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Coping with Vacation Accidents and Illnesses

Nine tips for rescuing your time off

Like most people, my husband and I never thought about getting hurt on vacation. Then a friend visiting from England broke his leg playing softball in New York City’s Central Park. Not only was that the end of his and his family’s vacation, but after surgery and recovery, they needed an extra seat to get on the flight home with the huge, inflexible cast he was now wearing. Since then, unfortunately, with other friends who have been injured and or gotten ill on travels both in the country and abroad, we’ve thought more about it. But until recently, it hadn’t happened to us.

It turns out that vacations are ruined by illness and injury far more often than most of us imagine. And not just on trips out of the country. One survey of business travelers (not necessarily on vacation) found that one third of them have either gotten sick or injured while away from home, or know someone who has. Well of course. Debbie Ferm of writes about an experience common to many parents: “kids always seem to get sick on vacation!” She says, one problem is exposure to germs. For example, she says, airplane blankets are not washed after every flight, and it’s normal to cover chilly youngsters with the blankets, which means they’re exposed to all sorts of unknown possible illnesses. But even if you’re driving in your own car, you and your kids can get sick just by being in a new place. According to Ferm’s pediatrician, “any time you are in a new viral environment, it’s more likely you are going to get sick. Every place is going to have its most common germs and viruses that the local people are immune to, but can flatten” visitors.

So there are physical reasons that people get sick on vacation. But there are also psychological ones. And sometimes the two mix together to pack a dangerous wallop. Vacations are for fun, right? Relaxing, right? We often have high expectations for these relaxing and fun interludes, which can mean that we might work just a little too hard to have fun and relax. This paradox can lead to doing things we’re too tired or out of shape to do, and on top of that, not paying attention to what we are doing.

That’s exactly what happened to my husband this summer. He had just finished listing all of the fun and relaxing things we were going to do on our quiet vacation in the small community where we spend weekends and holidays. Stepping out of the local bike shop with our newly tuned up bikes, he tripped walking down the steps he had traversed multiple times before … and broke both of his wrists. So much for rest and relaxation — unless you consider being doped up on pain meds and spending hours resting in hospitals relaxing.

We spent a little while feeling sorry for ourselves. But our experiences fit with the statistics about vacation injuries and illness. We were clearly not alone in having our vacation disrupted this way. The hospital emergency room was filled with other vacationers with problems ranging from infected bug bites to Lyme disease to back injuries, and everything in between. A friend emailed me that she had broken a wrist playing tennis that same weekend. And on the day that my husband had surgery on one of the wrists, the surgeon — who only does wrists — was in the operating room with other patients from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m.

There are ways that you can protect yourself from some of these accidents and illnesses while you’re on vacation. Ferm’s website is filled with helpful information about traveling with kids, including sick ones. Common sense tactics like eating healthily, not drinking too much alcohol, and getting enough sleep (Surprise: Vacations are actually more fun if you don’t go over the top in any of these areas) are also important. Since many accidents seem to happen on the first day or two of a trip, it’s also important to get be careful and rest when you arrive (in other words, don’t try to do everything on the first day!). Other useful ideas can be found at the websites listed at the bottom of this blog.

But even the best preparations can’t protect us from everything. If you or one of your traveling partners do get sick or injured on vacation, here are some ways (learned from first-hand experience) that might help you manage the experience.

  1. Feeling sorry for yourself is natural and even important — as long as you don’t let it get out of hand. Let off steam, ask for sympathy, but then move on as well as you can. Seeing all of the people around us who were also having their time off disrupted, and remembering friends who’d been in even worse situations helped my husband and me get over ourselves pretty quickly.
  2. Try to make the best of a bad situation. This didn’t help my husband, of course, but while he was in the hospital waiting for surgery, rather than sit in the cold and uncomfortable waiting room at the hospital, I left my cell phone number with the surgeon and went out to indulge in a pedicure — something I never do during the work-year, because it takes too much time and feels like an expensive indulgence. But I thought it would make me feel a little better to be cossetted — and I was right. Hours later, when I brought him home from the hospital, I was probably a lot more comfortable being sympathetic and nurturing to him, because I had gotten some nurturing myself.
  3. Rather than focusing on all of the things you can’t do (bike rides through the woods were out for us for the rest of the summer, of course) try to look for some pleasant things you can do. Once my husband began to recover slightly, we started taking walks in the park. And as he got stronger and the walks got longer, we discovered an advantage to walking over biking: we could talk while we were rambling along paved sidewalks in a way we could not generally do on our bikes. We also began catching up on all of the movies we haven’t seen because we’ve been too busy working; and that we wouldn’t have seen if we had been on the vacation we had planned, because we would have been too busy working at having fun to take the time to simply sit and watch movies.
  4. Be empathic to one another. Whether you’re parents with a sick or injured child, or an adult with an ailing travel partner, remember that both of you are suffering. Complain from time to time — it’s good for the soul and the psyche to express your unhappiness — but remember to balance the negative with the positive as much as possible. If you’re the caretaker, be sure to thank the ill person when they are being patient and tolerant of your efforts to help. And if you are the injured party, thank your caregiver for what they are doing! Acknowledgement of the positive can go a long way.
  5. Also look for positive in even the most difficult situation. A dear friend was badly injured while on vacation in Europe not too long ago. We kept up a regular email interaction while she was unable to get back home, and in the midst of her discomfort and anxiety, she sent me a beautiful description of the village life she was observing. It was a tiny thing, but I think it was life affirming for both of us.
  6. In the same light, remember that an invalid is a whole person — as is a nurse. It is tempting to try to do everything for someone who is incapacitated — or to let the other person do everything for you if you are the one who is ill. But health comes in small increments, and too much caretaking can be infantilizing. It’s a hard balance for both partners in a situation, but erring too much on the side of doing everything can be as detrimental to an individual’s recovery as is erring too much on the side of doing nothing.
  7. Make sure that you have some time apart. If you are the one who is unable to participate in activities, if you can be left alone, encourage your travel partner to make sure you have food, water, books, computer, and/or other means of entertainment, as well as a means of communicating with them, and then send them off for a little while. (If you’re parents with a sick child, trade off being the one who stays home).
  8. If you’re the caretaker, the after making sure that all of the above is done, do something pleasurable on your own. Go for a walk or a swim (making sure that someone is keeping an eye out for you). Take a yoga class or sit on the beach for a little while. You’ll be amazed at how restorative even a little r&r and time on your own can be!
  9. Finally, try to keep things in perspective. Unless yours has been a catastrophic event, things will eventually calm down and get better. And you’ll have a chance to go on vacation another time.

As I was writing this post, my husband and I, who are back in New York City, went for a walk in Central Park. He still has casts on both arms, with a sling holding one of them. Anyone who believes that New Yorkers are not friendly would be amazed to follow us around on one of these rambles, where we get into many conversations with sympathetic strangers who end up telling us about their own vacation accidents. On this walk, we began talking with Lucien D'Azay, who was also sporting a sling. He had flown over from Paris and immediately gone for a bike ride around the city (a wonderful summer activity, by the way, if you happen to be coming here for your vacation, but save it for after the second day!). Tired, and thinking about getting back to where he was staying, he didn’t pay attention as he went over the curb. The bike flipped, and he fell and broke an arm. “Well,” he told us, “that ended my biking for the summer. But I’m getting a chance to walk through New York City and see some of the special places you normally don’t get to see.” Turns out, that’s one of his favorite activities and the subject of a book he has just translated into French.

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Some websites with helpful tips for staying healthy and dealing with illness and injury on vacation (listed in alphabetical order, not order of importance):

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