Injuring yourself in the Netherlands

Injuring yourself in the Netherlands

Six months ago, I was cycling down the Breestraat in Leiden when I fell off my bike and fractured not one but both of my elbows. The days and weeks that followed highlighted to me that when on the road to recovery, an expat encounters a few more obstacles than first expected.

Sitting on the pavement in the aftermath of the fall, I was unaware that my elbows were broken. Surprised that I was not able to pick up my bike, I walked home cursing at myself for being so stupid and feeling a little embarrassed by my public downfall.

Expat vulnerabilities

It was in the hours that followed that my expat vulnerabilities were exposed. To begin with, because the pain was not too bad, I was able to update my Facebook status to "Helen has fallen off her bike in the high street and bruised both her arms."

By the time my boyfriend Simon came home two hours later, I was sitting sobbing on the sofa unable to move my arms at all. Clearly, there was more serious damage done.

It was then, in our post accident panic, that we realised how little we knew about what to do in these circumstances. In the UK we would have phoned a health help-line or driven to the nearest doctor or hospital but we do not have a car here in the Netherlands and I had no idea who or where to ask for help.

What would you have done? Calling an ambulance seemed a little extreme to us and we decided against. Had we needed to, I must confess I would not have known what number to call. It turns out that the Dutch emergency number - 112 - is the same as the EU wide emergency number. According to Eurobarometer, an astonishing 75% of Europeans do not know that you can ring this number across the EU for emergency assistance.

We decided to call our family doctor or huisarts but to our dismay the surgery was just closing. In the Netherlands, most GP surgeries are closed by 6pm. However, the healthcare assistant was very helpful and gave us the number for the Leiden University Medical Centre after hours GP and Accident and Emergency service. They provide health advice after 5pm and at weekends.

The telephone advice was to go to eerste hulp (the emergency centre) at the local hospital. We took a taxi to Leiden Medical Centre and this was on reflection a good thing to do. The staff were helpful and efficient and spoke English. The hospital was clean and not visibly overflowing with sick people!

At this point I would stress that because you may not speak Dutch, it is very important to be clear about your injury. Mention everything from the start, even if you feel embarrassed about the prospect of time-wasting.

I did not imagine that I could have fractured both elbows and thus, I did not question the doctor when initially only one hand was looked at as a potential break. Instead of getting both arms x-rayed together, the second one was only examined much later after I expressed concern that it felt damaged too.

Still, the whole process was dealt with fairly quickly and the doctor came back to us within three hours with the news that I had indeed broken both elbows. Simon looked at me with astonishment that a simple right turn onto a pavement could have such damaging consequences. I felt ridiculous.

What must the doctor think of me? I cannot imagine a Dutch person ever falling of their bike!

I was bandaged up and given pain killers and we made our way home wondering how we could get through the next few weeks given that I could not bend my arms.

Someone around to help you

This brings me to my last point about being an expat with an injury. Many of us live alone and there will be times when you need to have someone around to help you. For me, the weeks that followed were painful, uncomfortable and ridiculous in equal measures.

Simon devised extra long straws to help me drink my cup of tea. Sandwiches were cut up into small squares and skewered on extended barbeque sticks so I could at least eat while he was at work! Neighbours checked up on me to ensure I was okay.

Let me tell you it was not easy but it would have been impossible on my own. When getting my bandages removed, I asked the doctor what happens when people who live alone injure themselves. He informed me that sometimes they have to stay in hospital while home care can be arranged. Not an option any of us want to take-up!

It made me think. Most of us have friends that we can go to the pub or an art gallery with but do we have someone who we can call on to go to the shops for us? Do you know your next door neighbour, somebody who can easily check up on you in times of need?

Expats should be prepared

Six months later and I am completely back to normal but the whole experience has highlighted to me that as expats, we should be more prepared when it comes to our health and our care. Now I make sure that I have the doctor and hospital numbers saved onto my phone. I know where they are based and how to get there.

I have also had a closer look at my health insurance package which thankfully covered my treatment. And the most important lesson that I learned? If you fall off your bike and land on your hands, bend your elbows!

Useful tips

› The EU emergency number is 112. You can ring 112 for emergency help without country code when in any part of the European Union.

› Learn 1 to 10 in Dutch. Most doctors provide emergency help numbers in their out of hours answer machine messages but rarely in English.

› Locate your local hospital and its telephone number. For those living in Leiden the University Medical Centre website has helpful advice citing who to call in an emergency. 

› You should have registered with a doctor soon after your arrival in the Netherlands. A list of local doctors can be found at your high street pharmacy.

› You can change your insurance company a maximum of one time per year. Talk to your friends about their experiences and see the choice of health insurance companies. Some offer English brochures.

Helen Frew


Helen Frew

I am a freelance policy consultant. I was born in Scotland, worked mainly in Brussels and am now living in the Netherlands.

Read more



Leave a comment