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Monday Postcard #38 – Being Sick Abroad

Monday Postcard #38 – Being Sick Abroad

Monday Postcard 38 Being Sick Abroad

I just came back from a great weekend in Jakarta. Unfortunately, my souvenir from the weekend is an eye-infection… Even though I would not call this “being sick”, I remembered that I have actually never shared what it is like to be sick when you live abroad. Thanks to my swollen left eye, I am sharing some experiences and tips today with you here. 🙂

My first visit to a hospital in an “exotic” country was in China in 2007. It was during my stay in Jianxi province before I started my exchange semester in Beijing. (Read my post about this trip here.) Fortunately, it was not because we got sick but because our friend’s parents were both gynaecologists and they wanted to show us their work place. My friend and I thought it would be similar to hospitals we knew from home – babies in small beds behind glass or in their mother’s arms in private rooms. We went down a dark corridor and heard really loud noises. The doctor opened the right side of a wing door and we saw a young mother holding her newborn. But the noise did not stop. Suddenly, they opened the left door and we saw that the very same room was being used as a delivery room. Another mother had just finished giving birth to her baby. There was a lot of blood and my friend and I where just in shock. At the time of my studies, Chinese considered it good luck to be on pictures with a white person – the earlier in life the better. And when the nurses spotted us, they wanted to give us the newborn to take a picture. My friend and I – still in shock – politely declined and hurried to get out of there.

Since then, I was horrified. What if I got sick? And I did get sick a month later in Beijing. I was so scared. To make things worse, we had a minor car accident on the highway on the way to the hospital. Nothing really happened, a typical Beijing-situation where the car is damaged and the driver keeps going. But it did contribute to me being nervous. However, everything ended up being fine. I went to an international hospital and after an hour, I was back in my dorm room recovering.

When I worked in Shanghai, I had multiple things to be treated – allergic reactions to MSG, pollution and dust, a really bad flu (right at the height of bird flu and I refused to go to a hospital because I was scared of quarantine 🙂 ). I also experienced some minor health issues in Hong Kong and Bangkok.

What I learned from all of that was, first and foremost: stay calm. Even if it might scare the sh** out of you, you will be fine.

My second learning is a more practical one and it may sound capitalistic, BUT: have enough money to pay for healthcare. Coming from Austria, I was used to a great health system where I only need to show my insurance ID card and pay a minor fee. I soon learned that this system is very rare. Most of the time, the good hospitals expect cash or credit card payments. Depending on the country, it can be really high.

Thirdly, I invested in a really good insurance. Even though you might need to pay the fees upfront, you can then hand your medical bills in and get most of the money back. And a pro-tip I had to learn the hard way: make sure the country you will live in or travel to is covered. In my case, a lot of insurances do not cover Asia.

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Lastly, when you arrive in a country, inform yourself about hospitals. Is it ok to go to a public hospital? If  yes, what are the procedures like? If no, what are the alternatives? In Shanghai, for example, public hospitals often treat people on a first-come-first-serve basis – no matter if you had a major car accident or just a broken finger. Furthermore, carry a medical kit with you. Of course, I forgot mine when I went to Jakarta last weekend… Bring the basic medication you would take at home. In a lot of countries, access to pharmaceuticals is limited and you might not get the pharmaceutical products from brands you are used to. However, do not excess self-treatment, please go see a doctor if you feel bad.

I hope that you all never need this piece of advice, but I thought it might be interesting to share. Have you been sick abroad? What was it like? Any advice you would like to share?

This post is based on my personal experience and opinion. It is no substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult a doctor if you are sick.

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