How New Zealand’s generous healthcare system saved my ass

No matter how prepared you can be, sometimes shit happens

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How many of us have had to endure those “oh shit” moments while traveling? You know, those kinds that leave your head spinning where you’re all like “seriously, did that just happen to me?” I know I seem to have them in abundance.

Sit down and get ready for a wild tale of healthcare for tourists in New Zealand.

Last winter, I had quite the misadventure during a hike to Lake Marian, a popular day hike in stunning Fiordland while I was on holiday to New Zealand. About 30 minutes from Milford Sound, the Department of Conservation in New Zealand lists it as an advanced tramp, something totally within my abilities. Shots of Lake Marian online (even from Liz) inspired me to tackle this hike while on my holiday. Only a three-hour return, it was perfect for me. 

But life is unpredictable as we all know, and the backcountry teaches us many lessons! And sometimes shit. Just. Happens. Can you see where this is going? If you guess it’s me sobbing while being medevac-ed out of Fiordland, you are not wrong!

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

I’ve been hiking solo and traveling around the world for the past seven years, but this was my first time getting injured. And man, was it a whopper! I thank my lucky stars it was in New Zealand, a place that genuinely looks after its people, even its guests.

Fiordland in the wintertime is magical!

New Zealand has saved my soul in more ways than one, but the main reason that I’m so grateful to the country is due to its incredible healthcare system. Read on!

The Lake Marian hike is a 3-kilometer return tramp through the forest and rocky terrain up to a stunning alpine lake. On a good day, the lake can be a perfect mirror reflection. Not difficult. So why the heck did I end up in a rescue helicopter with a dislocated shoulder?

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

It seems humorous now upon reflection, but I slipped on a rock. No, an avalanche didn’t knock me out. No, I didn’t fall off a cliff. I slipped on a freakin’ rock.

Lake Marian is one of New Zealand’s most accessible and beautiful alpine hikes. Walking along enjoying this incredible scenery that only Fiordland can offer, I didn’t realize it had gotten icy. On the other hand, in my defense, the crisp winter air had layered barely-visible coating of ice on the rocks, which I missed. Also, I didn’t just fall onto any old rock. It was colossal, like the size of a giant SUV.

Feeling a searing pain in my left shoulder, instinctively, I put my hand up to feel it. Immediately, I wished I hadn’t. I felt the bone sticking out, definitely not where it should have been.

Oh, hello, dislocated shoulder. FUCK.

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

Because this is a day hike and relatively accessible and famous, I didn’t think to hire a Personal Locator Beacon or EPIRB, which can be used in areas without phone reception to register an emergency who will rescue you.

Alone, I panicked and tried to dial 111 as fast as I could. Even though I knew that an emergency call was hopeless without cell service, I had to try. I tried to stay calm, but I felt anxiety setting in as I slumped over on the rock. 

Freezing and in pain, totally alone, despite inheriting deep levels of anxiety and worry from my mother, I’ve somehow always had miraculous fortune when caught in situations like this — and this case was no exception. My mind was already drifting towards healthcare for tourists in New Zealand – what’s going to happen to me?

However, in less than five minutes after my fall, I heard voices.

It was sheer coincidence, especially since this trail is only moderately popular, and even less so in winter. A friendly couple on their way back to the start of the track found me in not my best state. They were gracious enough to help me. Saved!

*Mountain Safety Council is a great website full of free tools for helping plan your backcountry adventures in New Zealand safely**

I’ve never felt like more of a dumb damsel in distress as I explained to them how I had only just fallen on a rock.

The guy (Kyle) was quick on his feet, carried my backpack, and ran back to the trail’s start to call for help. The girl (Gloria) stayed with me, giving me her scarf to use as an arm sling. Meanwhile, we hiked back together slowly, and I couldn’t have been more grateful to have been rescued by them.

By the time we got back (over an hour later), Kyle had successfully summoned for help via some local construction workers on the Milford Road who had radios. Again, sheer luck.

“I think they’re sending a rescue helicopter for you,” Kyle said.

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

My eyes widened in fear. A RESCUE HELICOPTER? That would surely wipe out all my savings, put me in crazy debt, and I would never be able to travel again EVER to pay it all back. My vision of healthcare for tourists in New Zealand was like what it would be back in the States. Ridiculously expensive.

I asked the construction workers if they could halt the chopper since I wasn’t that badly injured. Doesn’t this happen all the time? I mean, my shoulder bone just needed to be popped back into place, no big deal, right? They just eyed me oddly.

“The nearest medical facility is at least 2 hours away – I think the helicopter is the only solution here,” they muttered.

I didn’t buy any healthcare for tourists in New Zealand. Okay, so not only had I inconvenienced two total strangers on their hike but now I was going to be airlifted out all because of a split-second fall? Embarrassing! And I was going to be poor for the rest of my life. I would never be able to show my face in New Zealand again. 

In less than 20 minutes, the rescue helicopter touched down to pick me up. I was mortified to see a few onlookers even taking photos, who had no clue that they were capturing moments related to some dumb girl slipping on a rock.

The EMT popped my shoulder back into place in mere seconds. The procedure was so quick; I didn’t even realize it had happened. When I finally found words to speak again, I sheepishly asked how much all this would cost.

He looked at me incredulously, laughing in Kiwi fashion. “You must be American – this is all covered by ACC. Don’t worry about any of this.”

I was shocked.

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

Part of New Zealand’s healthcare system is ACC, known as Accident Compensation Corporation. It protects anyone in New Zealand during emergencies and accidents, from temporary travelers like me to residents and citizens from paying anything if they’re injured. According to its official site, ACC is a comprehensive no-fault insurance cover that removes the right to sue for personal injury sustained in New Zealand. 

This system supports a variety of things based on situational needs, such as doctor appointments, equipment, home assistance, counseling, surgeries, support for victims of sexual assault, and weekly compensation of up to 80% income.

ACC is so comprehensive that it not only helps people recover from injuries but also helps prevent them, supporting programs that merit safety and prevention of sexual violence. And of course, ACC also helps fund emergency services such as ambulances and, you guessed it, rescue helicopters.

Somewhat controversial for locals who pay into the ACC scheme, According to the New Zealand Herald, as of February 2020, ACC has spent $15 million on injured tourists in five years, regardless of whether or not they have travel insurance. It doesn’t cover things like regular doctors’ appointments or preexisting conditions. Like you can’t come over here and tap into the full healthcare system. 

ACC spends approximately $4.3 billion a year on supporting people with injuries in New Zealand.

As of recently, New Zealand also has successfully eliminated COVID-19 in the community after a five-week nationwide lockdown.

Let this be a huge testament to the incredible country that New Zealand truly is, from its leadership to its comprehensive healthcare system with its diligent workers.

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

Because of my lucky fortune of being physically in New Zealand, I received the same emergency healthcare coverage as a New Zealand resident. However, I still recommend having travel insurance when visiting too. 

My luck didn’t stop there, though. The EMTs recommended that I fly back with them to the Te Anau medical center for a checkup. I had to rely on Kyle and Gloria, strangers I had just met in this unfortunate circumstance, to drive my rental car back for me to Te Anau – legends. While the helicopter ride was only 15 minutes, it was over a 2-hour drive for them (one drove my car, the other drove their campervan back).

They were my absolute guardian angels.

The ACC-covered helicopter ride was complete with snowcapped mountains, never-ending lush green forestry, crystal-clear lakes, and towering waterfalls that looked microscopic from up above. Even though I was foggy with pain, I couldn’t help but admire the incredible views from the rescue chopper. I’m so lucky.

Trust me; I don’t take this experience for granted. 

I’m so profoundly lucky that my injury wasn’t life-altering. ACC saved me, both physically and mentally. If I needed a rescue helicopter back in California, I’d be footing the bill for the rest of my life and even after my funeral. This experience puts into perspective the severe flaws of the US healthcare system. 

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

Please use my story as a prime reason why you should always take precautions if you choose to hike alone. I was super lucky for many reasons, but please learn from my mistake. I was so fortunate I was in a place with other people. Help was not too far away. Above all, I was super lucky; I qualified for healthcare for tourists in New Zealand without even knowing it. I can’t even imagine if I had been in a truly remote part of Fiordland. 

Always try to go with a buddy if you can, tell your hostel (or any local contact) of your intended whereabouts (so they can alert people if you don’t come back), register with a local DOC center of your intent, and consider renting a PLB or EPIRB. Most importantly, do all you can to be prepared.

And in the case that you run into a solo traveler sprawled next to a colossal rock while on a hike? Please be a good samaritan (like the selfless Kyle and Gloria) and help him/her out. It takes nothing to be kind, after all. 

New Zealand, thank you for being the best country in the world. Your healthcare system saved me (literally).

Have you ever had a major mistake like this? Any accidents in the wilderness? What’s your experience of healthcare for tourists in New Zealand? Spill!  

healthcare for tourists in New Zealand

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15 Comments on “How New Zealand’s generous healthcare system saved my ass

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  1. Unlike my grumpy compatriot I’m very happy that ACC looks after tourists in need like yourself, Liz. NZ depends on international tourism. We’re going to find out just how much, now, given that international visitors aren’t going to be able to get here for a long time. Tourists have contributed hugely to the wealth of this country and it seems like a fair exchange to me, to be able to help out on the comparatively rare occasion that it’s needed. Glad you enjoyed your time here and that you are sharing your experience with other potential visitors. I hope you get to visit again in the future and enjoy more of our beautiful country 🙂

  2. New Zealand’s generous tax payers saved your ass. ACC is not a magical fund that grows on trees.
    We Kiwi’s are incredibly grateful that our healthcare system is geared in such a way that we have support when unforeseen accidents happen, and in many other situations. But when we travel overseas, we pay the (comparatively) minor fee for travel insurance. And when we are home, we pay taxes which form the basis of this Accident Compensation Corporation.
    Yes, it’s great, but let’s be clear about where it ultimately comes from; and perhaps consider thinking ahead and buying insurance.

    1. Hi, please try and respond with something better thought out – no one here said or implied that ACC is a magical pot of gold. Sorry if it was clear but we mentioned quite a few times here and other posts the importance of travel insurance and to not rely on something like this, but when shit happens, it’s great that people are looked after. Also, it’s not all funded by taxpayers or ACC, especially when air ambulances or rescue helicopters are involved. I work quite a bit with this, and half of the funding often comes from public donations to operate, many of which are from people overseas. Please remember that.

      1. Totally but there’s no way to feasibly make people have health insurance if they come here. If you want it to be different, you should head to America and see how we do it over there, then come back to me if you think it’s a good idea

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