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News / Health / Clark County Health

Vancouver woman returns home after medical crisis abroad

Daughter hopes to raise awareness about importance of buying travel insurance for international travel

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: December 13, 2023, 4:44pm

Vancouver resident Diana James this week returned to the United States after being stuck in a Portugal hospital for the past seven months.

The 72-year-old woman suffered a brain bleed that put her in a coma a day after she landed in May in Braga, Portugal, for what was to be a three-week vacation.

Since then, her daughter Megan Kunze has been working with state and national leaders to arrange James’ medical transportation to Washington, which finally came through at great cost. Now, Kunze hopes to raise awareness about the importance of buying travel insurance that covers medical repatriation for international trips.

On Monday night, James arrived back in the U.S. and was directly taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

“My mother is a very dedicated, loving and kind human being who would be the first person to give you the shirt off of her back,” Kunze said. “But no matter where you go in this world, if you’re not a citizen of that country, they can’t offer those extended services. They can only offer life-saving and stabilization.”

Overseas emergency

After James experienced a subdural hematoma, or brain bleed, she fell into a coma. She received care in Portugal, but she needed treatment from a neurologist in the United States. She couldn’t get here without specialized medical transportation, estimated at $160,000 to $200,000 — an unexpected financial strain for her family.

Kunze said James’ insurance denied covering the bill three times. Kunze said her mother has a pre-existing condition called normal pressure hydrocephalus, or an accumulation of fluid in the brain, that started long before the trip. Kunze believes the stress of traveling with a disability contributed to her mother’ s subdural hematoma.

James’ son, Matthew Oxley, remained with his mother in Portugal throughout the seven months. Kunze said she was prepared to uproot her family’s life and move to Portugal in order to care for her mother. The family felt completely out of options, she said.

The family’s last resort was applying in November for a repatriation loan through the U.S. embassy to help cover the costs. These U.S. government loans help citizens abroad who become incapacitated and cannot pay for their return trip.

Although James is back in Washington, this seven-month ordeal is something Kunze will never forget. Kunze said she and her family are continuing to raise awareness and money to pay off the $144,000 repatriation loan.

Kunze said she plans to open a nonprofit to help others who are going through similar situations, as well as spread awareness about the importance of medical and travel insurance.

“I think that my only way of healing from this has been serving in a capacity to educate others about this so they don’t find themselves in this situation,” Kunze said.

This story was updated to clarify that Kunze advocates for travel insurance that covers medical repatriation, as well as details about James’ illness.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.