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When the ‘Friendly Skies’ Turn Stormy

Traveling Abroad? Take a Look at these Tips

His son Scott was supposed to call when he landed in Dallas—on his way back from a three-month business trip to China where Scott oversaw the manufacturing of his furniture designs. Instead, a little more than one year ago, John Jensen, vice president of NEA-Retired, received the phone call every parent dreads. Scott had been in a car accident in China. His femur and right arm were broken, and he had a severe concussion.

“I actually thought all was well. After all, he sounded OK except for a broken leg and arm. It was only the next day I discovered all was not well. Meningitis had set in. His arm and leg were not just broken. Shattered would be a better word,” says John today—nearly 11 months into Scott’s near-complete recuperation.

John knew where he had to be—with his son.

It was during Scott’s four-month recovery that John learned some of the most valuable lessons for traveling abroad. These lessons are appropriate for everyone, but especially seniors who are traveling outside the U.S.

Make sure you have medical evacuation insurance that will pay to fly you to the U.S.

The car accident occurred in Bengbu, China. Scott was immediately transported to Bengbu Hospital where he received excellent surgical services to repair his broken arm and leg. Unfortunately, Scott soon realized his injuries weren’t the only thing holding him back from returning home. Like most domestic health insurance policies, Scott’s did not cover medical evacuation back to the U.S. Instead, he only had coverage for the cost of being transported to the nearest facility that would meet his needs. Scott would remain in China until he was well enough to be released from the hospital.

That time did not come quickly. After contracting meningitis, Scott needed more intensive care. He was transported to Nanjing Hospital where he hit another bump. Scott’s Cigna insurance was declined by Nanjing Hospital because they did not believe his insurance plan was “real.”

Before traveling, be sure your insurance carrier is recognized in the countries you will visit.

Cash payment was required each morning for that day’s care. Fortunately for Scott, his business associate, Michael, was able to cover the costs until Scott’s insurance finally came through. If not for Michael’s generosity, Scott would have found himself in an even deeper predicament.

Halfway around the world, Scott’s father, John, was faced with his own dilemma. Because he hadn’t planned to travel abroad any time soon, John had allowed his passport and visa to expire.

Always have a current, valid passport, even if you have no plans of traveling abroad.

John lives in Omaha, Neb., where there is only one passport office offering “walk-in” service. He overnighted his application to a Los Angeles business that handles expedited requests. They obtained an expedited visa from the Chinese Consulate and overnighted the passport and visa to John. The cost was $450, plus service fees.
John arrived in Nanjing airport and was greeted by Scott’s colleague Michael, who drove him to the hospital.

Nanjing Hospital is a highly regarded teaching hospital. After entering its doors, John discovered a few surprises.

As much as possible, know what to expect as a caregiver

While the hospital provided excellent surgical care to patients, that care did not extend to providing them with food. Instead, this was left to family and friends. Each day, John paid 90-minute visits to Scott in Nanjing’s ICU. Each time, he would bring water bottles for Scott, the only nourishment he was allowed to take by mouth at that time.

After the visits, Michael drove John back to his hotel. It catered to foreign travelers like him, which gave him the opportunity to communicate in English. John says that created a little relaxation during a high-stress time.

Choose a hotel that caters to foreign travelers.

“The hotel staff was fantastic. I turned 70 one week after I arrived and the hotel knew it. So on my birthday, I received a beautiful gift from my breakfast server, Nancy, and at 5 p.m. a cart was brought to my room with a huge plate of fruit and cheese, two bottles of wine and a huge basket of fruit to take to the hospital. It was a great birthday for me!” John says of his experience at Nanjing hotel.

John’s hotel also made sure he would never get lost in translation.

Ask the hotel staff to write the address of your destination and the address of the hotel in the local language, and show the paper to the taxi driver.

“Only once did I venture off on my own by taking a cab 15 miles to an area of very ancient buildings. When I waved down a taxi to go back to my hotel, I was very happy to have that card with me,” says John.

While staying at a hotel that catered to foreign guests offered much relief, John attributes most of his comfort to Scott’s colleagues, in particular Michael.

If possible, find a local friend who is willing to navigate you around a new place.

“Michael and his wife stayed with Scott for weeks. Michael took me to the hospital and then brought me back. He was also my translator,” says John.

But he insists Michael went beyond just that.

“[He] was in the car with Scott when the car crashed. He hurt his ankle but refused treatment because he wanted to remain with Scott,” John says. 

Scott eventually had to be transported to Hong Kong Hospital after contracting meningitis for the second time. He remained there until he was well enough to return to his home in Dallas. Today, Scott has regained the ability to walk and drive on his own and is now preparing for a return trip to China. While the recovery journey has been a long one for the Jensen family, John is certain his experiences offer lessons that extend beyond his own narrative.

“I knew this was going to be a trip I would never forget.” John says. “I am grateful for all the support my family received during this difficult situation. For all of us, the light at the end of the tunnel is much brighter now.” 

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