An Expat's Experience With an Overseas Medical Emergency

It's an understandable fear: Many North Americans are concerned about the quality, price, and availability of medical services in a strange land. When we visit overseas we look for adventure, but not of the medical kind. Yet we can't live in a bubble or keep ourselves fastened to within a few miles' radius of hospitals and clinics the rest of our lives; where's the fun in that?

"Stuff happens," and even the most adventurous among us can find ourselves face-to-face with a surprise health event and must deal with it on foreign soil.

My Guatemala medical experience
Our unexpected medical journey over the last two months took us to Guatemala's national hospital, Pedro de Bethancourt, to a plastic surgeon in Guatemala City with his own personal operating room on the ninth floor and a panoramic view of the capital city below, to the inside of a hyperbaric chamber for oxygen therapy. We've visited an array of pharmacies for medicines, gauze, and splinting paraphernalia, and spent too many hours inside a personally hired taxi for our circuitous route from Antigua to Guatemala City.

During this time I've had emergency services, dozens of private appointments, local anesthesia, drip anesthesia, and pain meds. I have been stitched up, cut up, oxygenated, X-rayed, and skin grafted.

What does something like that cost?

You want numbers? We got numbers! And they are all listed below. But we have to say, these numbers don't tell the whole story.

It's called "de-gloving"
On Sept. 8, 2012, after a celebratory birthday lunch in the city of Antigua, we headed back to our village. Upon leaving the bus, my family heirloom wedding rings caught on something as I took the last step down, and my right-hand ring finger was "de-gloved" -- badly injured, with loss of not only skin but other soft tissue as well. Immediately, Billy hailed a tuk-tuk and we arrived at the emergency room of Pedro de Bethancourt National Hospital, where four doctors attended to me. My rings were cut off and I was given local anesthesia and a tetanus shot, was stitched up, wrapped up, and sent home. These doctors answered all our questions, wrote prescriptions, and made sure an appointment was scheduled for the beginning of the following week.

A day and a half later, I returned to Bethancourt. Doctors unwrapped my hand, took an X-ray, and two different surgeons spoke to me. Much of the tissue on my finger was already dead and there was the danger that I might lose it. The head surgeon gave me the name of a Guatemala City specialist.

I was not charged for any of these medical services, and care was personal and attentive.

Ready for the big time
Billy and I discussed our alternatives and decided to phone Lori Shea from Guatemala Medical Travel. We had interviewed her previously about medical tourism for our website and liked the work she was doing. Lori jumped into action, contacted Dr. Galindo -- a hand surgeon and president of the Plastic Surgery Association -- and arranged for a consultation in Guatemala City that afternoon.

Since my dominant hand was injured and I could not fill out the paperwork myself, Lori took all my medical history. She accompanied us into the office, chatted with the doctor, and helped get us a better price for services by keeping me out of the hospital. We chose to deal directly with Dr. Galindo and use the hyperbaric chamber that was located four floors up in the same medical building. That evening after I saw the surgeon and had oxygen therapy for my treatment , Lori drove us home. Concierge services were donated, and Lori only charged us a "taxi fee" to get us to and from the city.

Medical specifics
Over the next six weeks, I had 10 hyperbaric chamber treatments, one given to me on a national holiday on which the therapist had to come into the office especially for me. I had 11 visits with Dr. Galindo -- two of which were on weekends and one on the national holiday, and two for which we were not charged. The price quoted below includes all consultations, local anesthesia, one "mini surgery" involving cutting away the dead tissue on my finger, and the skin graft, which included the services of two nurses and an anesthesiologist.

The fee for our personal driver covers dozens of trips over mountain roads in both clear and rainy weather. Hernan picked us up at the agreed time, drove us to the city, waited for all appointments to finish and then drove us back home hours later. He was reliable, courteous, and professional.

Prescription costs include antibiotics, pain medication, anti-inflammatories, medication to encourage vein regrowth, gauze, tape, hydrogen peroxide, splint equipment, ointment, etc.

National Hospital (emergency care, stitches) $0
Prescription meds 

$217

X-ray (3 shots, different angles)

$38

 
Dr. Galindo (11 visits) $1,050
Hyperbaric chamber (10 treatments) $594
Total for Medical US$1,899.00
+ Transport (16 trips, Antigua to Guatemala City) US$959
Total Adventure Cost US$2,858.00

Instead of an amputation, I have a living finger expected to be rehabbed into full working order. While $3,000 is not "free," the charges were fair and reasonable, and service was humane and professional. On every level of assistance, people were personable and supportive of my condition. I was not treated as a patient number or someone's car payment, and not once was I rushed.

Shocking health accidents are unpleasant under the best of circumstances. However, here in Guatemala, treatment was both affordable and accessible. I hope these specific details will put some space between you and the fears you may have about receiving medical assistance in a foreign country.

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Success stories are regular features of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service, where we share profiles of people who have become financially independent. One of the most remarkable stories we've come across is that of Akaisha and Billy Kaderli, who retired two decades ago at the age of 38 and began traveling the world. They wrote the popular books The Adventurer's Guide to Early Retirement and Your Retirement Dream IS Possible.


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