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sous pression en expatriation

This article by Elena (formerly Lenaexpat) invites us to share a very intimate moment. A moment that she experienced when she underwent a surgery while living abroad as an expat and, true to form, nothing like one would imagine.


I thought long and hard before writing this article but eventually decided to share my experience in the hope that it might be of help to many women. Especially of course, Expatclic readers.

When all is going well, you give little thought to being away from your country of origin, your home, family and friends. But when something goes wrong, I guarantee feeling the distance becomes only too devastating!

I am an optimistic and very happy to be an expatriate. The story I’m about to tell was a steep learning curve and tested me thoroughly. Although I learned from this surgery while living abroad just how lucky I am.

solitudineWe had just got back to Singapore from vacation and I was feeling quite unwell. I went to the doctor who immediately diagnosed a problem and told me that I would have to undergo surgery. You can imagine my shock being so far from home, another language, another culture … But I was certain that I was in good hands and so agreed to proceed. “OK, let’s do it if it is to be done“. I was told, and quite unexpectedly so, that in less than 48 hours the surgical procedure would be complete.

I almost fell off the chair! (In Italy you have to wait, but here it’s quite the opposite. You don’t have to wait at all: if it’s to be done, it’s done straight away! Why prolong things?).

Straight out of the doctor’s rooms I was met by a nurse who, besides telling me what I should wear and where to go, also told me how much this “trick” would cost. Brace yourselves because I nearly had a stroke: 8,000 Euros! Singapore only has private hospitals apparently!

I looked at my husband, who looked like he’s seen a ghost. I didn’t have the nerve to say a single word.  Where would we find all that money in 48 hours?

Generally, when you are abroad (especially when the departure is sudden) your local bank account only holds a modest sum. By choice, you store the rest in Europe. So our account here in Singapore is not a happy one. We do have insurance, and as usual, the practice is to be reimbursed later. In this case, however, we’re not talking peanuts, but 8,000 euros!

antiquariatoOnce we were home, besides getting over the shock for the operation, there was also immediate concern to contact the insurance company as quickly as possible to ask them what to do! Moreover my husband, with only two days notice and a colleague on leave, had to rearrange his entire schedule to be with me. This is not an easy task in his line of work!!

There were a few tense moments and unanswered questions accumulating to keep me busy but I was still anxious until the answers finally came. Fortunately, the insurance company said that given the amount, it would take care of the direct payment and we would not have to pay for anything (sigh of relief!). I have asked myself many times, what if we had no insurance and would have to pay on our own? I realised how lucky I was. Not everyone can afford to be operated on by the country’s best surgeon and to pay 8000 euros for the privilege! Even my husband’s colleagues proved very helpful.

I won’t hide the fact that I spent the hours before the operation crying on my couch. I felt alone, terribly alone. Of course Edward (my husband) was with me, but I couldn’t explain to him that I needed and wanted to be close to my mother at this point. Even if she could have travelled, my mom would never have arrived in time due to the time zone. Terrible, right? I wanted to be at home surrounded by family, in my comfort zone.

We knew that the doctor was one of the best, and it was right to have the operation in Singapore, but I still felt like I was going through a nightmare, as if it wasn’t happening to me and sooner or later I would wake from this bad dream. In those hours my mind raced and there was no way of stopping it, to look at the situation rationally.

healthI couldn’t contact the friends I have here in Singapore. I closed myself off and didn’t want to hear or see anybody. There was just one friend though whom I contacted, who reassured me and promised to keep my parents informed on the day of the surgery. My husband doesn’t speak Italian and would find it difficult relaying any information to them. I remember clearly that I reproached him, accusing him of being lazy that he never tried to speak my mother tongue.

On the day of the operation the nurses were very helpful (I bet! 8000 euros!). But I kept asking to see the doctor and the anesthetist. They didn’t even test my blood! At that point my mind was on a course of its own and I kept wondering, what if I need a blood transfusion? What do they do? They need to know my blood type!

Before entering the operating room, I saw the doctor and I remember telling her through tears, that I was really scared. She reassured me, but I’m certain that if she had taken my hand, I would have felt a lot better. Another culture! Physical contact, even to those in need, is not very popular here in Asia!

After the surgery, which fortunately went well, there were some minor complications and I had to undergo another examination. The doctor said she wanted me to have a “scan”. In my mind I translated the word “scan” as ultrasound. Unfortunately I had to find out that it was an MRI scan (where your entire body goes into a horizontal tube.) Even though I speak English well, it ‘s not my native language and it took some explaining for me to understand the nature of the procedure.

At that point I had a real panic attack. I wasn’t prepared and I was terribly scared. I went crazy. I’m ashamed of it but it’s exactly what happened. It took everyone a good 20 minutes to calm me down and convince me to have the MRI!

Back home other problems arose. I was terrified of everything; if I felt even a little pain I was immediately convinced that it was something very wrong. I was, and still am, very fragile, both physically and psychologically. I was crying over nothing, and the slightest thing was a tragedy. I knew that some people might experience problems with anesthesia but I soon realised that my problem was that it had all happened too quickly. I just hadn’t had time to adjust both mentally and physically. Things weren’t going well either between my husband and me because he didn’t understand how I was feeling. I told him I needed to talk to someone, but he reacted by saying that I was making the problem bigger than was necessary.

It was a really bad time! The solitude and distance were a real problem. I was no longer as strong as before, and having recently undergone an operation, it wasn’t the ideal time to take a 13 hour trip alone to Italy. In hindsight, I do not think this would have solved the problem anyway.

After almost two months, I feel a bit stronger. I cannot deny that writing my story helped me through my emotions and even a few tears. Returning to work has helped a lot and so too has talking and writing it down.

I needed to write it all down because often friends and family think that living as an expat means living just the “good life” and they don’t consider how much solitude can be experienced by living abroad. My friends and family who told me I was in good hands and lucky to have Edward at my side, could not understand why I felt so lonely and depressed. It is not easy!

I also want to give wholehearted advice to anyone who wants to relocate abroad: have good health insurance that will cover all the costs, and in case the operation cannot be made in your hosting country, covers the expenses for your repatriation. This is an aspect of medical cover that is often overlooked, but it’s rather important to keep in mind, and even more important when you need it!

August 2006

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