There I was, doubling over in so much pain that I had to call my husband to come home from work early to help take care of our then two-year-old. It was sharp and unrelenting, coming from my abdomen area. I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Once he arrived home, I basically told him to get a taxi and we were going to try and brave the local Chinese hospital scene because I just couldn’t wait until the next day to 1) go to a GP and 2) go the 40 minutes to the international hospital.
We arrived at the first hospital which was a 10 minute drive away. I walked up the ramp to the emergency services (this was after hours) and as the glass doors slid open, the scene before me was NOT what I was expecting. It was overflowing and not for the faint hearted. So many people were waiting their turn, some sitting with IV drips in their arm, others lying on hospital stretchers and as I passed a room right by reception, there was blood on the floor along with crumpled up towels. This along with the language barrier made me turn around and walk out the door and onto the next hospital.
What an ordeal
The next one was slightly better and we were taken up to a “private” doctor who spoke some English. As I sat down ready to be examined, I told him that I was five weeks pregnant (but that what I was experiencing was not pregnancy related). He refused to look at me and quickly dismissed me from his office. Apparently in China it doesn’t matter what your symptoms are and if it’s related to pregnancy, you need to go to a maternity hospital or children’s hospital.
I caved. I couldn’t take it anymore. After going to two hospitals and spending way more time than I thought I would, I decided to go the international hospital where I was treated for gastroenteritis….the tummy bug.
What an ordeal this was and why? Because I hadn’t looked up what the emergency procedures were when I moved to China. Sure, I had attended some seminars about what to do when living there (make sure you have cash-in-hand as local hospitals don’t take the insurance card; don’t bother calling an ambulance, instead take a taxi (this is because usually ambulances don’t carry the proper equipment anyway and the siren of an ambulance has zero effect on cars moving out of the way)) but I wasn’t really prepared on what to say, that once pregnant you could only go to special hospitals, or what to expect in a Chinese version of an emergency room.
You’d think I would have learned my lesson
Same goes when I visited Seoul and sprained my ankle. Once we finally found a hospital by us (asked the hotel reception and Google) there was a lot of gesturing and using a translation app only to realise just to have a doctor see me would cost USD600! We had insurance but needed to pay out-of-pocket first. I thanked the lovely man trying to help us and hobbled to the nearest 7-11 (pharmacies were closed because it was outside hours) to try and procure something that could help me (cue more gesturing and translation app).
So after not learning my lesson *twice* about navigating a hospital situation in a foreign country, here are some tips I’m starting to apply when I live in or visit a new country:
Five tips to prepare before travelling
- Check your embassy’s website for recommendations on doctors or hospitals that speak your language
2. Ask in a local expat or travel forum about people’s experiences and what to keep in mind should you need medical attention. What is the local culture regarding illness and getting treated? This includes whether or not there are any social health benefits or if you need to fully rely on health insurance.
For example: In China, you would go to the hospital for a headache and receiving an IV drip is common. In Malaysia you can go to the pharmacy and can get what you need without a prescription (and this is what I’ve personally gotten) – asthma inhaler, birth control, and sometimes even antibiotics. Unfortunately the ease of receiving antibiotics and not being properly informed (antibiotics don’t work with viral infections) has led to an over-abuse of antibiotics in the country.
In France it’s the opposite, you need a prescription for almost everything – birth control, children’s anti-histamine, asthma inhaler. My aunt was visiting from Malaysia and had a UTI. She went to the pharmacy for antibiotics like she would have done back home and was shocked when the pharmacist told her she needed a prescription from the doctor first.
3. Get INSURANCE. I put this in capital letters because I cannot stress enough how important this is. Yes, it might be an additional cost and yes, you *might* not need it…that is, you might not need it until you DO. There were so many times a plea for help would appear in the WeChat messages about friends or family who became ill or got into an accident but didn’t have insurance in China. The amount quickly escalates and there’s just no way to pay the bills.
4. Put emergency information (phone numbers, hospital closest to where you are staying) on your phone so you can make a call or give taxi directions immediately rather than spending time Googling finding something that is open or nearby.
5. Have keywords saved in your translation app relating to emergencies such as: where’s the nearest hospital, call an ambulance/police, pharmacy, help me and more.
These are a few tips I find helpful and I want to know what else would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments! While we all hope that our stay in a foreign country goes smoothly, it can’t hurt to be a little prepared for those moments when it doesn’t.