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Tips To Overcoming A Medical Emergency While Traveling

By Travel Noire

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Written by Roniqua Jeffries

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who thrive on adventure and those who play it safe. I’m a proud member of the adventurous group. Not only do I want to see it all, but I also want to do it all.

I booked a group trip to the French Caribbean island of Martinique but I planned some solo excursions because, well, we lucked out and got the most gracious Airbnb host. She arranged for us to have a chef prepare a true Martinique meal upon our arrival. We dined on the finest local cuisine. Our meal consisted of christophine lasagna with lobster, marlin steaks, sweet potato verrine with smoke Herring and more. I had never had christophine and didn’t know what a lot about what I was eating but that did not stop me from chowing down.

The residents of Martinique speak French. That did not stop me from going sailing in the Carribean Sea on a catamaran. Mind you, I can’t swim and none of my friends wanted to go with me. I put on the huge orange life vest and dipped my toes in the sea. I knew I would float but seeing this endless turquoise blanket up close and personal made things a lot more real. One of the fellow sailors was a swim instructor. He counted to three and I slid in. I was too afraid to jump. Sliding seemed safer. (Don’t laugh.) He gave me a swim lesson and right then and there I learned how to swim out in the deep blue sea.

The day after my sailing trip our Airbnb host arranged for fishermen to take us out to a local attraction called Josephine’s Bath. It was supposed to be a shallow area of the sea where you can snorkel and enjoy the water; great for those with subpar swimming skills like myself. The fishermen picked us up and whisked us off into the sea on a speed boat. No life jackets, just YOLO. Our first stop was a small island that is a safe haven for iguanas. The fisherman pointed out to us a poisonous tree and told us not to touch. Next, we arrived at Josephine’s bath. I took the ladder down the boat and into the sea. Where was the floor? I realized I could not touch the bottom of the sea. I climbed back aboard. Just a few feet away people were easily standing and snorkeling. Why would they stop here? I can’t swim!

I gauged the distance with my eyes and made an in the moment decision. I would have to swim out there. Using my newfound swim skills from the day before, I took the ladder down again ready to swim for my life. There I was, swimming in the Caribbean Sea with my friends on the boat cheering me on. My heart was pounding in my chest but my eyes were on the prize: snorkeling in Josephine’s Bath. With a final push, I made it to the shallow end. I did it! I was swimming in the ocean blue. What a way to learn how to swim.


Back on the speedboat, the fishermen whipped us up some tasty treats and rum. I didn’t know what everything was but I wanted to try it all. One of the fishermen dove into the ocean and found us fresh conch and sea urchin. He opened up the sea urchin and we all tried a piece.

We returned home sunburnt and tired. My bottom lip was starting to swell. I imagined it was due to the sun since everyone was burnt to a crisp. Our host came by for dinner and I showed her my lip. “Allergy,” she said. Allergy? I’ve never been allergic to anything. Lemon and rum is a local remedy they use to treat swelling. After another delicious local meal, we all went to bed tired from the day’s journey. I climbed into my bed and pulled the mosquito net closed, still on cloud 9 from the days’ activities. That cloud quickly evaporated.

I woke up the next morning and realized I could not close my mouth. I rushed to the bathroom mirror to see what was going on. There was my bottom lip swollen like an overstuffed sausage casing. What am I allergic to? My mind was racing. Was it the sea? The sea urchin? Did I touch the wrong tree? Was it the christophine? A mosquito bite? What is happening to me? Will my throat close up? How much time do I have to live?  

I did what any other young black traveler would do in an emergency situation: I called my mama.

I remembered my insurance has an option to consult a doctor over the phone so I grabbed my insurance card and found an international assistance line. This experience taught me what you should do in case of a medical emergency overseas.

Here are 5 steps you can use in case you ever find yourself in a similar situation:

  1. Get an international plan on your phone. For me, it was $10/day with AT&T.
  2. Have your health insurance card on hand. My provider was able to put in touch with a nurse over the phone and gave me the address for the nearest ER.
  3. Make friends with the locals. I told my Airbnb host what was going on and she gave me the address for her doctor. She knew the ER would be a long drive and with morning traffic this was the best option.
  4. Download a translation app like iTranslate.  
  5. Always carry Benadryl.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip that allowed my adventurous side to soar. Even after my allergic reaction, I was still trying new foods. I couldn’t help myself. (How could I leave without trying the remarkable little yellow stars that are star fruit?) The swelling went down over the next two days. My lip cracked and peeled until it was back to normal. I opened my Facebook and started to update my status: Who wants to go to Puerto Rico?

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