It started fairly innocuously. It was a Sunday and according to Foo, the sea was a bit rough. He also recalls that the speedboat was going really fast (to get to the whale) while hitting the erratic waves. That aside, all was good. He didn’t expect anything bad to happen to him on the trip. He was ready to jump in and swim with the beautiful creatures - unfortunately, the universe had another plan for him.
“I never thought it could happen to me...”
Fudge Foo was all set to dive with the blue whale.
Foo was lucky that there were two doctors on the trip - one was from China and the other one was a heart surgeon from Malaysia. The doctors examined him to see if he was okay, especially the mobility of his legs. Thankfully, he was able to feel them. But, that was only the beginning of what would be a long harrowing experience of being stranded and injured in a foreign country.
“When the boat hit a big wave, I flew up and as I was coming down, the boat hit another wave and the seats came up and hit me. I heard a loud crack from my back and I couldn't move after that. It was simply too painful. I knew something bad has happened.”
Since he needed medical attention, the coordinator of the expedition decided to send Foo to the mainland. The other members were placed in a different boat so that they could continue with their adventure.
Together with another member, the journey to the shore took them about 3 hours. They were 60km away from the shore and the boat had to slow down to avoid injuring Foo further. We can’t imagine the pain that he had to go through at that point.
“Do you have insurance?”Upon reaching the mainland, Foo was sent to Trincomalee's local private hospital by a van. At the hospital, a plank of wood was used to roll him out from the van because the healthcare assistance had difficulties to offload him from the vehicle due to his excruciating pain.
He thought he would be attended to immediately, however, that was not the case. He had to wait for a very, very, very long time. Many hours later, he was sent to the x-ray room where he learned that he had a T12 spinal cord injury because of the compression fracture.
Foo recalls: “I was still in my diving gear when the hospital staff x-rayed my body. The hospital doesn’t have modern scanning machines like MRI or CT scan. Moments later the doctor came - the first thing he asked was, “Do you have insurance?””
Image source: rehabmypatient.com
He also mentioned that the hospital has poor healthcare (not very well equipped) despite being a private hospital. On top of that, it doesn’t have modern drugs or facilities to treat him. So Foo decided to call his insurance agent in Malaysia.
“My insurance agent advised me to receive treatment back in Malaysia - they contacted International SOS to evacuate me from Sri Lanka. Not long after that, International SOS got in touch with me and set up a WhatsApp group between me, International SOS, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. And they asked me to take photos of my x-ray and medical report and send them over.”
The hospital then referred him to a General Hospital in Trincomalee to do a CT scan instead as arranged by SOS Sri Lanka. It took them quite a while to sort out his transfer to the said hospital.
To add, Foo also shared that the nursing care at the hospital was bad. There was no food or water provided by the hospital like in Malaysia. He didn’t bathe for days because it doesn’t provide this kind of nursing care. The patients there had to rely on relatives or friends to get basic necessities, which he had none in Trincomalee.
“The doctor strapped me in a corset and treated me with only morphine to ease the pain…. For 4 nights, I was in my diving gear. I could feel the stickiness of the salt water that had dried on my skin. And because I couldn’t move, I was hooked to a catheter. Also, within those 4 days, I only had 2 apples and 3 bananas (brought by a friend from the trip) because the hospital didn’t provide food - not even water. Despite all that, I was thankful that they at least had a power point for me to charge my phone to contact my friends and agent,” he shares.
At Trincomalee’s local private hospital.
SIDE STORY: Foo had diving insurance at the time. However, he was not able to use it because according to the insurer, the accident happened on the boat and not in the water (so, take note, divers!). He had travel insurance too, but his plan only covered the basics - no medical evacuation benefit. It was his life insurance policy that had the medical evacuation clause!
“The doctor insisted…”
Arrived at Colombo’s private hospital.
After 4 nights laying like a ‘vegetable’ while surviving on morphine, with little food and no water, Foo was finally transferred to Colombo. It was an 8-hour journey in an ambulance to the capital city of Sri Lanka - he arrived at 6 am. He shared that according to the law, in order to use the facility of the hospital, he had to check-in to the hospital - and, so he did.
There, Foo was then referred to a spinal clinic and received some good news: “They said that the nerves were not touching and it was stable. But, if I moved too much, it would become unstable. I was finally given proper anaesthetics and was placed on a spine board.”
The spine doctor advised (read: insisted) him to do surgery there. According to Foo, the doctor was being really pushy (because MONEY) and kept asking him to sign the hospital consent form. Having surgery there would mean spending 3 months in Colombo because he was not fit to travel.
He says: “But, I refused to get surgery in Colombo. I requested to be evacuated and receive treatment in Malaysia as per advised. But the doctor in Colombo continued insisting on surgery and wanted to keep me there for 2-3 months, outright refusing to release me. It was really scary. Thank goodness for International SOS, they called up the hospital to tell them to back off. Without their intervention, who knows what would’ve happened.”
Aside from that, he was also talking to a spine surgeon from Sunway Medical Centre, thanks to his heart surgeon friend.
“I couldn't be here any longer!”It was Friday and 7 days had passed since he broke his back - Foo was still stuck in Colombo. The medical evacuation back to Malaysia took some amount of time. This was because International SOS had to coordinate with Malaysia Airlines (MAS) based on the flights' schedule and work visas for the medical staff from Malaysia to accompany him back to Malaysia. The International SOS team told him that it would take another 7 days to sort this matter out.
At Colombo’s private hospital. Foo was happy that he finally bathed.
According to the architect, he couldn’t wait any longer. Lucky for him, the Sri Lankan government was able to help him sort out the work visas for the International SOS medical staff within a day (usually it’ll take about 3 to 4 working days).
That was not the only challenge - there was also a slight issue with MAS because they couldn’t fit him into the flight’s schedule. Why? Because MAS had to move 9 economy seats to fit him in and also transferred passengers to a different plane. But, MAS pushed harder to get things done was able to book him on the next available flight once the visa and everything else was settled.
FUN FACT: Did you know that MAS is the only airline that does medical evacuations back to home for Malaysian citizens as opposed to other airlines operating in this region? High five to that!
At Colombo Airport Immigration.
Tuesday morning, the medical team from Malaysia arrived. They did some medical check-up and strapped him on to a specialised air-evacuation stretcher (it looks like some sort of vacuum packing). This was to ensure there were no movements during turbulence, which could lead to further injury.
“... to all Malaysians, welcome home.”
Foo shares: “They put me inside an ambulance and drove straight to the airport. That was my first time ever in an ambulance. I’ve never been in one before. The medical evacuation team used a special contraption (ambulift) to transfer him from the ambulance to the plane.”
Foo was placed on top of the 9 economy class seats instead.
He was so relieved and happy that the horrendous nightmare was over.
Once they had landed, a much bigger ambulance was already waiting for him at the airport. The ambulance drove him straight to Sunway Medical Centre as planned. Dr June Loke was already at the hospital waiting to check Foo in.
“I used to feel so much pain, now it has diminished”After the check-up, Foo was given 3 options to treat his injury.
“Since my T12 injury is below 30 degrees angle and not life-threatening, options were given - wear back braces (recovery is slower), perform a keyhole surgery or cut me open and insert a metal rod just for me to stand straight for the rest of my life.
“At my age, I don’t see the point of having that surgery. I asked the doctor, “If I just wear the back brace, will I ever be able to do things normally again?”, and he said that it was possible. So I opted for 3 months of full recovery by wearing back braces instead,” he shares.
On route to Sunway Medical Centre.
Foo stayed in Sunway Medical Centre for about 5 days before he was discharged. Even after being discharged, he still had to see a doctor for regular appointments and take cocktails of painkillers. Fast forward to today, he is still recovering. The good thing is that he is able to walk and stand again.
Reminiscing, he says: “I used to feel much more pain but now the pain has diminished already. I’ve been wearing back braces for 2 months and I still have 1 more month to go with the braces.
A recent photo of Foo, recovering at his humble abode.
“I’m also thankful that I purchased the insurance (that has medical evacuation benefit) a long time ago (at least 20 years ago). International SOS didn’t inform me of my total bill but I do know it was somewhere around USD40k (RM164,304) just for the medical evacuation. And this doesn’t even include the hospitalisation and other medical bills yet!”
“I also would like to thank International SOS, the medical evacuation team, MAS and not to forget my friends - Dr June Chan from International SOS, Captain Andrew Poh from MAS, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and diving friends, as well as everyone who helped me in Sri Lanka. Without them, I’d be a ‘vegetable’ in Sri Lanka.”
When asked if he will dive with the blue whale again, he quips: “Of course, it’s not the whale’s fault.”
Answer: Don’t take insurance lightly when travelling abroad, especially when you’re planning to do risky activities or visit countries with high medical risks where healthcare is almost non-existent or severely overtaxed. You can visit the International SOS' website to download the recent Travel Risk Map 2019.
So, what can we learn from Foo’s story?
Take note that if you get sick or injured while travelling abroad, most domestic medical insurance plans most likely wouldn’t extend coverage overseas. And, there’s a difference between travel inconvenience and travel emergencies coverage. This is why you need to ensure that your travel insurance policy is built with medical as well as medical evacuation benefits; and can cover you in multiple countries, while you’re travelling. Don’t just focus on flight delays or lost baggage.
Of course, the hope is that we will not have to face any kind of travel insurance triggering event, while we’re off enjoying ourselves. But, at least when things go wrong, it doesn’t have to spell disaster. We can promise you that you’ll be glad you didn’t scrimp on cost because you realised the importance of travel insurance.
If you’re looking for a travel insurance quote, check out Loanstreet’s insurance page and choose the best plan that fits your needs.