A medico-linguistic adventure

31 Jan 2008, comments

This is the fifth morning I have woken up in a hospital in Madrid. Unless something unforeseen changes the plan, I will be leaving the hospital sometime today, and going home to France tomorrow.

This has been a rather interesting experience, both medically and linguistically. I've learned that it is surprisingly difficult for me to brush my teeth with my left hand; that Spanish nurses are, as a whole, very warm and friendly (and some are very pretty); and that self-medicating minor problems for decades might be a bad idea. I've also used these few days as an intensive language learning experience, and I'm quite pleased with myself on that account.

Perhaps I shouldn't jump to too many conclusions from a single data point, but the socialized health care system in Spain would appear to be working quite well. Admittedly I am in the hospital for central Madrid, near the royal palace, but the level of care provided here and the professionalism of the staff are excellent.

Having a medical emergency in a country where you don't speak the language adds an extra level of scariness to the whole experience. Thanks to my knowledge of French I can understand some fraction of what people say, if they are speaking slowly and clearly, but when I arrived here at the hospital (by ambulance) I could communicate very, very little in Spanish. Fortunately, right after arranging for the ambulance I had the presence of mind to call someone I know locally who was able to quickly join me and translate for the EMTs and ride with me in ambulance. It was reassuring to have Minoru there during that initial period of engagement with the Spanish medical system.

Initially most everyone I encountered spoke either no English, or a teeny bit (and no French, either) -- but in the final tally what I've seen is that many (perhaps most) of the doctors here speak English, some extraordinarily well, but almost no one else in the system does (a few of the nurses speak French pretty well). Meanwhile I've learned enough Spanish to say things like "my arms hurt," "my head is congested," and "I need something for my fever."

A few thoughts for others who might find themselves hospitalized while traveling in a foreign country:

  1. You are going to need your passport. The ambulance drivers insisted on it, and waited for someone to fetch it from my hotel room (the whole adventure started in the hotel, so that didn't take long). I have no idea what would've happened had I not had it handy, but I gather it would've been complicated. The hospital also insisted on seeing my passport, presumably in order to later deal with extracting payment from someone. I don't normally keep my passport with me when I'm traveling, and I probably still won't, but it's something to think about.
  2. If you are a european resident, travel with a valid european health insurance card (model E-111). I didn't have one; I just had the French Carte Vitale (the social security system card), and this caused some concern at the hospital here for a few days until my wife was able to get the French to produce some appropriate paperwork. If I had been in and out of the hospital over the weekend, I think they might've tried to force me to pay them somehow.
  3. If you regularly take any drugs (even things like Tylenol), learn their non-branded names (eg Tylenol is paracetamol). You can't expect foreign doctors to know all of our US marketing jargon -- things like Sudafed and Pepcid-AC may just leave them scratching their heads.
  4. Try to get a roommate who speaks a little English. Despite being hard of hearing and having somewhat broken English, Eusebio was really helpful to me on several occasions. Given how few adults in Spain speak English, I give the hospital credit for finding me a Spenglish speaker to be my roommate.
  5. At least in France and Spain, the hospitals don't provide anything for the patients to wear. Patients' families provide them with clean underwear and pajamas. If you are traveling alone I don't know how you'd solve this problem. "Put on clean underwear every day, in case you wind up in the hospital, and put a few extra pairs and some PJs in your laptop bag in case you have to stay a few days. And maybe your toothbrush and some slippers." Not very practical. Fortunately I had a friend who could bring me the things I needed from my hotel room. Thanks, Larry.
  6. The Lonely Planet Spanish Phrasebook is terrific. I have several other books for learning Spanish here with me that I've used to good effect, but that alone would've been enough to get me past the worst of the language barrier.
  7. And my final piece of advice for travelers: try to get sick in a country where the people are naturally outgoing, like Spain or Italy.

And the bad? In a couple of ways the experience has been diabolical. What put me in the hospital was problems with my esophagus, and my digestion, following a history of problems with choking on things (well, ok, not "things", but food and pills). So after 3 days of a liquid diet what am I served for my first solid meal? A terrifying piece of very bony fish. And now part of my prescription involves some horse pills that there's no way I can bring myself to swallow. I'm grinding them up and hoping that's not going to cause me some other problem. Besides the fish (which was pretty good, I'll have to admit), the rest of the food was only scary because of massive quantities of indigestible grease -- just what I'd serve if I ran the gastro-enterology ward of a major hospital.

Update later the same day: yes, I have indeed left the hospital. And many thanks to all those who've sent their well-wishes.