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The ads for Rosetta Stone, a foreign language teaching method, show an American farm boy scratching his head as the caption reads something like this: "He is a farm boy. She is an Italian supermodel. He has only one chance to make an impression." In a similar fashion, if you become ill abroad, you may only have one chance to get the right kind of medical assistance as quickly as possible.

Local Doctors at the Front Desk

If you're staying in a deluxe hotel in an industrialized country (think France, Germany or Japan), you simply call the front desk and they will put you in immediate touch with their 24/7 house doctor. The only time I did this was in London, admittedly not in a foreign-language country (though Oscar Wilde might have thought differently) and a very sophisticated Polish doctor practicing in Harley Street came to my room. (The tenure of my own doctor, when I lived in London some years before, had expired and he had just retired, it seemed.) You will be in good hands most of the time if you choose this route. In less developed countries, you may not be so certain of the quality of the doctor you get, of course.

IAMAT

Another method is to join (no charge) IAMAT, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers, of which I have to admit I am the pro bono vice president. A registered charity in the US and Canada, it provides a free list of English-speaking doctors throughout the world, with as many as 32 clinics in China, for instance, and other doctors in about 90 countries and 343 cities from Algeria to Zimbabwe. The doctors have all been vetted by an international board of doctors, and they are visited frequently (by people like me) to assure their clinics and practices are up to date. In return for IAMAT's free directory, IAMAT does hope you might contribute something (maybe $25 or more) to the charity. IAMAT, 1623 Military Road (279), Niagara Falls NY 14304-1745, tel. 716/754-4883; www.iamat.org, email info@iamat.org.

Your Embassy

In a pinch, you might get the name and phone number of a good physician if you phone your embassy for help. Perhaps I am too pessimistic, but in nearly 20 years of living overseas, I found a great deal of skepticism about how willingly embassy employees were with giving advice to unimportant strangers, and recall some U.S. citizens saying, "You'd be better off phoning the Canadian/British/New Zealand/Australian embassy than our own." My own occasional appeals for non-medical advice were unfailingly dismissed, wherever I placed them. (The usual response was along the order of "We're overworked and understaffed. Your problem is not critical, so get lost.") But there is something called the American Citizens Service unit in U.S. embassies that is supposed to respond to calls for help, and the Duty Officer is supposed to be able 24/7 to provide information on "medical facilities, on obtaining emergency funds from home, " etc. More information at www.state.gov or at www.travel.state.gov.

When You Can't Get in Touch

I am a firm believer in taking along warning cards such as those issued by Select Wisely. I use them for food allergy problems (they just did some in Arabic for me), but they have cards also for people who have the following conditions, in 15 standard languages (French, German, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) and more than 39 other special order languages (Arabic, Czech, Danish, Tibetan, etc.): diabetes, lactose intolerance, asthma, penicillin allergy, and cards for vegetarian or low-salt diets. The cards from Select Wisely come in plastic, with a duplicate, and cost from about $30. Give them a couple of weeks to get the work done and back to you. Contact them at www.selectwisely.com.

You can also make your own. In a hurry once, noting that Select Wisely at the time didn't appear to have a Czech allergy translation, I went to the web, Googling "English-Czech translations", and found a kind lady in Prague willing to do short translations for nothing. And so I arrived in the Czech Republic a week later with my very own allergy cards, in Czech, printed on my own computer. You can get a wide variety of short translations done for free at www.freetranslation.com, and also print them on your own computer at home.

The Best But Most Difficult

Of course, the best, yet most difficult, way is to learn the language of the country you will be visiting. Maybe just learn a few words about your medical condition and such phrases as "I need a doctor!" or "Where is the nearest hospital, quickly, please!" You can turn to Rosetta Stone, among many other sources, for help, at www.rosettastone.com. Their full Italian course, levels 1, 2 and 3 with Audio Companion, is used on your computer and goes for $549 on their website.

Note: The author is the Vice President (pro bono) of IAMAT, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers, a registered charity, tel. 716/754-4883; www.iamat.org.