Even Spiderman Needs Travel Insurance

Young Canadians are more likely to water houseplants than buy emergency medical insurance before they travel, according to a poll by Angus Reid Forum* for American Express. They might reconsider their priorities if they could chat with Robert MacDonald.

Intelligent and athletic, MacDonald is 26 years old and not the sort of person one would expect to require medical care while vacationing at a resort in Mexico. But accidents do happen.

His mishap occurred when he became impatient waiting to use the shower and change his clothes in his hotel room in early December 2012. He was unable to do so because his roommate had fallen sound asleep, and did not respond to Robert’s persistent knocking.

MacDonald decided on a whim to climb the outside of the building to the balcony of his third-floor room. Like Spiderman in his street clothes, he came close to his objective. When he reconsidered his plan, it was too late.  As he tried to double back to safety, his left hand gave way and he fell backwards to the ground.

“I cannot feel my legs,” he recalls thinking as he lay, motionless. By good fortune, a vacationing paramedic was the first to arrive on the scene. He stabilized MacDonald’s neck, asked questions to determine if he might have a concussion, and watched over him until an ambulance arrived.

MacDonald says the pain was excruciating when hospital staff lifted him for an X-ray, and later for an MRI. “It was the most painful thing in my life,” he recalls. The initial diagnosis was that he had cracked a single vertebra in his spine.

Robert MacDonald required a $35,000 jet ride home, spinal surgery, and months of therapy in Toronto after a fall in Mexico in 2012
Robert MacDonald required a $35,000 jet ride home, spinal surgery, and months of therapy in Toronto after a fall in Mexico in 2012

This was far from the full extent of his injuries, however. He would learn later that he had punctured a lung, broken a shoulder bone and 11 ribs, cracked six vertebrae, and dislocated two others. Weeks would pass before he could walk again, months before he could return to work full time.

In the end, the insurer did pay for the air ambulance, plus about $2,500 for medical and transportation expenses in Mexico, says MacDonald. He pays about $400 a year for a premium credit card with extra benefits. (It includes insurance coverage that would be much cheaper to purchase separately.)

The air ambulance ended up being a small jet, and they found it difficult to load MacDonald while he was on a stretcher. A doctor, a nurse, and his friend accompanied him and the flight crew. The plane stopped in Houston, Texas, before reaching Toronto, where Robert was taken to St. Michael’s Hospital. There, after another X-ray, an MRI, and a CAT scan, a surgeon operated to fuse together two of his vertebrae.

MacDonald spent a week in the intensive care unit unable to move more than a single toe below his waist, and then it was another three weeks before he was transferred to the Lyndhurst Centre, a division of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

With the support of family, and his father’s advocacy surrounding his care, MacDonald slowly recovered. “I have had quite an amazing recovery, once I got my muscles activated,” MacDonald said after a day playing golf in early August of 2013. “First, it helped being young. Second, I was in quite good shape before this accident happened. Third of all, I was very determined. I did not want to remain with my legs not being able to be used.”

He was able to return to his job part time after a couple of months, and full time by April, four months after his injury. He sells and appraises medical businesses for a living.

MacDonald knows he was one of the lucky ones. During a three-month follow-up appointment, his surgeon informed him of a young woman with a very similar story—of a vacation gone wrong.  Her spinal operation was initially performed in Mexico, without a successful outcome. And without travel insurance, the woman and her family were left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills.  

Related: Young Vacationer Stranded: No Insurance

While MacDonald had made a conscious decision to acquire travel insurance, the poll commissioned by American Express suggests that most adult Canadians age 35 or younger don’t even think about it.

“Forty seven per cent say they would water their plants before leaving home,” says Vivianne Gauci, vice-president of American Express Canada. “Meanwhile, only 35 per cent of the young Canadian travellers surveyed in July said they purchased travel insurance for their last vacation, and only 37 per cent were likely to purchase it for their next vacation.”

It’s the sort of bravado that would make most parents pull their hair out in frustration—most parents, but not all. Only 62 per cent of those 55-plus said they would expect to buy coverage for their next vacation.

A quarter of travellers surveyed had no clue about the actual cost of certain medical emergencies. They guessed open heart surgery in the US would cost less than $10,000, when the actual cost for an American Express Canada customer in Las Vegas, Nevada, for example, was $296,000.

Related: Spring Breakers Are Not Invincible. They Need Travel Insurance.

“When people are young and travelling, the last thing that many believe is that something unfortunate could happen to them,” says Gauci. “But travel accidents can happen anywhere, at any time.”

So it is only wise to obtain protection for emergency medical care and evacuation, as provinces across Canada strongly recommend.

*Angus Reid Forum posed several questions to a panel of 800 Canadian adults who travel outside of Canada. The results of a random survey conducted on July 8 and 9, 2013 are projected to be accurate within 3.5 percentage points, in 19 such surveys out of 20.

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