Dear Mr.Riddell,

 

We would like to thank you for sending your claim form and supporting documentation into our office for our consideration, and apologise for the delay in our response to you.

 

We would also like to advise you that we have assessed your claim today; however, in order for us to complete the assessment of your claim, we require the following information from you:

-          Written confirmation from travel agent/airline/hotel outlining the amount they reimburse you for every cancellation cost

-          The first consultation note from GP/doctor related to your sickness condition

 

In the meantime if you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to contact us on 0800 630 117.

 

Kind Regards,

 

The Travel Claims Team

Allianz

 

Dear Melanie,

Please forgive me for calling you Melanie. You signed your correspondence to me ‘The Travel Claims Team’, which I think you would agree is a bit cumbersome to use in a conversation. You are probably not named Melanie, and in fact you may be male, or your gender identity could be anywhere on the LGBTIQA spectrum – who’s to know? But I’m a little old-fashioned in the sense of wanting to humanise these sorts of interactions. Otherwise we might as well have your computer talk to my computer, and not engage each other at all. Melanie is a lovely name, and I think most of the Melanies I have met have had good solid characters softened with a hint of kindness. So I’m not at all trying to be disrespectful in addressing you by that name.

My name is Mike. You can call me by that, rather than the rather formal greeting of ‘Mr Riddell’. Let’s pretend, just for the sake of this correspondence, that we are two real human beings, communicating with each other.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to be transparent regarding our little chat. Whenever I ring your insurance company, I am advised that you will be recording my conversation in the interests of something or other. Excuse me for saying so, but this seems like a potential inefficiency in terms of use of resources. You should just subcontract the GCSB to provide you with whatever information you require, given that they are already recording. Just saying.

Anyway, to get to the point, which you might be despairing of ever arising, I too am recording our tête-à-tête. I don’t use a tape recorder or a computer to do the job. You see, Melanie, I am a writer. And as such, I tend to record things in written words. It may be a trifle idiosyncratic, but that’s my lot in life. You could think of it as a personal impediment if you like.

And to be completely honest with you, it’s not just for my own therapy that I’m doing this. There is a long and complex story regarding our interaction over a travel insurance claim. More of that later – much more, Melanie, than I imagine you are interested in. The nub of the matter is that after needing to cancel our travel plans, which amounted to a spend of almost $13,000, I personally managed to obtain refunds of the majority of that amount. What is left in contention, after your excess is deducted, is probably around $600 in potential claim. But I paid $400 for your WebJet Travel Insurance policy, which is non-refundable. So what is at issue is the sum of approximately $200.

The thing is, Melanie, I estimate I have so far spent 60 hours of my time compiling various pieces of documentation requested by you under the terms of your policy. I’m no mathematician, but I think that works out at $3.33 per hour, which even for a writer is a fairly poor rate of return, supposing I was to be successful with my claim.

So, here’s my candid admission – I’m setting all this out in words because I think I could probably earn at least $200 by publishing this little reflection in a suitable journal. What do you think? I have the feeling people might be interested to know what lies behind the over-confident security they feel in purchasing travel insurance. So if you can’t find your way to eke out a loss of $200, I might not be in deficit at all. Brilliant. Though not so much from your point of view, I suppose.

Alright, now that we’ve got the preliminaries out of the way, let me begin by telling you my tale. It involves a bit of personal information, which I hope doesn’t unsettle you, but I imagine you are privy to all sorts of medical trivia in your job.

As I’ve got older, I’ve had trouble peeing. I have it on good authority that I’m not the only aging male in this predicament. It seems inevitable, but it’s both embarrassing and annoying. Embarrassing because of the sheer amount of time spent dribbling into the lavatory on each visit, and annoying because it can require 3 to 4 trips to the toilet each night. You’ll understand, Melanie, that I’m not expecting sympathy for this, but just setting the scene.

The cause of this condition in older men is something known as BPH – Benign Prostate Hyperplasia. It could equally be called FBP, which I leave to your imagination to translate. The problem is, you see, that the prostate (a singularly unnecessary organ, in my considered opinion) enlarges in such a way as to obstruct the normal passage of urine from the bladder. Men don’t talk about it much, because they know the response from the GP will be a DRE. You probably don’t want to be eating your morning tea while reading this, but DRE stands for Digital Rectal Examination. And digital means a finger, not an electronic calculator.

As it happens, my GP is an attractive vivacious woman who has become something of a friend. You’ll probably agree that inviting a DRE from a friend is not an attractive proposition. For that reason I rarely discussed my urination trials while consulting my doctor. However, under pressure from family and friends, I finally owned up.

The answering response, predictably, was the snap of a latex glove. It’s difficult to know what one should discuss while undergoing a DRE. I’ve not found the answer in any social etiquette guides. To cut to the chase, my GP was satisfied by the outcome of her investigations that there was no cause for alarm.

But for my comfort and peace of mind, she offered me a referral to the Waikato Hospital as a potential candidate for a TURP. This, dear Melanie, is not something used to clean enamel paint from surfaces, but rather a Trans Urethal Resection of Prostate. It’s quite a mouthful, like ‘The Travel Claims Team’, but what it amounts to essentially is a rebore. I know a bit about rebores, because my brother liked buying old American cars that frequently required one.

This particular rebore (and I do hope you’re not eating) involves the insertion of an instrument called a resectoscope into the urethra through the tip of the penis. Somewhat akin to an electric drill, it trims away bits of the prostate to make a bigger passage for urine to flow through. TMI, I hear you saying, and indeed this image does not bear contemplating.

On January 11 2017, I duly turned up at the Urology Department – only to find it was temporarily closed due to a sewerage problem. Ironic. But I was still able to be consulted in another part of the building. A young Registrar attended me, explaining that he hadn’t done much of this sort of work before. He led me through a checklist of questions, while constantly scanning his computer. I’d done a urine flow test that he seemed disappointed in. “You’ll have to do better than that,” he told me. I refrained from stating the obvious – that my lack of flow was the reason I was there. Sadly, he found it necessary to perform yet another DRE. His findings concurred with my GP’s that there were no lesions or lumps, and that everything appeared rosy.

After checking with his superior, he scheduled me for a TRUS, which is apparently a pre-requisite for a TURP. Look, sorry to keep introducing acronyms, but you’ll understand they come with the territory. A TRUS is a Trans Rectal UltraSound biopsy. It’s a fancy name for another unpleasant procedure, which resembles having a stapler shoved up your bum. A needle punches through the wall of your rectum into your prostate, and retrieves small samples of tissue for examination. This happened on 9 March 2017.

The year was well under way, and my wife and I were looking forward to our meticulously planned trip to Canada, leaving at the end of August for six glorious weeks. I will have more to say on this matter – I’m sure you’re eager to hear. My wife was turning 65 on 31 March, and I was busy planning a surprise gathering to mark it, featuring jazz piano. While this is not a fact strictly relevant to my claim, it’s what human beings wander off on when they’re having a real conversation.

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. 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 the 29th March 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 carpark 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 more 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, purchased through WebJet, while you are writing on behalf of Allianz, and 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 afore-mentioned 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 and watch films a lot.

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 along the way 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 with myself that I could even arrange details with the French-speaking hostelries via the assistance of Google Translate.

It would have been glorious, truly it would. But in consultation with my doctors, it soon became apparent that I would be in no condition to be travelling then. 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 seems less engaging than the photos of 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 lot 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.

I spent hours literally 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 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 Marisa – I’m happy to report that she used her name in a very convivial and unabashed fashion. However, I do 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, which I’m happy to share with readers in whatever forum I can find, 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. Subsequently I developed a bladder infection because of this. 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.