So what do you know about Albania? Perhaps you are far more world-wise than me, but I knew not a thing about Albania. I wouldn’t have been able to identify it on a map before we planned on going there. So literally as we are sailing from Corfu to Sarandes, Albania, I read in our Adriatic Pilot book the first snippets about this country, we are just hours away from. Like all European countries, it seems Albania has a long and tumultuous history of invasions and oppression. I learned this is a country, which only since 2005, has successfully and democratically elected a Prime Minister who has not, to date, used their position of power for personal gain.
Here are some of my favourite tidbits: “Albania remains poor, and crime is a problem in certain areas. Affluent Western visitors could be a target for robbery. Medical facilities in Albania are poor, especially outside of Tirana, and visitors are advised against having any dental treatment. Hepatitis and AIDS rates are high. It is advisable to have medical insurance to cover repatriation by air ambulance if necessary. Should you need emergency medical treatment, you can call for an ambulance on 127, but the Albanian Tourist Organization advises that it is quicker to use a taxi.”
So Darryl and I had many a conversation over the years about medical insurance while we planned for our travels. Here we come from Canada, where perhaps you have to wait awhile, but eventually you get quality care at no cost. What do we know about medical care in other countries? We all hear the horror stories about people traveling into the U.S., who don’t have adequate medical insurance and end up resorting to one crowd funding campaign or another to bail themselves out of exorbitant medical bills. But what about other countries out there? We follow many a sailing blog and we had a handful of examples given where medical care outside of North America was affordable without insurance. We realize we took a huge gamble in making this decision for our family to not have medical insurance, but it is the decision we made.
We arrive in Sarandes on Friday, July 17. The coastline coming into the harbour is stunning. Loads of buildings line the coastline of Sarandes, suggesting this to be a very developed city, not what I was expecting after what I just read. We are met by the agent, Agim, whom we had arranged to help us check into the country. Since Albania is still relatively new to tourism and especially personal sailing vessels, the use of an agent is required to check in and out. Anchoring is not allowed and you are required to moor at the ferry dock, where there is 24/7 Port police presence.
On Saturday evening, the girls were playing on the front of the boat where we had set up the hammock. The next thing I hear is this blood curdling scream from Iris. Now the girls can be dramatic when it comes to injuries, so I can’t say I exactly jumped to action when I heard this (I know, a fine example of my mothering instinct). Fortunately, Darryl was on the front of the boat and saw what happened and immediately scooped Iris up and brought her to the cockpit. By the time he did and I saw her for the first time, my baby was literally covered in blood down her face, over her little body and saturating her shorts (as everyone who knows Iris knows, that was all she was wearing). Now thankfully, Darryl is calm when it comes to emergencies, but unfortunately Ella and I are both useless. I actually thought at one point that Ella was going to hyperventilate and pass out, she was so panicked. There I sat with Iris in my arms, while Darryl tried to stop the bleeding from a one inch gash on her head along her hairline. At the same time, I am trying to remind Ella to take deep breaths, as she was in complete panic.
Now you recall those lovely quotes above, about the medical care here: the recommendation to have insurance to cover air ambulance, as you could not possibly want to access Albanian health care! So there began the debate between Darryl and I on how to deal with this injury. I felt Iris needed stitches. Darryl felt the bleeding was under control, and the use of steri-strips would suffice. After much debate, all the while trying to keep Ella from passing out and Iris calm, we decided steri-strips and a band-aid would do the trick. We then walked to get ice cream for the girls as a way to calm them down. Iris was a rock star, walking down the boardwalk surrounded by well dressed locals, while the spectacle that is Iris with her head bandaged, topless, but at least wearing clean shorts. As she was eating the ice cream, the bleeding started up again. Darryl carried Iris back to the boat and we ventured to look again at the wound. Ella resumed her deep breathing and, after finally getting another good look at the wound, we both agreed that stitches were needed.
Here we are in a country we have only been in for a day and have never had the experience of receiving medical care outside of Canada. Talk about a lot of firsts for us in the first two weeks! Darryl asked one of the police officers if they could please call us a taxi (not because that is what the book recommended, but because we didn’t think it warranted an ambulance) so he could take Iris to the hospital. Within five minutes an ambulance arrived, clearly the request for a taxi ignored, and Darryl and Iris headed to the hospital. I will admit I was a wreck, allowing the information I had previously read to impact how I responded to this situation. Logically I knew it was only a cut, not life threatening in the least, especially since Iris showed no concussion symptoms. But I allowed the one source of information I had bothered to read only hours prior to arriving on the shores of this unknown-to-me country to have a profound impact on how I responded.
I puttered around the boat trying to keep myself occupied; expecting a late night, and was shocked when exactly 45 minutes later, Darryl and Iris returned to the boat. From the time the ambulance was called to them returning to the boat, only 45 minutes had lapsed. Now I don’t know if you have been to your local ER recently, but from my recent experience and the experience of my friends, a 45 minute turn-around time is unheard of. I remember exchanging texts with a friend recently who was ready to eat her own arm because she was so hungry waiting hours for her son to be seen to receive stitches. So for Iris to return with two freshly minted stitches in her head a mere 45 minutes later was out of this world.
Now the part of this story that makes me tear up when I reflect back on it, is the people. The police officer who sat with Darryl and Iris waiting for the ambulance to arrive to the Port, kept asking Iris how she was feeling and trying to comfort her. (Also when she worked next on Monday, she checked in to see how Iris was doing and gave her a kiss.) The doctor who played with Iris’s cheeks after the stitches were finished. And the most amazing of all was the agent, Agim, who checked us into the country, arrived as Iris was getting her stitches. The Port police called Agim to let him know what had happened and Agim drove to the hospital at 10pm to check in on Iris and then drove Darryl and Iris back to the Port. These amazing people made this scary situation such an incredibly positive experience.
And I am sure some of you are saying to yourselves, “Man, I bet they regret not getting that medical insurance now!” Not even two weeks into this crazy new life of their’s and they already need to access medical care? Darryl took with him their passports and all the Euros and Leke (Albanian currency) we had onboard. When they arrived at the hospital, the paramedics directed them where to sit down. There was absolutely no intake process at the hospital, no questions about who they were, where they were from, or proof of medical coverage requested. After an ambulance ride to the hospital, and a doctor and a nurse working to stitch Iris back up, the whole experience cost us zero dollars. Agim would not even accept a tip from us when we were paying him for his services, as we readied to check out of Sarandes.
Now of course there are lessons to be learned here. The girls have a healthier respect for each other’s safety. Darryl and I need to still allow the girls the freedom to explore and play, but ensure they are able to do so in as safe a manner as possible. But the number one lesson here is that regardless of the perceived struggles of a country, people are largely kind, generous and willing to go beyond to give their time and demonstrate compassion. As scary an experience as it was, we were blessed to encounter these incredible people who helped us unconditionally, and meeting people like these who are more similar to us than different, is one of the reasons we have chosen this lifestyle.