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Steve Brown's watercolor of the Girona cathedral in the rain.

Wherein Tom discovers a new strategy for the advance of immersion language learning in Spain.

I counted fourteen gowned sycophants in the room, buzzing about a solitary, supine individual like bees in a hive. At their center — it chafes my sensibilities to type this — playing the role of the queen, was me.


(This is a story of medical complications following major surgery. It’s not rare: the removal of half of one’s skull certainly qualifies as malevolent trauma, and malevolent trauma is contraindicated when one is trying to keep a querulous heart in his chest.)

I tend to pay acute attention to language when fourteen people are asking questions with the urgency of determined medical professionals. “Tomás, does the crushing pressure around your chest feel familiar?” “Tomás, are those your real teeth?” “Tomás, tell me if you can feel this four-foot piece of adhesive tape that I’m unwrapping from around your hairy chest.”

I came to Spain for immersion language learning, and today I found a compelling program. The precision of language – and the need for the learning thereof – is quite apparent when the instructor is aiming a four-inch syringe at your left carotid artery.

In the middle of this carnage, an intense young face appears three inches in front of mine. With incongruous charm, he drops the H-bomb:

“Tomás, you are having a heart attack.”

After 45 minutes of hysteria-with-hyperdermics, the only retort that came to mind was the phrase I’ve used as the title for this post, borne of a punitive desire to impart a language lesson of my own: “That’s an American idiom, my friend, we have lots of them and most are about as endearing as that hair you just removed from my chest.”

It is not my intention to disparage expat healthcare – especially the healthcare that I’ve received in Spain. Most of the Catalan health-care professionals I’ve met received their training here at Josep Trueta University Hospital; it’s distinguished by intensely sympathetic eye contact and gentle touches – as endemic to the Catalan psyche as an exaggerated sense of irony is to the American.

In addition to some language, I’ve learned a few things about expat healthcare that may be of interest to my fellow expats:

  • Travel with printed records of your medications, if you’re on any, and other significant medical data — like who to call in case of emergency, doctor’s name, and  your height and weight in local units of measurement (anesthesiologists can be so picky…).
  • Leave home with enough money (or credit) in the bank to pay the bill with a simple debit- or credit-card transaction or a wire transfer. This may not be as bad as it sounds: the bill for my experience – brain surgery and a heart attack – was about $21,000 US. A single heart attack in Portland last August cost almost twice that amount. More often than not, healthcare outside of the US is a bargain – but only if you can cover the cost yourself until your insurance company can reimburse you. It’s a dear commitment, but hopefully you will be reimbursed by insurance, and settling up with your insurance company is best done when you’re away from the discharge desk, where they can always send you back to your room.
  • Count your blessings and take them home with you. I made good friends while I was in the hospital. The watercolor of the Girona Cathedral at the top of this post was given to me by my English-club friend Steve Brown (website here), who also smuggled Coke into my room when I was most parched. Gerard in the neighboring room visited every day, lent me his Formula 1 magazine as a Spanish-language learning aid, and invited me over to watch Moto GP on his dime (at Josep Trueta hospital, you pay for TV by the hour). Friends like Steve and Gerard are an estimable measure of wealth. So is an appreciation of the professionals I mentioned earlier who expressed genuine compassion about my well-being. Given the value of passionate humanity (and the ephemeral quality of money), I believe I actually made a profit while I was hospitalized.
  • Don’t chuck your Kindle into the laundry basket. In a moment of misplaced sports loyalties, one of the nurses – a Pancho-Villa sort of fellow, full of hail and fare-thee-well – and I sparred over a fútbol match between Barcelona (me) and Madrid (Pancho). (Warning to travelers: Spanish enthusiasm for fútbol is contagious.) My Kindle was cradled on a chair heaped with dirty laundry; Pancho unintentionally wadded it all into a ball and – goooooooooal! – chucked the whole enchilada into the laundry basket (use of hands – red card). The good news: Amazon Spain was able to overnight a new Kindle. The bad news: Barcelona lost.

I emerge from this event unmistakably bald, slightly more multilingual, and very much endowed with an appreciation for humanity. I could lament lost days and hospital food, but I rejoice instead: I’m alive and I’m in love with a whole new nation of amigos and compañeros.

¡La vida está bien!

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