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A Hospital in Rome

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ABOVE: I normally don't travel by private jet, but if I'm ever seriously ill or injured, MedJetAssist will let me fly home like a sick CEO.

What I learned

Shoulder bags can be dangerous. An MRI brain scan at the Opesdale GB Grassi eventually showed that I'd had a mild stroke because of a blockage in a congenitally narrow vertebral artery, despite clear arteries and a plaque-free heart. A neurologist asked if I'd been wearing a heavy rucksack with straps that might have pressed on my neck. Answer: No, but I was carrying a heavy camera and computer bag when I walked down the gangway of the MSY Wind Surf and began staggering. (And I was wearing the shoulder strap across my chest, so that it pressed against the side of my neck with the narrow artery.)

Foreign medical care needn't be discomfiting. Staying in a hospital overseas can be frustrating or confusing at times, especially if you have a sketchy command of the local language, but it can also be an interesting cultural adventure. And in Western Europe, the quality of treatment is likely to be on a par with medical care back home. (Just don't count on a TV and towels in Italy.)

A 'world phone' can save the day. My room at the Ospedale GB Grassi didn't have a telephone, so my "TalkAbroad" international phone package from Cellular Abroad kept me in touch with home. I'd call my wife, and she'd call back via Gorilla Mobile. (Tip: Don't ever let your minutes run out on a prepaid phone. When I was forced to make a credit-card call at the pay phone down the hall, the cost was US $64 for a 10-minute conversation.)

Italian hospitals can be noisy places. Italians like to talk, and they often talk loudly--even at 3 in the morning. Bring earplugs if you think you might be hospitalized and you like to sleep.

Romans can be warm, wonderful people. I couldn't have been treated more kindly by most of the hospital staff, and--in several cases--by my roommates and their families. (On the day I left, the elderly gent in the next bed wasn't content with a handshake; he expected a farewell kiss on the cheek.)

Italians are realistic about death. As I left the hospital parking lot by taxi, I saw two mini-billboards in the lane divider. Both were for funeral parlors.

Patients, like prisoners, learn to be resourceful. My bathroom didn't have a shower, so I learned to take sponge baths and dry myself with a handkerchief. I also hoarded unused napkins, bottles of water, and anything else that I thought might prove useful. I was even able to change clothes frequently, thanks to quick-drying Ex Officio Air Strip shirts, REI nylon travel pants, and travel underwear from REI and Magellan's that I washed in the bidet or sink and wrung out before drip-drying.

Medical-evacuation insurance is worth the cost. I was lucky, and I didn't need to be evacuated--but if my mild stroke had been worse, I might have faced with a choice between staying in Italy indefinitely or refinancing my house to get home. (A transatlantic air ambulance can cost US $40,000 or more.) I've now bought a family membership with MedJetAssist, which I arranged through our travel-insurance partner, InsureMyTrip. If you're middle-aged or older and can't afford to get stuck overseas, consider buying MedJetAssist coverage before your next trip.

Also see:

The Venice Experience: Surgery Day
Karen Henderson of The Venice Experience describes arriving at Venice, Italy's  city hospital for knee surgery. Also see her follow-up blog posts, including More on six days in Ospedale Civile and Fate Bene Fratelli (a rehabilitation hospital in Venice).

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