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Madagascar-chameleon-by-Pelin-Karaca

Handling illness in the field: the do’s and don’ts

Jul 18, 2019 |

Tips and Resources

| by Molly O'Brien

Leading group travel is an exciting and worthwhile experience and also one that requires sufficient preparation and responsibility. Unfortunately, even with ample preparation, sometimes travelers fall ill in the field.  When this happens, it presents a challenge for the individual but need not affect the group dynamic as a whole.

Here we’ve outlined the general do’s and don’ts and your role as a leader for dealing with sickness in the field. Handled well, there is potential to turn a challenging, unpleasant situation into one where your participant feels supported and able to get the most out of the experience.    

Blue-footed-Boobies-by-Debbie-Jordanphoto by Debbie Jordan

Do warn travelers of potential risks || Don’t incite panic

Whether it’s something as innocuous as fatigue from jet lag or a serious condition like dysentery, keeping yourself and your travelers informed with potential warning signs and symptoms for illness before and during the trip can go a long way in preventing an illness or treating it immediately upon onset. Provide accurate and honest information that outlines potential exposures, without going into frightening detail, but also do not withhold important information.

Encourage travelers to do country-specific research. Two reputable websites include the US Department of State and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which provides country- and region-specific vaccination recommendations and other health precautions relevant to your destination. In order to prevent anxiety, stick to these sources or vetted websites, as illness and internet searches can make for a fear-mongering combination. The goal is preparation, not panic.

If your traveler has any pre-existing health conditions or concerns, it’s a good idea to recommend they check in with their primary care physician prior to departure for individual recommendations best suited to their needs while abroad. 

Elephants-by-Tom-Carr
photo by Tom Carr

Do be an advocate || Don’t be a martyr

Suppose despite all the preparation and safety precautions, someone gets sick. Your traveler or “patient” will likely fall into one of two groups: “the grin and bear it, I’m fine – I don’t need anything” or the “Oh my gosh this is horrible, I require a great deal of attention and assistance” category.

Being sick is an all-around unpleasant experience. Being sick abroad, without the comforts and control of home, adds another layer of discomfort entirely. However this individual presents behavior-wise, keep that in mind and remember compassion is key. That being said, for the individual who is determined to tough it out and has a hard time expressing needs, you may need to take initiative and be an advocate for this person. Check in with him/her often about how they’re feeling, and offer specific help (sometimes people don’t know exactly what they need until it’s offered) like a slower pace, a chance to rest, fluids, etc. Remind them they have the option to take it easy, opt out of certain activities, or even rest at the hotel for the day. Encourage them to advocate for themselves as well, and that if their condition worsens to alert you or the in-country guide to seek further medical attention.

The individual who requires a lot of assistance and attention can present a different type of challenge. It’s important to ensure that your traveler feels cared for. However, if it’s exhausting all of your attention and begins to affect the group experience as a whole, use your resources. Work with your in-country guide as support to balance the needs of the group and the ill participant, especially if someone needs to be accompanied to the clinic or hospital.

 As a leader, your goal is to support your traveler and ensure their needs are met while not sacrificing all of your attention or the group’s experience taking care of one person. 

Sea-lion-Galapagos-by-Reinier-Munguia
photo by Reinier Munguia

Do exercise caution || Don’t ostracize the person

If the illness in question is contagious through contact or airborne transmission, work with the in-country guide to take additional precautions to ensure that the infection does not spread. As flu season approaches, this recommendation is especially pertinent. Special measures can be taken, like having tissues and trash bags (for used tissues) available on the bus, hand sanitizer to be dispersed, and Lysol to spray down seats (done by guide or driver) in between uses. You also have the option of stopping at the pharmacy and picking up disposable face masks. Travelers can also be mindful of not spreading illness using simple methods like covering their cough or sneeze, washing their hands often with soap and water, not sharing food and drink with others, and if necessary, hanging back in the hotel room – if the illness is particularly contagious, like the flu. As always, if necessary accompany the participant to seek medical attention.  

“When a person is ill, the first instinct is to stay away, but we don’t want the individual to feel ostracized,” says Etel Castillo, Associate Director of Program Quality at Holbrook Travel. It’s important to balance the concern for maintaining the health of the group, while also not excluding the traveler who is sick. As a group leader, your goal is to be sensitive to the needs of the individual and the group as a whole. Using the safe practices listed above affords the best opportunity for both the individual to be included and the group to feel protected. 

Madagascar-chameleon-2-by-Pelin-Karaca
photo by Pelin Karaca

Do use your best judgment || Don’t diagnose

Unless you have a medical degree and diagnostic equipment on hand, when a traveler falls ill in the field there is no way to be entirely sure what’s ailing them. So what do you do? Use your best judgment with the information that is being presented to you in the moment. Use your resources. Your in-country guide is an invaluable resource, who is familiar with the country, common illnesses, local pharmacies, doctors, clinics, etc. If necessary Holbrook Travel has a 24-hour on-call emergency number to help with any issues that arise in the field – you’re not alone handling the situation. And finally, there’s something to be said for trusting your gut. When in doubt, seek out medical treatment. A few “wasted” hours at the clinic or hospital may be worth the peace of mind to fully enjoy the rest of the program with a clean bill of health.

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