Imagine getting a phone call informing you that your son or daughter studying abroad has fallen dangerously ill. You frantically try to obtain and fax over their medical records, but it takes 1-2 hours. When the records finally arrive, they’re useless. Medical personnel can’t read them because they’re not in their language.

Sheryl Hill, the founder of Depart Smart, knows this nightmare all too well. It’s what she went through when her son, Tyler—a kind, vibrant, athletic, and smart 16-year-old with Type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes—got altitude sickness while on a group excursion to Mt. Fuji as a People to People student ambassador in Japan. Tyler passed away at the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center on June 29, 2007. He would be alive if he had received timely and appropriate medical attention. His exciting global adventure turned into unbearable sadness.

Tyler’s death was one-hundred percent preventable. There is evidence he asked his American chaperones for medical help, but none was provided. The Japanese Red Cross Hospital was only minutes away. His American Chaperones were having an alcohol party while Tyler was vomiting violently. Tyler tried calling 911, but in Japan, the emergency number for an ambulance is 119. If he had known how to call emergency ambulance service or ask for help in Japanese he might have survived. Even so, his Japanese doctors did not have his personal health records readily available in their language. There were so many fails.

A language barrier is one of the most daunting hurdles when it comes to international travel. Whether your loved one has a medical emergency, gets lost, arrested, witnesses suspicious or dangerous activity, or has food allergies and can’t read ingredients on labels or a restaurant menu, a few translation tools and an emergency action plan can prevent things from going terribly wrong.

Depart Smart—the only nonprofit working to reach, teach, and engage travelers as active participants in their health and safety abroad—is on a crusade to keep our most precious treasures, the people we love, safe when they travel overseas.

Depart Smart’s premiere 60-minute Travel HEROES Safety Certification Course, including a downloadable emergency action plan customized to your destination, is like a one-stop shop of ideas and resources covering priority aspects of international travel safety based on ten years of survivor investigation and support.


Below are some of the most important steps recommended by Depart Smart to safeguard your health, well-being and prevent language barriers from turning a dream trip into tragedy:

No. 1: Learn the emergency contact numbers for your destination.

  • Not every country uses “911” as its emergency contact number, as we do in the US. Often there are different numbers for fire, police and ambulance. Here is a list of country-specific emergency contact numbers from the US Department of State. Write them down. Memorize them. Save them in your cell phone. Carry them in your wallet.
  • Learn a few key phrases to ask for help and tell responders where you are.

No. 2: Create a digital personal health record.

  • Include the most vital information such as allergies, medications, recent surgeries, resting heart rate, blood pressure, medical conditions, emergency contacts, insurance and any other important details specific to you.
  • Every iPhone comes with an Apple iOS app called, “Health.” It provides a single place where you can keep all your health information. It’s a powerful tool that anyone, including emergency responders, can access from a locked screen, so be cautious about what you reveal. Give yourself plenty of time to become familiar with it. Encourage your family to keep their health info current on their Health app.
  • The Health Vault app is another trusted place for people to gather, store, use, and share health information online.

No. 3: Take that extra step and get critical health information transcribed into the local language(s) with the help of a reputable translation service.

  • Before you choose a service, make sure it is accredited. The International Medical Interpreters Association is a good place to begin your search.
  • Ask your US-based translation professional if they are HIPAA trained and qualified. HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) is legislation providing data privacy and security provisions to safeguard your medical information. Be aware HIPAA is a United States rule that does not apply in other countries.
  • There are several translation services with different specialties. If you’re translating a personal health record, make sure you pick a service that explicitly deals with medical documents. Without that specialized vocabulary, you may not be assured of an accurate translation. Morningside is one high-quality language translation service with a certified global team of 5,000 linguists and a full suite of specialties.
  • Keep in mind some countries have more than one dominant language. If this is the case for your destinations, you may need to get your health information translated into two or three languages for added precaution.

No. 4: Secure Emergency Medical Translation.

  • In most countries, physicians and hospitals are either required to obtain informed consent or at least voluntarily do so, prior to surgery or other medical treatments.
  • If you don’t know the local language, you’ll need the assistance of a translation service or professional to accurately translate for you the methods, risks, benefits, and alternatives and help you provide evidence that you understand and consent to the procedure.
  • Reputable travel insurance companies provide toll-free international translation services 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Make sure yours does. Keep your travel insurance hotline number and your policy number with you always. Make sure your emergency contacts have them also. Travel insurance should not be optional. It can cost $50K-300K or more for medical evacuation.

No. 5: Download and use Google Translate to help you when you’re at a loss for words in the local language.

  • Google Translate is a free service app. It instantly translates speech, text, and handwriting in over a hundred languages. Simply select your language, say or type in the phrase you need to communicate, and the app does the rest. Using your smart phone’s camera, it can also translate text from the camera lens onto the display screen, such as a menu or document, into the language of your choice.
  • Google Translate can be a life-saver in a pinch for a basic translation. But because it’s machine based, it has its limitations and should not be counted on for translating important documents.
  • Some criticize Google Translate because it’s not 100% accurate, but it’s getting better every day. If you have no words but now have 60-70% accurate words, you are probably in a better place.
  • The above five steps as well as cutting-edge information and resources to secure proper travel insurance, map out important locations like hospitals and the US Embassy, select safe lodging, stay on top of country-specific alerts and warnings, plan for financial needs, carefully vet study abroad programs, choose the best travel insurance, figure out what vaccinations you might need, learn about laws and customs, and so much more are delivered in your custom Action Plan when you take Depart Smart’s Travel HEROES Safety Certification Course.

Sign-up Today. A small investment of your time, about an hour, and $100 could help you travel safer for a lifetime.