I had an interesting (that’s the most positive word I’m going to use) experience recently that I’d like to share with you all now that I’ve finally finished my exams and final papers!
Two weeks ago, I started to feel sick- feverish, stomach pain… I was annoyed because it was finals time and also right before I was about to go spend 4 days exploring Madrid! I decided it was probably just a virus and that I should push through and go to Madrid anyway- after all, when else was I going to get such a chance? On the train on the way, there, it quickly became clear to me that I was sicker than I’d thought, and by the time we made it to our hostel in Madrid all I wanted to do was curl up feverishly in my bed and not eat anything so that I wouldn’t throw up. I had an achy pain in my side. That night, my worried friends decided that I probably needed to see a doctor and so we made our way to the emergency room.
In Spain, everyone has public healthcare. The system is a little short on money- as is everyone and everything in Spain right now- so, as we discovered, the public hospitals have long wait times, limited staff, and are not at all new, nice, or very clean- but they do do their job. I spent several terrifying hours in the public hospital in Madrid getting tests done, being dragged here and there through the labyrinth of the old hospital and spoken to in Spanish the whole time. Even though I was feverish, scared and upset, I was proud of the fact that I dealt with the whole experience in Spanish and was able to convey, effectively enough anyway, what was wrong with me and understand what the doctors were saying when they spoke to me- which wasn’t much. Part of the reason I was so nervous was that the doctors and nurses did not seem to feel the need to explain anything to me like they would have in an American hospital, so when they finally let me leave I had a prescription for some antibiotics but wasn’t very sure at all what was wrong with me.
The next morning I bought the medicine and got on the noon train back to Alicante- I was too sick to enjoy Madrid and I felt bad dragging down my friends’ trip. By the time I got back to my apartment, I was sicker and couldn’t even keep down the antibiotics. So that night Carmela, who was doing her best to take care of me and was very worried, declared once again that we were going to the emergency room. I was dreading it, but the private hospital she took me to in Alicante turned out to be much nicer- in fact, the nicest hospital I’ve ever been in. One of my professors explained to me later that the private health insurance companies are very high quality and have to keep their rates relatively cheap to attract clientele, because otherwise everyone would just use the public insurance they already have. Spain may be in crisis, but I still think we could learn a lot from their healthcare politics. Anyway, the on call doctor saw me right away and after some tests told me that I had to be admitted to the hospital. They put in an IV and I fell into a dazed sleep, Carmela sleeping on the couch of my hospital room beside me. The next morning when I woke up in the hospital and no one had even explained to me what was wrong with me, what they were doing to fix it, or what my lab results were, I started to freak out. In the States, my mom works in healthcare and so I have always had very good healthcare and also always had her with me at every appointment, asking lots of clarifying questions and having the doctors explain everything to me until I understood. In the Alicante hospital, I tried asking the nurses questions and none of them knew the answers. I eventually had to wait until the doctor came around 11 am to know anything (it was a kidney infection and I needed antibiotics), and every day after that was the same: I was told I would have an ultrasound “in the morning” and no one came for me until 3pm, and then the next day I was told the doctor would come discharge me at 5 and he didn’t come until 8:30 and I wasn’t offered any explanation as to why. I was taken very good care of but I spent the whole weekend feeling confused and in the dark as to what was going on and why no one was explaining anything to me, and meanwhile my mom who I was talking to over Skype was asking me all sorts of medical questions that I couldn’t answer and had no way of finding out the answer too, even though she insisted that the information must be somewhere. It wasn’t all bad: the hospital had wifi, and after the first night I felt practically fine, so I ate a lot hospital food and listened to music and skyped a lot, and also was visited by a few wonderful CIEE staff members and my ever-dedicated Spanish grandmother Carmela… but I was very confused. Monday night I was finally set free, and I’m happy to say that I’m completely better now and, after getting all my labwork in paper form, no longer so confused. Now all I have to worry about is trying to pay my insurance, which is a whole other matter, but the important thing is I’m fine and was well taken care of.
I thought a lot about what the cultural differences that were causing me to be so confused and scared were in order to calm myself down while I was in the hospital. First of all, I know that it was the weekend and that in Spain, everything slows down on the weekend (apparently, even the hospitals) and so since I wasn’t urgently sick there weren’t enough doctors working to come see me often or on time. I also know that in general people in Spain are less punctual, their days are less scheduled, and the fact that the doctor said 5 but came at 8 is not so outrageous to someone here as it is to me the American. I think the fact that the nurses didn’t know very much about my situation and were surprised and confused by all my questions has something to do with the very established hierarchies that exist in Spain that we’ve talked about in my cultural seminar class. I know it is very difficult to become a doctor, especially a specialist who, I later found out, is one of the head doctors of the whole hospital, like the one that I had is, and that they are very respected and revered members of society. I hope I wasn’t rude, but I think I may have been a little more demanding and inquisitive than the usual Spanish patient would have been (and I also kept forgetting to use the ‘usted’ form of verbs when talking to people there) because I am used to doctors who are more personable and try to make you feel very comfortable and understood instead of so acting so lofty. I think that maybe because of the social position of the doctor, there is more a chain of command and less communication between doctor and nurses, nurses and patients, etc. Looking back on it now, it was really an interesting window into this country- after all, the inside of a hospital is NOT something a tourist would ever experience, and it certainly was a test in language immersion.
I’m taking away an appreciation for Spanish healthcare and the social skills of American doctors, not to mention healthy kidneys and even more confidence in my language skills… all’s well that ends well, I suppose!