Visiting the emergency room in a foreign country obviously isn’t at the top of any traveler’s to-do list – it definitely wasn’t what I had planned for my stop in Belgium. But for those of you who don’t follow me on Instagram — shortly after arriving in Brussels, I had a severe allergic reaction and had to go to the ER. And while it was one of the worst, scariest experiences of my life, it did give me some insight into getting emergency care abroad.
My experience in the Belgian ER was actually way better than expected. I did have a few things get lost in translation, but for the most part the staff spoke enough English and I enough French for us to communicate easily.
The care was top-notch and the whole process was quick, efficient, and cheap. I was in and out in three hours and only paid ~$200 USD for the ER visit, prescription antihistamines that could probably tranquilize a horse, and an EpiPen. For my next inevitable life disaster, I’d be happy to pay them another visit.
HOW I ENDED UP IN THE ER
In Amsterdam a couple nights before, I’d been super itchy but hadn’t thought much of it. When I arrived in Belgium, the itch became a full-body eruption of hives. Having never had a serious allergic reaction before, I chalked it up to heat rash, accepted an industrial-strength Allegra and a beer from a cute Argentinian dude at the bar, and passed out.
Then woke up the next morning COMPLETELY covered in hives head-to-toe. Not only that, my eyes were almost swollen shut, my fingers were so swollen I could barely get my rings off, and my breath was short and wheezing.
I leapt immediately out of bed and basically sprinted to the ER. Hives I can handle. Facial swelling and wheezing? Epinephrine me the f*ck up.
LOCATING AN EMERGENCY ROOM
I debated calling 112 (the standard European emergency number) for an ambulance — anaphylaxis is nothing to mess around with. But Brussels is a really small city, and a quick Google search revealed there were a number of emergency rooms within literal walking distance of my hostel.
(If you ever need to locate one yourself, here’s a good list — I personally just used Apple Maps)
Clinique Saint Jean is right within the city centre and was a 5-minute walk from my hostel, so I threw on some sweats and started walking. In the pouring rain. At 7 am. In sandals. While blotchy, red, and swollen af. I got a lot of weird looks on the street.
HEALTH INSURANCE COVERAGE FOR MEDICAL EMERGENCIES ABROAD
This was a very important reminder that travel insurance is ESSENTIAL. I don’t have any prior history of food or environmental allergies, so this reaction was a complete shock to me.
Because of my insurance policy, I had to pay the full cost of my ER visit up-front and then file a claim with my provider. From what I’ve read online, this is typical for medical emergencies abroad. You have to front payment, but if you notify your insurance provider you should get reimbursed later.
I was lucky because I didn’t actually have to be admitted to the hospital, so my costs were quite low (especially compared to the United States). I was astounded at my bill. ~$200 USD for an ER visit and all my medication. I couldn’t even breathe in an American hospital for 200 dollars.
I filed a claim with World Nomads, my insurance provider, but at this price it doesn’t even really make that much of a difference if I get reimbursed. HOWEVER. If the situation had been more serious (or if I had died) it would have made a massive impact for me/my family to have this coverage.
I’ve skipped travel insurance in the past because I rarely have any health problems, but I’ll never travel without it again.
FINDING ENGLISH SPEAKING STAFF + COMMUNICATING SYMPTOMS IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE
The receptionist at the clinic spoke impeccable English, which made intake a breeze. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that the doctors also spoke at least basic English.
The nurses, however, spoke only French. Communicating my symptoms and allergies was a definite challenge, involving a lot of gesturing and a lot of broken French.
My pharmacist also spoke only French, but the dosage instructions were simple enough for me to understand.
I felt very lucky that I speak decent French because I could have run into some issues otherwise. If you’re traveling abroad with any known health conditions I’d recommend reviewing some basic phrases in the relevant language. Having Google Translate on hand would also be helpful!
DEALING WITH MEDICAL EMERGENCIES WHILE TRAVELING SOLO
Especially if you are traveling alone, having a medical emergency in a foreign country is NOT FUN. You definitely feel way more Alone and way more Abroad than when you’re vacationing. For me it was the first time that I felt in way over my head.
I left Brussels and headed to Luxembourg still covered in hives, and after two days holed up in my hotel room with no improvement I had a COMPLETE breakdown. I spent a solid hour bawling my eyes out, debating booking a flight home, and wondering if I was going to die.
I was scared, lonely, seriously concerned about my health, and honestly the experience made me completely reconsider solo traveling. It made me wonder if I was being irresponsible by traveling without anyone else to look out for me.
In the end I came to the same conclusion I always do, which is that the rewards of solo travel are greater than the risk. But it was definitely a sobering experience, and it reminded me that unfortunately I’m not invincible, and that my travels aren’t always going to be fun and games.
But like the rest of my life disasters, I’m glad it happened. I learned a lot, and as always it made a good story lol. Overall I had a surprisingly good experience. I’m confident now that if I need emergency care in Europe again, I’ll be in good hands.