March 13

A Traveler’s Cautionary Tale

airport lounge at the first lights of the day

Looking back now I find it both dark and humorous that the day after I turned in my last CoffeeTalk editorial I would find a new topic for a CoffeeTalk editorial- Travel Insurance.

As a frequent traveler, I like to think of myself as pretty well prepared for a myriad of situations just in case sh@t happens along the way; especially when I travel abroad.  I’ve been known to pack a few seemingly goofy extras along like water purification tabs (hurricanes happen on the island of Hispaniola and in Cancun), a compass (you never know), and an external phone battery (would hate to need it and not have it).  My traveling companions have come to count on me to bring along “a small pharmacy” including dehydration tabs, Imodium, and for my wife and I, we are sure to pack a dose of antibiotics in the event of travelers’ diarrhea.  I probably get the most flack for the fact that my first stop is always the cellular store to get a local SIM card… Yeah, I’ll never live that one down- but it comes in handy every now and again.

Which leads me to my story:  On the fateful day of 12/12/12, I was visiting with my wife’s family having a good time.  This particular day for whatever reason we ended up at a mall.  While the family sits down to lunch, I’m franticly making calls to get our primary travel credit card working again – turns out it was a communication problem between the Philippine BDO bank and ours.  I finished up about the time that everyone was finishing lunch.  I sat down and practically inhaled my lunch as to not hold up everyone.  At one point, I literally choked on my food, and forced it down with a healthy gulp of water… that may have been my first mistake.

Several hours later, we are about 1.5 hours outside of Manila back in the village where my father-in-law grew up as a boy hanging out with our awesome, fun, extended family.  It’s about that time that I turned to my wife, Nancy, and let her know I’m really not feeling well.

A few minutes later I pass out. Over the next hour or two I’m slipping in and out of consciousness.  I’m severely dehydrated which strikes me as odd because dehydration is my primary concern when traveling and I am mindful to drink a lot.  As time passes things go from bad to worse and I’ve lost all strength.  I can’t support myself on my own; I pass out if I sit up for more than a minute or two. Nancy helps me to the restroom and that’s where all hell breaks loose.  It’s like a scene out of a horror movie. I know well enough to know that I was in bad shape before, but using the trash can in the corner that was full of my blood as a gauge, I knew I was in bad shape and frankly I was scared.  I vividly recall turning to our godson Lloyd, a nurse, and asking “Am I going to be ok?”

The next thing I know Nancy, Lloyd and I are passengers in a car whirling down the rural roads piloted by Ron, the glue of our cousins, headed for the provincial hospital about 15 minutes away.  For a moment, I feel like once the devil inside was released, I started feeling better… but now I’ve lost so much blood that upright isn’t even an option. I’ve gotta stay flat.

After a barrage of questions, the doctor treating me at the provincial hospital finally agreed to administer oxygen, IV, took blood to check my counts – all without gloves (they didn’t have any… I asked).  She recommended that I be admitted to the ICU immediately.  There I would undergo a blood transfusion, but no family or guests were allowed there.  I would be separated from my family.  This sounds wrong to me and visions start running through my head.  I wonder about the ages of the people about to receive my kidneys, liver, and retinas… charge more for the retinas, I was lucky to get my mom’s eyes.  The nurses bring over a gown and a diaper and start undressing me, I order them to stop.  I turn to Lloyd in disbelief and ask “there must be a better place than this, isn’t there?  There is, but it is over an hour away.  Meanwhile, Nancy was on the phone with my sister who got our family doctor on the phone (yay SIM card).  He recommends that we get to one of the main hospitals in Manila, provided that I can remain stable for the transport. He made it clear that with major blood loss the challenge would be to keep me alive along the way.  There’s no Ambulance, no 911, just us- as far as we know.  Next thing I know the IV fluids are dangling from a hanger swaying back and forth connected to the rear passenger roof handle, I’m laid across Nancy’s lap- legs up against the other side of the SUV and Ron is dodging Jeepneys, trikes, dogs, and mopeds on the way to Asian hospital, Manila.

We pulled the entire family together and we found a few family members which are the same blood type as me.  They all donated blood and the bloodbank held it in my name, just in case.

I’ve always been a realist.  I make a brief call to my middle sister just to tell her I love her and to let our folks and oldest sister know what’s going on.  I email my best friend, just in case and concentrate on keeping my eyes open.

We checked in to the ER, I asked Nancy to call my sister, our family doctor and Amex Travel Medical Insurance.   The hospital ran tests, blood counts really low, borderline for a transfusion by my U.S. doc’s standard. We set up an AM endoscopy.  Nancy is on the phone with Amex.  Their first question: “Do you want us to arrange an airlift to get you out of there”?  It was good to know we had them there for us just in case.

The care at Asian Hospital was good.  The doc there kept trying to push a blood transfusion but I recall reading that 20% of the blood donated in the Philippines is infected with HIV even though they use the Red Cross standard.  We kept my primary care physician in the loop the whole time and he kept tabs on my blood counts.

Once I was released, Amex helped arrange for in-flight oxygen with the airline in the event that my blood counts were too low to fly without.  Personally, my experience with them was great.  I can’t speak for any other situations, just my own.

I got lucky.  I am so grateful and appreciative for our family that took such great care looking out for me.  If not for them, I may not have been so lucky.  This experience made me realize that when I/we travel, although I prepare for some common and predictable situations, I need to do more.  Going forward I will research the names and numbers for the good local hospitals when traveling internationally.  Always make sure your cell phone works and allows you to make local calls when traveling internationally.

As for travel insurance, I’ve become a believer.  Personally after reviewing the several different types of medical/trip/travel insurances they offer, I opted for their American Express’ Travel Medical Protection.  In my opinion, it is seriously worth considering your travel insurance options when you travel.  If I was traveling alone or just with my wife on this trip my first phone call would have been to American Express.   I never thought that I would end up in a situation like the one I described.  If sharing my experience helps just one person in a bad situation, it would make sharing this story worthwhile.

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