Mike Riddell continues his conversation with Melanie from the Travel Insurance Claims Team. (Read Part One here.)
My next appointment for the Urology Department was 29 March. I was eager to get it under my belt, to get my results and be able to move on to getting the anticipated rebore. To my abject despair and shock, the doctor informed me that I had prostate cancer. Not only that, but it was Gleason Score 10, which is as high as the scale goes. The most aggressive and fastest-growing form of the cancer going. Ten minutes that changed my life.
Let me explain Melanie, since it might be relevant to my insurance claim. In the 64 years since my entry into the world, I had never in my life been in a hospital other than as a visitor. I was a fit, healthy, vital man with a wide range of interests. I didn’t do ‘sick’.
I know, Melanie, that you’re only interested in the date when I became aware of my condition, and whether under the terms of the policy this was a pre-existing condition or not. Fair enough. That’s your job. My father was an insurance agent many years ago. Not in a predatory sense. He sold life insurance to men in the Addington Railway Workshops. You’re no doubt too young to remember such a thing as Railway Workshops, where thousands of people were employed making and repairing things.
Dad had himself been a railways man. He loved going to the Workshops, where he felt an affinity for the workers, and got to know something about their lives and families and hopes. He wasn’t much of a salesman, but he sold a huge number of policies to people who trusted him. They knew his face and he knew theirs.
I digress. What I wanted to say was that rather than just a medical diagnosis, for me March 29 will always stand out as an existential crisis. Within that short consultation, I was suddenly confronted in a visceral way with my own mortality. Do you know anything of that, Melanie? I mean, not just as someone behind a desk checking whether various boxes have been ticked, but as a human being who sometimes lies awake at night wondering about the purpose of it all? Have the shadows of death ever crept across your playground?
I sat in the hospital car park and messaged my wife. “It seems I might have a bit of cancer,” I said.
You don’t want to know all the details of the procedures that followed. The MRI, the bone scan, the PET scan. The upshot of them all was that the cancer was prevalent and active, and needed to be treated ASAP. A radical prostatectomy was scheduled, which turned into a five-hour operation that the surgeon described as one of the most difficult he’d performed in his long career.
Coming back to my father. He was 92 years old, and still living in his own home with great support from home help. In the midst of all my own troubles, Dad had a fall and ended up in hospital. We argued strongly for him to be returned to his own home, against medical advice. They finally relented and took him back to his favourite armchair and his cat. But within the space of a few hours, he had two more falls, and was taken back to hospital.
It was now incumbent on me to find suitable care for him. In the last days before my operation, I flew down to Dunedin and arranged the details of his transfer to hospital-level rest home care. It was salutary to see my opinionated vigorous old man in his condition as an incapacitated frail patient who couldn’t feed himself. On my last day at the home I kissed him on his forehead, though he didn’t know who I was anymore.
Now, just for a moment touching on the point of this story, which you’ll be relieved to know is still the matter of the claim I submitted in regard to the travel insurance, it seems you are underwritten by AGA. Though your parent company seems to be Allianz SE, a German company. In 2016 that conglomerate made a tidy profit of 10.8bn Euros. It puts my $200 into perspective, doesn’t it?
The insurance was in regard to the aforementioned Canada trip. It was one of those ‘trip of a lifetime’ ventures for us. Most of it was to be spent in Eastern Canada, and particularly the French-speaking part, which is delightfully idiosyncratic. Not that either my wife or I have ever been to Canada before, but we read widely and watch a lot of films.
All of the bookings were done in the latter part of 2016. I did not use a travel agent. I mention this because you persistently ask me for letters from my travel agent. Seriously, who uses one anymore? I booked it all online. I was a bit anal about it, and booked travel and accommodation for each and every day of the planned six weeks. Four of the places were through Airb’n’b. Have you heard of it Melanie? It’s a marvellous system in which people connect with people for a mutually beneficial outcome.
The rest of the places were hotels and auberges for the extensive road trips we planned. Some of these were booked through Expedia, and others through Booking.com – yet more dealing directly with the individual hosts. It’s marvellous what it’s possible to do online these days, isn’t it? I was chuffed that with the assistance of Google Translate I could arrange details directly with the French-speaking hostelries.
It would have been glorious, truly it would. But in consultation with my doctors, it soon became apparent that I would be no condition to be travelling. In fact, at the very time I should be sampling bagels in Quebec City, I would instead be commuting to Hamilton for radiation therapy. Equally unexplored, yet not quite as entrancing. The surgeon wrote us a letter to that effect, which you have somewhere on your desk.
Of course each individual booking (flights, trains, rental cars, ferries, accommodation) came with its own cancellation policies. You will understand this, because similar to insurance policies, bookings involve a whole lot of subtext that no one reads because it’s in small print and much less engaging than the photos of all the attractions.
For example, our four Airb’n’b properties all came with ‘strict cancellation’ policies. That means that any cancellation will result in forfeiture of the entire amount of the accommodation charge, which must be pre-paid. So I thought that would be a lost cause.
But ever the optimist, Melanie, I wrote to each of the hosts, just as I am writing to you. I gave them a copy of the surgeon’s letter that you have. I apologised for mucking them around. And do you know what? All of them agreed to a full refund of the money we had paid. Isn’t that remarkable? People talking to people, just as we’re doing now. And they offered prayers and good wishes for my recovery.
There was a bit of work involved, of course – part of the 60 hours I invested while wondering if I would live beyond the end of the year. In retrospect I’m not sure why I bothered, because I was of course working on your behalf. I was appealing to the compassion of my hosts so that the amount of claim you would be responsible for was minimised.
For example, I spent hours on the phone to a Canadian airline who kept passing me on to someone else. They all doubted there was anything to be done. Until finally I ended up with one supervisor, a woman, who was deeply saddened to hear my news. She authorised a refund on the spot. It was in my bank account the next day. You have to have faith in people, don’t you?
You have asked me for ‘Written confirmation from travel agent/airline/hotel outlining the amount they reimburse you for every cancellation cost’. I hate to disappoint you, but that’s not the way it works on the interweb thingy. I have provided you with credit card statements showing every refund coming into my account and identified them for you. I’ve also provided you with a detailed breakdown of amounts paid, and amounts refunded. At $3.33 per hour, sometimes you just have to draw a line under things.
For a while there I was corresponding with your colleague (who, I’m happy to report, used her name in a very convivial and unabashed fashion.) However, I confess I got a little testy with her during the long process of completing and assembling all the information you seem to require for assessing a claim. I suggested to her that it seemed to me to be ‘avoidance through exhaustion’.
I have a friend in the insurance industry, and I understand that this is a standard practice to wear claimants down until they give up in frustration. Of course I would not suggest you are doing such a thing, as this is my first email from you.
Look, I don’t want to get offside with you Melanie. But I think most people like me, who purchase travel insurance to compensate for unforeseen circumstances, would regard my situation as an example of the very reason for taking out such insurance in the first place. My experience seems to undermine that faint hope.
I suppose you’re wanting to dismiss my claim as arising from a pre-existing condition. I am guilty, in that I was born with a prostate. I didn’t get a choice in that outcome. Every other anatomically intact male is in the same boat.
As to prostate cancer, neither I nor my GP nor any of the consultants had any idea until the biopsy results in late March. The fact that it was Gleason 10 means it could have started growing a week or a month or even 3 months before. No one knows. It happened. Bad shit happens. That’s why we have an industry such as yours.
Oh, my Dad again. While I was still in post-op recovery, he died. I had to fly down to Dunedin to take his funeral just two weeks after extensive surgery. I needed to leave my catheter in to allow me to travel. Because of this I subsequently developed a bladder infection. I’m not looking for sympathy. But it may explain why this is not the best time to be asking me for more information.
I do feel my $200 might be better earned through publication. I’ve thought a lot about life and death in recent months, and about what is really important in life. I think most of it has to do with the people we interact with, and the way that we go about it.
I don’t know about you, Melanie, but I don’t think we should prematurely give up on simple values like kindness and communication. I didn’t find anything about that in your policy. But I’d like to make a claim on it.
Editor’s note: Sadly, Corpus was not able to pay Mike for his time writing this piece. Not even $3.33 an hour. So back to you Melanie …
Mike Riddell is a New Zealand novelist, playwright, poet, and screenwriter currently residing in the Waikato. He has a PhD from Otago University on the spirituality of James K Baxter. Following diagnosis with prostate cancer, he has recently completed a work on the experience entitled Wonky Ponk Down Under. Mike is enjoying life as a grumpy old man.