5 Tips for Handling an Overseas ER Visit

Over the years, I’ve had a couple of medical curveballs thrown at me – some even while I was traveling outside the United States. But, up until a few weeks ago, I never had to go further than the local pharmacy or clinic to fix the ailment. Then, I realized I needed to make an overseas ER visit.

That was not the case in Interlaken, Switzerland where I all of a sudden found myself at the E.R. wondering if I had broken my hand after an afternoon of canyoning. I had just spent the week in Luzern at the Adventure Travel World Summit and decided to take an early train to Interlaken (for a post-Summit conference) so that I could go paragliding – a calming, scenic, safe adventure excursion. What I didn’t count on was the rain, which of course negated any possibility of paragliding that day. The other choice was canyoning.

Canyoning, for those who have not had the pleasure, is a combination of rappelling, hiking, traversing strong current waters using ropes, and plunging into said cold water. It’s a bit crazy, but for adrenaline junkies, it’s an experience!

Tip #1 – Stuff Happens…To Everyone

It was on the first rappel that I slipped and smashed my left hand into the rock face. Quickly, my hand was covered with blood and my knuckle on my left index finger was not where it was supposed to be. However, instead of pain, I was completely numb given the frigid water. I had little choice but to continue on the 1 ½ hour course since the guides didn’t have a Band-Aid much less a first-aid kit between them, but their advice was to use the river as a natural ice pack to keep the swelling down.

Tip #2 – Stay Calm…And Think

I completed the canyoning course – numb to the end. Then, back at the hotel, after I had a chance to take a hot shower, the pain set in and the swelling really started to bother me. I knew that I could wait it out to see if it got worse or just miss the first few hours of the post-conference and have a doctor check whether my fingers were broken.

Tip #3 – The Hotel Concierge…Can Be a Friend

Of course, I decided to get my hand checked out. But, I had no idea where to go, so I approached the hotel’s concierge, held up my hand and asked for advice. His facial expression said it all namely “this is serious and you need to go to the hospital“. He quickly arranged for a taxi and when the taxi arrived, he explained to the driver in German to take me directly to the E.R. entrance and make sure that I was looked at as soon as possible.

Tip #4 – If You Are Hurt…There Are Worse Places Than Switzerland

Within 20 minutes of arrival at the E.R., I was given some medication by the nurse, examined by a doctor (along with her medical resident) for nerve damage, and escorted to a separate wing for x-rays. After another 15 minutes, the doctor gave me the good news that my hand wasn’t broken, answered my questions, and provided instructions to the nurse about bandaging the hand and medications. Efficient, thorough, pleasant and done…in about 35 minutes!

overseas ER visit

Tip #4 – Insurance…And Reassurance

It took a while for the bill to be generated. All told, it came to approximately USD $400 US. I charged it to my Health Savings Account (HSA) credit card, received a copy of all the documentation (including a CD of all my x-rays) and called for another taxi. As I waited, I was grateful for having insurance and access to an excellent medical team in Switzerland, which made me all better for paragliding the next day!

Have you had experience in an overseas emergency room? Tell us about it.


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