Saturday, August 22, 2015

Health Care Abroad
By Michael

Sailing Pudgy in the Tuamotus.
I’ve written here before about health insurance (we pay about $2K per year for a very-high-deductible policy that covers us internationally) and our experiences dealing with medical issues while cruising in Canada and Mexico. I’ve always been both surprised by and pleased with the quality and affordability of health care we’ve received outside the U.S. Now I can report on an experience with the health care system in French Polynesia.

We needed to get the girls vaccinated for Typhoid. After asking around, we located the primary health clinic in downtown Papeete, Tahiti. All the signs around the building were in French, but by asking around some more, we were pointed to the window where everything starts. We told the receptionist why we were there. Understanding our desire to get our girls vaccinated for Typhoid, she gave us a ticket with the name of the doctor and office where we would go and wait to be seen. Understanding our unfamiliarity with the system and facility, she kindly left her post to walk us to the office we needed to go.

The office was small and clean, but utilitarian and worn. None of the doctors or nurses seemed to be Polynesian, but French expats. They were dressed casually under white coats. We were in a back room before a doctor within 15 minutes.

This was amazing. During the
heiva at Makemo in the Tuamotus
(heiva is an annual festival of art,
sport, and culture that happens
across French Polynesia), I watched
a dozen of these guys hurl crooked,
home-made spears at that coconut
on top of that pole. See the spear
stuck in the coconut.
“We’re headed for places where Typhoid is a concern; our daughters need to be vaccinated.”

In English, the doctor asked the girls their names and ages and wrote a prescription for us to fill.

“When you have eet, you joost coom back and zee nurse will geev zee shot, okay?”

Oui, merci.”

Windy and the girls hung out in the air conditioned offices while I went across the street to the pharmacy.

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t have it.”

I continued to another pharmacy a couple blocks away.

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t have it—and (tap, tap, tap) looking in the system here, nobody currently has it.”

I returned to the office and reported what I’d learned.

“Just a minute, sil vous plait.”

The nurse spoke with the doctor and he immediately stopped what he was doing and picked up the phone. Then he continued in French to the nurse. A woman standing nearby, in street clothes, turned to us.

“He’s found a pharmacy that has what you need, but…it’s far and you’ll never find it. Come with me please.”

The girls on a spit in Tahanea, Tuamotus.
We followed her out of the office, outside, and down the block. We learned she is the doctor’s wife, having just stopped by for a visit. She urged us all into her tiny car. One of the back doors was broken and the unglued headliner draped uncomfortably across my head. We thanked her profusely. The pharmacy was indeed a ways and we’d not have been able to find it easily.

Medicine in hand, we explained to the doctor’s wife that we’d have to return for the injections tomorrow, that we had to catch the 5:00 p.m. bus (the last of the day) back to the anchorage.

“Hmm, you don’t worry about that, I wait outside and take you back to your boat when you come out.”

Back in the office, without any mention that we’re in a hurry, the nurse spots us, quickly stops to inject the girls, and bids us farewell. We ask how and where we pay. She shakes her head and brushes us off.

The doctor’s wife was waiting for us outside. On the 20-minute drive to drop us off, we learned she is a physical therapist. She has adult children whom she and her husband raised here in Tahiti. She has grandchildren in Paris and Tahiti. She is eager to return to France when her husband retires.

She dropped us off and we thanked her again.

Just like every other out-of-country health care experience we’ve had, I thought: This would just never go down this way in the States.

Not that the health care system in Canada, Mexico, or French Polynesia is without fault, or that the U.S. system is without merit, but to be able to have routine medical needs met casually (in Mexico and French Polynesia we’ve never filled out any forms, oftentimes only our first names are known by the provider), for a reasonable price (in Mexico a consultation with a GP costs $4, a subsequent visit with a GP in French Polynesia cost $35, and we paid about the same in Canada), and efficiently (always quick walk-in service for a GP outside the U.S. and dermatologist and dentist and gynecological appointments in Mexico could always be made for the same day or within 48 hours) shouldn’t surprise my U.S. sensibilities to the extent it does.


Spoonful of sugar needed.
Windy on the pulpit looking for ship-killing shallow
areas as we motored across a Tuamotu atoll--she
spent hours and hours doing this.

Waiting for a coming storm in the Makemo atoll, Tuamotus.

Frances walking the streets of Makemo with our daily
French bread.

Pudgy tied up at the quay in Makemo.

Spectators watching volleyball a competition as part of heiva.

The sky on fire; Eleanor emerging from a dusk swim.

The girls watching sharks, at anchor inside the
Fakarava atoll, Tuamotus.

On Moorea, we toured a juice bottling factory.

The girls and their cousins at dinner aboard Del Viento

Eleanor waiting in the clinic atrium in Papeete, Tahiti.

This is an interesting shot for cruisers and non-cruisers
to see. That dark bulbous thing in the lower-right corner
is a coral head, called a bommie. When they're

present where we drop anchor, we don't want to wrap
our chain around them because it's not good for
the coral and it's not good for our chain. So

what folks do is what we've done here, do our best to
suspend our chain above the bottom so that it
doesn't catch a bommie. It's pretty effective.

We did this just about everyplace we anchored
in the Tuamotus.


  1. Hey crew of Del Viento, we read your posts while on the road. We are envious of your undertaking and sounds like life is treating you all well. Yes, we are on the road with the land yacht for hurricane season but plan to be back in Mexico in October. Enjoy and keep the pictures coming! Namaste

  2. Great picture of floating the anchor chain over the coral!

    An interesting description with illustrations in lieu of your excellent photograph can be found at

  3. I agree with Groggy! I hadn't heard of this before and it is great to learn! Love your interactions with the locals. It always increases my faith in our fellow earth citizens! :)

  4. Traditional exercises can also help trim the belly – including crunches, sit ups, about health


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