Be Insured to be Assured

Skiing lightly down the mountain, swishing around the icicle-covered trees and smugly overtaking a class of beginners, I felt haughtily at home in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. Within hours I would be struggling to feel brave or free, and realising I was infinitely far from home. Going from Australia’s well oiled healthcare system to the United States’ was a lot like my high speed plummet down the mountain – painful, terrifying, and out of my control.

My moment of smugness would cost me. Taking a corner too fast, I heard a crack and my leg gave way. I rocketed down the hill on my stomach, unable to stop until I landed in a snowdrift. A couple skiing behind me, Vermont locals, stopped to help. With a glance at the odd angle of my leg, the woman whipped out her phone. Dazed, I lay on my back looking up at the frosted tips of the pine trees. “I can’t move my leg,” I said to nobody in particular. The couple exchanged a glance and the woman crouched beside me to pat my hand. The cold began to seep in through my sleeves, down my neck, up my back. The ski patrol arrived and as I was hoisted onto a stretcher, I felt a new chill. I had no choice; I was being helplessly thrust into the US health system.

Healthcare in the United States is a hotly disputed issue. In one of the world’s biggest superpowers, getting sick is a particularly terrifying prospect for its less wealthy citizens. The statistics are shocking. In 2001, a study by the American Journal of Medicine found that 62% of personal bankruptcies are because of medical debt. Almost half of all Americans are either uninsured, or under-insured, and travellers to the country are in a similarly precarious position. Travel insurance is, quite simply, vital.

Money was certainly a worry for me. After x-rays, I was told I would need surgery on my leg as soon as possible to repair the shattered bone. For the next week I lay in hospital drifting in and out of consciousness while my insurance company and the hospital tried to work out the best way forward – whether to get the surgery in Australia, or New York where I had been living. I felt confident my body would heal, but the size of the medical bills was a nightmare.

That first week in hospital cost my insurance company hundreds of thousands of dollars – perhaps millions, the full amount was never disclosed to me. It nearly cost me my life. I eventually underwent surgery on my leg, but unbeknown to all of us, sometime during my hospital stay I had developed a blood clot. Parts of the clot broke off and lodged in my lungs. I woke up barely able to breathe. By that evening, one week since I had been a little too cocky on the snowfields, I was in intensive care.

It is a testament to the doctors and nurses caring for me that I am still alive. If they had let me fly home, or have the operation in New York where it was cheaper, I would have died. My insurers sorted out the bills without me ever having to see anything. After six weeks I was flown back to Australia where now, 18 months on, I am still on arduous medication for my blood and will perhaps be for the rest of my life. However, I am alive and happy. Had I not got travel insurance, I would either be no longer here, or bankrupt. Travelling is one of life’s greatest joys, but a little extra money at the beginning of your trip is a small price to pay for peace of mind.

Words: Morgan Barnsley

© 2011 Tasmanian Lifestyle Magazine
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