Last Updated on: 17th January 2024, 05:41 pm
In January 2020, Steve broke his pelvis while skiing and had to be hospitalized in Bulgaria. It was a painful, frustrating, disappointing, and eye-opening experience.
All money is in U.S. dollars.
Our Take On Bulgaria
Before I get into the details, I must say this:
Bansko was the fifth city or town we visited in Bulgaria. We enjoyed the capital of Sofia, the second-largest city, Plovdiv, and the smaller towns of Byala and Varna.
All our experiences in Bulgaria until Steve’s hospitalization were positive. The people were warm and welcoming, the accommodations and restaurants were clean, and the food was 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 waited 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 walk through that door to see if Steve was there after we got separated while skiing, and I couldn’t find him anywhere else.
He was lying on an examination table after having x-rays. He had fractured his pelvis.
We were pleased with the care here. The doctor and staff spoke English and explained everything well. They took three x-rays for a cost of $118. 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 a hospital in the nearby town of Razlog.
Things Take a Downward Turn
Razlog is a town of 13,000 people about 4 miles (6.2 km) from Bansko. Bansko’s population is 8,600.
When Steve arrived at the hospital, he was taken to the emergency department. The area was run down, with tiles missing from the ceiling, holes in the sheets, and pieces of linoleum laid across the foot of each bed.
It took 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. During 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 about how uncomfortable he was.
When it finally came time for Steve to be put in a bed, there were only two men to do it. It was painful because they dropped him onto the bed.
Things Aren’t Much Better Here
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, one of the doctors treating Steve did.
The only time we could 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 were impatient when we stopped them and used Google Translate to ask questions.
This was frustrating because they were not very busy, as there were only a few patients on the floor. 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 the patients were kept in their own clothes. Unless they changed their clothes themselves or had a family member help, they were 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.
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 close to the end. He wanted to alert a nurse, but the call button was on the wall several feet from his bed. Fearing an air bubble entering his bloodstream, he threw the I.V. bag to the floor and used the stand to hit the call button.
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 got the pole for him.
The lack of hygiene was also shocking. Steve was in a room with three beds, but until the last few days, he was the only patient. The room didn’t have a bathroom, but it had 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. 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 cheese.
Lunch was soup and bread, but there wasn’t a spoon to eat it with. And even if there were a spoon, Steve would not have been able to eat it since he was lying flat and could not sit up. The bread was not on a plate. It was carried in by hand and set on the bedside table.
Dinner was more bread, this time with cheese.
At one point, Steve watched a nurse drop a piece of 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 brought from home.
There’s Always Something Positive
Even though dealing with the hospital situation was difficult, there were some good things.
In the hospital, I met a lovely young woman named Aleksandra, who was also a patient. She is a university student who wishes to visit the U.S. someday.
I also met Anna, Tommy, and their family at Succuk Burger House and Cafe, where I enjoyed the cheeseburgers and fries way too much. They graciously helped me with taxis and even provided a ride to the hospital one day.
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 turned out he is a physiotherapist. He offered several helpful suggestions and worked with Steve on his recovery.
I can’t understand why the hospital personnel were so unfriendly while everyone else had it in abundance.
A Goodbye Argument
Steve was released from the hospital after nine days. He was going to 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 they did not have a stretcher board to immobilize his hips while they lifted him. We 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 we were expecting four people and we wanted Steve on a stretcher board. This request led to a ten-minute discussion with six people all talking at once.
After everyone quieted 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 eight minutes long. Not only was Steve not strapped to the stretcher, but the stretcher wasn’t locked down in the ambulance.
You Get What You Pay For
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, medications, and the ambulance ride home from the hospital. The cost for all of this was just under $2,000.
We do not carry a medical travel policy because, in most cases, medical care outside of the U.S. is affordable. However, we 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.
What Could We Have Done Differently?
I had 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.
When 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 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.
The only other thing we could have done differently would have been not skiing in Bulgaria. However, I doubt warnings 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 theRedenka Holiday Club, about 6 miles (or 10 km) from the center of Bansko. Luckily, they weren’t busy and had some first-floor apartments available.
Our four-week stay included the apartment and half board (breakfast and lunch) for about $2,000. There was a gym, an indoor pool with a jacuzzi, and a spa.
From One Tribulation to Another
Steve was bedridden for four weeks. Despite the pain, he stayed in good spirits. Once he was able to get around, he met Alexandra, Anna, Tommy, Dimitar, and many staff members at the Redenka Holiday Club. He decided his skiing days were over.
We stayed in Bansko until mid-March. Covid had just been declared a pandemic. Our choices were to return to the U.S. or head to Budapest, the next destination on our schedule. We decided that Budapest was the better choice since it involved less travel, and we hoped to resume our regular routine quickly.
We spent the entire pandemic in Budapest, and in the summer of 2022, two and a half years after Steve’s accident, we were able to travel freely again.
Happy (and safe) traveling,
This post was originally published on Feb. 8, 2020.