wild on the grubby pavement, kicking soccer balls to and fro and screeching swear words in Spanish.

Perhaps you’ll stay a while, after all…

Copyright 2010-2012 Chris Ciolli. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce texts or images without written consent. First published on Midwesterner Abroad.

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  1. Borja Ruiz says:

    Hi there Midwesterner abroad. I’m reading your post as I go through something similar away from home. It sounds like you went through hell, presumably in Spain, which is where I’m from, so I wanted to say I’m sorry you had such a bad experience. I guess hospitals suck no matter what if you’re far from home.
    Hope life is much better for you now.
    All the best

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