You’re On a Cruise and Have a Medical Emergency. Now What?
I was talking with a friend the other day who is going on her first cruise to the Caribbean in December. She was concerned that she might get sea sick, and told me that if she does, she’ll just get off at port and fly home. That got me thinking about cruises and medical emergencies. It’s one thing if you’re simply sea sick – you’re uncomfortable, so you decide to cut your cruise short and fly home. Of course, my friend wouldn’t get her money back, but she knows that at the outset – it’s a risk she’s willing to take.
But what if you’re on a cruise and you have a true medical emergency – a stroke, a heart attack, a car accident while visiting a port city, a fall, some other serious injury… for example? The cruise ship is typically staffed with a nurse (or a few nurses) and a physician(s). But they’re not specialists, and the equipment aboard the ship is only designed for very short-term care (as in, right after the medical emergency happens), not long-term care.
Because the cruise ship isn’t equipped to treat passengers in serious medical condition for the long-term, passengers in medical crisis are typically evacuated to the nearest medical facility (or transported to the nearest facility once the ship docks at the next port). And then you’re on your own, potentially at a hospital in a small port town in a country where you don’t speak the language. So then what?
The first and most important consideration is: How do you get back home? The second: Who pays? Let’s take each question in turn.
You’ve had a medical emergency on a cruise. How do you get back home?
Say you had a medical emergency on a cruise ship and were evacuated to the nearest medical facility; in all likelihood you will have two options for getting back home: flying commercially, and getting an air ambulance. As we discussed in the post Can’t I Just Take My Sick/Injured Loved One on a Plane Myself? flying commercially when in medical distress is, for one, typically not allowed (the airlines do have requirements about passengers’ health status); and second, it’s typically not wise – commercial airlines are not equipped to deal with medical complications, which can easily arise in already-distressed patients at 30,000 feet.
So, often, the answer is an international air ambulance transfer back into the United States. The air ambulance is typically the best option in these circumstances because:
1) Air ambulances can land at smaller airports where commercial jets can’t, so if you’re in a small port city that doesn’t have a major commercial airport, an air ambulance might be the only choice (save a ground ambulance to the nearest international airport).
2) Air ambulances are equipped with both the equipment and the medical personnel designed and trained to care for patients in medical distress (like patients who have just had a stroke or heart attack or serious injury).
While you were planning for the cruise ship to be your ride home, if you have a medical emergency on board and are evacuated from the ship (or disembark of your own choice, like my friend said she would), then you’re on your own – you are responsible for making the arrangements and paying the cost of getting home.
When it comes to a medical emergency abroad, there are companies that sell international “repatriation” insurance, which in many cases would cover the cost of your international air ambulance transfer back home. Medjet Assist is one such company that we frequently work with (read the post Does Insurance Cover Air Ambulance Service Part 1 for more information).
Of course, no one ever plans to have a medical emergency at sea, or anywhere else (even at home). But when travelling abroad, especially – to places where you wouldn’t stay long-term for medical care – having a contingency plan for what you’d do if a medical emergency were to arise makes a whole lot of sense.