It started as a well-deserved vacation to for a close-knit Chicago family. But little did Angela Zamarripa, her cousin Louis Zamarripa and his fiancé Nicole Marx know that one of them would soon be fighting a life-threatening illness in a hospital thousands of miles from their home.
The trio were enjoying Cancun, Mexico, last November when Louis experienced breathing problems.
“If I walked three feet, I couldn’t breathe,” Louis said.
One week earlier, Louis said he was prescribed a medication after he had coughed-up blood. But Louis said he was feeling much better by the time his vacation rolled around.
Unfortunately, Louis was rushed to a hospital in Cancun on the third day of his trip. Doctors diagnosed Louis with severe pneumonia, which developed into acute respiratory distress syndrome. He was eventually placed in a medically-induced coma and needed a respirator to survive, according to his family.
Angela and Nicole soon learned how different Mexico’s health care system can be from hospitals in the United States.
“These people started demanding money from us,” Angela said. “If we didn’t pay them $3,000, they were going to take him off of oxygen and send him to the general hospital.”
Angela said Nicole made two payments of close to $3,000 each to hold Louis’ place at Amerimed Hospital.
“If we stood outside for a breath of fresh air they’d be standing at the door staring at us, making sure that we didn’t leave,” Angela said. It was insane the treatment that we received. No compassion. They were just money-hungry.”
According to Angela, hospital administrators explained to them that the “hold money” would be returned once Louis’ private health insurance information was verified.
More family members soon arrived in Cancun to support Louis after he was in coma. But they said Amerimed continued to demand money.
Louis’ uncle, Jose Zamarripa, told NBC 5 Investigates he paid more than $20,000 to Amerimed to help save his nephew’s life.
“I know medical stays are expensive, but he does have insurance,” said Jose. “Just wait a couple of days or wait till we get it all cleared-up. You are going to get paid.”
The US State Department warned travellers in 2016 that some hospitals in Mexico were engaged in price-gouging, including two Amerimed hospitals near Cabo San Lucas.
NBC 5 Investigates and its sister station, Telemundo Chicago, called and emailed Amerimed seeking comment. But the hospital has yet to respond with a statement.
After several days at Amerimed, Louis was transferred to another hospital in Cancun. Family members said the other private hospital was more accommodating and did not demand money up front.
Louis spent three weeks in a coma in Cancun before he was woken up and airlifted to Chicago on an air ambulance paid for by his employer. He spent more time recovering in a Chicago medical rehabilitation facility, before finally heading home in late January.
“Now it’s outpatient therapy,” Louis said. “I love being at home.”
Louis said he is feeling better. But his bills from Amerimed Hospital are mounting. He was sent to collections and was told he owes around $140,000.
Louis and his family are contesting the bills and NBC 5 Investigates has asked Louis’ insurance company if they can intervene to speed things up. Jose and Nicole said they are also waiting to be refunded nearly $34,000 in “hold money” from Amerimed Hospital.
Still, Louis said he is thankful for all of the support from his friends and family.
“Maybe God gave me a second chance to appreciate people more because in all honesty, they’ve done a lot for me,” Louis said. “I really got to thank my family for being there and taking care of stuff for me while I was sick and paying the money that they paid and that’s my biggest concern. I want to get them their money back.”
Chicago travel agent Giselle Laborde said travel insurance can help vacationing Americans visiting other countries. She said your private health insurance may not even be accepted in some hospitals outside of the US.
“Definitely check with your personal insurance, but travel insurance is highly-recommended. We always recommend it our customers that are traveling overseas,” Laborde said.
Laborde said a family of four should expect to spend about $200-$400 on travel insurance to be covered. She also said travel agents would be able to intervene on behalf of families who are facing a medical crisis while out of the country.