My big fat Greek hospital adventure

A Greek hospital adventure was not on my original agenda

I am writing this on a flight back from Athens and a visit where I saw the roof of the interiour of a Greek ambulance. This is something that most people never see. And, other things being equal, it is probably not a priority sight that most folks would want to see or should see.

As I lay in the ambulance looking up, I noticed that two of the four a/c vents on the ceiling were taped shut with bandages. I considered my situation. How did I come to be strapped on a stretcher, stuck in Athens traffic on a beautiful spring day, headed to the hospital?

The bloody incident

I had stepped out of the shower that morning looking forward to a new day of work on international trade. Getting dressed, I pondered my remarks for a conference to be held that afternoon. And then I discovered that a varicose vein in my ankle had ruptured. I noticed it because the Hawaiian flip flop upon which I was standing had filled with a pool of blood. Since the blood was about the same temperature as the water from the shower, I did not notice it pooling until quite a volume had accumulated. This is not a problem that I am accustomed to dealing with.

It reminded me vaguely of an adventure from my time in Burkina Faso. On a visit to the capital, Ouagadougou, I once got caught in a coup d’etat. Troops were firing machine guns below my window. My morning in Athens felt similar in that I was in an unfamiliar setting facing an action-forcing event and poorly defined options.

Next steps? (literally)

Standing there in my Greek hotel room, I thought that I had better take stock of my situation. As a social scientist, I tried to work empirically and stopped to review the key elements of my situation. I thought:

  • I am in a hotel south of Athens
  • I don’t speak the language
  • I am bleeding out and must maintain compression on the wound
  • I cannot solve this without professional medical help
  • There is not really time for a Google search and research on options
  • And, this is the important, essential bit: don’t pass out until you “solve for x”, whereby x = survival strategy.
  • Conclusion: Get an ambulance via the front desk, and do it quickly

Although compression of the wound was helping, I found that it was not easily accomplished. It required maintaining a position somewhat akin to a pretzel. There was no way to fashion a tourniquet with one hand occupied. And, even then, how to get to the phone to call for help? I eased the pressure enough to hobble to the phone, but this led to Vesuvius-type action. The floor looked like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino film.

And so I called and asked the front desk to kindly order an ambulance for me. “Are you sure you can’t just take a taxi?” “No, I think it is pretty serious and urgent.” It was then that I decided to open my hotel room door, in case I passed out. I don’t do well with the sight of blood. And, I wanted the staff to have easy access to the room so they could save me. That accomplished, I headed for the bathroom, all the while trying to walk and hold my ankle simultaneously.

When the fellow from the front desk arrived, the room was looking like Pulp Fiction. He only stayed a moment, turned and fled saying to maintain pressure and he would pursue the ambulance with a follow up call. Later, I learned that he had gone back to the desk and nearly passed out. His colleagues raised his legs and gave him orange juice to revive him.

Seconds later a bellhop arrived in my room. I am pretty sure this was not in his job description, but he tried various proposals to improve the situation. “Lay down. Raise your leg. Maybe get up on the bed? Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter about the sheets.” But, I opted for the floor, as I felt I was doing enough damage already to the room. The floor was waterproof parquet and, fortunately, not carpet. The bellhop got me water. I needed to rehydrate.

He had a million questions. Eventually, he admitted that he was striving to keep me conscious. Bless him! As for me, I felt embarrassed to be caught at the centre of this fiasco. I know I looked sheepish when the first fellow had arrived and saw the mess.

Perhaps half an hour later, the ambulance crew arrived. And here is what they did. They pulled my hand away from the wound, looked briefly at it and took a thick pile of dense gauze and applied it on the wound. They then grabbed a long elastic bandage strip and wrapped it tightly around the ankle. This would surely keep me from leaking for the moment.

Trans-Athens express

I could hobble! And so we headed out to the other side of the city. As we rolled across town, I realised that this would be a long trip. Athens traffic is intense. I was parched and there was no water.

After reflecting on my plight, I opted to phone to cancel my noon meeting, notify my employer, inform the insurance, and call my wife. It took quite a while. I was reporting lots of information outbound, but not getting much information inbound. When I reported the name of the hospital to where I was headed, my insurer’s emergency service could not find it. The emergency service advised, “You are doing the right steps health-wise. But, you may need to pay with your credit card and then file a claim.” Fortunately, I had my situation under control. What would have happened if I passed out and had not made all of these calls?

Traffic was terrible. We made a stop unrelated to my case in order to pick up some medical materials for the hospital. With Athens traffic, I suppose you need to make use of each outing to optimise your accomplishments and minimise the number of trips.

My big Greek hospital visit

Finally, we arrived at the hospital. Located in a leafy suburb, it was a public facility, a complex with multiple buildings apparently including an orthodox chapel. I considered a stop in the chapel as I hobbled to the ER with the help of the ambulance crew. They got me a wheelchair. The halls were lined with dozens and dozens of waiting patients. Occasionally a door would open, but not much visible action in the line. The crew notified the doctors and wished me well, and fled. There was no reception, no one spoke English, and the system was not obvious to me. Uh oh.

I was discouraged. The facility looked terrible, outdated. I was in gym shorts and a bloody t-shirt. And, I was feeling faint. I went to use the rest room: a single room, with no paper, no lock, no seat. I washed off some of the blood in the sink. Then I went and found a drink stand to get an ice coffee with sugar and milk to help rebuild my blood stock. By the time I hobbled back, the doctors were waiting for me, less than 30 minutes after my arrival. This was a good sign.

Uncertain activity

The ER office had two small rooms and perhaps 8 staff. Some were drinking coffee and some hanging out with cellphones. People were nice to me. “What is this? You are using coffee to rehydrate?” said a doctor. He seemed bemused.

The staff were all young, or maybe I was just feeling old. Two spoke English. They chatted amongst themselves as I lay down on the table. They confirmed my name and town of residence. London = good. It is (for the moment) still in the European network.

Nothing happened for a while and I got comfortable. The folks sitting around seemed engaged in chit chat. Nothing much seemed to be happening.

Then, I noticed a doctor opening a sealed pack of sterile instruments. He and a male nurse unwrapped my ankle, washed it with a sterile solution, and announced I would “feel a pinch”. It was a sudden and surprising wave of activity. I decided to relax and let them do their work, rather than challenging them with questions across the language barrier.

Their actions felt like a slice or two, then stitching in big, bold strokes. I couldn’t see much, but closed my eyes anyway. Blood flowed, then stopped. Now, it was my turn to try not to faint. This was intense, much more than “a pinch”. I felt dizzy. After a few moments, they told me they had stitched it up. Then they saw my pale face and said not to move until I felt confident I could make it out to a taxi.

Amazingly, as I am a resident of London, they took everything in charge. Having taken my name, they made a record of the visit. But, there was no paperwork for me to fill in. This was a public hospital. And apparently, as I am European resident, they provided all their service to me on a gratis basis.

As requested by my insurer, the doctors even gave me a “fit-to-fly” certificate. It was conditional on wearing pressure socks. And, they said to have the stitches removed in five days. Then they sent me on my way to the taxi stand outside.

Mad Doug, a Londoner, in the noonday sun

I wandered out into the mid-day sun feeling well patched up, but also a bit dazed. What just happened and how did I get in this situation? I found a taxi. As we cruised past the Parthenon, I tried to take stock.

Absolutely everyone throughout the morning was kind and empathetic. From the hotel to the hospital and back. I am indeed very grateful for their service and kindness, especially at the hospital facility which appeared under-resourced and overtaxed by patient demands.

Upon arriving at the hotel, the staff appeared visibly relieved to see me back from the dead. They noticed that I was still a bit disoriented as I headed off into the wrong room. But, they made sure I was looked after and sent me off in the right direction. A bar man brought me an extra-large orange juice, which he commended for its properties in compensating for blood loss. It worked.

Over a nice bottle of Assyrtiko wine and dinner that night on the Aegean Sea with a friend, I pondered my fate. Feeling gratitude to my host country, I raised a glass and thanked them for the successful outcome of my big fat Greek hospital adventure.

Sunset in Vouliagmeni, Greece

Sunset in Vouliagmeni, Greece

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