What helpful hints can the average American tourist pick up from big-league travelers like Jimmy Carter and Cyrus Vance?
There's one you don't even have to be a hypochondriac to take to. Carter, Vance and other seemingly tireless globe-girdlers don't go anywhere without a kind of "survival insurance" that's actually easy and free for anyone to copy. Theirs is more elaborate and they don't have to prepare it themselves, but few if any world leaders take off on trips without their medical records.
There's plenty of reason for tourists to do the same. The possibility of an accident or an acute illness is rarely raised in tourist literature, yet each winter skiers are hauled off mountaintops on stretchers and each summer swimmers are run down by boaters. Unwary visitors are hit by automobiles in countries with left-hand driving, and even younsters occasionally suffer unlikely diseases.
Since being disabled away from home means you may be in no position to answer questions, treatment can be significantly influenced by how well you've handled the "catastrophe contingency." Presumably, some of the approximately 10,000 Americans who die abroad each year could be saved if doctors had to do less guesswork.
State Department personnel and other government-employed travelers are usually advised that the best approach is to write down certain key things and keep these notes either with their passport or with their international identification card, places where a doctor or emergency help-giver might easily find them.
"Doctors are terrible examples," says Dr. Franz Rosa, chief of medical operations for the Peace Corps. "I sometimes even forget to take my immunization card."
However, he does insist that Peace Corps volunteers are equipped with a full "overseas health jacket" patterned on the Army's - a file containing a complete personal medical history.
But Peace Corps people are "stayers." The average short-term traveler who doesn't have major health problems doesn't usually need to carry doctors' reports or note things like family history.
"Probably the most useful record for a tourist would be one that tells if you have any allergies or hypersensitivities, as well as what on-going medication you take," says Dr. Eben Dustin, head of the State Department's medical department. He also recommends recording your blood type and eyeglass prescription - and asking your own doctor before you go if there's anything else you should cover.
If you would feel more secure about also knowing the names of English-speaking doctors abroad, you can get a free directory (donations "appreciated") of some who charge set fees by writing to the International Association of Medical Assistance to Travelers, 350 Fifth Ave., Suite 5620, New York, N.Y. 10001. A similar list, including home as well as office numbers, is available (for an annual membership fee of $6 single, $10 family) from Intermedic Inc., 777 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017.
People with severe health problems such as heart disease or diabetes like to wear the medical-information bracelet sold in many drugstores. They are also more aware of treatment problems, and are more careful generally when traveling. Others, though - for example, people being treated for depression - may disregard the need for mentioning that they're on something like lithium. Or an allergy to eggs may be forgotten in an emergency, or even when seeing a strange doctor for something minor, yet eggs are used in many vaccines that may be administered to someone who's judged in need of them.
A good record would mention ALL drugs you're taking, including any not related to disease - something for weight loss, for instance. It would also indentify any chronic ailments and, just for good measure, your immunization history even if you're not required to have this information for your trip.
To be reasonably comprehensive, a good record should also name your personal physician, health insurance (along with the number of the policy) and, if it matters, your religion.
If you haven't memorized it, also jot down your Social Security number. There's hardly a hospital anywhere in the United States that doesn't want to know this immediately.
You can easily organize this basic record and put it on a single sheet of paper. It amounts to genuiely useful - and free - "insurance." If you're headed abroad and want further preparedness, you can send for Blue Cross' free booklet "A Foreign Language Guide to Health Care." Address the Communication Department, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Greater New York, 3 Park Ave., 27th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10016.