Hurt on holiday: How to be a smarter traveler when sick or injured

Posted by Stacy Baas on September 26, 2012 1 Comment

As a black line of stingray venom (yup, you read that correctly) snaked slowly up my ankle, I considered my options. While I was pretty sure I wouldn’t incur long-lasting damage from this sting (he was a little guy, and the pain was bad but not unbearable), I knew I needed real medical help. Problem was, I was in Mexico, I didn’t speak Spanish, and I had absolutely NO IDEA where or how I might find medical care, or what it might be like when I got there. I pictured a rural Mexican hospital wherein cross-cultural hijinks and confusion would ensue. I imagined the charades I would employ to convey “stingray.”

I was in trouble and I knew it. I just didn’t know how to say it in Spanish.

As the reality of my predicament was setting in, the owner of the little beach restaurant nearby ushered her Canadian son-in-law - who just happened to be visiting from Toronto - over to talk to me. He knew an English-speaking doctor. He had called a taxi. He would write the address down for the driver. Since neither my husband nor I had any money on us (we figured if we were carrying no money, no one could steal it from us. Awesome logic, huh?), he would also pay for our cab.

I truly couldn’t thank him enough. I said it over and over. Then I thanked God for the kindness of strangers and got in the taxi.

Three shots of antibiotics, a clean bandage and a hand-written invoice for $85 (!) later, I had a great vacation story to tell and one big fat lesson learned: While I couldn’t have prevented the stingray from whipping his little angry tail at me, I could’ve done a few things to ensure a helpful Canadian wasn’t the only thing I had to rely on. Since then, I’ve put a lot more thought into how I can be a smarter sick traveler.

Get protected… I’ve never actually used the travel insurance I’ve purchased, and I don’t think it’s probably all that helpful for minor health issues when traveling, but if I ever land in a Portuguese hospital, I won’t worry about going broke. I generally go to, and use their handy comparison tools to choose a plan that seems right for the trip. Also, if you’re going somewhere exotic, get the recommended vaccinations and take the necessary precautions. Yes, it’s tedious and shots suck, but I’m betting typhoid sucks more. The CDC has a handy guide here:

Pack smart... Ibuprofen, antibiotic ointment, bandages and antiseptic swabs don’t take up much space in your suitcase, and they just might save you a trip to a local pharmacy (and trying to decipher dosing instructions in German). Think about your trip beforehand, try to anticipate any minor issues that could come up, and bring what you’d need to treat it.

Oh, and pack a few “emergency” U.S. dollars and some local currency in your day pack - always. Money might not solve your problem, but it sure will open up your options.

Get some local contacts…Standard advice is to keep the U.S. Embassy’s number handy in case you find yourself in need of medical attention. I say, this is why Google exists. Before you go on your trip, type in “English-speaking doctors” and the name of the place you’ll be visiting. You’ll likely find Embassy recos as well as traveler reviews of doctors. Write down the names and addresses of a few health providers and a couple of relevant notes about each one, and tuck it in your wallet. That way if the need arises, you can point at a piece of paper and get where you need to go.

Driver, take me to a Hilton… If you’ve forgotten your list of health providers – or simply never made one to begin with – one of the quickest ways to find help might be the nearest hotel that caters to Westerners. There’s sure to be an English speaker on hand, and chances are they have a list of medical providers where they send sick guests. 

Keep it together… It’s easy to make bad choices when the unexpected happens. I once spent way too much money changing airline tickets (only to change them back again an hour later and NOT get my money refunded) when my daughter got sick on vacation. Had I just chilled for a minute before I made the call, I probably could have come to the conclusion I arrived at later – that I was more concerned than she was sick, and that getting home with a modestly sick kid was a better option than hanging out in a hotel room with her. The point is: Breathe, think through your options, talk them through with someone if you can, then make the best choice you can at the moment.

Or, you can always hope there’s a kindhearted Canadian nearby. Hey, it worked for me.


Glamour shot of the stingray's damage:

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Comments (1 Comment)

Posted by Katie on September 27, 2012

Oh, my! When was that? I’m glad it all turned out ok!

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