Heart trouble requires emergency medical assistance in South Africa

Our World Travel Protection team led a complexmedical repatriation from South Africa to New Zealand during COVID-19

When travellers Wilna and Johan Jansen embarked on a long South African holiday, they never imagined they’d be dealing with a serious health issue requiring medical repatriation.  

However, after several fainting episodes left Wilna requiring near constant oxygen support, it was clear to our medical team that fast action was required. Add in the complications of offering emergency medical assistance and international patient repatriation during the COVID-19 pandemic – when travel borders between countries were closed – this customer case study highlights how proper travel insurance with quality medical assistance means bumps in the road can be handled gently by the experts who know how to help keep travellers safe. 

Here, our World Travel Protection Clinical Services Operations Director Debra Harvey reveals Wilna and Johan’s journey.

What was our medical assistance mission?

Our medical emergency assignment for this case was to oversee our customer’s medical care when she fell ill in South Africa.  

Unexplained fainting episodes and illness had left Wilna Jansen requiring oxygen support round-the-clock while in South Africa, and we were helping her seek the best medical care available.  

Once she was stable, our mission changed from seeking help at her destination to coordinating a patient repatriation for her on a medical flight from South Africa back to New Zealand. Once arriving back in her home country, we would support her in being admitted to hospital for further treatment. 

Who did we help?

Our emergency medical team helped our travel customer 67-year-old Wilna Jansen and her husband Johan, who were travelling in South Africa and based in Pretoria when she became ill.  

The couple held a travel insurance policy with Cover-More New Zealand, and received support and care from our World Travel Protection team as we are the travel assistance provider for Cover-More. 

South Africa savannah sunset travel

What was their emergency medical situation?

In early February 2021, we were contacted by Johan, who alerted World Travel Protection to Wilna’s health issues. We learned Wilna was undergoing medical investigation in Pretoria due to an incident that had occurred 5–6 weeks prior.  

Wilna had a sudden fainting episode inside a local fast-food store, initially suspected to be the result of the hot weather. However, since that initial episode, she experienced ongoing poor health and several more fainting episodes that left her requiring oxygen assistance – and she was now being investigated by doctors in Pretoria.  

What happened to the traveller?

Wilna’s initial fainting episode was unwitnessed; however, it was believed she lost consciousness for an alarming 2–3 minutes. She found herself unable to recall the episode. 

As a result of the fall, Wilna underwent hospital x-rays and was thankfully given the all-clear for serious injury or fractures. However, 5–6 weeks later she found herself experiencing ongoing shortness of breath, dizziness and bloating that lead to further hospital care to investigate if she was suffering from internal bleeding. A colonoscopy was scheduled, and Wilna was discharged as an outpatient to wait for the procedure.  

Unfortunately, Wilna’s health troubles didn’t end there. While awaiting a colonoscopy, she experienced another health episode where she became drowsy and fell. Admitted to hospital on 10 February, it was discovered her oxygen saturation was extremely low. At this time, Wilna was diagnosed with atypical pneumonia and respiratory failure. A diagnosis of COVID-19 was ruled out, and after some oxygen therapy she was discharged from hospital five days later.  

Wilna’s health continued to deteriorate  

While many travel health incidents can be easily resolved, the complex and unknown nature of Wilna’s illness meant that our team needed to liaise closely with her husband and the South African medical team in order to provide care and medical assistance. 

While awaiting follow-ups in Pretoria, Wilna was re-admitted to hospital on 8 March with extreme shortness of breath and was diagnosed with heart failure.  

How did we help?

Based on the seriousness of Wilna’s condition and the high risk of hospital readmission if she remained in South Africa, the Regional Medical Officer recommended patient repatriation to New Zealand.

We coordinated a move to another South African hospital via ground transport in order to see cardiologists, and Wilna was discharged with home oxygen on March 26 – 18 days after her readmission.

While back at her accommodation in Pretoria, it was determined Wilna could only be off oxygen for 1-2 hours without her oxygen levels dropping dangerously low again – so her treating doctor advised she would be fit to fly home to New Zealand on a commercial flight as long as she was accompanied by a registered nurse and oxygen during the flight.

Doctor giving oxygen mask to patient

What happened next?

The global COVID-19 pandemic made travel incredibly difficult, and it presented challenges with this patient repatriation to New Zealand, too.  

We approached many medical repatriation providers about this mission, however, they weren’t operating long haul flights because of COVID. With Wilna comfortable at home in Pretoria and our team working round-the-clock to secure her flight home, our efforts paid off when we were able to get world-leading air ambulance LIFESUPPORT for the journey.  

Our team continued to liaise with LIFESUPPORT, New Zealand’s District Health Board and New Zealand’s North Shore Hospital to secure the permits for Wilna and Johan’s medical repatriation, and on 25 April 2021 they boarded their flight from South Africa. 

What was the outcome?

Johan and Wilna Jansen arrived in New Zealand on their medical repatriation flight on 27 April 2021, and Wilna was admitted to North Shore Hospital for investigation. Tests determined Wilna had a bacterial infection in her blood, and was then scheduled for major heart surgery to repair a leaking valve in May.  

We maintained regular contact with Johan upon their return to New Zealand from South Africa, and Wilna is now recovering at home. 

Johan and Wilna Jansen’s case study is a reminder that accidents or illness can occur at any time – even on a holiday. It’s important to have the right coverage of travel insurance including medical support that includes repatriation cover, so that medical assistance can be provided in the unlikely but stressful event it’s needed. 

How does our customer feel about the support we provided?

Firstly, we would like to thank all of you for your support in this last couple of months. It is with grateful hearts that we are writing to express our thankfulness now that we are back home in New Zealand.  

“Thank you to the team that stood by in this time of need, and thank you to the medical team that followed up every day to find out about Wilna’s wellbeing. It is much appreciated.” – Johan Jansen 

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