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What happens if you are injured working abroad?

In December 2016, while on a research trip to Côte d’Ivoire, art historian Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi and three others were injured in a horrific car accident. Far from home and unable to advocate for herself, Gagliardi turned to International SOS (ISOS), Emory’s international travel assistance provider, for help.

Gagliardi, an assistant professor in the Art History Department, studies present-day organizations in rural towns of West Africa and the art the organizations have produced for more than one hundred years. In addition to conducting research in museums and archives, she is frequently in the field interviewing the people who make, sell, produce and witness the art she studies. On this particular trip, she also intended to interview elders with first-hand knowledge of some of the key historical moments she’s glimpsed through her archival research. 

None of that was to be, however. The day after she arrived in the country, Gagliardi and two other American researchers hired a driver to take them from Abidjan to Korhogo — a seven- to eight-hour drive over bad roads. Near the end of the drive, while the passengers were sleeping, the driver swerved to avoid a pothole and collided head-on with a large truck. From the side of the road, one of the injured passengers called the U.S. Embassy and another called a family member with instructions to contact ISOS. These two calls made all the difference, as almost immediately following the accident, capable experts were able to advocate on the passengers’ behalf.

Over the next hours, days, and weeks, ISOS arranged for her medical evacuation, including re-routing her destination from a hospital in Paris to one in Geneva when adverse weather over Paris would have caused a travel delay at odds with the seriousness of her injuries. ISOS also kept her family and Emory officials informed of her condition and whereabouts throughout.

When, eventually, doctors in Geneva told Gagliardi she was cleared to leave the hospital but not yet cleared to return home, ISOS, in conjunction with Emory, arranged for her husband to join her so she could continue her recovery in a hotel instead of alone in a Swiss hospital.

“I don’t have the words to explain what it means to see one’s family after a horrible accident and evacuation like that,” Gagliardi says. “At least for me, it gave me some energy and hope that’s indescribable, really, but that I found really important.”

Help for emergencies and more

Gagliardi didn’t realize until the hours after the accident that Emory provided her with ISOS coverage for her work-related international travel, and that’s part of why she is sharing her story now. She gets a lot of questions from other Emory faculty and colleagues who work elsewhere about her experience. What does ISOS do, exactly? Who pays for medical treatment, if such is needed? What does one need separate health insurance for?

ISOS automatically covers all Emory faculty, staff and students who are traveling internationally on Emory-related business, and that coverage provides international medical, security and travel assistance. The service can be helpful outside of an emergency situation. Among other things, ISOS can provide security updates and international medical guidance, help you find translators and interpreters, provide lost document assistance, and facilitate non-emergency medical and legal referrals.

In case of a more serious emergency, ISOS will manage your evacuation. ISOS does not, however, cover the cost of subsequent medical treatment, and ISOS is not itself health insurance. Because Gagliardi was in a work-related accident on a trip paid for with Emory research funds, her medical bills were covered under Emory’s worker’s compensation, but under other circumstances, she might have needed to rely on her own health insurance.

Gagliardi notes the specifics of her situation in order to guide other international travelers in the sorts of questions they need to ask themselves before travel: Is this verifiably a work-related trip, or do I need to consider purchasing my own supplemental evacuation insurance? Does my health insurance cover me outside the U.S., or do I need to purchase coverage supplemental to that, as well? Did I book my travel through an Emory provider so that ISOS has ready access to the details of my trip? Have I created an Emergency Record with ISOS, uploaded key documents such as my passport and medical records, and noted where I will be staying? Do I have a phone plan that will work when I’m traveling so I can call ISOS if needed? Is the number programmed into my phone?

Details and forethought matter. In Gagliardi’s case, a fellow passenger’s decision to carry her phone in her pocket instead of in a bag enabled immediate calls to ISOS and the embassy. Given the extent of the injuries suffered by others in the car, the hours gained by having the evacuation process started so quickly may well have saved lives. It’s a story with a happy ending. Everyone lived. 

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