How do you handle a medical emergency by yourself in a foreign country?
I am going to lose my leg. That is the only thought that was running through my mind during a work trip to Beijing. I was by myself and it would be at least another 48 hours before I returned home and could see my doctor.
You might be wondering how I got to this point. Let me explain.
A couple years ago my boss asked if I would be willing to travel to China on a work trip. I had only traveled domestically for the company but he knew I was a seasoned international traveler so it was an easy yes!
My boss connected me with the Chinese company and their trip organizer, Angela. She informed me that I’d have to apply for a visa. The process was relatively easy and pain free, but little did I know the most painful part of this trip was looming in front of me. It was about to be one of the scariest experiences of my life leading me to ask “how do you handle a medical emergency by yourself in a foreign country”?
My trip started off well! I flew on United Airlines from Las Vegas to San Francisco. Then from San Francisco to Shanghai. The flight was long but easy. As the pilot indicated that we were on final approach, my stomach was in knots. It was a mix of excitement and uneasiness as I had never traveled internationally by myself. It was finally setting in that I was there alone, but I was relieved knowing that Angela would be meeting me at the airport.
After landing, going through customs, and grabbing my luggage I called Angela. You can imagine my surprise when I called her and informed me that she was not going to meet me at the airport. I was a little concerned, but tried to stay calm. She explained to me over the phone that I need to look for someone wearing a red shirt. Sheer panic started to set in, could that be more generic? Eventually someone with a red shirt approached and took my luggage. They led me to a car; I got in and they started driving. I remember thinking “I hope this is the right red shirt” and “why did I watch movies like Taken”? It was filling my mind with horrible thoughts. I pulled out my phone and tracked the route to make sure there was no “taken” situation! After an hour or so in the car we approached the hotel.
I finally got settled into the hotel and met the Chinese team. Everything was going great! Over the next few days, we worked in Shanghai and then we took a high-speed train to Beijing. I even had the opportunity to visit The Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China. It was an amazing experience and I felt so blessed to experience it! The Great Wall had always been on my bucket list, I just never thought I’d actually get to visit. I felt like I was on could nine until the bus ride home.
About halfway through our bus ride back to the hotel, I realized that I had been scratching some bites on my left leg. When I looked down, I saw several welts. They were all red and swollen, so I decided that upon returning to the hotel I’d find the nearest pharmacy. I googled “pharmacies near me” and arrived there after a short walk. At the pharmacy no one spoke English, so I showed the pharmacist my bites. The look on the her face was unsettling, but she returned with an ointment. Later that night I used the ointment and laid in bed googling everything there was to know about spider bites. If you’ve ever googled your symptoms then you know how I felt in that moment, doom and gloom. It was clear, I was dying.
I tossed and turned all night in severe discomfort and was also worrying about the worst-case scenario. When I got out of bed the next day the bites had doubled in size. They were severely swollen, hot and bright red. I was limping around the hotel room terrified that my leg would need to be amputated. I used google again to find the closest hospital and located one within walking distance. I slowly limped to the hospital where I struggled to communicate at the check-in desk. They handed me a couple documents; I completed them and handed them back. I paid a small admittance fee and was soon ushered around several dark hallways and waiting areas before finally seeing a doctor. He and I did a lot of gesturing to communicate. I was showing him a chopping gesture on my leg in attempt to find out if I was going to lose it. I remembered how helpful Google translate was in a past situation so I quickly grabbed my phone in attempts to better understand what the doctor was saying to me. I wanted to be a respectful traveler and was trying my best to navigate through the language barrier. Thankfully the doctors and nurses were extremely patient with me. I was scared and crying so I think they sympathized with me.
Thankfully the doctor laughed when I showed the chopping motion on my leg. I was reassured that I was not going to lose my leg and that I was going to be OK. They sent me back to the hotel with a prescription grade ointment, steroids, and antibiotics. I was grateful that I didn’t pay more than that small initial fee for my visit. I was worried it would set me back financially as I had never been hospitalized in a foreign country but I knew the bites required medical attention so it was a non negotiable at that point.
The next day I traveled home and within another 24 hours I was able to see a doctor. He was definitely concerned when I showed my leg, but he reassured me that I would not lose my leg. It was just severe bites and an apparent allergic reaction to them. I received more antibiotics and was sent home. To this day I still have the scars from this unforgettable experience!
If you are anything like me and never thought about experiencing a medical emergency abroad, I’m here to tell you, it can happen. Should you find yourself in a similar situation while traveling abroad here are a few helpful tips.
- Do speak with your insurance company before a trip to see what they might cover while traveling internationally; you could also consider travel insurance while abroad.
- Map out pharmacies and hospitals ahead of time.
- If there is a language barrier, use an app; Google translate is my favorite.
- Do your own due diligence before traveling abroad to avoid a health scare – certain countries require vaccinations or shots.
- Don’t avoid a hospital or pharmacy visit due to concerns about insurance.
- Stay open minded during your experience. I was grateful for my care and pleasantly surprised by the low cost to see a doctor and to receive subsequent prescriptions. Who knows, I could have lost my leg if I didn’t seek medical attention!