#Healthcare, #Brussels Style
I’m not a fan of doctors and hospitals. Now don’t get me wrong, I respect the medical profession. The world would be a mess without healthcare workers–sick people everywhere–coughing, sneezing…dying. We need good doctors, nurses and health facilities. The work isn’t easy, takes years of education and sacrifice, and most patients lack… well, patience.
The source of my angst is simple–fear. Both my parents died after lengthy bouts in hospitals, expelling their last breaths tethered to tubes and monitors. I held their hands both times. You don’t shake those images from your head. As for me, it’s an experience I’d like to avoid or at least defer for a long, long time. Frankly, setting adrift on an ice floe holds more appeal.
I’ve been lucky to reach middle age with good health. My pill intake is limited to an occasional aspirin and daily vitamin D, a result of living in sun-challenged Belgium. Our Golden Retriever, Sadie takes more medication than I do. And she’s a great patient–she’ll take any treatment as long as it’s coated in peanut butter. But sometimes even the healthy need to seek medical attention even those with irrational phobias like me.
My doctor back in #Chicago recommended I get the hernia taken care of a few years ago. I even consulted a surgeon once; he called the procedure ‘routine’. As if! Instead of scheduling the surgery, I slid his card into our junk drawer. Each annual physical, I made excuses to my GP, and merely endured.
But the pain worsened. Our move to #Brussels included packing, pitching, organizing and heavy lifting. My hernia flared.
I can live with pain in low to moderate doses, but I didn’t like how the pain began to affect my life. I gave up running, exercising with weights, and even calisthenics. I didn’t like being benched. Jack LaLanne was still doing calisthenics at age 150 for Christ’s sake. A couple of months back, I had to tell a couple of precious little girls, our good friends’ daughters, that I couldn’t lift them. Enough was enough, I had to act!
So with much trepidation, I ventured into treatment. Not only my first foray into surgery, this was to be my first experience with European #healthcare. Americans hear rhetoric about having the ‘best #healthcare system in the world.’ Usually, such feverish words are bandied about by politicians who don’t know what they’re talking about. Is their puffery based on anything except bluster and national pride?
For me, and I expect this goes for many people, the best #healthcare in the world is personal. I hope that whatever system I find myself in is the best–no bluster or national pride there–just selfish survival. I found a general practitioner here in Brussels, a five minute walk from our home. The system here is very simple. His office is in the first floor of his house, kinda like Donna Reed’s TV husband or Marcus Welby and the hunky Dr. Kiley. There’s no Consuelo, Julia, receptionist or nurse of any kind–just my doctor who speaks French, Flemish and English. He does everything. As a matter of fact, I stood in front of his desk, naked as he took two phone calls, giving one patient their test results and setting up an appointment with another. It was kinda awkward. What do you do with your hands? Where do you focus your eyes? The cost of the visit? Under $40 USD! He recommended I get my hernia fixed before it turned into something more serious, and gave me the name of a surgeon.
After two consultations and an updated cardiology exam, my surgery was set. I looked at the date on the calendar with dread. Each Wednesday brought the procedure one week closer. Unlike the US, the procedure isn’t out-patient. No, this required a full-blown, overnight hospital stay. My last and only hospital stay was at #Swedish Covenant in Chicago when I was born. But okay, the surgeon said it was for the best. “Relax. Enjoy the care. Staff will watch you.”
Once I accepted my fate, I opted for a double room. “I’m an author,” I told myself. “These experiences build characters, story lines and authenticity.” In that spirit of literary excellence, I looked forward to a roommate, hospital food and nursing staff. Why shouldn’t I experience being taken to the curb in a wheel chair upon release? My roommate might provide the plot for a new novel.
My spouse, Jim is the best cheerleader in the world. Thank God. He was there beside me. Knowing how much I didn’t want to be there, he encouraged me along. I envy his fearlessness when it comes to doctors and hospitals. He needs enough bravery for the two of us.
Once at the hospital, I faced a creeping delay. After two and a half hours, I was tempted to put my clothes on and run away. But I persevered.
Two attendants finally arrived. They tucked me into my hospital bed and wheeled me to a line of waiting patients. The line of beds resembled an auto assembly line. After a twenty minute wait, my doctor arrived, had me put a hairnet on and wheeled me outside operating room number 7. Hmm, lucky number, I thought. “You’re next,” he said as if I was waiting at the bakery for sweet rolls. After another 10 or 15 minutes of watching surgical staff walk by me without making eye contact, a surgical nurse came and rolled me in. I took a deep breath–Oh boy, here I go!
He had me scoot onto the operating table where I stared at the tiled ceiling interrupted only by the occasional appearance of the nurse’s hairy nostrils as he set me up. The table was cold, hard and narrow. My shoulders extended over the edges, my toes popped up at the foot of the blanket, and my arms drooped over the sides. I’m a big guy, but really? Why couldn’t I stay on the comfy hospital bed? The nurse swaddled my arms to keep them from flailing to the floor. I was trapped in my blankets like a newborn.
The anesthesiologist, a cheerful little chap, introduced himself and asked where I was from. “Chicago,” I said to the ceiling. “An American?” he replied. “I’m honored to be operating on an American.” Maybe he said that to make me relax. But how do you respond to that? “Well, I’m honored to have a Belgian anesthesiologist,” I said. With his green-masked face peering down into mine, he added, “No seriously. Americans have high standards for anesthesiologists. To practice over there, you need to take an exam.” If I wasn’t swaddled like a mummy, I might have bolted. Was that supposed to make me feel better? “Take a deep breath,” he said. “You’re about to go to sleep. This is the same stuff Michael Jackson’s doctor used.” We all know how that turned out. Then, blackout!
My surgeon rode the elevator with me up from the recovery room to my floor. “Everything went well,” he said. “You had three hernias. We fixed them all.”
Back in my room I was hooked up to IV’s through which I received antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, hydration and a low dose of pain medication. In addition, a tube drained my incision for twenty-four hours. And as some sort of all-inclusive deluxe plan, they administered three respiratory treatments. I remained on my back for twenty-four hours, resting and letting the mesh set. How could this possibly be an out-patient procedure? Hmm, best healthcare system in the world.
One barrier I faced, however, was language. While my doctors spoke English, most of the staff didn’t. My French gets me through menus and markets, but hospitals and medical lingo proved a challenge. My roommate and his wife didn’t turn out to be inspiration for a character or plot either. They spoke only French. I understood only about a quarter of what the wife said. Even after explaining to her that Jim spoke no French, she kept talking to him. She was delightful.
As for the French-speaking nurses, would they mix me up with another patient? I wouldn’t understand enough to alert them. Charts are not kept in the patient’s room, and names are not commonly exchanged like in American hospitals. My imagination ran wild. Could I be sedated and awake missing a leg? Thankfully, sleep put an end to my fretting.
Next morning, my surgeon visited early, at 8am, giving me the all clear. I could leave the hospital once his assistant went over paperwork and next steps. He estimated the assistant’s visit to happen at 9am, an hour later. What a relief! Homeward bound.
But by 11am, there was still no assistant. At 11:30, the nursing staff came in to change my bedding and hospital gown. “No need,” I said with a smile. “I’m leaving soon.” The nurse looked at me perplexed. Pulling a paper from her pocket, she shook her head and spoke in French, “Aujourd’hui? You think you’re leaving today?” I nodded and said, “Oui. Maintenant!” She added with a condescending smile, “Desole. It’s not on our paperwork.”
Quoi! What! C’est ridicule! Panic set in. I texted Jim, ‘May need your help. They don’t know I’m leaving.’ Wasn’t this a Twilight Zone plot? Mustering my best accent, and trying to suppress the anxiety in my voice, I said, “Je pense c’est necessaire appeler le docteur.” Sensing duress and perhaps deducing my intent to flee, IVs, drain tube and all, the nurses humored me by readying me for departure. The assistant showed up–an hour and a half later. I was free.
Overall my experience was excellent. I woke up in recovery groggy, but my chronic pain was gone. The surgeon was great and the nursing staff, professional. And the cost, a fraction of what it would be in the US. Money doesn’t seem to be the driving force of medical treatment over here. Care and treatment seem to be the focal points.
But alas, there was no jello on the food tray and my farewell was anti-climactic. No wheel chair carried me to the curb. Instead, after dressing, Jim and I merely walked down the hall. After a quick wave to the nursing staff, chatting away in their lounge, we were out the door and on the road to recovery.
Time will tell if this positive experience has chiseled away at some of my medical phobia. While I call my decision to seek treatment timely, Jim, with rolled eyes and a scoff, calls it sheer luck that my abdomen wall held for so long. I’m glad I have Jim in my life as he’ll look after me when I fail to do so. He’s the best spouse I could wish for. That’s the beauty of a healthy relationship. And while I may joke that three hernias prove that I do the heavy lifting in our marriage, Jim would merely say it’s a sign of a weak membrane. And that’s the beauty of an honest relationship.
And what’s more, I lived to blog about my adventure….