Weary World Traveler Lessons

A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. 
–John Steinbeck

The travel season is upon us, so I am diverting from my usual Mommy-talk to post about my parent’s recent inexplicable experiences in the Ukraine. Don’t worry, I won’t make it too graphic for those of you who are faint of stomach.

My parents have spent a few years enjoying their grandchildren and traveling the world. Every year or so, they book a trip to Greece, Turkey and the Baltic region only to have to cancel it due to a family conflict.  It’s kind of become a joke with them. This year, my parents were relieved to learn that  none of us are pregnant, scheduled for surgery, selling a home or experiencing any other life changing event.  So, they booked their  3 week trip Black Sea cruise with no fears or trepidation.

I understand that the first 2 weeks of their cruise were lovely.  We only heard from them once during those days.  However, on the Saturday on the last week of their cruise, I got the call alerting me that my  father was ill and the ship’s doctor did not know what was causing the pain. Ultimately, they decided that the safest thing to do was disembark at the next port: Odessa, Ukraine.

They saw the first medical professional available on a Sunday. Despite the language barrier, my parents quickly learned that the Ukrainian physician did not recommend that my parents continue on their cruise.  Dad was going to need more intensive treatment; this could not wait.  If he did not get immediate care, the outcome could be dire. Now the adventure really began.

My parents quickly learned that:

  • Not all medical clinics were created equal (they stayed in a private one that was significantly nicer than the public hospital on the other side of the city). My mom was permitted to share the hospital room with Dad as long as they agreed to pay for the extra bed, food etc in cash (of course.)
  • No medical care (or any care what-so-ever) was provided without it being paying for in cash prior to services rendered. There were times when they both had to find ATM machines to get cash in a single day.  Other times they went to the bank, withdrew substantial sums of cash and then tried not to get mugged on the way back to the hospital.
  • The public hospital where my father had several procedures done, really did resemble something from an old Cold War movie and my mother was traumatized when trying to find the restroom. (One light hanging from a fixture anyone?  How about zombie-like humans roaming the hospital halls?)
  • It pays to have a local and interpreter with you to ease the communication gaps and hurdles. My parents were fortunate that they had the number of a friend’s friend who happened to live in the city and who spoke English as well as Ukrainian. From what I understand she made the less than ideal circumstances at least tolerable.
  • Cell phones are your key to the outside world.  Amazingly, my parents’ phone received a signal and they were able to communicate with Dad’s doctors, the travel insurance company and with me throughout the week.

World Traveler Lessons

Did I mention that my parents have traveled all over the world including some rather unusual spots in China?  They have NEVER (not even once) had an incident like the one described above occur.  Here’s what they learned and affirmed:

  1. Cellphone:  Make sure that you have one and that you can use it outside of the US.  They had a cellphone that worked outside the United States. As soon as this incident occurred, I contacted my cell phone provider and requested global access.  I also requested the rate/minute that it would cost me to call my folks in the Ukraine.  Now I can check my bills for accuracy too.
  2. Credit Cards:  This is really a no brainer but I can’t tell you how many people skip this step.  Alert your credit card companies (all of them is preferable–if not, at least the one’s tied to the cards with which you are traveling) that you will be traveling out of the country and where you will be traveling.  Carry copies of your cards as well as the customer service numbers.  If possible, ask for the directions on how you can withdraw money from the card while traveling.  It is much better to have access to cash when you really need it than to worry about the interest rates!
  3. Use Your Resources:  My parents were on a cruise and the cruise line initiated all arrangements with their shore service company in Odessa for transfers, a private hospital admission, and continued support. Hey!  The cruise line is NOT going to want bad press!  Any travel company should be more than willing to assist their guests in times of an emergency. Don’t be shy about asking for help.
  4. Keep Your Sense of Humor & Humanity:  Yes, the situation was frightening and stressful but working with the medical staff and relating to them turned out to help my folks get great and more expeditious care.  Do not  be afraid to reach out and learn about the people taking care of you.  My parents somehow became the honorary guests of the private clinic and even have with photos to show for it.
  5. Purchase medical coverage & trip cancellation insurance: My parents purchased extended medical coverage for the trip (it was the first time that they had ever elected to spend the money.)  Note, most health plans in the US do not cover international travel.  So, a few hundred dollars bought them the ability to have a third party advocate for them as well as enabled dedicated US physicians to confer with the Ukraine ones.  The insurance company’s physician staff were accessible 24/7 and, thanks to electronic medical records were familiar with my dad’s case. Finally, the insurance company handled all the expenses related to the lost part of the cruise, any private tours costs, their exit papers and the necessary paperwork to ensure that they could leave the country once my father was cleared to travel.  normally your personal medical insurance does not cover International Travel.

Many lessons were learned on my parents trip this year not only by them but also by their offspring, especially those trying to convince their spouses that we really should visit France in the next year or two.  Um…did I say “we?”  I meant to say “they.”