My credit was ruined while I was in a coma—here are ways to undo some of the damage when disaster strikes

This article was reprinted with permission from NerdWallet.
You are living the best life you can, and suddenly, you feel a sharp pain in your stomach. You are taken to the emergency department. It's a routine procedure that quickly becomes a medical emergency. Your stay at the hospital can be extended by up to three months.

I was in this situation a few years back when my appendectomy became a more serious medical emergency that put me in a coma for several months. While the emotional and physical strain was difficult, the financial burden that I faced after my hospital stay was extremely difficult to overcome. I returned home with unpaid credit card debt, late fees, and a credit score that had dropped.

Over the past two decades, many have grown to fear the possibility of unexpected hospital stays. In a COVID-related emergency, or anything else, one of the most important things you should be thinking about is managing your bills, or in my case, your credit card debt. Unpaid credit card payments can quickly add up and cause serious damage to your credit score.

If you find yourself in a similar circumstance, here are some things to consider. Here's what I did (or didnt do) to help my score stabilize and what I would do differently to undo the damage.

I was responsible for serious consequences due to my missed payments

After my medical emergency, I didn't think about missed credit card payments. I was focusing on my recovery. My mental capacity to manage my finances was sufficient to ensure that I didn't lose my credit score. I assumed that my payments were mostly on time, even if not perfect.

Funto Omojola, a NerdWallet writer, says that she wishes she knew about credit card hardship programs. She was forced to miss nearly four months of payments due to a medical emergency. Courtesy Funto Omojola

The damage was done: I owed hundreds of dollars in late fees for almost four months worth of unpaid bills. My credit score plummeted by nearly 200 points.

A single delinquency can cause a substantial drop in credit scores. Your payment history can make up as much as 35% of your credit score. Even if you have a clean credit history, a late payment of more that 30 days can reduce your score by up to 100 points. Your credit history can be affected for as long as 7.5 years if you have not paid your debts on time.

I was also charged late fees and dings to my credit score. Penalty APR is an increased interest rate that can apply to your balance at up to twice the normal rate. While not all cards have penalty APRs; those that do may charge an additional rate for new charges up to six months.

I tried to repair the damage by making partial payments and getting back on track, but my late fees and my sky-high interest rate made it difficult and costly to pay off my balance. Due to this, and the hospital bills that I had accrued, I was overwhelmed and fell behind in my credit card payments.

Also, see: FICO scores exclude people at the margins, Upstarts CEO explains. Is AI able to make lending more inclusive, without creating bias?

What I wish I knew

I assumed that because I was in debt on credit cards, there were no other options. I could only pay what I could, and things would eventually get better. What I didn't know was that my delinquencies stemmed from a medical emergency and that there were options that could have helped me manage the debt and dealt with the financial strain. These options would have been available to me if I had known.

Hardship programs can help

Credit card companies may offer hardship plans to help with financial difficulties caused by natural disasters, income loss, or an unexpected illness.

These programs can include temporarily lowering interest rates, lowering minimal payments, waiving late fee and/or prolonging due dates. Katie Ross, executive vice-president of American Consumer Credit Counseling, stated in an email. She noted that not all credit card companies offer hardship plans and that even those that do, they don't always explain the process clearly on their websites.

Ross suggested that if your credit card issuer does not make clear on its website that it offers hardship plans, Ross recommended calling anyway to find out what options they might have. Call the number at the back of the card to reach your issuer.


Make sure to plan what you want to say and how to ask before you call.

Ross stated that it is important to prepare for the call in advance. Prepare documentation to explain your financial problems.

For example, in the event of a medical emergency, I would have to explain why I was hospitalized, what caused it and how I was unable to pay my balance. I also need to describe what kind of assistance I required.

Also, see: How artificial Intelligence could replace credit scores and change how loans are obtained

Learn the terms

Not all hardship requests will be granted. Also, each borrower's circumstances will affect the offer of any program.

Ross stated that there is no one-size fits all hardship program that credit cards companies offer.

American Express, for example, states on its website that your eligibility for its financial relief program is determined by your delinquency status or prior enrollment.

It is important to obtain written confirmation that you have signed up for a relief plan. You should be aware of the terms and conditions of your program.

It's okay to take a moment to breathe before you dive in.

It was difficult to be faced with a significant financial burden following my hospital stay. I did not feel that I had enough knowledge about my recovery or how to manage the debt I was confronted with.

Aja Evans, a financial therapist, says that the first step to managing financial stress is to recognize and ask yourself, "Are you OK?" Although the majority of the time the answer will be no, it is important to take the time to process this information.

After you have taken the time to care for yourself emotionally and physically, a plan can be helpful to reduce the stress associated with tackling the future.

Evans suggests that it is easier to emotionally navigate debt if you have a plan.

Other options

There are alternatives to taking out a hardship plan if you are unable to sign up or your card issuer does not offer one.

Talk to a credit counselor

Non-profit credit counseling agencies have credit counselors who can help you determine your options. They can help you create a customized plan to tackle your credit card debt. Ross stated that they could help you to pay off your debt by enrolling you in a debt management plan. These programs have lower interest rates and typically no late fees.

Credit cards for balance transfer

Balance transfers allow you to transfer debt from high-interest cards to lower interest accounts. This can make it cheaper and quicker to pay off your debt. Balance transfer cards with the best rates come with no annual fees and a long introductory 0% interest rate. These cards require excellent to good credit. This can be difficult if you have bad credit. The balance transfer fee is usually between 3% and 5% of the amount transferred.

Add a consumer statement on your credit report

Ross suggested that you add a consumer statement on your credit report. This can be used to explain why your late or missed payments on credit cards. She said that although it won't affect your credit score, the notation can help lenders understand your situation.

Statements should not exceed 100 words and you can add as much or little detail as you feel is necessary for your particular situation.

These statements are as easy as pie, Ross stated. Ross explained that I was unable make payments on the account because I lost my wages during the COVID-19 epidemic.

You might like: A flat-rate, cash-back credit-card is a great way to get started and find out if credit cards are right.

You can usually submit your statement online or by mail. However, the process varies between the three major credit bureaus. For Equifax, you can either physically mail your statement or add it online to your consumer report.

NerdWallet: More

Funto Omojola writes about NerdWallet. Email: