When Trouble Flies Into Your Forehead: Why Travel Insurance is Always a Good Idea

I couldn’t have looked more out of place if I walked up to the reception desk and said “Hi! My name is Hayley Burgess. International SOS called about me. I’m here from Cuba for my rabies shots.”

“Was that a BAT? Did that just hit you?” Dallas gasped.

It was just past midnight as my friend Dallas and I downed the last of our drinks at the bar. Unable to find a taxi, we started along the dark but familiar route along the Malecon, Havana’s famed coastal drive. The sofa of Havana, as the locals call it. Every night, it seems like the entire city sits along the wall to share a beer and catch up with friends.

Suddenly a black mass appeared in front of my left eye. Wings flapped feverishly, softly thumping my forehead, tangling the hair above my ear before they clumsily bumped past me and into the night.

I froze, unable to process what had just happened.

Up until that point, it had been a typical Havana night at a bar along the coast.

The lights of the Malecon reflected brilliantly on the surface of the water. Groups of friends gathered around white plastic tables, pouring glass after glass of Bucanero beer from the pitchers. A Shakira song drifted down to the stone patio where people sat in the shadow of a long-abandoned Spanish fort. I clasped the seams of my white cotton dress as a warm breeze passed through.

It was exactly what you’d expect from a trip to Cuba.

Like cigars. Mojitos. Live bands playing endless covers of Guantanamera. Classic 1950s American cars. Political propaganda painted on every colorful block. Free healthcare.

But what you don’t really think about is what happens when you run into trouble in a country where you’re not technically welcome.

Not much, as I found out when trouble whacked me in the forehead as I made my way back to my hotel on that balmy Saturday night.

It was so ridiculous I had to laugh, and I repeated the bizarre encounter to my friends the following morning on our bus ride to a beach day at Playa Santa Maria. They laughed along, all of us unaware of the magnitude of the silly event.

The next afternoon I typed out the story to my mom in my 10 minutes on the Internet card I split with two friends. We both “lol”ed before I hurriedly signed off, forgetting the conversation soon after.

It all caught up to me the next morning at the breakfast at our hotel in Old Havana.

I was on a research trip with my university, and there were about 30 of us led by two professors and two research assistants. That Monday morning, we were scattered around our hotel’s dining room, preparing for another day of classes at the University of Havana and meetings with various organizations.

Anna, an experienced traveler and one of the research assistants, slid into the chair across from me. I sipped my typical Cuban coffee – a dark shot of espresso cracked out with mountains of sugar – and smiled across the table.

“So I don’t want to alarm you,” she started. Uh oh. I carefully set my coffee cup on the saucer, not at all sure of where this was going. “But I think you might need to get rabies shots.”

Bats, she said, are known to have rabies. She told a story of a monkey falling on her head in Bali and the three shots in the stomach she had to get as a precaution. She was sure I could get that taken care of at a nearby clinic. I nodded understandingly, my mind wandering back to the footage of Michael Moore and the Americans he rowed over to Cuba for free medical treatment in the documentary Sicko. I felt lucky to be in a country with such a famous system, and was even sort of excited to experience it for myself.

Several hours later I found myself sitting awkwardly across from my two professors at a wiry metal table in our hotel’s lobby.

Apparently, right after Anna expressed her concern, my dad had called the emergency cell phone from Los Angeles. He’d read the emails I’d innocently sent to my mom the day before. Like Anna, he knew about the danger of rabies and bats. And unlike us, he had ready access to Google and all sorts of scary stories about what a bat with rabies could do to you.

I took the phone from my professor and dialed International SOS, the travel insurance agency covering me on the trip.

“The funny thing is, you don’t always feel bat bites,” the operator explained. “And since we have no way of evaluating you, you’re going to need to get a rabies vaccination.” Was she saying the bat might have bitten me? The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. This was going downhill fast.

“We’re going to try to find a local clinic with the vaccine and contact the American representatives in Cuba, but if that doesn’t work we’re going to have to get you home as soon as possible. Once you start to show symptoms of rabies, nothing can be done. You’ve got to get the vaccine right away.”

Aside from educational trips approved by the government, US citizens aren’t allowed to go to Cuba. And after 50 years and counting of the embargo, you’d assume we’re not exactly welcome there, either.

It makes sense. The embargo has severely limited Cuba’s potential for financial success, and most of the population lives in run-down houses and on rationed food. What little money is left is spent on the national education and healthcare systems, of which Cubans are fiercely proud. And despite what the Michael Moore documentary I saw so long ago led me to believe, I wasn’t reaping any of the benefits of that system as a US citizen.

In pretty much any other country in the world, rabies vaccine would have been readily available through the US Embassy. We don’t have one in Cuba. While there are representatives there, they don’t provide the services of a normal embassy and apologetically reported that they weren’t able to help me.

The instructions sent to me by International SOS that evening for my medical evacuation were like something out of a spy movie.

I had two flights: one to Panama City and the next to Miami. A driver would meet me at Miami International Airport and drive me directly to an emergency room in Fort Lauderdale, where they had confirmed the vaccine was available. He’d wait while I received the first dose then drive me to the Holiday Inn at Fort Lauderdale Airport. They’d booked a room. The following afternoon at 4 p.m. a driver would meet me at the hotel and take me to the airport to catch my 6 p.m. flight to Los Angeles. Everything up until that point would be covered by SOS. A doctor would be in contact with me there to organize the remainder of my doses.

I drifted through the sliding automatic doors at the medical center in Fort Lauderdale at midnight, still wearing a billowy, ankle-length, sleeveless dress. A cotton scarf hung loosely around my neck and a pair of plastic black wayfarers kept my long brown hair from falling in my face. My nose and shoulders were still uncomfortably red from the beach trip and my strappy leather sandals were blackened from the grimy Havana streets. A stack of beaded and woven bracelets I’d collected on the trip crawled up my left forearm. I can only imagine the smell of dried sweat and car exhaust that clung to my clothes and hovered in the air around me.

I couldn’t have looked more out of place if I walked up to the reception desk and said “Hi! My name is Hayley Burgess. International SOS called about me. I’m here from Cuba for my rabies shots.”

The woman peered at me incredulously from behind the glass. It became clear that they weren’t expecting me, and I spent the next three hours alone in a small white room. I sat uncomfortably on the thin hospital bed as doctors and nurses circulated through, giving me blood tests and asking the same questions about the incident over and over again.

They didn’t want to give me the shots. As I had assured my professor back in Havana, it was so unlikely that the bat actually bit me. There were no marks. I didn’t feel a thing. I would be fine.

The Center for Disease Control in Washington, D.C. felt differently, and at around 3 a.m. two nurses cautiously entered the room. One grabbed my hand and the other gave my shoulder a comforting squeeze before stepping aside and revealing a cart of syringes.

Their genuinely sympathetic looks terrified me almost more than the long, gleaming needles lined up in the corner. One nurse was there to comfort me and hold me still while the other emptied five painful needles full of vaccine into my muscles.

Two in my left arm. One in my right. One in each thigh. And because they went directly into the muscles, they hurt like hell. Five in a row.

And then I was in the backseat of the black SUV once again, then standing alone in a suite at the Holiday Inn. Just me and my purse, as my backpack was still stuck somewhere in Panama thanks to the lack of US – Cuba relations.

I was getting a firsthand education in just what the embargo meant logistically for anyone travelling between the two countries. It’s not just severed economic ties, which is what I had thought going in. The two countries hardly interact at all, and communication is painful. The airport employee didn’t look surprised whatsoever when I asked about my bag. “If it’s coming from Cuba,” she said, throwing up her hands in a helpless gesture to finish the thought. “Maybe it’ll be here tomorrow, but I don’t know.”

The bag arrived shortly before my car to the airport the following afternoon, and just like that I was back in Los Angeles. I spent the next few weeks getting my remaining three rabies shots while simultaneously battling a stomach bug I picked up from the Cuban tap water. The shots had to be timed out over three weeks, so I reluctantly cancelled the East Coast backpacking trip I had planned. I was out $100 as a result, but it was just as well. The stomach bug had me totally defeated, and I barely got out of bed for an entire month.

While a bat flying into my face was obviously a random, freak-accident type of deal, I learned a lot about how to be ready for the unexpected.

The bottom line is this: travel health insurance saved me unquantifiable amounts of stress and large amounts of money.

It’s hard to say just how much I saved by having insurance for that two-week trip, but it would undoubtedly have been in the thousands. I paid about $175 for the student insurance plan, which I likely wouldn’t have done if my university didn’t require it. But with flights (especially last minute flights between two countries who don’t have friendly relations), a night at a hotel, a car service that not only drove me around but waited the three hours I spent in the ER, and the $245 per rabies shot, it ended up being worth so much more.

I still don’t know if the bat actually bit me, and I never will. The more likely story is that a clumsy bat with poor eyesight ran into me while flying through the city. Not as cool of a tale, though, and since the vaccination process would have been necessary either way, I might as well stick with the possibility that it nipped my forehead.


While it’s unlikely you will need it, it’s not worth the risk. For me, here’s what having the                   insurance meant:

  • While I was in Havana, unsure of what to do and unable to easily access the Internet, International SOS hammered out all of the details of my transportation back to the US, transportation and accommodation once I was back, and called ahead to find out where there was rabies vaccine available.
  •  I didn’t have to pay for anything until I was back home in LA. That includes three flights, private car hire, the first five shots, and one night at the Holiday Inn.
  • My professors and parents could rest assured that I was being taken care of. They were still panicking, of course, but when I didn’t have my cell phone they had someone to call who could track my progress. Plus, they didn’t have to worry about me contracting rabies and kicking the bucket before I made it home. All good things.
  • It was incredibly comforting to know that someone was making sure I got the support I needed, especially since I was on my own after leaving Havana. It was scary to sit in the waiting room at that Fort Lauderdale hospital by myself, but knowing someone else was managing the whole thing made me a lot less uneasy.

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