My no-cover nightmare
Getting injured abroad, even in France, is expensive and stressful if you have no travel insurance, as Judith Woods found out
Published 31/07/2010 | 05:00
I can't remember the exact moment last summer when my husband admitted we didn't have any travel insurance.
It wasn't in the French ambulance, sirens blaring, as I was strapped into a back-and-neck brace and pumped full of morphine.
Nor was it in the casualty unit of the local hospital, where the doctors cut off my holiday clothes and shook their heads grimly at my X-rays. Maybe it was in the big shiny new teaching hospital outside Bordeaux, where I was scanned and was told I might never walk again?
Thanks to the heavy-duty opiates, I barely responded when he broke the news that, having taken out family holiday insurance eight years ago through his bank, he had never got around to renewing it.
"All those years and anything could have happened," he said, rather inappropriately.
Well, unfortunately anything did happen. Big time. I went for a sedate pony ride with Lily, my eight-year-old daughter, and her French cousins, and the animals bolted simultaneously. I fell off and broke my back. Lily tumbled off, too, but her injuries were minor.
Like most people, we assumed that because we were in an EU country everything would be taken care of.
Yes, I was given fabulous emergency treatment -- apart from the one nurse who very nearly paralysed me by trying to wedge a bedpan under my fractured spine. Lily was treated with kindness and professionalism, and without our having to wave a credit card upfront.
But there's a misconception -- and in my case a costly misconception -- that all EU citizens are entitled to the sort of free emergency health care we are entitled to at home.
Most people have dimly heard of the E111 form, which provided proof of EU citizenship and entitled the bearer to medical treatment. It has been superseded by the EHIC, which does the same job. But read the small print (which so few of us ever do) and you will see that, under the reciprocal agreement, member states are only bound to provide reduced-cost care.
That might put you out of pocket a bit if you sprain your wrist, although chances are the clinic won't bother to log minor treatments. But when you have fractured one of your lower vertebrae, it's a different matter.
As it happened, I did have an E111, having had the misfortune to have a bicycle accident in France in the mid-1990s (anyone spotting a pattern here?).
I never got around to renewing it, but it did mean I was on the system somewhere. The day after the fall, as I lay terrified in a high-dependency ward, waiting to find out whether I would be crippled for ever -- my fracture was deemed 'unstable', and so my spinal cord was at risk -- my husband contacted the authorities back home and established that most of my care would be paid for.
In the days that followed we barely gave a thought to any likely bills; there were much more important things to worry about. Mercifully, further X-rays showed that my spine had 'realigned itself'.
In our desperation, I had asked my husband to contact a French faith healer back home and his intervention coincided with the abrupt change in my prognosis.
After a nil-by-mouth week of immobility, I underwent surgery and my back was pinned together using titanium screws and rods. The post-operative pain was excruciating, but the nurses had me up and about astonishingly quickly. Then the reality of being uninsured began to hit home.
Were I to need an air ambulance I would have to foot the bill -- upwards of €5,000. As it was, the doctors gave me the all-clear to go by scheduled plane, albeit taken to the airport by ambulance, stretchered to the gate and taken on by wheelchair, in great pain.
Without an insurance company to take over the paperwork and logistics, it was up to me -- four days after surgery -- to shuffle to the nurses' station and book my flight online. My husband had returned home with Lily and Tabitha, aged 10 months, who had still been breastfeeding before disaster struck -- we couldn't afford for him to fly out and collect me.
Then the 'extras' became really apparent. I do not begrudge paying for any aspect of my care; God knows how grateful I am to be up and walking again. But with the prospect of being off work for three months -- I am freelance -- plus the cost of a full-time nanny to look after the baby, whom I could not lift, the financial consequences of our carelessness were rising.
Ambulances operate privately in France, and our emergency call-out cost €800 for me and €400 for Lily. Similarly, I was required to pay for the ambulance transfer to a larger hospital and to the airport. My husband had to hire a private ambulance to collect me.
Back home, the bills started trickling in: €800 here, €340 there, €500 for I have no idea what, as I don't speak French.
Distressed, depressed and out of pocket by many thousands of pounds, I was determined to call the riding stable to account and sue.
At the time of the accident, the owner arrived in the woodland where I lay bellowing for a doctor and praying aloud. He admitted full liability, saying his insurance company would pay for everything.
But when a lawyer friend of ours who spoke French called him, he denied all liability, shouted at him and put the phone down. A tiny chink of light appeared when we discovered we had a clause in our home insurance policy that covered us for legal expenses up to €60,000.
We contacted the company and were put in touch with a firm of solicitors who felt we had a case. But it is down to me to collect all the witness statements and much of the information, and I am feeling too bone-weary right now.
Last month, I underwent further surgery on my back when the screws were removed. It was successful, though my aftercare left a lot to be desired -- I was left screaming in pain for hours, then forcibly discharged because the nurse said he "needed the bed".
So, without wishing to dampen anyone's holiday spirits, let me offer a word to the wise: hold back on buying a new sarong for the beach and invest in a holiday insurance policy -- it's the only cover that really matters.