Ex-pat Living: Tips from Sochi On Emergency Coping Styles for Surviving Abroad

Photo of NBC Sports Correspondent, Bob Costas with Eye Infection:  Eye'll Be Seeing You

Eye’ll Be Seeing You: NBC Sports Correspondent, Bob Costas, Eye Infection

Anyone who has been tuned in to the Olympics has noticed Bob Costas has become a story himself with his eye issues.

There’s a Life Lesson here for travelers and expats. Granted, most expats don’t get seen by a bazillion people in their daily routines, but that doesn’t make our jobs any less critical.

When I was in Baku, beyond the usual mishaps, I had two major medical scares that required outside intervention. I was glad I had made the right contacts.

One was some internal bleeding that landed me in the surgical unit of Istanbul’s International Hospital (thankfully, my doctor spoke English well) and with the other, a case of ocular migraines, I was able to get into a clinic that just happened to have a visiting Turkish ophthalmological specialist in town that week. “Allah was watching,” as they say. I avoided a ruptured gall bladder through some aggressive means and good coping skills. I later found out, that just may have saved my life.

Knowing what could happen and the potential severity in remote workplaces, I get concerned about the overwhelming task of keeping everyone healthy in places like Sochi this month.

With all the unfinished-ness in Sochi this month, how confident would you be that a village medical staff was one of the “completed” items on the checklist of things not to forget? On a scale of 1-10? 1,5 maybe? This probably falls under the “BYO” (Bring Your Own) heading for the IOC, like most everything else has for these Sochi Games (pillow scandal, anyone?)

Last night I was watching the NBC “Olympic Zone” feature program, the kind of “Up Close and Personal” thing that event lovers get into. One little factoid mentioned was that NBC began 7 months ago to build  2 complete, state-of-the-art studios, 75,000 square feet of editing space- in all a technical space that covers more than 2 complete US football fields. Other reports mentioned some 3,100 people who will be working on the games for NBC… thousands of techies who, as “temp-pats,” may not necessarily be expat type problem solvers.

Given all that, I am fairly certain medical staff arrangements were high on their list.

For expats, medical backup plans have to be a priority in the places that we are called to work. Even if you’re in an “industrialized nation” (meaning something like a Tier 1 country in the EU) you still have a lot to consider, such as transferability of medical records, common language and drug dosing, and prescription protocols. This is – or should be- at the top of any expat list.

Even for some issues that are not emergencies, the differences can be off-putting.

Take the holiday I was in London for a week. My “timing” could certainly have been better.

Not Exactly The Of Kind Help I Need: Photo of man with gas mask- spoof on post-Soviet medical help

Not Exactly The Kind Of Help I Need

I walked in to a local chemist shop (like a US drug store, CVS/ Walgreen/ Eckerd/ RiteAid) looking for feminine discomfort relief tablets (like Midol). Not finding anything with a similar formulary (expats get good at reading ingredient labels to find familiar compounds), I asked the (male) pharmacist what women in the UK use for that issue.

His response left me slack-jawed in its bluntness. He said, “Girls here just suck it up and get on with it.” While perhaps true, it was needlessly blunt. Fortunately I’m not prone to tears during times like that, but I was irritated at his lack of sensitivity.  Really…

By contrast, I developed a respect for my local aptek in Baku- the one that sold all manner of homeopathic and “over-the-counter prescription drugs”. (Note: This was not the “Strawberry Bite” aptek- one that couldn’t read English well enough to know not to name your shop after Strawberry Flavored condoms; I wasn’t about to trust them with my emergency supply needs!)

Though perhaps not a system I would recommend elsewhere, as an amateur expat pharmacologist it served me well. I could go in and ask for tablets by pharmaceutical name (the international chemicals are surprisingly uniform) and “get on” with many minor cures, from “Baku Belly” to antibiotics for intestinal parasites or other infections. My doctor here actually credited that with a possibly life saving decision… which considering the alternative at the time, was good news to me.

I’m sure Bob Costas could go into the local aptek in Sochi and ask for hydro-cortisone 2% or something else, but not knowing what he’s dealing with is the real issue. With the busy schedule and tight deadlines, it’s not like he has all the time in the world to experiment, and certainly not with something as critical as eyesight.

What would you do in his situation? What’s your go-to coping style?

Coping Styles: The Engineer 

Engineers gather information, analyze, weigh, and conclude a course of action (then hire someone to execute, right?)

Engineers don’t always have the knowledge in their head, but they have the skills to find knowledge from many sources and evaluate what sounds right for the situation. Problem-solving is a highly developed skill with Engineers. Using logic and avoiding excessive emotion is both a pro and a con.

While good at solution generation, sometimes the logical (naphtha oil bathing for skin and joint conditions) may be less preferable overall than the empathetic, multi-symptom approach (a spa day at the Hyatt). Compassion may be under-developed in Engineers.

Coping Style: The Director

Directors ask for input (spouse, work colleagues -“Hey, any of you ever have these symptoms?”), then ask for someone to sift answers and come up with some recommendations.

Directors often have many resources and can hold meetings ad infinitum, which may also require sharing details that will aid in option generation, but which may likely lead to awkward supermarket encounters with spouses who have since heard about your “condition” or bout with jock itch.

Directors are always trying to help. Over coffee at the local brunch on Sunday afternoon, you may find yourself being grilled about minutiae that may alter the course of human events but could eventually lead to a discovery cure for your common cold that works in about, oh, 2 weeks. .. A true miracle!

Coping Style: The Mom (Can Be Mr. Mom, or Ms.Mom)

Moms are the Rock of Gibraltar, the ones who hold all things together.

Ideally every expat family posting would include one Mom-coping type, in the form of support from the passport country HR contact or liaison, the in-family EMR (Emergency Medical Responder) or a head-on-straight problem solver.

Moms are the ones who can find anything now that we have internet coverage in most places around the world. Just remember, always ask for a second opinion when it comes to leaches, cupping, and mustard plasters!

Coping Style: The Deer (Can Be Joe Buck, or Jane Doe)

Deer usually are stunned that anything like this could happen to them. They are often unprepared, in denial, or totally at a loss as to how to proceed. They mouth the words “Help Me” silently to any and all who pass by. You can find Deer on the street corners looking lost and bewildered.

Deer need handlers, hopefully strong Engineers in the form of spouses, friends, or relatives at home who can cope better. If you encounter a Deer in an aptek, chemist’s or market, please be prepared to devoted considerable time and energy, to not only finding the right remedy, but also to hugging, hand-holding, and truly sympathizing with all the conditions in the world that brought the Deer to this point.

The downside is that if you are any of the above types, your tendency will be to analyze and resolve this crisis of habit to prevent a future medical emergency from occurring again.  Good luck with that- you must remember a Deer will be a Deer will be a Deer. Change for Deer comes from within; external help only reinforces the pattern.

Dealing with Trouble of Your Own: Who Do You Count On?

Sometimes a Deer has no one else to call on and has to get out of the way of an oncoming lorry (truck) on his/her own. If you’re a Deer (as opposed to being a dear), here are some expat tips that might save your life or at least make it feel better while it sucks.

  • Get to know a local- someone healthy and connected. Ask your friend to introduce you to the best aptek in town, before you need help. go in and buy minor items to give the chemist an idea about you in general. When the time comes if you have no expat medical staff to help you, this can be your safe harbor for advice.
  • Find and cultivate contacts with expat counterparts who have inside information from company teams or sources such as above.
  • Contact your country embassy for guidance, recommendations or in emergency situations, help. Though limited as to what can be done for non-embassy staff, if you are a citizen, some help, albeit with a cost, may be available.

I hope some of these suggestions will help when you travel, to be confident and healthy for the duration, but if not, at least to be well-prepared for the immediate needs while you find your way to assistance.


So What’s Your Coping Style?  Tell us about your best cure, or best survival story! Nothing makes people feel better about travel than knowing it can be done!










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