Sunday, July 15, 2007

A very sad story

What's to be done when scuba diving off the coast of Paros proves to be unexciting? K decided that kiteboarding sounded like a good idea. And so it came to pass that last Sunday, after a morning of diving, K set off for an afternoon of kiteboarding under the tutelage of Frank, kiteboard instructor from hell. (Actually, he's from France.) Fast forward to 6:30pm that day: I was reading under the grapevine covered pergola with a glass of Greek white wine on the table beside me and a cat curled at my feet. K walked up the path to the pergola, limping, hands held up like a just-scrubbed surgeon on the way to the OR. "Are you ok?" "No, I fell and the kite dragged me." Injuries included a thoroughly scraped and bleeding right knee and shin; a badly bruised and swelling right hand; a similarly battered left hand whose pinky finger looked distinctly crooked. "It's broken - we have to go to the hospital." "No, I think it's just bruised - see, (wiggling pinky) I can move it." "Make a fist." Pinky, refusing to play nice with the other fingers, maintains its queasy angle. "I guess it's broken." We hop into our rented Twingo and K, the only one of us who drives standard, takes us to the medical center.

Greece has a national health care system, so health care is free, even for visitors, which is, in principle, a great thing.

The medical center in Parikia is a large white (of course) building near the center of the port area. On Sunday in the early evening, we walked into what appeared to be the ER entrance and found two very young women in beach wear sitting in plastic chairs in a dingy hall. The reception kiosk was dark and empty. Next to it were metal double doors labeled "Emergency" in English and Greek. Next to the doors a red metal paper number dispenser, the kind you see in front of the deli counter at a supermarket, was bolted to the wall. One of the young women opened the ER doors and waved us in -- turned out she was there with an injured friend. We never saw a receptionist. Inside, two doctors sat on opposite sides of a battered metal desk. Four exam areas were defined by curtains, only two of them with hospital beds. One of the doctors took K to an exam area and started prodding the broken pinky hand. I escaped to the waiting area. A few minutes later K emerged, the broken finger buddy-taped to the ring finger, the leg scrape white with spray antibiotic, and with instructions to return in the morning for an X-ray.

The next morning the medical center is still shabby, but no longer deserted. At least thirty people crowd the waiting area. The reception kiosk is still dark, but there appears to be someone sitting in the shadows. K inquires of the shadowy figure and is told to take a number. D05. We're confused because there's another number dispenser on the other side of the kiosk giving out numbers like C83. Do the Cs get seen before the Ds? The answer is unclear. We sit and wait. Nothing seems to be happening. A young woman in a white lab coat walks by sipping iced coffee and disappears through a door. Someone is smoking nearby. Finally, K sends me on an errand: "Find out if I really need X-rays. Maybe taping the finger is all that needs to be done." I go off in search of an open internet cafe and access to our own Delphic Oracle: Google.

Half an hour later, armed with the knowledge that X-rays are a good idea for broken fingers and that the finger should be splinted as well as buddy-taped, I leave the cafe. Arriving at the medical center I find that K has obtained a "prescription" for an X-ray and has moved to the Radiology waiting area. Unfortunately, the X-ray machine is broken. They expect it to be repaired within an hour. Everyone should wait.

Should we wait or go home and come back in a couple of hours? I recall noticing that there was a private medical clinic near the public medical center on the map of Parikia and set off to check it out. Turns out the private clinic is right behind the public medical center. I walk up the wide marble steps, open the glass door, and step into a cool sanctuary. Behind the modern reception desk sits a professional looking woman in a lab coat. Two people sit in the carpeted pastel waiting room. Music plays softly in the background. I find out that K could be seen in "maybe 15 minutes" and that an X-ray would cost "maybe 70 Euros". I hurry back to the medical center, where the crowd in the Radiology waiting area is large and restless. I sit down next to K who says, "What did you find out?" "First of all, it's heaven. Second, you can get an X-ray in 15 minutes for 70 Euros and there's a doctor who can then see you right away for an additional charge." "70 Euros? That seems like a lot." "But it's so worth it." "Right."

We abandon the world of public health care and gratefully wrap ourselves in the luxury of pay-as-you-go (and hope your insurance reimburses you later) health care. K is given X-rays immediately, waits no more than three minutes to see the doctor, and emerges after 10 minutes with hands in the scrubbed surgeon position -- both pinky fingers have been splinted and buddy-taped and both hands have been wrapped in flesh-toned stretchy bandages. The scraped leg has also been thoroughly bandaged and wrapped. To my lasting shame, I burst into laughter, as does the old Greek woman who is the only other person in the waiting area. K looks like a very sad lobster with giant flesh-toned claws.

The left pinky is indeed broken and needs to remain splinted for two weeks. Swimming might be possible if the splinted wrapped hand can be kept dry. Scuba diving? Out of the question. No more adventures for this trip.

I'm a big fan of universal health care. Here's one of the many reasons why: My Uncle LeRoy worked in highway construction for around 20 years, but always on a project basis, which meant that he never had health insurance. When he was 62 he injured his leg and couldn't work. His leg required tests, treatments, medicine, hospital visits, all of which my aunt and uncle paid for out of pocket. They sold off most of their land. Their truck was repossessed. They borrowed from relatives, but they still couldn't keep up with the bills or afford the continuing treatments that were needed. Finally the doctor who had delivered all their children and treated their family for thirty years said that he'd treat my uncle for free, even though he had recently retired from medical practice. All of which is to say, I know what it's like to live without health insurance and without access to affordable medical care. Sadly, our brush with the Greek health care system reinforced every complaint about national health care I've ever heard. We, who have the luxury of health insurance and enough money to pay for anything the insurance doesn't cover, find it difficult to tolerate the waiting, the lack of attentive service, the poorly equipped hospitals and clinics, all the indignities of health care for the masses. If we lived in Greece, we would surely pay for the superior medical care available through the clinics, so the national health care system wouldn't benefit us at all. This made me very sad, until I remembered my Uncle LeRoy. Had there been a national health care system in the US, he and my aunt wouldn't have had to suffer the indignity of bankruptcy and relying on the charity of a generous individual. Less than perfect health care is better than no health care.


knitsteel said...

I'm so sorry about the accident! That really dampens his activity level.

On healthcare, I think that for what we Americans pay for health insurance, we could have the best of both worlds. People paying for their own health insurance probably pay a minimum of $400 a month for major medical. That's $4800 a year. Even if we all paid $2000 a year in taxes toward a public health system, we'd be paying less and probably still getting good care.

Loz said...

Civilisation owes it's people three things - good health, education and security. In my country we do have universal health care which whilst not perfect, waiting lists for so-called elective surgeries are often far too long, still gives everyone access to a high standard of medicine.