Sudden Illness, Romanian Clinics, and Chicken Soup Three Ways

by Gigi Griffis

We’d been in Romania for about three weeks when the mystery illness hit and hit hard.

Over the course of about 24 hours, Chad went from standing desks and daily runs, vegetarian lunches and bright eyes, to sitting with his head in his hands, dehydrated no matter how much water he tried to keep down.

And so on a Wednesday in late September we found ourselves hailing an uber and zipping deeper into the city to the best rated clinic I could find. And then climbing back into another uber to zip to a different part of the city where their sister clinic had a doctor available to see us.

The doctor didn’t speak English (which is a rarity, even abroad, I’ve found), but had a fondness for Americans and kept making jokes about our government that I’m not sure either of us fully understood. But he was nice and happy to help. And an administrator from another part of the building swept in to translate.

Bacteria, probably, the doctor said, scratching out instructions for blood tests and IV drips and four different medications. And then we were back in an uber to the main facility across town for the tests and IVs themselves.

Which is when things got interesting.

They settled Chad into a chair in quiet, white-walled room. I slipped in behind them and after a curious look or two, they likely assumed I was family and let me stay instead of ushering me back out to the waiting area. There were no extra chairs, so I tucked myself against the wall, out of the way, as the nurse attempted to find a vein.

Nothing. Nothing. And nothing again. Chad was too dehydrated and his body didn’t want to cooperate with the blood draw. So much so that after about 30 seconds of attempts, the color slowly drained from his face and he started to pass out.

It’s strange how calm I felt. With my anxiety, I can work myself into a pretty epic panic over half of nothing. But when there’s a real emergency, I’m clear-headed and present. Standing against the wall and helping the nurses keep Chad engaged. Talking to him about Luna. Asking him questions. Canceling my appointments for the day and planning for an afternoon of soup-making and care-taking.

He was just dehydrated, I told myself. If he was going to pass out, well, the clinic attached to a hospital was the place to do it.

Four nurses surrounded him. He stayed with us, but stayed pale and unfocused. Blood was drawn and then he was hooked up to an IV. Glucose, I think, and medicine. And it’s hard to say whether it was a minute or thirty, but eventually, now lying on his back on a simple cot, his color came back and everything came back into focus.

And then he was on his feet and we were at the pharmacy, in the uber, and back home for soup and, in his case, drifting in and out of sleep for the rest of the day. I walked to the store for herbs and onions and bone-in chicken drumsticks and simmered up three batches of chicken soup over the next two days. The best was made with drumsticks, green onion, dill, and salt, simmered for 30 – 45 minutes and served up with tender chicken shredded from the bones and fat carrot slices simmered for the last few minutes in the broth.

It took about a week for him to get back to veggie lunches, standing desks, and diets that involved more than chicken soup. But every day was better.

And here’s the thing that never fails to astound me (and now Chad):

The care was great. The nurses kind. The doctor knowledgeable. The facilities clean. And the cost of all that–IV drip with two medications, a nurse to sit with us for two hours, blood tests, doctor consults, four different medications–was less than $150.

As Americans, even after years abroad, going to the hospital sounds foreboding. A single blood test cost me $500 out of pocket a few years ago. A series of tests cost Chad $1200. A day in the hospital can reach easily into the tens of thousands. And so our hearts contract and our minds hesitate when it’s time to go to the doctor.

And in Europe, at the end of a day like this one, the incredulous, breathtaking relief of the $150 invoice is so sweet it sometimes makes me laugh out loud.

This, friends, is one of the main reasons I can’t imagine ever living in the States again. Because being hospitalized twice on Malta cost me $150. Chad’s bill here in Romania was even cheaper. My therapy in Czechia was around $30 per hour. My birth control costs less than 1/5 of what it did out of pocket in the States. Even Switzerland, the most expensive healthcare in Europe, is magnitudes more affordable.

And the care here? It’s better than I’ve received in the States. Doctors give me more time. Nobody skips things to save money. The facilities are state-of-the-art. The nurses speak English.

So, yet again, I’m reminded why I feel safer here, why we’re on a quest for a European home base, why getting sick in Europe doesn’t feel quite as dire as across the pond.

And I’m grateful.

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Mary October 8, 2018 - 12:52 pm

Hi Gigi
So glad to hear that Chad is feeling better. How frightening for all of you but how thankful that all ended well.
Not to sound crass but does Chad have travel insurance and if so, which one? Was the insurance company helpful? I have asked you before about your coverage and you told me Geo Blue. I think I am going to go with that company when we apply for coverage. Many thanks to you and this wonderful blog!

gigigriffis October 8, 2018 - 9:55 pm

I have Geoblue (as you remembered). Right now Chad has a few more months of straight travel insurance (I think through World Nomads), but I don’t think he tried to make a claim (in my experience, making a claim with them is time consuming and frustrating, so it’s only really worth it if you’ve spent a lot of money).

Julia October 8, 2018 - 2:44 pm

For a long time, I’ve had this idea in my head that many foreign-trained medical professionals were better trained than US ones. First because it’s hard for nurses to find my veins for blood draws, yet the ones with accents never seemed to have an issue. And secondly, I once kept going back to a European-trained OBYGYN for five years, despite her terrible bedside manner, simply because her pap smears were magically not uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure if I was imagining this, but maybe there is some truth to it!

gigigriffis October 8, 2018 - 9:56 pm

I’m sure it depends which foreign training program, but in Europe I’ve had mostly extremely positive experiences. For OBGYNs, I was stunned to find that my yearly exam includes an ultrasound to make sure all is well. In the US, they skip that (I can only assume for budget reasons) and usually just do the pap. Having the ultrasound allows you to identify cysts and other issues early and even if you don’t have any pain associated with them, as I understand it, which I find really reassuring.

Adrienne October 8, 2018 - 6:00 pm

It’s really amazing how much better coverage is once you leave the US and hop across the pond to Europe. How do you get birth control abroad in Europe? I’ve found that one to be confusing to figure out as a (mostly) full-time traveler.

gigigriffis October 8, 2018 - 9:58 pm

I double check in each place to see if it’s available over the counter (usually not in Europe, but usually yes in Latin America). If not, I go to a general doc or OBGYN and bring my existing BC packet with me to show them and ask if they can write a prescription for the equivalent. I also usually try to get them to give me six months’ worth at a time because it is a little bit of a hassle to make appointments every couple months.

Barb October 9, 2018 - 5:44 am

Jay had a similar experience in South Africa. He had dysentery and was getting dehydrated. They went looking for an urgent care type place but there was only a hospital, He called home and our (great, employer provided) insurance would cover everything he had a receipt for. He spent the night in the hospital on an IV and got 3 medications to take with him. The bill was $25…

JD October 11, 2018 - 3:39 am

Hi Gigi,

Socialized medicine was always one of the main draws for my moving to Europe. My partner and I were required to obtain private health insurance for our residency permits, and we selected DKV, a German company. We went from paying $1800/month in the US to just 129 EUR/month here for even more complete coverage! My monthly prescription in the US was $90 and is only 12 EUR here! My never-sick partner was hospitalized with the flu last winter with symptoms much like Chad’s, and wound up hospitalized for two months. When the bill we were dreading arrived, insurance was charging us a whopping $14/week for his care! You can’t even get two aspirins at a US hospital for that price! The healthcare industry is such a swindle there but I know I don’t need to evangelize you. I just wanted to make you aware that there are loads of extremely affordable private insurance options available; and since you must get them to obtain residency, residency is not a requirement. Stay well and happy travels!

Gigi October 11, 2018 - 4:59 am

Thanks! I’m on GeoBlue, which is about $160 per month and has overall been great. But definitely looking at some other options, so maybe I’ll look into DKV!

Kristen October 13, 2018 - 9:49 am

Thank you so much for sharing this. Medical anxiety in the States is truly shocking. People need to see posts like yours to understand so much more about what is possible. Well done.


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