Tips for health issues and medical needs overseas

Tips for Handling Health Issues and Medical Needs Overseas

It was a busy, fun 4th of July picnic at our house with our team and a few other worker friends. I was not thinking about health issues or medical needs. It was a holiday after all!

I was doing some last minute prep for Jeremy who was grilling outside when Annalise came in the kitchen.

“Mom? My arm is burning.” I turned to look and she had a red mark on her upper arm. Like any other mom, I said, “It’s fine. We’ll check it tonight.” She shrugged and went back to play with her friends.

By that evening, it was burning, blistering, oozing and spreading. She had no idea what she’d touched or done to cause it. It didn’t look like any allergic reaction that I’d ever seen so I started googling plants and bugs, assuming she’d brushed against something that burned her.

Sure enough, in talking with friends and consulting the internet, we realized there’s a blister beetle that probably landed on her arm. Anywhere the blisters leaked caused a new burn to begin. By the time we realized this, she had a burn on her face, neck, arm and stomach. The blister on her face was most concerning because it was above her eye.

What if it leaked in her eye? What if she went blind? How to we cover a burning blister over her eyebrow?

With some gauze, bandages, medical tape and a lot of prayer, we were able to stop the spread and let the wounds heal.

That was during our first term… just one of many moments since we’ve moved overseas. We’ve had more serious moments and less serious moments. All of these health issues and medical needs add stress, unknowns, worry and crazy to our days working in another country.

What do you do when something happens? How do you get help? Where do you go for tests? How do you navigate the medical systems in another language?

On top of these unexpected moments, we moved overseas knowing I had auto-immune issues and possibly multiple sclerosis. I was diagnosed in 2018, right before we came back for our second term in Senegal. The medicine, doctors’ visits, travel and details involved with this disease has been challenging to say the least.

Annalise and I are both gluten free which requires a lot of extra packing and planning. Living in a country with very few gluten free items takes daily effort. I recently discovered more dietary needs for myself and it’s been a “one day, one meal at a time” experience.

I could keep going with our family’s medical history but I won’t. I share just so you know that I do have some experience when it comes to medical needs overseas. I hope our experiences will help you if you ever face health issues or emergencies during your overseas journey.

Tips for health issues and medical needs overseas

Remember… everyone will have a different story, a different take and different way of dealing with these things. There is no right or wrong answers when it comes to your personal decisions about your health.

There’s no “one size fits all” approach as every county, every family, every organization will handle these things in different ways.

I’m writing from West Africa but having lived in France and sought medical care in South Africa, I hope this information will help you wherever you are in the world.

My prayer is that with some planning, some investigating, some good questions and research, you’ll be more prepared for these moments.

This is going to be a long post… are you ready?

1} Plan ahead. No you can’t plan ahead for a blister beetle landing on your daughter’s arm on the 4th of July. But you can have a good stash of medical supplies on hand, just in case. When you’re moving overseas, bring the products you love from your home country. Yes, you could find that same thing or something similar in your host country, but especially during your first term, bring what you know. Whether for diarrhea, pain, rashes, infections, colds… having what you know how to use on hand when someone is sick is extremely reassuring. As you start to learn language and build a network of other workers, you’ll learn what they use, what they buy, how to ask for what you need and so on. From vitamins to allergy medicine, planning ahead will benefit you in the long run!

2} Know your insurance provider. World insurance is different from regular insurance. Your organization or team or sending church probably has a specific plan that will work in your host country or another country. The costs and coverage will be different depending on where you are and what you’re having done. Reimbursement for services, filing claims, pre-authorizations… everything will be a little different overseas. Learn about your insurance. Know what is covered and what is not. Some plans cover medical travel including airfare, hotel and rental car. Some plans don’t. Get familiar with their customer service people and special departments for overseas workers. Unfortunately, we don’t think to do this until we’re in an emergency. I’ve been there. Don’t go there. Know your insurance provider well before you need to use it.

Tips for health issues and travel overseas

3} Know your host country. As soon as you can, start networking and asking questions. What is possible medically in your new country? What medical care is good and what would need to be done elsewhere? What doctors do people use for regular check ups, immunizations, or dental work? Get their phone numbers in your phone so you have it on hand. What can you get at the pharmacy without a prescription? Where do their medicines come from? What country? What language are they in for dosage and precautions? What pharmacy has a good reputation for taking care of medicines correctly? What labs are known for cleanliness? What are you personally comfortable with having done where you are? What do you and your spouse feel is necessary to have done in another country? I ask these questions because they will need answers at some point for your family. You’ll need a good network, a phone full of contacts and a good idea of what is available in your host country when it comes to health issues and medical needs overseas.

Tips for health issues and medical needs overseas

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4} Find medical professionals who are willing to help. You probably know someone. A friend from high school who is a nurse or a neighbor missionary who is a pediatrician or a past family doctor that you know well. Ask them if they are comfortable with a late night call or a quick message with medical questions or needed advice. Be honest that you’re going to need their help. If they are willing, keep their contact information close. My sister in law is a PICU nurse, my sister has a friend who is a pharmacist, my neighbor is a nurse… these people are vital. When I go to the pharmacy here for cold medicine and the dosage and instructions don’t match what I see online or remember from the states, I need help. When I have a bladder infection at 10pm, I need help from someone I trust and fast. When one of the girls has a weird symptom, I need someone to walk me through what needs to happen next. Find a medical professional who is will to be a help to you while you are overseas. It’s an invaluable resource! Also, ask your organization. They might already have these people in place for you to contact when something happens. Member care is growing in so many amazing ways… take advantage of what is already available for you and your family.

Velvet Ashes Video Chata zoom conversation between overseas women about medical overseas

5} Google is your friend when facing health issues and medical needs overseas. I can research, read stories, find reputable sources, compare medicines, see pictures of rashes or bug bites, find support groups, figure out what tests go with what symptom and on and on it goes. This DOES NOT replace seeing a doctor or getting medical help. Yet, being able to research things online has been a huge blessing. Of course, you must find the balance between scaring yourself, reading too much, freaking out over the worst case scenario and going overboard with information. You’ll know if you cross that line. Stick with simple searches on trusted websites {I personally like Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic}. Arm yourself with some knowledge about what is or could be happening and then, move forward.

6} Expect the unexpected. This one is fun. Oh, the stories! I’ve learned that personal modesty and privacy in the medical profession in France is not at all the same as in the states. It was shocking actually. South African nurses are called sisters. And you better obey them. Not all countries use pain or numbing medicine for stitches, dental work, or other medical procedures. Often, if doctors feel the need to do a procedure or small surgery, they’ll do it right then, right there. Machines can be very old and look like they came out of a 1960’s horror film. Watching Abby climb on one such x-ray machine with exposed wires was a bit too much for this mom. The doctor might give you their personal phone number and allow you to call and text them. Paperwork is not always important. We’ve had stitches, lab work and minor mouth surgery all without them knowing my name, having a doctor’s prescription or having me sign a thing. When it’s time to pay for the appointment, you’ll often pay the doctor directly right in the exam room or in the doctor’s personal office. If the doctor says you need an MRI, he’ll walk you down the hall to the machine and you’ll climb on. Then, you’ll go back to his office and discuss it with him a few minutes later. The pharmacist might allow you in the back where they keep the medicines and let you search through drawers and cabinets to find what you’re looking for. The point of this long paragraph is that you will experience some wild, good, crazy, uncomfortable things in different medical systems around the world. Expect the unexpected.

Tips for health issues and medical needs overseas

7} Learn what you can about natural, home remedies. I wrote a whole post about Home Remedies for Beginners. I’ve learned so much about oils, teas, heat, epsom salt and more. Living overseas will give you plenty of opportunities to learn, try new things, treat your family at home and keep your family healthy. I also have a post about being a person of health. We have grown and are still growing in the areas of personal, mental, physical, relational, and spiritual health. Please feel free to share the things you’re learning in the comments!

8} Medical travel is not simple or easy. This is a big one. Living overseas means that making a doctor’s appointment isn’t a private thing. To make an appointment with my neurologist in South Africa, I have to ask for permission from our organization {they’ve been wonderful but they still need to know if we’re planning to travel}, alert the insurance, get pre-authorizations if necessary, make sure our girls are taken care of, book plane tickets, find somewhere to stay, figure out how long tests will take so we know how long we have to stay, rental car, packing, someone to watch our house, take care of the dog… all to go to the doctor. Nothing about it is simple.

A few tips for this process:

  • Know your insurance policy for medical travel. Call them and ask a lot of questions about health issues and medical needs. Get all the details you can before you need them.
  • Plan medical appointments and tests if possible before you travel. We have a doctor that we connect with via whatsapp or email. His office helps set up any and all appointments. They help with billing, testing and any medical forms we might need for different appointments or labs. Most organizations will have some kind of medical contact in places with good medical care for this purpose. Take their help!
  • Make sure you book your tickets, leaving plenty of time where you’re going for test results to come back, follow up appointments and unexpected appointments or lab work. Give yourself plenty of time. Usually, our doctor will tell us how long he expects us to need to be in South Africa and we book our flights from that information. We have had to change our flights before because of one more test that was needed. Know that could happen.
  • You’ll have down time in between appointments and test results. Enjoy that time. Rest, see the sights, visit tourist attractions, take advantage of the change in weather to wear sweaters or eat delicious food. Check out all the coffee shops. Research the area and do some fun things. Make the time count!
  • Reach out to friends who might be in the area! I’ve met some special Velvet Ashes friends in person on these trips. It’s such a fun blessing we have as workers overseas… meeting friends in new places, turning online friendships into real person friendships!
  • Do everything that might need doing while you’re there. Mammogram, eye doctor, bloodwork, stool sample… go for it. You’re there, you’re in medical mode… have it done while you have the opportunity to do it.
  • Ask for a 6 or 12 month prescription. Generally, with special permission from the doctor and an explanation of your situation, the pharmacy will allow this. Beware of travel laws with certain medications, storing medications, expiration dates and so on. But be sure to ask for extra medicine to take back with you.
  • Pack extra suitcases for shopping. When we fly to South Africa, we’ll take one suitcase each but pack some duffles inside our luggage for the way back. We shop for Christmas, birthdays, gluten free foods, frozen meat {yes, we fly with frozen South African beef!} and whatever else we might decide to bring back to Senegal with us.
  • Book an Airbnb or rental house with a kitchen rather than a hotel! There are so many good options for housing these days. A house gives you more space and a kitchen for cooking your own meals. You’ll save money and be more comfortable.
  • Bring work with you. So much can be done online now. We’ve worked on curriculum development, financial paperwork, text with national pastors, taken classes and whatever else we can keep doing on our medical trips. It doesn’t have to be a complete stop from the things you are working on at home.
  • Leave the work at home. On the other hand, many times these medical trips will take all your energy and resources. They’ll be stressful and exhausting. If you don’t have to work, let yourself rest, heal, recover and go back strong.

Tips for health issues and medical needs overseas

9} Being sick or needing medical help on the field takes extra grace, consideration and patience. From day 1 we’ve known that autoimmune issues were going to be a struggle on the field. Heat bothers me. If I’m in the heat for too long, my face goes numb, my leg gets numb and tingly, my fatigue kicks in and I’m out for a few days. Living in the desert, with high humidity or long dry days, can be hard on my system. I often have to adjust my expectations of what I’m able to do. I have to have extra grace for my body and my health. I have to communicate what I need and how I’m feeling. I’ll have good days and then unexplained bad days. I’ve had to learn how to communicate with a sweet pastor’s wife why I can’t eat the food she’s prepared for us. I’ve had to sit in the truck with the AC running because my body is overheated. With MS, I can look fine and seem healthy even when I feel awful and fatigued. My symptoms rarely show on the outside so saying I need to fly to the other side of the continent for a doctor’s appointment can seem crazy.

With all of this, every month we get to stay on the field is a blessing. We constantly weigh risks and think through possibilities. We value prayer support more than we ever thought we would.

Our #behindtheprayercard needs and requests can be overwhelming but you all keep praying and we’re so thankful.

Navigating health issues and medical needs while living overseas is complicated and detailed. I hope this post gives you a glimpse into what it takes to stay healthy, go to the doctor, find medicine, solve weird symptoms and fight infections from another country.

Whether you’re needing tests for you, your kids, your spouse, whether your sickness shows or not, whether you choose to stay where you are, fly back to the states or try the medical care in another country, know that your choice is ok and you’re doing what’s best for your family.

How have you handled health issues and medical needs overseas?

What tips can you add to this list?


  1. This is a great post. I would just say as a nurse overseas who has fielded a lot of questions and late night texts, this can sometimes be quite overwhelming. It’s always nice to ask first like you suggest. I have also learned to make people aware of my limitations. Being regularly asked to diagnose things by texts or field questions way beyond my scope of practice has been a significant source of stress for me. And more and more I simply immediately refer people to local medical practices or suggest they connect with a doctor in their home country.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience on this post! I really appreciate hearing your point of view. Yes, asking BEFORE you starting calling, texting, or needing advice is an important step for sure. Thank you!

  2. I have recently finished treatment for Stage 4 cancer here, so I think I’ve been in the deep end of the pool. All our pregnancies and births were here, too.

    You said this, but I would emphasise it: I think getting used to local medicine is important. Or, I guess you have to make medical travel a real priority, which is what it sounds like you’ve done personally. I’ve watched people who seem to be hurting their health, because they’re avoiding local doctors, but waiting too long to travel to where they are comfortable getting treatment.

    1. Oh yes, cancer, births, pregnancies overseas is full of lessons and stories. Praying for you!

      And I agree 100%. Getting help when it’s needed is incredibly important for longevity on the field. Decide what and where and make it happen!! Waiting won’t help anything get better. Thanks for sharing that!

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