Getting Sick While Traveling Abroad

by Nancy Bestor

Since our girls were toddlers we’ve traveled in many foreign countries, and have been very fortunate to avoid any serious illnesses or injuries. Sure we’ve had sunburns, allergies, colds and fevers, and have bought antibiotics over the counter in countries like Vietnam for as little as $2, but we’ve never had to deal with anything more severe. In fact, we went in to this trip to Turkey feeling pretty proud of ourselves for never having suffered from travelers’ diarrhea, even in Mexico, Costa Rica, Vietnam, and Thailand, where we always ate local food. Well that all changed in Turkey.

About a week into our trip Sarah, age 11, started suffering with stomach problems. As the days progressed, her troubles worsened until she couldn’t keep even 7-Up in her stomach. We got advice from many different folks, including a Swedish doctor staying at our hotel, and of course everyone told us something just a little different.

We ended up taking Sarah to a local clinic in the nearby town of Kemer, where she gave a stool sample (not hard for her to do at this point) and a doctor looked at her for all of 90 seconds. After this “thorough” exam, he read the results of her lab test and told us that she needed to have intravenous antibiotics. As you might guess, this made us fairly uncomfortable, especially considering the fact that Sarah is allergic to penicillin. We informed the doctor of her allergy, and he stated that penicillin was no longer used in Turkey. Well, we decided against the IV, so instead he disappointedly wrote us a prescription for antibiotics in pill form. When I looked at the prescription, I recognized the drug as one with penicillin in it. I told the doctor this. He matter-of-factly scratched out that antibiotic and wrote in another. That certainly filled us with confidence.

In the end, we didn’t give Sarah any drugs. I finally came to my senses and realized I could use my cell phone to call Sarah’s pediatrician back home. Sure, it cost me about $15, but the sound medical advice and peace of mind she gave me was priceless. When we were ready to end our conversation, I thanked Sarah’s doctor, and told her how good it was to speak to an American!

Sarah’s stomach settled down, although it was never 100% during the rest of the trip. We all suffered some gastro problems in Turkey, although no one was as bad as Sarah, and we all lost a few pounds in the few weeks we were there. We didn’t drink tap water, but tomatoes were a staple at every hotel’s free breakfast, and perhaps they were washed in tap water and that made our stomachs turn. Who knows? (As a side note, bottled water isn’t the only option – the Steripen water sanitizer will allow you to use tap water while abroad by killing off anything that might be in it.)

What’s the lesson in all this? Next time I’ll be better prepared with medicine from home. In times past we’ve traveled with Pepto-Bismol and antibiotics for both girls. Somehow I dropped the ball on this trip. Needless to say, when we were getting ready to take an eight hour long night bus, and Sarah had fairly bad diarrhea, Bob was running around asking anyone who spoke English if by chance they had any Pepto-Bismol. We did get dried chick peas, which are supposed to stop up a bad stomach, and in the end, an English tourist gave us a supply of a stomach remedy that kept Sarah from smelling up the bus.

The next thing I’d do is make sure I had my doctor’s phone number, as well as the number for another local U.S. physician, in my cell phone or papers. It’s not hard to call the United States anymore, no matter where you are, and the cost will likely be worth it.

Another option is travelers’ medical insurance. A Travel Essentials’ customer told me about the nonprofit International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers ( Becoming a member of IAMAT, which is free, gives a traveler access to fixed rates for consultations charged by participating doctors and clinics, as well as a medical directory of IAMAT affiliated doctors and clinics in more than 90 countries and 350 cities. Participating doctors are fluent in English and will refer you to a specialist as needed and report to your own doctor if required. The directory also includes a listing for mental health practitioners.

Finally, common sense is always a good thing to have on hand when you’re sick and traveling abroad (it’s a good thing to have on hand when you’re not sick and traveling abroad too!). I’m a rule follower, and when someone in a position of authority—such as a doctor—tells me what I should do, I am prone to follow their orders meekly. But in the case of Sarah’s sickness, my gut told me to break from my rule-following habit, and not follow the doctor’s advice. I have to admit that I felt guilty at first, because the doctor and his nurses got a little huffy when we didn’t follow their orders. I’m certain their opinion was that we were snooty Americans who thought we knew better than experienced and educated doctors. So be it. If I have to choose between ugly American and protecting my child, I’ll choose ugly American every time.

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