My Scouse Spouse and I have walked together several times – Astorga to Santiago for our honeymoon, Hadrian’s Wall, then Astorga to Santiago again earlier this year. I knew he enjoyed it and he sometimes mentioned wanting to walk the Francés from St Jean Pied de Port to Astorga to see what I have seen, and then carry on to Santiago and out to Finisterra and Muxia, which I haven’t yet done. So when he got the time and opportunity to do so, we quickly agreed that he should walk it, on his own, and I would meet him in Santiago for the last stages out to the sea.
Then we booked flights, beds in St Jean, Roncesvalles and Zubiri, renewed his EHIC (European Health Insurance Card, previously called the E111, providing free health care in all EU countries) and updated his travel insurance to allow for a 45 day walk, sometimes more than 1000 metres above sea level, and I helped pack (and repack, repeatedly, vicariously).
Then off he went on his adventure.
He was just settling into the daily rhythm when it happened. Going out to get his laundry in a walled albergue garden just before lights out, he slipped on smooth stone steps and fell hard on concrete. He screamed for help, but nobody came. He knew he had broken his arm and needed to get back into the albergue to get help. It took hours – he didn’t yet know that he had also fractured his pelvis. He finally got back in and was found by an American pilgrim, unused to European free health care, who instead of calling an ambulance started looking for his insurance papers. Only after speaking to the insurance company and being told to get my husband to a public hospital, he finally called 112 and got an ambulance. By this time it was early morning and the first pilgrims were leaving, some even pushing past him while he was being carried down by ambulance personnel. Nine hours after his accident he got to the hospital a mere 2.5 kms away and was X-rayed and given pain relief. And then he rang me.
I dropped everything and went to the airport with only my camino backpack and kit (always packed and ready), and bought a ticket for the next flight to Madrid. While I waited I rang the insurance company, as I thought I would have to let them know what had happened and that I was going to Spain, and while I waited for the ALSA bus in Madrid, they rang me back to reassure me that we would get the help we needed.
In Burgos I spent five hours in a lovely hotel close to the bus station – one of the few I could find on booking.com which had 24 hour check-in – and then left early to get a bus to Logroño, and from there to Estella. I was at the hospital before midday, while the doctors were there, and found out that he had broken his upper arm very badly, so they would pin and plate it the next day. Also there was the fractured pelvis, and really bad bruising, but luckily no other serious injuries. The doctor said he wouldn’t be able to put weight on the leg for probably 6-8 weeks … and with the damaged arm he couldn’t use crutches either, so if he was to be sent home, it would have to be lying down. On a medical flight, they said. No problem, said I relieved, he has travel insurance.
I found a room in town where I could stay for as long as I needed (gracias, señora!), I went to the hospital in the morning, stayed with him and helped him through the day and used my limited Spanish to communicate with the nurses. At lunchtime I went back into town, had a meal, called the insurance for updates, went back to hospital, and went back to my room in the evening. Two weeks went by without any real or practical help from the insurance company, the doctors were frustrated that they got no answers, I was frustrated that I couldn’t provide them, the insurance company claimed he wasn’t covered because we hadn’t disclosed medical information that had no bearing on the accident whatsoever, the doctor told them so, but time went and nothing happened. I couldn’t even enjoy beautiful Estella.
Luckily the nurses and doctors were wonderful and did what they could to help us and explain what was happening, and he had a pretty good view from his hospital bed:
I did manage to get a 10 km walk in though, on a bright and clear and just perfect day, and it worked wonders for the stress!
Finally, 16 days after the accident, transport was organised by the insurance company and we were sent home by ambulance, plane and another (private) ambulance. A friend kindly came to help me move furniture around so we could get a bed for the Scouse Spouse downstairs, as he was in a wheelchair and wasn’t allowed to put weight on his leg. Then followed doctors’ appointments, hospital visits, and at long last physiotherapy. He is walking again, and healing, but it will take a long time before he is able to go back and carry on where he left off.
There was nothing we could have done to prevent this from happening – it could have happened anywhere, any time, to anyone. Our lives were temporarily turned on their heads, the wonderful once-in-a-lifetime chance to walk the camino was taken away and replaced by injury and pain. But if we hadn’t had insurance, it would have been a financial emergency too. I could have been forced to leave him there and go home to work. I could have had a normal job and not be able to take time off to care for him. We could have been in debt just from my last minute flight and expensive hotel, 16 days of accommodation and food in Spain and the costly return tickets, not to mention the private ambulances! OK, there were days when I thought I would happily have gone without insurance and not had the added grief of having to deal with them, but now we are back home and have made our claim, we can put the financial part of it behind us.
The moral of the story is, please please please don’t even consider going anywhere without travel insurance. I have always thought it was mainly for delayed flights and stolen or lost items, and on the camino I carry so little it is hardly worth covering. It never occurred to me that I might rely on it for expenses to do with a medical emergency, because I have my EHIC for that … but the EHIC only covers the medical treatment, not all the other things like travel, food, accommodation, medicines, equipment, a carer. You or your loved one(s) might rely on your insurance for repatriation and all kinds of unforeseen extras. Take the time to compare prices, read the small print, pay a bit extra for a better cover, ring them and explain what you are doing and find out what you need. Disclose your medical problems to avoid delays. Ask if they will help with translator services if you end up in hospital. And of course, check that your EHIC is in date and easy to find.
Sorry about the long, sad and moral tale, but if only one person takes the advice and gets travel insurance rather than just hoping the best and risking the worst, it will have been worth it.