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How to Handle a Medical Emergency Abroad

As you guys might have seen, the whole family took a trip to Punta Cana back in March. I’d been dying to go to this part of the Dominican Republic for a while, so when Spiro suggested we go to kick off spring, you know I was down. We packed up Zelda and headed south for some sunshine and what we thought would be a week of relaxation.

Now, this post is a little unusual for the site, and I won’t lie and pretend that our trip was perfect – because as you’ll see from this, it wasn’t. But I’m all about showing the real-life versions of whatever we’re up to, and I also had such an eye-opening experience on this trip, I couldn’t help but share. It ended up being one of the most uncomfortable, terrifying, and humbling experiences I’ve ever had, and one I think people could learn from. Because I’m sure it’s not the last time it’ll happen, unfortunately.

I’ll get into the details in a second, but essentially this post will wrap up a trauma that occurred on our trip and how we got through it. I learned first-hand how to handle an emergency of sorts while abroad, in a country where we don’t speak the language and things are very…different. And as you read this, please remember that I understand I’m a privileged person who was raised in the US and that’s not beyond me – not for one second. But, I’m trying to write this as honestly as possible from a place of understanding privilege. More on that later – let’s get into what happened.

How to handle a medical emergency when traveling abroad.

We were staying at a very nice, very safe resort in Punta Cana. One that I won’t even name because I don’t want them to assume all the responsibility for what happened. Like most of our trips, we were lucky enough to be staying at a resort that was beautiful and, for the most part, the staff and days leading up to the emergency were fantastic.

As I made my way back to my room one afternoon, I was walking alongside the paved path of the resort. I’m not sure if it was from weather or what, but there happened to be a couple large rocks/boulders sticking out on one area of the path. As I turned the corner, I looked up at my friend on our balcony and ended up walking straight into one of the rocks (it was lower and out of sight). I won’t get too detailed with the actual injury, but I essentially ripped part of a toe off and was in INSANE pain. And let’s get this straight – I have a very high pain tolerance. So to say this was gut-wrenching, is not me being dramatic. It actually makes me a bit nauseous just typing this out.

Seconds after I made impact, I fell to the ground in an almost black-out state, and started SCREAMING for help. As my friend watched this entire thing happen, she was on her way down to me as I sat there screaming out for help and in a crazy amount of pain – only to hear a cackle coming from behind me. Not even just a giggle, but a full-on hysterical laugh coming from one of the groundskeepers of the resorts. He was staring at me, laughing, mocking me. He eventually walked up to me, which I thought was for help, but boy was I wrong. Instead, he hovered above me, close enough that I could feel his denim shorts on my skin, and he stood there, staring at me.

Now, I know in these situations the worst thing you can do is be quiet or submissive. Instead, it’s smart to make as much of a scene as possible and to call attention to your predator. So that’s what I did. Luckily, my girlfriend came running down and the man backed off – never once trying to help me. It was a negative, evil energy that I’ve never really felt before, pouring out of this man throughout the whole situation. It was disgusting. Not only was I helpless in that moment, which he took advantage of, but I was calling out for assistance, only to be victimized without an ounce of empathy or willingness to help.

Moments later, Spiro was by my side and we were now moving into what I want to cover in this post, but I felt it was essential to tell that first part. As you can imagine, I was feeling all sorts of emotion – from pain, to fear, to anger – and that was before we even started dealing with the actual injury and the subsequent recovery.

A man sits in a doctor's office with a nurse in Punta Cana.

I want to offer a few tips on how to deal with an injury or emergency while traveling. Though we were in a safe (or so I thought) resort, it’s so easy to forget that you’re only within walls of that resort, and that outside those walls, is a place you’re almost completely foreign to. At least that was our situation.

Here’s what I suggest for emergencies while abroad in a country or location you aren’t comfortable with or know little about.

Ask questions or bring a friend

As we made our way to the front desk to figure out accommodations for my injury, whether that was surgery or something else, we didn’t know in that moment, but I knew I had a foot that needed attention. The front desk let us know that we would be taken to a clinic and pretty much started pushing paperwork in our face right away.

Now, I understand the need for paperwork in these situations, but when you are in that much pain, fully comprehending what you’re about to sign isn’t easy. Especially when dealing with language barriers, it’s even more difficult.

This is why it was CRUCIAL that I had Spiro with me. He was there to read through everything before I signed, and to act as a shield of sorts. If you’re traveling with friends and become injured, make sure someone accompanies you when you go to get the injury treated. Even if you don’t have a crazy injury or think you’re fine – you don’t know that. If you happen to be alone on your trip, tell the front desk that you want someone who speaks English before singing anything, or try to find a guest at the hotel who speaks the same language.

Pain or not, you don’t want to be intimidated by paperwork and should feel as comfortable as possible with decisions being made regarding your care and how to move forward.

Same goes for once you go to the clinic. Be sure to keep someone with you during this whole process. It never hurts to ask for an English speaker, an American clinic or anything that will make you feel more comfortable with what’s going on. That’s not to say the country you’re in or clinic you go to isn’t up to standards (though it might not be), but it’s about feeling vulnerable and protecting yourself. Listen to your intuition and don’t wait until something uncomfortable happens to ask for what you need.

How to handle an emergency abroad.

Travel with medicine

Taking medication from a foreign health provider is a scary thought to me. Not knowing what the certification process is or what’s comparable to medication you’d be provided in the US is a little unnerving. To be prepared on this front, I recommend traveling with basic pain relievers, fever reducers and/or something that can help reduce inflammation. Picking up bottles of Tylenol, Advil and Ibuprofen before leaving for your trip is a good place to start. If you have other concerns, there’s no harm in meeting with your Primary Care Physician beforehand.

Be aware

This is mainly a tip for those travelers who like to venture outside of resorts often. Though I’m all about taking an adventure, an experience like this reminded me that I do live in a bubble most of the time, and that I’m beyond privileged.

The fact is, there are dangerous, scary places out there – ones that you aren’t safe in, and we must respect that. While traveling, if locals or tourists tell you a place is dangerous, respect that. Do your thing while not being naive enough to think that you’re above something happening to you or that you’ll be protected. Not to scare anyone, and I know I wasn’t in a life-or-death situation here, but I think this is a such a healthy reminder that spawned from this trip.

Stay calm

Trust me, I know from personal experience that this is MUCH easier said than done, but if my experience taught me anything (other than having a well thought out plan is key), it’s that getting worked up and angry will not help. Just like in any situation in life, it’s best to try and stay as rational as possible.

Have a plan in place

My biggest lesson out of all of this is to have a plan in place before traveling out of the country – no matter where you’re going. Of course there’s only so much you can plan for, but knowing clinics or hospitals in the area and having an app or book on the language in case you need to go outside of a resort to communicate is smart. This is definitely something I’ve never given any thought to because up until this point, I’ve been very naive, but will absolutely be doing so in the future.

Bottom line, always have an emergency plan, know cultural differences between where you’re going and where you’re from, and give yourself a gentle reminder before you jet-set off on vacation and are only worrying about your next Instagram.

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