In January of 2020, Steve broke his pelvis while skiing and had to be hospitalized in Bulgaria. It was a painful, frustrating, disappointing, and eye-opening experience.
Our Take On Bulgaria
Before I get into the details I must say this:
Bansko was the fifth city or town we have visited in Bulgaria. In 2018 we enjoyed the capital of Sofia, the second-largest city, Plovdiv, and the smaller towns of Byala and Varna.
All of our experiences in Bulgaria until Steve’s hospitalization have been positive. The people are warm and welcoming, the accommodations and restaurants are clean, and the food is delicious. Many people speak English which we never expect but always appreciate.
That is why our experience in the hospital was a shock.
The Doctor At The Base of The Mountain
As Steve and I were waiting in line to get on the gondola to go up the mountain I noticed a door at the end of a hall. The sign on it said Doctor.
Little did I know that just a few hours later I would be walking through that door to see if Steve was in there after we got separated while skiing and I couldn’t find him anywhere else.
He was lying on the examination table after having x-rays. We were told he had fractured his pelvis.
We were very happy with the care here. The doctor and staff spoke English and explained everything that was going on. They took three x-rays for a cost of $118 USD. Everything else up to this point was covered by the mountain insurance we had as part of our ski rental package.
Given the professionalism of this office, we didn’t balk when the doctor suggested Steve be transported to the hospital in the next town, which is Razlog.
Things Take a Downward Turn
Razlog is a town of 13,000 people about 4 miles (6.2 km) from Bansko. Bankso’s population is 8,600.
When Steve arrived at the hospital he was taken to the emergency department. The area was very run down with tiles missing from the ceiling, holes in the sheets, and what looked like a piece of linoleum laid across the foot of each bed.
It took quite a while for the doctor to be located and for Steve to be registered.
He had been put on a stretcher board to keep his hips immobilized while being transported. He had to lie on this board for several hours after he arrived at the hospital before he was put in a bed. All this time he did not receive any pain medication.
In addition, he was slipping to one side badly enough that I feared he would fall so I stood alongside the stretcher pressing into his side to keep him from falling. No one seemed to care that he was incredibly uncomfortable.
When it finally came time for Steve to be put in a bed there were only two men to do it. It ended up being quite painful for him as he was basically dropped onto the bed.
Things Aren’t Much Better Here
Luckily the floor Steve was transported to from the emergency department was in better shape, though far from what we expect in a hospital.
Even though many people we met in Bansko spoke English, most of the hospital staff did not. Fortunately, the doctor was training his son to be a general surgeon (the son was already a cardiologist) and the son spoke English so he became our translator.
The only time we were able to get information about Steve’s condition was the few minutes every morning when the doctors came in. The nursing staff was not the least bit helpful and seemed impatient when we stopped them and used Google Translate to ask questions.
This was particularly frustrating because they were not very busy. There were only a few patients on the floor and often when I went looking for help several nurses would be eating, chatting, and watching TV in the break room. Yet they never made any effort to do more than the basics.
I was shocked that patients in the hospital were kept in their own clothes. Unless they change their clothes themselves or have a family member help they are left in the same clothes day after day.
Patients and their families were also on their own for basic care like washing, brushing teeth, and tending to more personal needs.
I fear for anyone who should find himself in this hospital without someone to help him.
I realized that the only way to get the nurses on our side was to kill them with kindness. It worked with some of them but not all.
Lie Still and Carry a Big Stick
I walked into Steve’s room on his second day there and he proudly showed me his newest possession. A long piece of PVC pipe.
Unlike U.S. hospitals where the patient is tethered to multiple machines, the only thing Steve had was an I.V. He was lying in bed the first night watching the fluid in the I.V. bag getting too close to the end. He wanted to alert a nurse, but the call button was on the wall a few feet away from his bed. Fearing an air bubble entering his bloodstream he took the I.V. bag off the stand and hit the call button with it thereby summoning a nurse.
After this, he got a pole so he could reach the button. You can see it in the first photo. That pole came in handy for many things. I am still amazed that someone was able to get the pole for him.
Most shocking to us was the lack of hygiene. Steve was in a room with three beds, but until the last few days, he was the only patient. The room didn’t have its own bathroom, but it did have a sink. However, there wasn’t any soap or towels so I brought some from home.
There were three restrooms on the floor. The women’s room did not have toilet paper or soap. The second one was not marked male or female and surprisingly it had soap. But it was still BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). I didn’t check the men’s room.
Then there was the food. Breakfast consisted of two slices of bread with a large blob of butter but nothing to spread the butter with. It sometimes came with a hard-boiled egg or some cheese.
Lunch was soup and bread, but no spoon to eat the soup with. And even if he had a spoon Steve would not have been able to eat it since he was lying flat and could not sit up.
Even worse than the lack of utensils or care about being able to eat was the fact that the bread that came with the soup was not on a plate, it was carried in by hand and set on the bedside table.
Dinner was, you guessed it, more bread, this time with cheese, both wrapped in a plastic bag.
At one point Steve watched a nurse drop a piece of his bread on the floor and return it to the table
Needless to say, he did not eat the food they provided. What little he ate during his stay was all brought from home.
There’s Always Something Positive
While dealing with the hospital situation was unpleasant, there were good things as a result.
While in the hospital I met a lovely young woman named Aleksandra from Razlog who had recently had surgery. She is a university student who wishes to visit the U.S. someday. We will stay in touch through Facebook.
I also got to meet Anna and her family at Succuk Burger House and Cafe in Bansko where I enjoyed the cheeseburgers and fries way too much. They were so gracious in helping me with taxis and even arranging a ride to the hospital one day. If you are ever in Bansko make sure to visit Succuk Burger House and Cafe and meet these wonderful people.
Our luck with people continued once we settled into our new apartment. I struck up a conversation with Dimitar at breakfast one morning and it turns out he is a physiotherapist. He has already offered several helpful suggestions.
For the life of me, I don’t understand why the hospital personnel are lacking in the friendliness and hospitality the most everyone else around here has in abundance.
A Goodbye Argument
Release day finally arrived. We knew Steve would be transferred by ambulance to the apartment where he would be recuperating. We requested four people to help because he is a large man and we didn’t want a repeat of the fiasco that occurred when he was transferred into the bed.
Around lunchtime, two men arrived with a stretcher. We were surprised that they did not have the stretcher board to keep his hips immobilized while they lifted him. We really don’t know how they intended to move him from the bed to the stretcher without causing pain or aggravating his injury.
We used Google Translate to let the paramedics know that we were expecting four people and we wanted Steve on a stretcher board. This request led to a ten-minute discussion with four paramedics and two nurses all talking at once.
After getting everyone to quiet down we said Steve was not leaving unless he was on a board. They finally brought a board in and we were on our way.
Thankfully the ride was only about eight minutes long. Not only was Steve not strapped to the stretcher, but the stretcher was also not locked down in the ambulance.
You Get What You Pay For
You know the old saying “you get what you pay for” meaning if something is inexpensive you can’t expect much. This has not been true for anything we bought in Bulgaria except for the hospital care.
We had no frame of reference as to what a nine-day stay would cost. I was pleasantly surprised when I paid the bill. It included the ambulance ride to the hospital, nine days of “care” including X-rays, two ultrasounds, and medications and the ambulance ride home from the hospital. The cost for all of this was just under $2,000 USD!
We do not carry a medical travel policy because in most cases medical care outside of the U.S. is very affordable by our standards. We do however have evacuation insurance through Medjet to get us back to the U.S. in case of a serious accident or injury.
We didn’t expect much when we submitted a claim to our U.S. medical insurance company since our treatment was out-of-network. We were delighted to receive a check from them for $1,800 USD, leaving our out-of-pocket hospital and doctor costs at $300.
What Could We Have Done Differently?
I have read several accounts of U.S. citizens’ experiences with medical care while traveling abroad. They were all positive, but none of them had taken place in a small town in Bulgaria.
Once we saw the situation at the hospital I asked Steve if he wanted to be transported to Sofia on the assumption that the hospitals in the capital would be superior to this one. He was adamant that he did not want to be moved because he was in so much pain.
Looking back, I wish that I had asked the doctor what the different options were and where he would send one of his family members.
So the only other thing we could have done differently would have been to not ski in this area. I doubt that any warning about the lack of quality medical care would have deterred us. No one expects to get hurt.
Our travels have taken us to some off the beaten path places and will no doubt continue to do so. In order to keep exploring we have to believe that things will work out for the best.
All’s Well That Ends Well
It was a challenge to find a place to stay for four weeks while Steve recuperated. We needed somewhere that would allow him to be brought in on a stretcher and placed in bed. I spent several days looking online, sending emails, and visiting hotels before I found a suitable place two days before he was due to be released.
We ended up at the Redenka Holiday Club about 6 miles (or 10 km) from the center of Bansko. Luckily they weren’t particularly busy and had some first-floor apartments available.
The staff is helpful and accommodating. Steve has become a minor celebrity without having ever left our apartment.
Our four-week stay includes not only the apartment but also breakfast and dinner every day for about $2,000 USD. There is also a gym, indoor pool with jacuzzi, and a spa. Hopefully, Steve will have a chance to enjoy them like I have been doing.
As of this writing, Steve is recuperating well. He has been improving every day and has just been able to be upright with crutches for a short period of time. We are thankful that he left the hospital without becoming sick.
His spirits have remained high and he is looking forward to seeing something besides the ceiling.
Happy (and safe) traveling,