a visit to a Greek hospital during the Crisis

This has been a rough winter for S and me, health-wise.  He’s been sick with various colds and flus five times since October.  As his loving, small-apartment-dwelling wife, I’ve managed to avoid only one of those.  Back on New Year’s Day, just as he was getting over an annoying but not particularly serious week-long stuffy nose, I came down with it.  At first, it was just annoying.  But after the first month of it and somewhere around the six-week mark, it started to get really tiring.  It had no other symptoms, so I didn’t go to a doctor.  Then S got the flu.  Then I got the flu, combined with my now two month old stuffy nose.  Suddenly other things started to happen, like me going deaf in my right ear.

So, today, we decided to have me looked at.  I had never been to a doctor in this city and as it turns out, only two doctors in the whole city accept our insurance, and neither of them sees patients on Wednesday afternoons.  So we did what all Greeks do:  we went to the pharmacy instead to ask for advice.  Usually the pharmacist will just give you whatever the doctor would have prescribed.  Greek pharmacists are extremely well trained and are very knowledgeable about a whole range of medical problems.  They are far more involved in patient care than pharmacists in the US, who often never even come into contact with patients at all, preferring to send their assistants to deal with the pesky customers.

However, pharmacies aren’t open on Wedneday afternoons either.  So S got online and found where the ‘duty’ pharmacies were, the two pharmacies that are open during the time when all the others are closed.  So off we went, to ask for their advice.  The pharmacist asks me what’s wrong.  “I woke up deaf on my right side.  I’ve had the flu since Saturday….”  The pharmacist looked at the other pharmacist.  “You need to go to the hospital.  That could get ugly.”

So, off we go to the hospital, to the Emergency Room.  Only the patient – no spouses, no friends, no nobody is allowed to come with you into the ER.  I fibbed and said I needed S for translation purposes, so the gate-keeper let him come with me.  There were about 3 chairs and no desk, no nurse, no nothing.  S found a security guard sitting in a wheelchair and asked her if there was a ENT doctor on staff that day.  She hailed a nurse who happened to be passing by, who said she’d call someone and ask.  S trailed off after her.  Good news: there was one!  So we were able to get out of the ER and go to the External Clinic, which is basically doctors’ offices at the hospital, which are usually only open in the morning.

We wandered the labyrinthine halls of the hospital – narrow, dark, dingy, no signs anywhere, equipment scattered around, overflowing garbage bins.  We pass a shrine with lit candles and a heavy smell of incense.  The only sign of life is a fully-stocked mini-market selling packaged junk food.  We come out into a long, teal-painted hallway.  There are patients trying to sleep in some of the rooms.  The hallway is cold.  At the end of the hall there’s a sign for the ENT Department.  A pleasant resident notices us walking down the hall and invites us in.

As I explain my symptoms, the doctor sends S to the Hospital Bureaucracy Office to get a paper stamped and signed.  The doctor does an exam, gives me a professional ear cleaning with no warning, and then starts asking me if I have pain, headaches, and various other things.  I don’t.  He’s not satisfied.  “You don’t have the symptoms of a sinus infection, but I still want to do a cranial x-ray.”

S is back with the stamps, so he sends us to Radiology.  We get lost at least three times trying to find it, but eventually we do.  When we get there, S explains briefly what we’re there for.  The radiologist sends him to the Hospital Bureaucracy Office to get a paper stamped and signed.  While I wait for him to come back, I read a small piece of paper on an office door, announcing that “the staff of the Hospital has not been paid since the 3rd quarter of 2011.”

S comes back with the stamps, and I’m taken to get my cranial x-ray, which of course takes about a second.  Then S and I wait for two minutes while it’s processed.  The radiologist gives us the x-ray and the bureaucracy paper.  We make our way back to the ENT Department.

The doctor herds us back into his office.  He puts the x-ray up on the light.  “You have a sinus infection.  See that white area?  That should be charcoal black, like your mouth.  You have it on both sides, but mainly on your right side.”  He goes on to explain in great depth what this is and what we can do about it.  He writes me a prescription for an antibiotic that’s not on the list of things I’m allergic to, steroid ear drops to help with the deafness, steroid nasal spray to help with the stuffiness, and tells me to flush my sinuses with sterile saline four times every day.  He also says that when I shower, I should soak cotton balls in olive oil and put them in my ears.  The olive oil will prevent water from entering my ears.  He reminds me to bundle up and not go out with wet hair.  He spends about ten minutes entering all the numbers and codes necessary for the new government mandated prescription drug program, which requires all drugs prescribed to be entered into a national database.  This is supposed to reduce prescriptions and waste, but it is clearly time consuming for a hospital doctor.

The doctor says to come back in 3-4 days if my hearing doesn’t improve, but in any case, to come back in 8 days so he can evaluate my progress.  He’s spent about forty-five minutes with me, providing me with a full exam, an ear cleaning (kind of neat – never had that done before), a cranial x-ray and reading, and a very in-depth explanation of the problem.  We paid 5 euros for his services.   There was no waiting at any point, unless you count the one minute for S to get my x-ray paper stamped, and two minutes for the x-ray to be developed.

As we walk out of the hospital into the snow, a young man walks in carrying four heavy blankets, apparently for a family member who is in the hospital, and who isn’t able to stay warm with the hospital blanket alone.

We go back to the duty pharmacy, and I hand the pharmacist my prescriptions.  “Well, what did they say?”  “Sinus infection.”  “It’s good you went – he’s prescribed an antibiotic.  Definitely the right thing to go to the hospital.”  She fills my four prescriptions plus the syringe.  “12 euros and 84 cents.”  As I leave, she and the other pharmacists tell me they hope I get over my sinus infection quickly.  “Stay warm!  It’s cold out” they say, as I go back into the snow.

My conclusion:  things are not always as they seem.  The hospital is ugly, drafty, dreary, and in some ways downright unpleasant.  But there was no waiting, the ENT spent as much time as one could possibly ask, the x-ray was performed and read immediately – and I didn’t have to “insist” on having one done (I had an illness go undiagnosed for 3 years, leading to ultimate organ removal, because no American doctor out of the dozen I went to was willing to do an ultrasound or x-ray).  I was given a well-rounded treatment, involving not just pills but a whole series of topical treatments as well.  And I was invited back for hearing tests and tympanography in three days if necessary.  There were no appointments, the doctor did all the paperwork himself, there were no nurses involved – the doctor took my history and covered my allergies, etc.

It is easy to jump to conclusions when you see a Greek public hospital.  It is easy to say “this place looks like a dump!”  It does look like a dump – but it isn’t one.  It’s a hospital, with well-trained (if unpaid) doctors, with no wait, with no struggles to get services.

You could look at the papers, and the running around for stamps and signatures, and say “what a lot of useless bureaucracy!”  But you would be forgetting that there’s no need to make an appointment, no need to ‘fight’ to get your instant ear cleaning and x-ray.  If you have your paperwork in order – and there is no reason why you wouldn’t – it’s not particularly difficult:  if it were difficult, I’m sure it would have taken S more than a minute each time.

You could look at the full trash cans, the dark hallways, and say “this place is unsanitary.”  But it isn’t.  The trash that’s overflowing is the mini-market trash, not biological waste.  The bathrooms are old and very, very ugly, but they are clean.  The hospital had no smell at all – not the ‘hospital antiseptic’ smell, nor any other.  It just smelled like nothing at all.

You could look at the man bringing blankets, and say “the care here is lacking.”  But you wouldn’t know the whole story.  I didn’t ask him why he was bringing those blankets.  Maybe he was donating them.  Maybe his relative wanted his or her comforting blankets from home.  I didn’t find the care lacking at all.  And I can only speak about the care I received.

You could look at the international media, which talks about how if you visit a public hospital in Greece and want a doctor to treat you, you have to give him money under the table, the so-called “little envelope.”  The five euros we paid?  That’s what it costs on our insurance plan to see an ENT.   The little envelope?  I’ve never seen that in real life.  Neither has my husband, who has lived here for 33 years.  I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, but I can speak for us.

This is not the first time I’ve been in a Greek hospital – that organ removal I mentioned up above?  That was done in Greece – a week after a doctor insisted on giving me an ultrasound for something I didn’t even tell her was bothering me.  There, again, the care was stellar; but that was in 2010, before the crisis was as intense as it is now.  I want to concentrate on this experience:  in the depths of the crisis, a hospital whose employees haven’t been paid since the 3rd quarter of 2011, working in a hospital with obvious infrastructure problems, in a working-class city.

Last night I was thinking about all the things that have hit us and those around us since The Crisis began.  Poverty, hunger, unemployment, illegitimate government, police violence, the end of “green” programs for the protection of the environment, increase in sales tax, income tax, property tax, increases in electricity costs, doubling in heating costs, 40% increase in the cost of public transit, gas for $10/gallon, constant strikes, every citizen being treated by the government like a criminal, foreign technocrats writing our laws, an unelected banker for a prime minister, a terribly corrupt media, the selling off of public assets for a penny on the dollar, insulting anthellenic propaganda from “allies” in the Eurozone, homelessness, suicides, ‘cultural clinical depression,’ the closure of public television channels, the disappearance of textbooks from schools, the end of fellowships for qualified postgraduates, the drastic reduction in the minimum wage and non-minimum wage scales, the furloughing of public employees, the sharp reductions in retirement pensions, the constant inflation in the price of basic food items like flour and sugar, the cuts to the health system, the constant political scandals and bickering and finger-pointing…

out of everything we’re all experiencing, the thing that is bothering me the most today is the unbelievable surface coverage by the international media of the Greek Crisis.  They are covering the Crisis, but they are covering to a depth of several millimeters.  One reason I translate articles on this blog is that I know that many – if not most – English-language articles about the Greek Crisis include mistranslations.  I saw a video of a major European news network announcing that the Greek Parliament had passed the most recent deal a full 24 hours before they even voted on it.  I saw the BBC show video clips of the riots in December, 2008 for the shooting death of a teenager by a police officer, labeled as “Athens Riots” during 2011 – as if they were current.  I’ve read multiple articles where politicians are given the wrong titles.  I’ve read many mistranslated quotes.  I’ve read about how Greece called for a Parliament vote “at midnight to reduce the effect on the markets,” ignoring the fact that the Greek Constitituion requires votes of that type to be at midnight – and always has.  I’ve read multiple articles freaking out about Giorgos Papandreou’s ‘decision to hold a referendum,’ when Papandreou, as prime minister at that time, didn’t even have the constitutional right to call a referendum.  But what bothers me the most isn’t these examples of ignorance.  Ignorance is forgivable, even in journalists, because they’re human; none of us can be an expert in everything, and there happen to be very, very few journalists writing in English who are experts in Greece.

What bothers me is the lack of depth.  The acceptance that one need not scratch the surface.  One can develop an entire story around a single weak anecdote.  One can mention several things about Greece that are certainly different than in other countries, and draw the conclusion that things must be wretched and wrong here, just because they are different – not for any other reason.  One can ‘shock’ one’s readers with pictures of dilapidated hospitals, with schools with no textbooks, and so on.  One can walk around the center of Athens for a week, and presume to speak for a country of 11 million people, spread out over mountains and plains, coasts and farms, islands and cities, urban metropoleis and microscopic villages, men nearing retirement and newborn baby girls, Greeks and immigrants, and so on.  One can take a picture of a person throwing a rock and draw conclusions about this person’s political beliefs.  One can write entire stories about “life in Greece” and “this is what’s wrong with Greece,” without ever having visited the country.  All of these things are considered acceptable by the English-language media-consuming public.

Well, no.  I don’t accept that.  That is crap.  In a time when newspapers and journalism as a whole are under threat from new media, the only thing professional journalists have to offer is their professionalism, their ability to go deep into a subject and to pull multiple sources of information together, weigh them, and draw reasonable conclusions.  But they aren’t doing that.  They aren’t even coming close.  You, who consume the English-language media, are consuming garbage.  And you have the right to know that.