My Nightmare Health Emergency Abroad

By M.G.

Being sick is always terrible, but being sick while on your own is another dimension of stress, concern and pain.

For the last year, I have spent many hours dealing with social security and health insurance. I have been calling, writing emails, letters and even going in person to their offices to fill forms, request information, pay fees, demand refunds, changing subscription packages, and getting the basic services. It has been stressful, time consuming and nerve wracking. Though I have been living in various foreign countries for over a decade now, I was previously protected by my student status. Everything was simple and there was always someone to help.

I naively thought dealing with bureaucracy as a young adult was the most difficult part; that I was much more in control with the main issue concerning my health.

I was diagnosed asthmatic at the age of four and I have lived with this respiratory deficiency my entire life, sometimes even getting hospitalized. I was not able to run in gym class like other kids. I had hard time swimming. I could not participate in competitions. I was excused from sports in high school. Yet, after all these years, I thought I knew how to live with this disease; I managed the symptoms and controlled the causes. Now, I always wear socks, even when it is really hot to keep my body heat stable (if I am cold, I can come down with the flu within four days). I have to be extra covered even at the beach. I cannot expose myself to extreme temperatures changes. I cannot stay for long in perfume stores or soap alleys in supermarkets where smells are so strong that it prevents me from breathing. I am used to being bed-ridden at least twice a year and being slightly sick at least four times per month. I take my health very seriously, visiting doctors constantly and even trying new alternative treatments—especially since living on my own, with my parents on another continent.  

Middle seasons are high risk, since I don’t know exactly what to wear to protect me. Being hot or cold are both threats to my health. Investing in good jackets and light shirts has been as important as having my Ventolin with me to fight weather changes.

This year was not an exception. Recently, I brushed off a minor feeling of weakness, but a weekend that went from rainy to sunny was too much for my body to handle. I developed high fever and breathing problems; war was beginning inside my body. I asked the pharmacy around the corner where could I find a doctor without an appointment for an emergency. As it turns out, there was one next to my apartment.

Waiting alone in the office was depressing. I was used to going to all these doctor visits with my mom who always supported me and made me feel safe. At home, she would cook for me and bring me my medicine. She took charge of everything, allowing me to concentrate only on getting better. It might seem selfish, but knowing someone worried about me was comforting. Here, the doctor coldly prescribed me antibiotics that I picked up at the near-indifferent pharmacy. I was feeling unprotected and forgotten. That night, I called my parents who reassured me everything was going to be fine even though they were not with me.

Suddenly, at one o’clock in the morning, I woke up in pain and choking. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like being underwater in a pool and not being able to go up to get fresh air. I didn’t know what to do—I took my medicine but by then, I was having a panic attack. At this moment, it was clear I needed to go to the hospital, but facing this by myself was a horrible thought that I didn’t know if I could manage. Then, there were also the logistics. What should I bring? Should I take a shower before? What should I wear? Should I tell my parents even though there was no way they could come with me? The pain was not going away, so I googled the emergency hospitals nearby open 24 hours (and also a fast way to get there).

I put my medicine, my prescription and my health insurance information in my purse and left. Small steps, I thought, will help me not faint on the road. First, take money out of the ATM to pay for a taxi. Second, find a taxi at two o’clock in the morning while the city is sleeping. (Of course, there were no cabs to be found.) Next step, walk to the other street to find one. Luckily, the night bus was coming. I took it along drunken kids and immigrants going to their early jobs. The bus was stressful—usually, I am always with a friend to avoid being catcalled or followed home. This time, I tried to look indifferent not to show I was an easy target. If I were going to be attacked, I was not in shape to defend myself. Finally, once there, I looked in the darkness for the dim light of the entrance.

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The ER was empty. I checked in while explaining to a nurse why I was there and providing my health insurance information. I was struggling to stay calm while speaking to her. But then she asked for a phone number of a family member in case I needed to be hospitalized. I was by myself in the middle of the night in the hospital, wearing my winter coat in late summer, very pale, feeling desolate and abandoned.

Two nurses asked me to describe my symptoms. A medical student arrived to offer some insight of what was going to happen and some medicine to reduce my fever. A doctor came to get more information. I was left alone in the room and by then I couldn’t contain my tears. All I could think about was my parents and how I was so lonely in this white room, frightened and sweating, eager to face my disease as I had so many times before, but this time by myself. It was more than I could bear. I looked at the bracelet they had put on my wrist with my name and started repeating it, as not to forget my identity and that there were people who cared about me, but they couldn’t be there at the moment. For them, I needed to be strong.

At last, a doctor said that my results were stable and I could go home. I could either take the ambulance or go by myself. I was desolate and feeling unwell, but not much as before, so I decided on the second option. I couldn’t stand the idea of being in an ambulance, without a familiar face, going back home. I wanted to take a cab, but again at 6 o’clock in the morning the city was waking up and there were none to be found. I took again the bus, this time it was more crowded. When I arrived home I cried desperately and finally fell asleep feeling exhausted and sick.  

I have been resting home since, being excused from work to recover. My family and friends have visited and I also have been in touch through social media with others. I am thankful for their concern. Although, a part of me still wants to cry when I remember myself in the white halls of the hospital. I can’t really put into words why exactly. I missed my family, but moreover it was the feeling of nostalgiaas an adult taking care of myself and never being a child again, noting that things were never going to be the same. Since I decided to live alone, I felt I had overcome each obstacle on the road, for the better of for the worse, successfully. Dealing with health insurance was exhausting yet I made it work. Dealing with actual disease, as an adult, was more demanding and depressing that I could have imagined. There is no winning way. Facing health issues by myself has been and certainly will be the most difficult thing I will do in my life. The rest is put into perspective.

DSC00032M.G. is a shy conversationalist who loves art, cares about the environment, is committed to women’s issues, and wishes to publish her own comic book one day with her own story and drawings.

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