For Eric and Sharon Zitaner, encountering a language barrier while traveling abroad this summer could have been more than inconvenient. It could have been life-threatening.
The New York couple took their two daughters on vacation in Israel. The problem: Jenna, 11, is allergic to peanuts, lentils, tree nuts and chickpeas. Kailey, 10, has to avoid gluten, which is found in wheat, rye and barley. Although Eric is reasonably fluent in Hebrew, he didn't want to risk being misunderstood.
The solution: He packed a list, written in English and Hebrew, of foods the girls needed to avoid, so any restaurant waiter or cook could understand. Before departure, Eric also contacted chefs at hotels where they had booked rooms and worked out special menus.
"They prepared everything separately and safely," he said.
Communicating your medical needs in a foreign country is not easy, whether talking with a waiter or explaining symptoms to medical staff who aren't fluent in English. But a host of resources — many low-tech — can bridge the language gap, preserve your health and maybe save your life.
A pocket-sized directory of English-speaking doctors is available from the International Assn. for Medical Assistance to Travelers.
"To join, any donation is accepted as a membership fee," said Nadia Sallese, association spokeswoman. "We have listings of English-speaking physicians who have trained in the U.S. and Canada and so are familiar with North American standards and practices."
Travelers can call (716) 754-4883 or join online at http://www.iamat.org . Another option is a service such as International SOS, a medical and security assistance company, (800) 523-8662 or http://www.internationalsos.com . It maintains more than two dozen "alarm centers" worldwide, staffed around the clock to help travelers needing English-speaking doctors and other medical help.
"It costs between $60 to $80 for a person to become a member for a 10-day trip," said Kevin Morris, company spokesman.
Before the trip, members can upload their medical history, prescriptions, details about allergies and images of their passport onto the International SOS server, Morris said. The information is accessible to the alarm center staff and, with the member's permission, to any physician.
To manage food allergies while traveling, the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network in Fairfax, Va., offers a helpful booklet for $15 at http://www.foodallergy.org .
"It's basically a country-by-country resource that gives you phrases relative to food products and allergies and tells you how to say 'I am allergic,' " said spokesman Terry Furlong.
Furlong advised travelers with food allergies not to eat airline food, if possible.
"Meals aren't labeled," he said. "They are prepared by third-party caterers," so in terms of ingredients, "no one on the plane really knows."
SelectWisely, a company in Wayne, N.J., sells laminated cards bearing a food allergy message in one of 12 languages, said Pam Ahlberg, president and co-founder.
A basic card for a person who needs one food allergy translated from English to Spanish costs $9.50, Ahlberg said. More information: (973) 347-7477, http://www.selectwisely.com .
The allergy network's Furlong said travelers can ask their allergist for an overseas referral before departure, just in case. They also can find a referral online from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, http://www.aaaai.org .
Healthy Traveler appears every other week. Kathleen Doheny can be reached at email@example.com.