My Biggest Medical Mishaps in Spain

One of the first words the Novio ever taught me in Spanish was torpe. Clumsy, klutxy, prone to running into things, falling off of things and hitting my head on things.

To my credit, I have never broken a bone. I think (my current toe situation is cloudy).

When I first came to Spain as part of the Language and Culture Assistant program in 2007, I was promised a student visa, a teaching gig and private health insurance during the eight months of the program. Great for being in Spain, but what about my long weekends to travel when my health insurance was not valid outside of Iberia?

The Spanish Health System is a relatively good program and free to all residents and workers, who pay their social security taxes to receive coverage. Still, there’s been a great deal of backlash with expats who have tried unsuccessfully to use their NHS card in Spanish clinics and hospitals. I myself wish I had considered an annual holiday insurance coverage policy for the times I tried to push myself to the limits unsuccessfully. These days, coverage plans seek to not only offer crazy affordable health services for expats and holiday makers, but also to go as far as insure flight cancellations and free coverage for the kiddies. These plans are extremely helpful for families moving to Spain or taking long holidays to the land of sunshine and siestas.

So let’s get to the good stuff…me beating myself up and spending far too much time in a hospital waiting room while they take the more “emergent cases” and not “esa torpe guiri” cases:

Running into the Sevici Station. Sober. While on my Phone.

Yes, this happened, and I had a black eye to show for it during my entire Semana Santa trip to Croatia and Montenegro. On my way to go out and meet Ryan and Ang, my blogger friends over at Jets Like Taxis, I checked the bus schedule on my phone and ran smack into the stationary Sevici station. I made a run for the arriving bus, and the driver even asked if I was alright when I paid onboard.

I began getting looks from other passengers who gasped as I passed by, looking for a rail to hold onto. Catching a glimpse of myself in the reflective glass, I saw that I had a bump the size of a ping-pong ball on my right cheekbone, just underneath my eye. Then the throbbing began. I exited the bus at the next stop, calling the Novio to pick me up and take me to the hospital. He shook his head disapprovingly, once again proving that I am, quite literally, a walking disaster.

I’ve been to the ER in Spain a few times before, and it’s always a time-consuming nightmare. I’m always standing the wrong line (and often in the longest), or my name gets so mutilated that I don’t understand when I’m being called, or I’m forced to wait for hours, only then to get so turned around in the hospital, I end up in the maternity ward and not the triage. Even on this calm Saturday, I had to have a doctor escort me to the ER, having my wishing I’d considered some sort of private health coverage to cut through the red tape (and have a smaller building to navigate).

I had clobbered myself so well that I had nearly fractured the bone, but still being able to talk and bite were good signs. The doctor, who was actually quite friendly, uttered the words “hematoma” and must have seen my eyes widen. For someone who studied words and not pathologies, my obsession with Grey’s Anatomy has made me a hypochondriac, but the doctor told me I would merely have the bump until the hematoma broke, after which I would have a bruise for five days. Mentira, it lasted nearly two weeks, meaning all of my pictures from the Balkans looked like this:

Attack of the Pollen (and the olive blossoms and the animals and the hay….)

My childhood nickname was “Honker” (my mother’s was “Grace” because she is just as torpe as I am!) because of my terrible hay fever and my tendency to go through more tissue packets than a vendor on any given street corner in Seville sells in one day.

I hoped that coming to Spain meant exposure to different allergens that wouldn’t bother me as much as my mother’s horse did as a kid.

In May, the sunflowers greeted the warm weather and end of the course in Olivares, the town where I taught for three years. With the sunflowers came olive blossoms as well, and it turns out I’m allergic to them, too (self-diagnosed). Teaching with the window open was no longer an option, so I headed to the pharmacy for anti-histamines.

“Take this once a day, at the same hour every day, and maybe invest in a pill slicer and just take half. They’ll knock you out.” Ah, over-the-counter medicine in Spain. The pills, which were nearly the size of a quarter, had me falling asleep in an English class just a few hours later.

They say the years without rain are the worst for allergy sufferers, and last year’s spring had me blotchy, covered in hives and with red, watery eyes.

One morning it was so bad, I woke up at 6am and headed to the ER for some relief. The halls were deserted, but I waited over two hours to get an allergen shot and prescriptions for inhalers, nasal spray, eye drops and allergy pills when a private doctor could have just scribbled them away without taking my vitals while I heaved and death-rattled.

And then there was the Tough Mudder...

My friend Audrey can’t be described in ten words, or even 100. So when she asked me to do the Tough Mudder and described it as an “obstacle race in London,” I thought we’d knock back a few pints and have one last hurrah before she moved back to America in the form of a scavenger hunt.

I was so, so wrong.

For 20 kilometers, I literally defied death while scrambling over 10-foot walls, plunging into icy water and even getting electrocuted. For the entire grueling race, we picked one another up, hoisted one another over obstacles and had our clothes get torn, blood- and mud-stained and racers drop out. One of the guys on our team even needed to have medical attention at the end for muscle strain, and we were concerned that another was hypothermic.

Because I didn’t have valid insurance for the UK, I was happy to skip the extremely dangerous obstacles and to play it safe when it came to my health. Besides, I had the bumps, bruises and swollen joints to show for it for over a week.

The biggest problem I had was the stench from the river water that evening when I flew back to Spain.

Accidents happen, and often while you’re away from home. Even the most meticulously planned trip can go awry, so having a comprehensive health insurance when moving to Spain or any other country – even for the short-term – can mean a great deal of savings, both in hassle and money.

Have you had any medical incidents abroad? Were you insured?

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. allison says:

    As far as “free to residents” — I still don’t have my health card. The same day I got my residency, I waltzed into my Centro de Salud to apply for the card. She turned me down. The law has changed so that now I need, among a slew of other docs, a notario’s signature on a document saying that I make no money,therefore making me throw in the towel–for now. Good thing my novio’s company pays for my private insurance.

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Insane!! I’ve been trying to decipher the Spanish health system for a while, and it seems to be a complex system that incorporates both private and public, and there’s no “national” system, but regional. I’d stick with the private insurance, should you need it.

    • I had a similar problem. I got that document and got a healthcare card, but then at my local healthcare center they told me I needed my own number which the other people had just told me I couldn’t have!
      Kaley [Y Mucho Más] recently posted..Why Do We Call José “Pepe”?My Profile

  2. I broke my shoulder on my bike and the German doctors and my au pair insurance were really great. I only paid 10€ for everything in the end! I feel like having an accident is a right of passage abroad, so you’re several proved you are in it!

  3. I came down with strep during a trip to Spain. Made my way to a couple of pharmacies and eventually ended up in a clinic in Sevilla. The DR prescribed that I’d need a shot (in my rear) in each city on my itinerary. After pleading my case to not want to have to hunt down a clinic (and get shots) in every city on my trip, she gave me antibiotics in pill form. I was so thankful to be fluent in Spanish!
    Nicole recently posted..Hommus is a food groupMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Ugh, insurance would have definitely come in handy then! I got strep and went to my local ambulatorio, but since it was considered non-emergent, I had to spend the day in bed before my appointment rolled around. This wouldn’t have happened had I paid for private insurance!

  4. Ya know, I’ve yet to go to the doctor in Spain. Last year I had coverage and this year only emergency coverage. I didn’t even think about the fact that when I travel outside the peninsula, I’m not covered… I Guess I just hope for the best and knowing how Europe is different than the states, I just assume, I’d get medical care easier, faster and cheaper but maybe this is isn’t the case.
    Then again, Sometimes I take Risks- I didn’t have health insurance for 2 years in the states before coming to Spain after the health insurance company messed up my coverage and suspended it when I changed my credit card number. They never processed the change and then suspended it on me months later…and of course, to reinstate it, they wanted me to pay up! You can guess what I said : )
    Lauren @ roamingtheworld recently posted..Flashback Photo Friday: Diving off the sea wall, Inhambane,MozambiqueMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Yeah, the situation is’t too much better back home. I live in a “high risk” area in the US and my mother always forces me to shell out for insurance. But in PV they only give you emergency insurance?! That cannot be safe!

  5. Knock on wood, we haven’t needed any health services while in Spain the past nine months. We did purchase travel insurance for emergencies. I will also check out the one you have listed above. I too get the hay fever and the past 2 weeks have been terrible. I don’t know why I was thinking I would escape it here is Spain. :-) Thanks for your info.
    Heidi Wagoner recently posted..Top 5 Reasons to Take a SabbaticalMy Profile

  6. I did a stint on an organic farm in Wales one summer during university (I may be a little bit of a hippie…) and I got Salmonella. As in couldn’t consume water or food for an entire week. The woman who ran the farm kept telling me it was a ‘tummy bug’…and I tried to convince her it was not normal to not be able to stand from dehydration. She finally caved and literally dropped me off at the hospital with my things, and drove off into the night, I didnt see her after that.

    Luckily as I was a full time student in the UK, I qualified for NHS treatment, and my five days hooked up to IVs in a random hospital in Wales didn’t cost a dime…or ten pence. Still…I can’t believe that woman didn’t take me to the hospital sooner.

    Here in Spain I’ve gotten sick, but no major mishaps, knock on wood.

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Yikes! What a nightmare! My biggest scare is a bit too personal to share from when I was studying abroad, from when I was traveling alone. That woman sounds like scum, and I’m glad it wasn’t anything more serious!

      • She was scum….I wouldn´t have been surprised if she told me to ´tuck and roll´ and then pushed me out of the moving car! Still, I was so sick that I didn´t really care at the time, but afterwards, I realized she was kind of a major bitch.
        Betsy recently posted..Falling in Love with CórdobaMy Profile

  7. I’ve never had a visit to an ER while traveling, but so far have had wonderful experiences with my insurance coverage here in the Netherlands. I’m thinking that I’m allergic to much of what blooms and buds here and try desperately to buy local honey. I’ve heard that can help with allergies. I remain hopeful that this will work and I won’t have to start the antihistamine routine.
    BTW, loved this post!! Honest and witty :-)
    Gayla recently posted..Things to do in Florence – The UffiziMy Profile

  8. international student health insurance plan is for those students and scholars who are studying abroad. This comprehensive plan even includes coverage for spouses and dependent children.
    Gilberto U. Williamson recently posted..No last blog posts to return.My Profile

  9. I usually travel with an “it won’t happen to me” attitude which I realise from reading your blog is probably being unrealistic. I have been lucky so far but think I will look into insurance next time I go on my travels – thanks for the info.

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