When Carstairs residents Bradley and Alexandra Lawson jetted off to Cancun, Mexico in late January for their belated honeymoon, the couple never thought that the trip would entail Bradley ending up in the hospital and nearly $3,000 in medical bills.
Because Bradley has a severe nut allergy that he has suffered from since he was a child, he made sure to pack EpiPens for the trip and when the couple went out to supper one evening (January 22), he would carefully choose an item that had no peanuts in it.
Both Alexandra and Bradley decided to enjoy enchiladas for their evening meal. But upon having the first bite of his, Bradley noticed there was a strange sensation in his mouth.
"My first instinct was, 'what kind of spice do they put in this that makes my mouth so tingly?'," he said. "I asked Alex to try it because I was curious and she tried it and said she didn't feel anything."
Bradley realized he was reacting to something and his wife knew too. Alexandra sprang into action and found a few servers as well as one of the cooks to ask if any part of her husband's dish had peanuts in it. Alexandra, who knows a bit of Spanish, tried her best to communicate to the staff that her husband had a deadly peanut allergy, though the staff was adamant there were no nuts in his dish.
"I'm thinking, well, there are no peanuts and I'm using the word for peanuts. I just thought, at the very least, we should be in the hospital waiting just in case things don't work out," she said. "Best case scenario, he just needed a lot of Benadryl... but worst-case scenario, he's going have to go into emergency care and get some epinephrine and some antihistamines."
The couple rushed in a taxi to the nearest hospital and by the time Bradley arrived, he had to administer an EpiPen. It also turned out that there had in fact been peanuts in the dish served to Bradley, but because of a language barrier, things had gotten lost in translation.
"We told the lady - the receptionist [at the hospital] what we ordered. There was el cacahuete in the dish. The second receptionist put her head in her hands and told us those are peanuts."
Bradley said that doctors and nurses took great care and his visit lasted seven hours.
"I got into the hospital room having anaphylaxis [at] about seven o'clock, and we didn't get out of the hospital until 2:30 or three in the morning and then they gave me a prescription for some anti-histamine pills."
But it was what transpired after that was just as stressful for the couple. When Bradley and Alexandra arrived at the hospital, they were informed that they should contact their insurance company to see if the company deals directly with the hospital.
"From there, we figured out that the [insurance] benefits company deals with us and not the hospital. So, we had to pay the bill. We were told an approximate cost beforehand and they put a hold on the credit card for that amount. After our visit, they charged us for the full amount."
According to Alexandra, they were charged nearly $3,000 for the hospital visit. She added that before the couple left for their trip, she had read that it is strongly recommended that one should call their insurance company before accepting any treatment overseas. Because the couple does not have insurance through their employers, they bought insurance privately and were aware that Bradley's EpiPens were not covered; however, what they weren't expecting was that the limitations of their insurance would also extend to travel.
"The first thing I did was, I got on the phone with the insurance company and told them everything that happened and they opened up a case file immediately for me."
When Alexandra phoned the insurance company to tell them of what had transpired, she was shocked to learn that because her husband's allergy is considered a pre-existing condition, this could void their coverage.
"My first reaction was shock; I asked her to repeat herself and so she said it again and then I went from shock to anger because you're stressed out and you just got told that you're being left on your own to deal with this massive hospital bill," Alexandra said. "I'm not going to lie, for the rest of our vacation, I was looking at every single price tag."
She added that it can take up to 30 days for case files to be processed by the insurance company, hence all the couple can do now is wait. Bradley added that this trip and the ensuing medical emergency have underscored for him the importance of not only due diligence but also looking into exemption-free traveller's insurance.
"Me having an allergic reaction when I was told there's nothing [no peanuts] is no different than any other natural kind of occurring hospital visit that happens in another country. My first recommendation [to others] would be just to pay a premium and get covered for a trip," he said. "It may seem kind of expensive, but it's a fraction of the cost of a hospital visit."
He also recommended that one should be prepared to deal with language barriers and that research can help with this. He explained that in some countries nuts are considered legumes, while in others they are considered fruits, so it is important to understand the language nuances.
"Sometimes even a severe deadly allergy doesn't really make sense to them, they think of it as more of a hive or rash. One thing I read was that you should have cards written in the foreign language of the place you're going saying: I will die if I eat this; not I'm allergic to, not I will have a reaction to it, but I will die if I do that," Bradley said. "Have that written in every possible language in the country are going to, and use pictures on the card. For us, that conversation with our server could have been that language barrier."
While the trip to the hospital was definitely not a part of the couple's honeymoon plans, Alexandra said there still were some wonderful memories despite it.
"We always joke that I'm part fish and I got to swim to my heart's content and honestly, getting out of the Canadian winter and snow and coming back home in January was a suntan," she said.
The couple returned to Canada on January 30.
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