8 min read

Health emergency with a SafetyWing nomad travel insurance? Have $11.5k ready!

How would you feel if asked to pay an unexpected five-figure bill on which your life depended?
Naz Avó on a surgical bed durrounded by the doctors and nurses
Nika's illustration of me being cut open. 

This story is about my experience with recent health emergencies. You will learn about how things play out with a popular travel insurance provider under extremely stressful conditions. I'm documenting the experience to raise awareness among y'all - nomads and fellow travelers. This is a tale to remind us about the importance of reliable health and life insurance. Facts from life. No judgment.

The post is wordy. If you want a gist - skip to the TLDR at the very bottom.

Lifestyle in Dubai

After moving from New Zealand to Dubai in late April I was mostly living self-isolated life. I was avoiding unnecessary exposure to the pandemic world. The plan was to get a jab as soon as the Dubai residency was ready. Days were filled with cook, work, and exercise on repeat.

My friends describe me as a healthy person. I'm a careful eater. In previous years of experiencing South East Asian street food, I've never had a single problem. I pay great attention to what I put into my body. I'm also an active swimmer, yoga, and HIIT enthusiast.

Sleepless night

I had strange gut discomfort on the first day of Eid al-Fitr - May 14th. Finished work a little earlier and decided to rest hoping it'll pass. The night was rough.  Almost no sleep. I got up around 5 AM to dull pain in the middle-right abdominal area. I'll let this slightly redacted copy-paste from the NomadList's (NL) Slack describe the rest of that day:

Anyone had a bad experience with advertised on NL SafetyWing's nomad insurance and how did you resolve it?

I ended up in one of the Dubai Hospital's emergency room yesterday around 9 AM. The initial handling by the Safety Wing's "On Call International" subsidiary was great (while I was paying through the 250$ deductible). They directed me to the best hospital they have worked with previously to do the initial screening. At around 1PM the doctors made a decision to do an emergency surgery (appendicitis) and On Call transferred the case to another party - Medical Audit Professionals (MAP). This is where the trouble have begun.

It was hard to reach them, hard to get any confirmation or information out of them. We had multiple phone calls, they were keeping delaying any actions and asked basic questions like "Where does it hurt? And when did it happen?". This was after the diagnosis was done and the hospital has transferred all supporting documentation with needed procedure cost estimates to "On Call" people. The process of getting payment guarantee confirmation kept me waiting on painkillers for 6 hours in the ER reception.

Can't describe all the feelings and thoughts that went through my head. Having to deal through stuff like that on meds and on the edge of passing out was mortifying. Around 6PM, the surgeon and anesthesiologist arrived from the holiday (it was a second day of Eid Al Fitr) for the surgery. The MAP people still did not confirm the payment with the the hospital. I was scared to death, contacted the Safety Wing support, even though they are just a front to the insurance operation. Told them about the situation but they needed to wait a response from MAP people as well (fucking hell!). They told me to either wait - increasing the chances of complications or death, or pay for the surgery myself.

At this time the hospital admin said I would need to either leave for another hospital or foot the bill myself. The number was 40,000 AED (that's around 12 000 USD) out of pocket!

Scrambled to get the money wired and got a surgery done at around 7:30PM...

Woke up, a little groggy... Now thinking what to do next. Feeling lied to and lost any trust into the ability of Safety Wing and their subsidiaries handling the situation. And wondering if there's some kind of third party arbitrage or whatever the process this? Would want them to cover the bill and the (mental damages?) this whole experience has caused.

TLDR of above: ended up having an emergency surgery that cost me 40 000 AED out of pocket plus 2532 AED for the ER visit/screening - that's around 11 500 USD all together. I did my napkin math wrong when writing the original message. All of that with the insurance company's subsidiary dragging the process. The situation caused unnecessary stress and a health risk.

Screenshot from by bank account for the charge before being admitted from the ER into the hospital.

Claim back-and-forth

The message I wrote on NL's Slack was the morning after the surgery. I haven't checked my main phone at that point. Found out later that the MAP has tried to call me while I was on the surgical table the night before around 7 PM. They only reached me after I got back home from the hospital. The same person who I talked to from the emergency room was on the line. The conversation was brief. They  hung up after I mentioned they led me to extreme distress and I expressed my deep dissatisfaction with how poorly it was handled. From there on I decided to communicate with the MAP organization only through email.

Before being dismissed from the hospital the administrator informed me they had the necessary documents from the MAP and I should be able to receive the money I've paid the day before with a 2.5% charge for the card processing fee. This sounded ridiculous. 2.5% is a considerable amount of money! It calculates to ~290 USD from the 11 500 USD I paid. I rejected taking the money immediately as I wanted to get more information on similar situations.

After getting back home I've started a chat with Safety Wing. They were responsive and seemed to be more than willing to help. After all, they are the ones I bought the insurance from!

Later that day I received a message from Pieter Levels, a Nomad List founder. He was made aware about my situation though the community Slack. Pieter was checking in before messaging Safety Wing to clarify the situation and ask for help.

Side-note: Nomad List is sponsored  by Safety Wing. The fact the insurance organization was closely related to the nomad community I participated in was one of the main reasons I went with this insurance. It just seemed trustworthy.

Screenshot of Tbilisi "Digital Nomad Guide" with Safety Wing as a travel medical insurance recommendation.
SafetyWing is recommended in lots of place on nomadlist.com

I felt quite an uplift! Now it was less of a chance to be yet another "fighting an uphill battle against an insurance megacorp". One more human was having my back in this situation. Thanks Pieter!

The next day I chatted with Safety Wing's head of support Hedda. Talked about a sub-optimal emergency room experience and the quickest way to get the money for the surgery reimbursed. We also discussed how situations like this could be avoided in the future. She assured me the company was already making big internal changes to eliminate future problems.

Illustration of doctor Basim from Canadian Specialists Hospital in Dubai
Dr. Basim Alkhafaji 🖤 I'm forever grateful he arrived to the hospital breaking his celebration of Eid with the family. Illustration by @nika____grgl

A few days later, I visited the hospital for a checkup with my surgeon and a change of the bandages. I went to the hospital's admin afterward. They insisted the 2.5% fee was unavoidable because "transactions with large amounts of money had to be done in cash". With no other option, I took the deal. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!

Luckily, because the expense of 2.5% was caused by delayed handling by MOP the Safety Wing kindly agreed to offset that amount. So far I was happy with the chats with them and felt like they tried to do the right thing.

ER again!

Two weeks passed. From bad to worse - ended up back in ER again with complications following surgery. Set back another ~1100 USD worth of appointments, tests, and antibiotics. Filed another claim with Safety Wing and hoping to get the money back in 40 long days.

Moral of the story

Dubai hospitals are expensive!

For real though. This is just factual documentation of what has happened to me. I hope it serves as a cautionary tale to others. I have a pretty healthy lifestyle: a balanced diet, active, and nothing crazy going on. Shit like this can happen to anybody! Get insured before traveling. If I didn't have insurance, that would have been quite a blow to my finances.

Personal takeaways

  1. Having an emergency fund within a reach is a life saver. There are so many bad ways my first hospitalization could have gone if I didn't have one. It should be secure and not linked to any of your debit/credit cards directly. That said, having the money available within hours is a must. Another option is having a massive credit card limit - I'm not a fan of credit cards😅
  2. Take great care when choosing an insurance provider. There are few options for nomads. I had an amazing experience with True Traveller before, but they are only for UK citizens since Brexit.
  3. Always have your emergency contact saved on your primary phone. You should be able to reach them within few clicks. If you are unconscious and insurance dropped the ball, they could be your only lifeline. Pro-tip, there's a special ICE contact number you can define on most modern phones. Such a number can be called even when the screen is locked.
  4. Take care of your friends and family now. Give to other people more than you think you should. When a hard time comes, some things can't be solved with money, but can make it a lot easier to go through with the support of the trusted ones.
  5. The feeling of death is a great motivator. I'm grateful for a strong reminder about the transiency of life. Funny enough, Mexico went up on my travel wish-list quite significantly 😂

Please, be vocal about similar experience

Emergency room visits are RARE for the majority of people. That's the whole point of having an insurance. It's not about treating a small blister or a flu. It's about having support when extremely rare emergency happens and you don't have time, money and maybe yourself conscious to deal with the billing. In case you are also ensured with SW and have something an experience like this in the future please do reach out. I believe only by documenting such experiences and putting them together we can hold the insurance organizations accountable for improving in the future. Having public notes will serve us, the nomads, travelers and the insurance company itself best in the long run.

Alive and kicking!

I'm thankful to have supportive friends and family. I'm alive! I'm almost fully recovered! Feeling lucky the accident happened in a city with a decent healthcare system. It would've sucked to happen in Myanmar or Liberia, eh!?

P.S. From my perspective, the Safety Wing as a company has done the best it could. It's their subsidiaries that messed up big time. Safety Wing promise to make significant changes in their process in the future to avoid a similar situation..


  1. Ended up in Dubai hospital with appendicitis.
  2. Insurance was helpful but had a tricky culprit - had to pay ~11 500 USD on the spot, unplanned, out of pocket. No cash - no surgery.
  3. Got most of the money back.
  4. Ended up in the emergency room two weeks after with complications.
  5. Paid out of pocket again and filed more claims.
  6. Stay safe! Always be insured with a reliable organization when traveling.

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All illustrations for this post were done by Nika. You can follow her creative adventures at @nika____grgl