explainer

What Nicole Fitzsimons' family learnt when she unexpectedly died overseas.

Kate Fitzsimons was fast asleep at her boyfriend’s house when her mobile phone started buzzing. It was around 3am on a Saturday morning in October, 2012. A drunk friend maybe? A prank? She flipped phone over.

Mum calling.

She answered.

“Your sister has been in a serious accident.”
“What are you talking about?”
“A motorbike accident.”
“But Nicole wouldn’t get on a motorbike…”
“Just find her travel insurance details, please.”

Two-and-a-half hours later, another call. The one that changed Kate’s life forever.

To hear Kate’s full story, listen to The Quicky.

Nicole, a 24-year-old sports journalist on the precipice of a career in television, had passed away on holiday in Thailand. She and her boyfriend were riding on a motorbike when a local resident overtook them on the wrong side of the road. As the couple turned into their hotel driveway, the the scooter rider crashed into them at roughly 80km/h.

Speaking to Mamamia‘s daily podcast, The Quicky, Kate recalled that she raced to her parents’ side after learning the news. She arrived to a house full of people, her mum and dad preparing to fly to Thailand.

“The hardest thing was to let go of my mum. I didn’t want her to leave me alone in this country knowing that my sister just died,” Kate told host Claire Murphy. “It was physically the hardest thing letting go of her, but we both knew that’s what Nicole would have wanted, to have Mum and Dad bring her home.”

So began one family’s journey into the complicated, costly process of repatriation – transporting a loved one’s body home from overseas. A process in which grief and bureaucracy collide.

It’s an experience hundreds of Australian families endure every year. In 2017–18, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade supported families in 1,671 cases of overseas deaths; that figure has climbed 35 per cent over the past five years. The top three causes of death for the year were illness (518), natural causes (317) and accidents (207).

Nicole and her boyfriend in Thailand.
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The repatriation process.

When notified of a death overseas, DFAT can offer consular assistance, including help understanding the legal and administrative process of the country, a list of local funeral directors and lawyers, and advice on the estimated cost of transporting the body or remains back to Australia.

DFAT advises that the repatriation process will vary depending on the country's regulations. Some cases may take several weeks, some longer if a coronial inquest is needed to determine the cause of death.

What the consulate cannot do is intervene in investigations, be involved in the legal process or assist with meeting associated costs, which can stand at roughly $20,000 for repatriation alone.

As Nicole Fitzsimons' family learned in the most awful way, travel insurance is crucial in these cases. Kate said the entire process would have left her family roughly $50,000 out of pocket if Nicole had not taken out insurance.

But there was more to it than that.

"People think of insurance as financial support," Kate said. "But honestly the care and the guidance and the empathy that [the insurers] were able to provide my family is honestly what made me most grateful that she had insurance."

Kate and Nicole's parents. Image: supplied.
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From the moment Nicole's parents contacted her insurance provider, the company took care of everything - from covering their accommodation in Thailand, to arranging their flights to bring Nicole's body back to Australia.

"Initially they booked Nicole to fly home with Thai Airways, and Mum was like, 'Nicole was the proudest Aussie girl - I know she'd want to come home on the flying kangaroo,'" Kate said.

"The insurers were able to help do what needed to be done to get Nicole on that [Qantas flight] back home and take one more thing off my my parents plate. Because it was already full in all the worst ways."

Preventing tragedy.

Kate now spearheads the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation, an organisation she founded in 2013 to help educate young Australians about staying safe when travelling overseas. Especially to South East Asia, which remains the deadliest region for Australian tourists - Thailand alone represented 238 of the cases reported to DFAT last financial year.

Yet in spite of those figures, research by DFAT found that 11 per cent of Aussies who travelled to South East Asia did so without travel insurance, and of those 13 per cent falsely believed the Australian Government would contribute to medical expenses.

"I think the biggest message to remember is you're not invincible, no matter where you are in the world. So if you won't take the risk here in Australia, don't dream of taking it overseas," Kate said.

"If the unthinkable does happen if something does go wrong, you are not only without the Australian Government's support and the same kind of level of support you're getting in hospitals here... you're without the biggest support, and that is your family and your friends and those who love you."

For more information about Kate and her mission, visit the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation website.

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