Travel Insurance for Ukraine. Is It Necessary to Buy Travel Insurance?

In November of 2013, I was on my 3rd trip to Ukraine that year. I had been to Lviv, and before that, I had visited Crimea at Evpatoria, before the annexation, and before Russia built a bridge connecting mainland Russia to the Crimean peninsula. I always bought travel insurance and until November of 2013 I had never used it. At a cost of around $100 per trip and just over 30 trips under my belt, my purchase from Travelguard seemed routine. No readers, this is not an advertisement for Travelguard (although they did ask to use my insurance story in their newsletter) but rather a story about the absolute necessity of travel insurance and just how valuable it can be.

Traveling around Ukraine

I had flown into Kyiv and taken the then-new high-speed Hyundai electric trains from Kyiv to Lviv. I had the privilege of sitting across from one of the engineers that went to Korea to inspect and buy the new trains. In 2013 the trains had free 3G Wi-Fi. The last trip I took which was in October of 2021 didn’t feature Wi-Fi but the train still seemed fast and new. My good friend Vlad had invited me to Lviv to stay for a few days.
It’s a beautiful city with a great old wall running right through downtown. I spent 4 days there before heading southeast to Kharkiv. Some students of mine that I was teaching English invited me out to visit them.
Olga and her husband had been students of mine for 9 months when I arrived in Kharkiv. It is a totally different experience than Lviv. In Lviv, I didn’t dare speak Russian, even back in 2013, but in Kharkiv, it came in handy. I stayed in a rental for 5 nights. The housekeeper was the person the owner had assigned to give me the key and to meet me for payment. I didn’t have any trouble at all until my last night in Kharkiv…

The last night in Kharkiv

That night I decided to go to Mcdonald’s and when I walked back to the apartment, only 1 city block, I opened the door and immediately smelled cigarettes! I do not smoke.
Every hair on the back of my neck stood up. It is 100% true that the hair on your neck instinctively stands up in a high-stress environment. I have had a lot of time to think about my decision to walk into the apartment that night and I have listened to lots of criticism, but the truth is that it was my apartment, my passport was inside and my luggage was inside, and of course, I do not run or get scared easily. I practiced Korean Martial arts for 14 years and I had the highest confidence in my capabilities.
I entered the apartment and immediately entered the bathroom where I unscrewed the wooden handle from the toilet plunger. My instincts told me to keep it near! I exited the bathroom and went into the kitchen, passing the bedroom and I saw absolutely no one.
The kitchen was empty. The smell of cigarettes was still strong but it wasn’t like I could smell cigarette smoke. Instead, it smelled like someone was inside and was a smoker…
Like it was on their clothing or something.
So, I entered the bedroom, parting those little wooden beads that hang from the doorway. In the USA we had them when I was a little boy but I have seen them in Ukraine and Russia many times in my adult life. I parted those wooden strings of beads and immediately 2 men were on me, one high on my neck and one low on my hips. The man on my neck was tall and thin, and he was attempting to choke me to sleep but his grip was too high. The man on my waist was heavy and solid and had me pinned on the wall. He was strong, and looking back, if both men had been as strong as he was maybe I would not be writing this blog. The tall man was thin and inexperienced. His grip was easy to break, and I did so by reaching over his left arm with my right arm, and pulling his thumb until it broke, and at the same time I simply dropped my body weight so his grip would not hold. His thumb made a loud snapping sound and he ran out of the room. But, the big man had me pinned to the wall still. When he realized that he was alone he began pulling me away from the wall and banging me back into it. He did this over and over.
Finally, I gathered myself enough to remember my training. I pushed my thumbs deep into his ears, and in truth, I started to curse at him in Russian. I did all I could to distract him. This guy was so so so strong. The more I pushed my thumbs into his ears the harder he pushed me into the wall! I started to hit him on top of the head, landing elbow after elbow on top of his head. We are all born with a soft spot on the top of our skull and even as adults that spot is still not as strong as the rest of our skull. The elbows to the top of his head had some effect on him but really what did the most damage was me pulling on his earlobes. I pulled very hard, hard enough that he tilted his head one way long enough for me to land an elbow on the bridge of his nose. His nose kinda snapped into pieces and flattened out and he let go.

I am by no means a bada$$ but I have been shot by a rifle before and I do have a black belt. I have never had to use my martial arts training to seriously harm someone else. Yes, it’s true I have had to defend myself before but only with a punch or a quick kick and never against 2 people. The big man stumbled out of my apartment, so I stumbled next door to the old woman that lived there. I had been paying her to cook extra food for me for dinner. I had just started to ask her to call the police (yes, in Russian) when I was struck from behind with what doctors believe was a metal pipe. I went down on my hands and knees and the last thing I remember was seeing this old Babushka standing over me with a broom, swinging it from side to side attempting to protect me.

Awakening in the Kharkiv hospital

I woke up in the hospital in Kharkiv. The doctor (he spoke English well) told me I had part of someone’s ear in my closed fist. He told me my skull was fractured, that I had suffered a serious concussion, and that my neck had been crushed at levels C3 to C7.

in the Kharkiv hospital - Is It Necessary to Buy Travel Insurance?
One level higher and I would be paralyzed from the neck down. A fracture at level C2 is called a hangman injury because it completely incapacitates you. I am very lucky. In Kharkiv, the police were able to arrest the man whose ear was in my hand. He went to a different hospital for stitches 😉 GO ANDREW!
I was able to reach out to Travelguard immediately after I woke up. They were the absolute best at what they do! They called twice a day to check on me. They coordinated with the doctors in Kharkiv and had their own doctors in London also. I spent 7 nights and 8 days in Kharkiv. Travelguard had one specialist assigned to me and they called me often. On the 6th day, I got a steady headache that was bad enough to make me vomit. There was no relief and the hospital didn’t have much to help with the headaches.
On the 7th day around 16:00 (4 pm), they called to check on me. I told them my head felt like it was in a vice being squeezed ever tighter. I was put on hold for just 5 minutes when suddenly my specialist came back on the line with a doctor. He asked me a few questions about my headaches and my neurological issues. To end the call he basically told me that they would evacuate me to more advanced care very soon and to hang in there! The specialist came back on after another 5 minutes and told me that a team would be in Kharkiv to evacuate me the next day and to not tell anyone. When I asked why she told me that they had experienced issues with passports being taken and the bills being doubled when the hospital administration hears about a medical evacuation. This scared the hell out of me! But she was right.

I was in a room with 5 other men and 2 of them spoke just enough English to help me. I had the man next to me pass me my leather jacket. It had a secret pocket on the inside but someone had found the pocket and my passport inside. I FLIPPED OUT! I tossed the table next to me across the room and the nurse came running in. I yelled that I wanted to see the chief of the department. She told me he was not available, so I hopped into the wheelchair they had given me 2 days before and told her that if she didn’t find my passport in 5 minutes and have the chief doctor bring it to me that I would call my embassy and then call the police. She got pretty frightened and ran out of the room. I didn’t wait to call my embassy. I called them right away and also called the police.
Maybe 15 minutes passed before the nurse and chief doctor came into the room. The police were with them. The police told me I needed to pay my bill before my passport would be given back to me, and I basically yelled back at them that my passport had nothing to do with a bill and that the chief had stolen my passport. I told them I wanted to press criminal charges and that I wanted him arrested right then and there! They all looked at me like I was crazy, and honestly, I guess I was beginning to feel that way. My neck was broken, I had a concussion, and I was surviving on whatever food the man next to me was asking his wife to bring to me. You see, in Ukraine, most hospitals do not feed you, they make your family bring you food! I am so grateful to that man that was next to me and his wife for taking care of me, and I still keep in touch with them.
On the 8th day at exactly 16:00, the 4 people in red jumpsuits walked into my hospital room. The 1st man had a gun in his hands, and behind him were the nurse and my doctor followed by another man with a gun. The armed men were paid security and were there to make sure nothing happened to me or the doctor that was taking me out of there. I won’t lie or tell you that I was Superman. I CRIED LIKE A BABY when I saw those 4 red suits!!! The doctor did a fast neurological assessment and then they put me in a neck brace and a wheelchair. They wheeled me down to a private ambulance with a police car in front of us followed by a private security car for our guards, and 2 cars followed us, all with armed men for our safety. It felt like I was way more important than I really am, but I guess they thought I had pulled the ear off of someone important or some serious criminal so they didn’t take any chances. I have pictures and Facebook posts to back up every part of this story.

We left Kharkiv and flew towards Paris

When we made it to the airport we went to the back gate where customs officers opened the ambulance door, looked at me, stamped my passport, and let us through. A private jet waited for us. It was like a flying emergency room and again tears fell from my face like rain. I was so happy to be leaving. No, I didn’t fear Ukraine and of course, I have been back many times but this trip NEEDED to be over. I made a video in the jet with an IV connected to my arm, and a heart monitor beeping in the background. We left Kharkiv and flew towards Paris. Keep in mind, Americans reading this, I was attacked just before Thanksgiving, so I was headed for a hospital in Paris and would spend Thanksgiving there. Travelguard paid for the air ambulance, they paid for the armed guards and the ambulance, they paid my hospital bill in Ukraine, and they paid for the hospital in Paris.

I stayed at the American Hospital of Paris for 7 days. I took pictures of the menu with stuff like a braised rabbit, filet mignon, fresh bread, eggs, bacon flan, and so much more. The food was so good that I had to ask my friends back in the USA that is chefs what I should order!

Flying back to the USA

I was treated for a traumatic brain injury, and I also had an MRI of my neck. The decision was made to risk flying me back to the USA for surgery. A nurse medical escort was flown in to pick me up all the way from Canada. She took me by ambulance to the airport. Air France took 4 seats out of 1st class and put in my hospital bed. I will never forget this flight for 2 reasons. The first reason is pretty cool. Because the seats were taken out and my bed was put in, I got to keep the airline bonus sky miles!!! Guys, 4 first-class seats purchased at the last minute cost a pretty penny!
Spoiler alert… I got over 100k sky miles for this flight back to the USA!

The second reason I will never forget this flight is because of the amount of pain I was in. I forget the name of this law/theory for this specific circumstance I experienced but I’m sure someone reading this will tell me. So, a pressurized airplane cabin is different than the pressure on our bodies here on earth. It’s like the pressure is more intense.
Remember that our ears pop and we have to regulate the pressure in our ears. Anyway,
the pressure was so intense that I was in intense pain!!! The nurse had been given 8 vials of 10s of morphine. That is 80s of morphine. Right away the pain was so bad that I was basically screaming in pain. The nurse gave me 10s of morphine to calm the pain. It worked for about 45 minutes. They served a fine 1st class dinner and
offered champagne. My nurse told me I could drink some because she wanted me to go to sleep. After dinner, the pain came back even worse. We were at 36,000 feet and the cabin was fully pressurized now. Again, she gave me 10s of morphine only this time it barely put a dent in the pain. She made me wait 30 minutes and gave me more. I drank more champagne and she gave me more morphine. 4 hours into the flight and my nurse had given me 50cc's of morphine already. She only had the 30s left. I drank more champagne and finally passed out from pain (and champagne).

The pain woke me up with just 2 hours left on the flight. I ate a 1st class breakfast and again I had a dose of morphine. Again, I asked for champagne as well. I had it with orange juice. No, I don’t drink that often but in this case, I need to. An hour late and I needed more morphine and then more. With 30 minutes left in our flight, there was no morphine left and the nurse was a nervous wreck. She told me she had never felt so bad for someone and that she had never been given so much morphine in such a short amount of time. We landed in Atlanta and got onto another small air ambulance and flew to Chesapeake Virginia where I was rushed into the hospital for more tests. My neck was indeed crushed and I was scheduled for surgery the next morning. The doctors switched me to Dilaudid (10 to 1 stronger than morphine) and the travel nurse left me to fly back to Canada.

I paid $86 for travel insurance and Travelguard paid so much more. They waited when I called and needed help. They answered the phones when I was scared, they called me back when they found out a plan of care from my Ukrainian doctors, and they pushed for better care. I am grateful they arranged for armed guards, an ambulance, a private jet, the hospital in Paris, the flight back to the USA, the nurse escort, and all of the medication and treatment along the way. I asked them for an itemized bill and in response, they sent me a check for the unused return airplane ticket to the USA. They had reimbursed me for the flight I missed when I was in the hospital!

My $86 investment along with all the travel insurance policies

They did finally let me know the total… a shocking $112,000 was spent to keep me healthy and safe. The private jet from Kharkiv to Paris alone was $56,000. The American Hospital of Paris was another $24,000 and the rest was spent on the nurse escort and the airline tickets.
My $86 investment along with all the travel insurance policies I had before don’t even come close to the $112,000 Travelguard spent on me. My neck is now basically titanium from C3 to C7 and the scar is barely visible. If I didn’t show most people, they would not know that my neck is held together with metal. I have a limited range of motion but not enough to really make things tough. Yes, it’s painful but it could be worse. I suffer from post-traumatic brain injury seizure disorder, and I take medication every day to keep the epileptic episodes to a minimum. I still have 3 or 4 seizures a year but I am alive. I have been back to Ukraine 7 times since 2013. I love the country and its people. I can’t really say I have been back to Kharkiv and I spend most of my time in Odesa now. I fell in love with Mama Odessa and its people. Now it’s my turn to find my forever partner.

Sorry for the long story. The moral of this blog is ALWAYS BUY TRAVEL INSURANCE AND ALWAYS ENROLL IN YOUR COUNTRIES EMERGENCY LOCATION AND NOTIFICATION PROGRAM. For Americans, it’s the S.T.E.P. program. Use it, buy travel insurance, and always have a backup plan.

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Author: Andy Scoggins

Andrew has traveled extensively from his home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina having starting his journey through the former Soviet Union in Winter of 2012 to Novokuznetsk, then on to Ukraine's Lviv, Kyiv, Kharkov, and finally his second home, Odessa.  

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