Managing a Health Condition Abroad… 16 Strategies to Support You

It can be extremely stressful when we or someone we love becomes ill abroad. As well as the (very normal) physical and mental turmoil of illness, we often find ourselves dealing with additional challenges that are unique to international life.

At the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference in March 2018, I got together with professional healthcare and vitality coach Carolyn Parse Rizzo for a “Kitchen Table Conversation” on exactly this topic.

Those taking part in the discussion ranged from parents of children with serious medical conditions, to partners of seriously ill adults, to expat physicians, to former or current patients. It became clear that all sectors of the international community share the challenges of living overseas with a medical condition. Missionaries, international corporations, researchers, government departments, romantic expats, relocation experts, and many others also took part in the discussion.

Below are some of the common challenges that emerged from this fascinating discussion with expert expats and expat experts alike! We also offer some sound, supportive strategies to help you overcome these difficulties.


Common challenges when illness strikes abroad

  • Isolation (the most common challenge reported) – includes being alone in a hospital room or recuperating at home, and being isolated in a remote area of the world
  • Lack of support – away from our usual support system, we may miss emotional support as well practical support (e.g. like someone to collect kids from school or bring meals to the house)
  • Poor knowledge of the local healthcare system – its process, coverage, and payment protocols, sometimes leading to financial stress and/or crisis
  • Unfamiliarity with private insurance options and coverage
  • Lack of trust in the local medical team/treatment
  • Miscommunication or misunderstandings with healthcare providers, especially when there is a language barrier or cultural communication differences
  • Physical discomfort/pain
  • Emotional discomfort/pain – guilt, self-blame, doubt, sense of loss and grief, anxiety/depression, hopelessness and helplessness
  • Overwhelm – a long list of tasks to complete, and not knowing where to begin
  • Parenting may become more difficult, especially if one parent must split time between medical visits and home routines; children may also need extra emotional support at a time when the parents’ emotional reserves are low


16 strategies to explore and cultivate

The following pointers have helped countless expats to keep paddling through rough waters…

  1. Shift your mindset from being a “victim” of your circumstances to the leader of your own (or your loved one’s) healthcare. Think of yourself as the “Multidisciplinary Team Leader” or the “Cross-Cultural Care Coordinator” when it comes to your family’s healthcare.
  2. Be proactive: plan what you can, prepare, and educate yourself about the diagnosis and treatment protocol, your medical coverage, and the local medical system.
  3. Be aware of your (or your loved one’s) personal coping style and the quality of energy you bring to the table.
  4. Prioritise self-caresleep, relaxation, movement, essential oils, nutrition and therapy/coaching can help get us to get “unstuck”.
  5. Practise mindfulness – this can mean learning to be in the present moment; carving out time for a regular practice of stillness, meditation or prayer; connecting breath to movement; and noticing small pleasures and joys.
  6. Work through feelings of guilt and blame for what happened to you or your loved one. You may prefer to do this with an experienced counsellor.
  7. Pay attention to the labels you use – for example, do you see yourself as a “survivor” or a “patient” or “victim of…”?
  8. Seize the opportunity to practise a new hobby or do something that brings you joy.
  9. Embrace humour when possible. Laughter helps us to relax, has health benefits, and reminds us of a bigger picture.
  10. Choose carefully what you share, and with whom.
  11. Choose your attitude and how you respond to situations – it’s okay to get help with this!
  12. Have faith. This may mean turning to your religion, or turning towards a life philosophy that holds meaning and hope for you.
  13. Expand your support system to include local people, professionals and online or face-to-face groups.
  14. Use social media consciously! It can be a great source of support and information, but it can also be a source of stresswhen there is oversharing or unhelpful feedback – or when it intensifies our tendency to compare ourselves, or our lives, with others.
  15. Practise gratitude for what is working and right. Consider starting a gratitude journal to capture these moments of appreciation.
  16. Celebrate large and small victories!


You may want to consider seeking professional support. By working with an experienced psychologist or coach, you can learn new approaches and skills, as well as specific techniques to help you cope with difficult emotions. You will also have a safe place to express your thoughts and feelings, find solutions, and feel happier.

If you are experiencing some of the challenges above, please know that we understand. Our thoughts are with you and we are sending you great love and strength.


What would you add to this list? What insights do you have for those facing illness abroad? Let’s share our tips and support each other!

© Vivian Chiona

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