Studying abroad is quite different from vacationing. Being abroad for an extended period means that you are much more likely to need to seek out basic services – with everything from haircuts to health care. Thus, there is much more to plan for and much more to be prepared for.
While in Kyiv, I got a head cold. This was thankfully before the coronavirus issue had become global, so it wasn’t as potentially concerning as it could have been. However, it did give me a very interesting first-hand experience with Ukrainian healthcare.
I woke up one morning not feeling great. My head hurt. I had a sore throat and a runny nose. I texted the director of my SRAS/Novamova program in Kyiv and she told me that my host family would help me get to a doctor and that they knew the procedure. I walked out of my room and told my host mom that I was not feeling well. Interestingly, before I could explain that I wanted to see a doctor, my host mom asked if I wanted antibiotics. She is a pharmacist and most antibiotics are over-the-counter in Ukraine. For this reason, in Ukraine, it is common to only go to the doctor for serious issues. Minor things like a head cold are very often handled by just consulting a pharmacist. Nonetheless, as an American, I was intent on seeing a doctor first.
In the NovaMova handbook they list some English-speaking doctors around Kyiv. I was told that the best place to go was American Medical Center. As I began to research them, my host mom knocked on my door. She informed me that she had gotten me an appoint at a private Ukrainian hospital and that we would be going soon. This worried me greatly as I could not speak Russian on a level that would allow me to fluently describe my condition and the doctor most likely would not speak great English. However, I was sick, my host mom would be helping me, and so I agreed to go.
Now, some may be thinking that going to a Ukrainian hospital would be good because Ukraine has free healthcare. However, healthcare is free in Ukraine only for citizens and only through state run hospitals. The state hospitals generally do not have a great reputation and, if a Ukrainian has the option, they are likely to go to a private hospital. My host mom took me to one with the interesting name of “Boris.” We went to the front desk and arrived at out first obstacle: the staff did not even know the Latin alphabet. When I gave them my passport, in which my name is written in English, the receptionist could not read it. After struggling a bit, she wrote my name as Johan Joseph (Ukrainians don’t have middle names, and tend to be confused by ours). As is often the case, the most important thing was that we had the paperwork technically complete, even if all the blanks weren’t entirely accurately filled. Thus, we were able to proceed to the waiting area.
We did not wait long before being called to a room. The doctor was an older woman and after hearing that I am American she began to speak in broken English that was good enough to convey that she was an ears, nose, and throat doctor. I explained my symptoms and she began her examination. One of the weirdest things about the visit was that she did not have disposable tools. She used a metal tongue compressor and metal instruments to look into my ears and nose. I am sure they were all sanitary, but it was still very strange to me. She came to the conclusion that I had a throat infection and that I should try to fight it on my own. She advised me to get lozenges for my throat and pain killers for my headache and to wait it out. If, after five days, I was not better, then we could start on antibiotics. With this advice, my host mom and I went to the pharmacy.
Although the visit wasn’t free, it also did not cost much. The doctor’s visit was about 600 hryvnia or about $25. I had the option to submit a claim with my overseas insurance but for such a minimal amount, I did not find it worth it. I went ahead and just paid out of pocket.
There is a pharmacy on every corner in Kyiv. We went to the closest one and got the medicine. However, my host mom suggested I start the antibiotics now because my program had a trip to Moldova coming up. I agreed and began the antibiotic that night. The thing I really needed was nasal and chest decongestion medicine. However, I found I couldn’t communicate easily what these were, and thus found them hard to acquire.
It is hard to be sick when you are in an unfamiliar place and you cannot speak the language very well. Everyone traveling abroad needs to be aware of the possibility that they might get sick and prepare for it. My recommendation is to pack some basic cold and flu medicine with you from the United States. I assumed it would be possible to buy it while in Ukraine, but medicine – including what is over the counter and what is not, and the names of specific drugs and the brand names available can differ strongly from country to country. I was eventually able to find cold medicine and decongestants, but they were not very strong, and I had to take it multiple times a day. The antibiotics and other medicine came to just under $30 for everything. If you are studying abroad with SRAS, you can always ask that someone go with you to the doctor to help translate. Just ask your program coordinator. Also try to go to a doctor that is advertised as an English speaker. This can simplify things. Finally, especially today, you should also make sure that you take measures to prevent getting sick. Vitamins can help, as can exercise. Make sure you bring appropriate clothing and an umbrella. Try to sleep and eat well. And, of course, wash your hands often.