What To Do When You Get Sick While Traveling
Before we left Los Angeles, a friend asked me my biggest fear about taking a trip around the world. While I joked that I was worried about running out of money, my answer hid a deeper fear: that one of would get really sick while traveling.
Tom always says we need to face our fears, and I am reluctantly staring mine in the face: being sick in a foreign country and needing medical care.
What started as a little cough at the end of our Bali stay, emerged as a full blown cough in Singapore, and then was accompanied by sleepless nights in Hong Kong. I rarely get sick, and when I do, I see our general practitioner, get some medicine, call my mother for reassurance, and sleep it off in a day or so.
That wasn't going to happen here. I did call my sister (so as not to alarm my mom) and was reassured that I just had a cough.
Then it got worse. My wise husband said I needed to "see someone" and from where I was, that seemed overwhelming. I mean, I just wanted to spend time with my friend Wendy Wong, I wanted to explore the city, walk everywhere, and pretend I wasn't sick. One long walk to lunch and I realized Tom was right.
After a delicious and delirious (for me) dinner with Wendy, she accompanied me to a local private hospital, St. Paul's Hospital, to seek outpatient treatment.
My anxiety was dispelled the minute I walked in. A nurse swiftly took my pulse and temperature (I didn't realize it at the time, but I was running a fever), and in English asked for my symptoms. Within 20 minutes, my name and number were called and I was sitting face to face mask with Dr. Chan. He listened to my coughing fit, my chest, and diagnosed me with an upper respiratory infection. Twenty minutes after that and I had paid approximately $75 USD for seven different medicines and the doctor's visit and was on my way back to the hotel to take my medicine and rest.
It was amazing at St. Paul's. The staff were polite, efficient, I could pick up my medicine there and I was in and out within an hour (which Wendy said was a long visit).
I'd like to report I got better immediately. I didn't. Four days later, I was back at St. Paul's with Wendy Wong and the whole family in tow. Dr. Tsang was wonderful, said I was on the mend, but needed stronger medicine to address my symptoms (lucky, my chest was clear). Another $75 dollars and five medicines later, I was on my way.
I am much better, still coughing, which happens with these things, but able to enjoy Japan. Of course my experience begs questions about the U.S. healthcare system. But, this post isn't about that. It's about facing fears.
I am not a great patient when I am in my own home conditions, and it was exacerbated by feeling out of control in a foreign, non-English speaking country. Wendy gave me the confidence to go and Tom, well, he made me go to the doctor. Twice. But the real lesson here for me is that I have to learn to differentiate real fears from imagined ones. Going to a hospital and to a doctor is scary, but isn't that always the case? Isn't my health worth facing a fear?
I didn't think I would change who I am by traveling around the world, but I thought I would be my better self. Hong Kong showed me I need to work to make that happen. I also learned that sometimes you cannot conquer a fear on your own. My daughters were clearly worried about me and Tom gave me the push I needed to get to the doctor.
Is this fear conquered? Not completely, but I learned a lot about myself and about being sick in a foreign country—enough that I've thought of some health tips for other travelers.
Health Tips for World Travelers
- Before you leave your home country, buy insurance. While the Hong Kong private hospital didn't break our budget, two visits added up. And, if I had faced a more serious illness, the costs would have skyrocketed. We purchased a plan through World Nomads that covers illness, travel and emergency costs (e.g., helicopter evacuation or transfer if needed). While it is a pain to file the paperwork, it is worth it.
- If you are sick, don't wait to get treated. This might seem obvious, but for those of us who are typically healthy and wait to see a doctor at home, you cannot use the same behavior when traveling. I am sure I could have cut my infection's duration in half if I had visited the medical clinic at the Singapore airport instead of telling my husband and kids that it seemed like a bother.
- If you don't know where to go for medical treatment ask your hotel or a local large chain. I found out later that our hotel had a doctor available 24 hours a day. People DO get sick when they travel and there is no shame in asking for a doctor. If you are staying in an apartment (which we often do), there are often clinics a Google search away..
- Photograph medicines. When I bough a cough suppressant OTC in Hong Kong, I took a photo of it for some reason. The doctor at the hospital found that helpful when prescribing my medicine. And, when I revisited the hospital, it was helpful for me to pull up the picture of what the first doctor had prescribed. (No, strangely enough, there wasn't a record from my visit four days earlier with that listed).
- Bring someone with you to the doctor. While none of us traveling with kids wants to drag them to a doctor or hospital, it is always helpful to have someone else detail your symptoms with a doctor, remember your doctor's orders and help during this process. It's hard navigating in a foreign country, but harder when you are not feeling 100 percent.
- Face masks are not just for fashion. In Hong Kong, the air became increasingly polluted during our stay. (Apparently, factories had been turned off for a world leader summit). While it seemed odd to me to wear a face mask, the original purpose is an important one—preventing you from spreading germs and reducing inhalation of smoke, toxins, etc. I hated the idea of wearing it, but I got more stares when sneezing and coughing in public then when I wore my mask.
A big thank you to Wendy Wong. Instead of showing us her city, she showed us her city's private hospital and took incredible care of us!