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Tip #10. Travel With Emergency Info

August 4, 2015

Keep emergency contact and medical information in your billfold or purse.

In January 2014 a friend and I boarded a small luxury ship for a cruise from Auckland, New Zealand, to Sydney, Australia. The trip started off well; but near Dunedin, close to the bottom of South Island, we awakened to stormy weather. We set out across the dock to a vintage sightseeing train. Crew offered no assistance when we began to climb the narrow ladder up to our car. As the daughter of a railroad man, I intuitively threw my tote bag up to the platform and gripped the wet handrails as I climbed up.

As I turned around to take my friend’s tote bag, I saw her hand slip from the rail as she fell backwards, flat on to the asphalt. She lay there in the pouring rain until the ship’s doctor determined that there was no spinal cord injury; then she was taken to the hospital emergency room in Dunedin. Fortunately, she was never unconscious; so she could answer basic questions about her health and medications. They determined (mistakenly, it turns out) that there were no broken bones, and we made it back to the ship in time to sail…right into a typhoon.

For days, as the ship rocked in rough seas, she lay in bed in agonizing pain. Without medical orders from the doctor, her trip insurance did not cover a transfer back to the U.S., and we were nowhere near any airport large enough to handle the few charter aircraft capable of flying across the Pacific. Her situation was made worse because the ship’s medical staff all spoke English as a second language. Their pain medications, combined with what was prescribed at the hospital, combined with her regular medications, made a bad situation worse.

14 Tips for Safe Solo TravelOne awful morning I realized that someone back home needed to know what was going on. Though we are good friends and I have known her for more than 40 years, I did not know how to contact her doctor, her family or her professional advisors. I did not know who had medical power of attorney. I did not want to search through her clothes and personal papers. I had no legal authority to make decisions or approve expenses. Fortunately, I remembered that I had the email address of one of her closest friends, a remarkably efficient and caring woman. Within hours, her doctor faxed the ship’s doctor, and those with authority back home began to make arrangements for her travel from Sydney.

Lesson learned: When I got back to Corpus Christi, I copied my Social Security card, and on the back I wrote a long list of emergency contacts: my children, assistant, attorney and banker. I keep it in my billfold next to my insurance cards at all times. Writing this, I realize I need to add my doctor, along with email addresses, prescriptions and allergies. Frequently, I travel by myself or I join a group of strangers for a tour. Even my best friends and children would not know all that Lev would have known in case of emergency.

I also talked to my attorney. He advised me to join MedJet Assist, which is far more lenient about medical transportation. That card is also with my insurance cards. I am not a worrier, and I don’t dwell on worst-case scenarios. I am simply trying to be smart. I could be that person who is injured and alone on the other side of the world. I don’t want to be a Jane Doe, and I don’t want to be given penicillin.

Photo: Stewart Island, from the Southern Ocean below South Island, New Zealand.

Feedback: What recommendations do you have for medical emergency preparedness?