Falling ill while in Chile – our experience

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Seven months across North and South America: We had been looking forward to the trip for a long time, were well prepared, and had done a lot of research – and we had also taken out travel insurance. Unfortunately, we found out too late that travel insurance doesnʹt include health coverage for while travelling. But letʹs start at the beginning:

I can still remember it as if it was yesterday: My partner and I were sitting in the cozy inner courtyard of a bar in a small, sleepy coastal town, enjoying pre-dinner beers. We were in the process of planning our trip to Santiago de Chile, where we intended to meet up with a friend of ours, when my boyfriend suddenly got up – he was as white as a sheet and had broken out in a sweat. It soon became clear that we wouldnʹt be eating in the restaurant that evening – instead weʹd be having soup and a Coke in the hostel. I was hoping the illness would disappear as quickly as it had arrived. 

Falling ill while abroad

But it wasnʹt to be: Instead of seeing exciting Santiago, we spent the next few days stuck in our gloomy room in the hostel – a case of restless nights, sweat-drenched bedding, improvised hot-water bottles to ward off the shivers, and increasingly anxious glances at the thermometer. We had to accept that his illness wasnʹt going to go away so quickly. And also that it might make sense to see a doctor. After all, weʹd only just returned from the jungle. Or maybe things werenʹt as bad as they looked? Anyhow, we were all on our own and we needed medical advice.

So I grabbed some water, a fresh T-shirt, and a sun hat, and put them in a backpack. Our host suggested weʹd be better off going to a private clinic, as the public hospital wasnʹt all that good. 

Language difficulties in hospital

No sooner said than done. After a – luckily very short – walk, we arrived at the private clinic. It was all very bright, friendly, and clean. The staff were really nice and willing to help – even though we only understood half of what they were telling us at best. Fact is, a lot of people in Chile speak no English at all – even among the doctors.

After a series of examinations we finally saw a doctor, who gave us his diagnosis. The problem was that the Spanish and Latin terms meant very little to us. He patiently tried to explain everything to us. All we really understood was that it was a stomach-related illness and that we would have to follow very strict rules when it comes to meals. My stress level was really high and – to put it mildly – I felt overwhelmed. How much I would have liked to speak with someone who understood the medical jargon – in my mother tongue or at least in fluent English – about the diagnosis and treatment method. 

Feeling helpless in the healthcare system

The story dragged on for a few days: Things didnʹt get any worse – but nor did they get much better. We went back to the clinic, where we were advised to have a CT scan. However, the private clinicʹs charges were enormous at around 400,000 Chilean pesos. So we decided after all that it would be better to go to the public hospital.

Too tired and exhausted to think clearly, we made our way over there. In hindsight, we would have been better paying the clinicʹs charges – which were equivalent to 450 Swiss francs. Fact is, at the hospital we discovered that foreigners donʹt pay anything under the Chilean healthcare system – but that means they donʹt get priority, either. 

We were therefore left sitting in the waiting room for a solid twelve hours, with no chance of being able to stand up for ourselves because our knowledge of Spanish was too poor. Normal conversation wasnʹt a problem – but try arguing in a foreign language with someone who isnʹt willing to accommodate your needs. That meant we were unable to clarify the seriousness of the situation to any member of staff. The irony of the whole thing was that – despite having been ignored for hours on end – my partner was taken for the CT scan by wheelchair. Anything else would be too risky, the attending doctor said!

Empty waiting room in a hospital.

Being alone abroad – and falling ill on top of it. An extraordinary situation.

Lucky - in the circumstances

My partner eventually recovered from the incident, we were able to continue our journey, and we did get to see Santiago de Chile. Yes, itʹs possible to survive an illness abroad even if you donʹt have travel insurance that includes medical coverage. Would I take the risk again? Never. First, travel insurance including medical coverage for while traveling will take care of the costs incurred – which in Chileʹs case are still manageable. (I dread to think what the same treatment would have cost in the United States.) Second, you can call an emergency hotline to obtain advice from medical experts. That alone can be worth its weight in gold.

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