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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Das Krankenhaus: Or how I got Pneumonia in Berlin and (hopefully) live.

One way to learn about a new place is to go to cultural centers, museums, eat the food and meet new people. Another way is to get an incapacitating, sometimes even fatal, ailment. I chose the former, but the latter chose me. And once again, my lack of assertiveness got the best of me.

It started out with fatigue, aches in strange places, and a sudden lack of appetite, even for beer, even during a World Cup game. Then the coughing started: wheezing fits of hacking that caused people on the street to steer clear (or was that the dog?). Each cough caused my eyeballs to strain against their sockets, and made it feel as if my windpipe would implode. One fit was so violent that it threw my back out (which in turn was wracked with a sharp pain with each cough). I ended up prone and delirious. The only problem was, we had things to do, so I had to pull myself up and stagger down the street to school offices in far-flung parts of the city. This was during the recent heat wave, by the way; 90 F plus himidity. And the subway is at least ten degrees warmer, kind of like a moving sauna, with everyone packed together, trying not to look at each other or at the guy with the accordian trying to collect money. And then there was the guy coughing as though he had tuberculosis. That was me.

I drank lots of fluids and tea. I ate vitamin C and turmeric until it oozed from my pores. I took hot baths in spite of the heat. I slathered my body with Vicks vapor rub as though I were a menthol turkey getting ready for Thanksgiving.

That natural stuff, it soon became clear, wouldn't be enough. I needed some Nyquil and Aspirin, stat. But when I went to the grocery store, I only found more homeopathic/naturopathic remedies. Okay, I thought, it's pretty progressive to have this stuff in the corner store, but where's the heavy artillery? Turns out that in Germany, you can't even buy aspirin in the store. You have to go to the Apotheke, or pharmacy, and then specifically ask for what you want. You even must explain your symptoms. This was a challenge.

"Ich habe ein schlimmel Husten," I said, only to be answered with the usual Gatlin-gun, incomprehensible Deutsch. "Ich verstehe nicht," I continued. "Ich spreche nur ein Bissen Deutsch. Langsam bitte."* And so it went until I got some kind of nasty tasting syrup that was probably good enough, along with a box of aspirin. Proud to have communicated successfully, and relieved, I went home and started pounding the stuff. No improvement.

In fact, things started getting worse. When I slept on my right side, things were moderately okay -- I'd only erupt into coughing once every hour or so. But when I rolled over onto my right side, an eerie sound emanated from my lungs. It was reminiscent of tinfoil balls rolling across crumpled newspaper. That is not a sound that should come from a human body.

My kids started looking at me with that so-I-guess-I'm-about-to-be-a-quasi-orphan look. And Wendy gave me that why-didn't-you-get-life-insurance-when-I-told-you-to-you-jerk look. And it seemed prudent to get some medical help. All the doctors were closed, so we had to go to the emergency room, halfway across town. This entailed more walking; more subway rides; more walking. Now, before you socialist types get all excited about me taking advantage of that free European health care, you should know something: Health care in Germany is not free. In fact, they are on a mandatory health insurance system, just like the U.S. will be soon enough. I haven't been here long enough to get that insurance. That meant I had to pay 100 Euros up front, and they'll bill me for the rest later.

The Berlin E.R. was a grim place, with people all around who seemed barely to be clinging to life. So when I told the receptionist that I had a bad cough, she gave me that what-a-sissy snicker. When I told her I thought I might have pneumonia, she looked at me with a questioning frown. So I read her the German word that I had written down in my notebook: Lungenentzundnung. Then she almost laughed, but sent me onward. I told the doctor about the cough. I got the same look. I told him about the pneumonia, and he smiled: Ah, another American hypochondriac. "Surely it's just the flu," he said. Then I told him about the tinfoil sound in my lungs, and about the color of the stuff that was coming out of them with each cough. His eyes got big. He took my blood**, my urine, and an X-Ray of my chest.

One universal trait of health care everywhere is the waiting. I waited, and waited, and tried to study some German, and doodled some weird, disease-addled stuff. And then I waited some more. Wendy and the kids went out for lunch and visited the Brandenburg Gate. I sat in das Krankenhaus, listening to weird beeping sounds coming from the patient beside me, and a coughing that sounded like vomiting coming from the next room. Finally, the doctor returned.

"Okay, Mr. Thompson...," he began. But before he could give me the diagnosis, someone down the hall screamed. The doctor ran out. There were yells, an alarm went off, another skerfluffle, and the sounds of footsteps running urgently down the hall. Apparently someone got badly hurt; one of the people passing said something about "in der Augen," or "in the eye." Ouch. So, anyway, the doctor finally returned. And he calmly told me I had pneumonia. He said outpatient treatment was possible, but that I could have some kind of antibiotic-resistant strain that I picked up in a hospital or something, so I should probably be admitted. I explained that I hadn't been in a hospital in years. I didn't explain the flawed logic of staying in a hospital in order to treat something that can only be caught in hospitals. I also didn't explain that I couldn't really afford to stay in the hospital. I just told him, No thanks.

He sent me back to the Apotheke instead, where, after a bit of a runaround dealing with regulations (I'll try to explain the German attitude toward rules in another post), I was issued the most potent cocktail of antibiotics I've ever experienced. I've been on them for three days now, and they've purged everything in my body. Except the cough.

Now, I wait. And see if these Euro-antibiotics will win, or if the disease will. In the meantime, I've got another ordeal to face: German bureaucracy, which even Germans say is "rather unpleasant." Immigration, first, then the "Job Center."

* This would be a good place to insert the joke about how I got home and opened up the box and found a bunch of blue pills with "V"s on them, thanks to my bad German skills. But that's too obvious, and besides, I think I got the right stuff.

**Have I ever mentioned how much I hate hospitals, needles, etc.? I gave blood once, though. I was a strapping young high schooler, and my girlfriend persuaded me to do a good deed. So I went to the classroom where the blood drive was happening late in the day -- I was the last to get poked and sucked dry. When I came to, the blood people were all gone, replaced by the school baton twirling troupe or something, dancing and yelling and throwing things in the air. The blood folks had packed up and left, leaving me a half-eaten cookie and a paper cup full of Coke which, in my dizziness, I spilled.


jayman said...

That was friggin hilarious Jonathan. Only you could make a nightmare laughable. Hope you are feeling better.

jayman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
julie said...

Hi Jonathan,
I hope you are all well by now. Sounds like a nightmare--nothing worse than being really sick somewhere a long ways from home. I have been enjoying the blogs from Lydia and Elena as well as all you have written!

Beth and Mari said...

Are you back to 100% now? Sure hope so!