My Greek Knee

The continuation of my lovely Greek Tragedy

I consider myself to be a pretty brave person. Except when it comes to small enclosed spaces and needles. Everything else – I’m game. As I sat in the back of the wee little Euro car on my way to a tiny island hospital in the middle of the Greek isles this past June, I felt relatively calm. I felt like I was in control of my emotions –  my fear, my anxiety – and mentally? Steel nails. I knew that this whole adventure would mean shots and needles and more glimpses of my blood, but I psyched myself up for the situation. As we (me and Emmy) arrived at the hospital, this wave of reinforced mental bravery and courage I had started to build felt strong and sure – and I walked/limped through the front doors with my jaw firmly set.

As soon as I crossed the threshold of that deceptively charming exterior, I immediately started to lose my bravado. This hospital was the scariest thing since the Bates Motel. Spiders crawling on the floor, rusted chairs in the “lobby”, and lighting that cast a hellish fluorescent glow.

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I should make mention of a small incident that occurred right before I arrived in my little Santorini cab at the doorstep of Beelzebub’s Palace. Right after my accident and before I got in the little cab to come to the hospital, somebody had called the local “911” and an ambulance had been sent to pick me up at the base of the Ancient Thira road. The thoughtIMG_6264 of what the ride could potentially cost kept me and the other girls from deciding to hop right in. I didn’t want to end up with some unholy Greek ambulance bill of $3000 Euros. My refusal to accept their services did not come across well to the ambulance men. In fact, they were none too pleased with my non-compliance in being their patient to transport and were down right rude and mean. They kept handing me papers to sign as a refusal for help and I was so bewildered because 1) I don’t speak Greek and 2) I had no idea what I was signing. They left in a huff and I know they were calling us “Stupid Americans” in Greek. Aaaand probably some other unpleasant names, too.

So guess who I ran into the second I stepped foot inside the hospital? The ambulance Nazis! And right next to them was the doctor who would be attending to me shortly.

“Why did you refuse help?” she said in her heavily accented English, eyes glowering beneath bushy Greek brows. The ambulance Nazis shook their heads disapprovingly.

“Look, I didn’t know who called these guys. We didn’t call them and I don’t know who did. So that’s why I didn’t need to use them…”

“Well, okay then. You will be in that room over there.” She pointed down a dank hallway which I assumed led to something that would resemble a clean hospital room. But you know what they say when you assume something…

Emmy followed my limping frame around the corner and within two seconds, I knew I was in the wrong place. Instead of my own little room, we came into an open area with creaking cots where an older woman lay in a bed, a rusted IV pole by her side, blood dripping from the placement of the needle in her arm, and her eyes rolled back in her head. My eyes popped open wide. PANIC started to set in. The bravado? Pfffftt!! Gone! Kaput! Terror began to grip my heart. The thought that immediately came to my mind was, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want to DIE in this place!’ Uncontrollable sobs just came rolling out and poor Emmy was left to console me. I honestly was scared to death for my life – and it seemed I was staring death in the face…and she was an old Greek lady whose tongue hung out of her mouth.

A big, burly Greek nurse quickly found me and directed me to the chamber I was to be tortured in.

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Why did I take pictures of this place? Are you kidding? In case I did end up dead, I wanted documented proof for my family  that the “environment” was not quite conducive to healing. Or cleanliness. Or feeling like you weren’t going to lose your life just to get a few stitches.

Olfa, the Greek nurse the size of an NFL linebacker, ushered me onto the creaky bed, the blue plastic tarp crackling with every small movement of my body. It wasn’t the cleanest tarp I had ever been on either. Brown streaks of iodine laced it’s sharply static surface. To me in my hysterical moment, it looked like dried blood. I could hardly talk because fear had taken over, my body was racked with the shakes, and tears just kept streaming down my face. Olfa just merrily chattered along in Greek and bustled about the room grabbing one of 500 open iodine bottles and a few open gauze pads.

The doctor walked into the room and this is how the formal introduction began. “Hel-lo, my name ess Dok-tor [insert unpronounceable Greek name here – I just referred to her as Dr. X]. I half been resi-dent for three weeks on Santorini. What happened to yure knee?”

Oh, great. Not only do I have to deal with this scary throwback hospital from the ’50’s, I have a BRAND NEW doctor who doesn’t have YEARS of experience in closing wounds. Crap.

I explained to her the whole scooter incident story, my almost flying off the side of a hilltop, and how I came to be present at her humble place of establishment. She just shook her head and said, “Scoot-ers. So many times, people geet hurt. You lucky that you did-unt geet hurt worrse.”

She unwrapped my tightly bandaged knee and proceeded to pull apart the wound even more [side note: why do doctors have to poke and prod before you get numb? I’m already in pain – why do you have to make it worse?]. I gasped. Olfa just clucked her tongue at me. “Oh yesss, it looks like you need seex stitch-us.”

Six? Six? Was she out of her freaking mind??? This was a gaping wound almost  two inches long and she’s thinking SIX??? Try doubling that, sweetheart.  I mean, The Guy just the other day had his lip split open and needed six stitches for a wound almost one  inch in length.

Dr. X looked at Emmy, who had been standing by my bedside this whole time, and said, “You need to leeef. You can not be in hahr.” So they forced her out of the room and even made her move away from looking in the door. I’m assuming it’s because they didn’t want witnesses to what was about to happen. Emmy, being the resourceful gal she is, went and stole a cell phone from some random guy to try calling her mom. When she told me the story later, of just grabbing a phone from some man sitting in the hallway, I started to laugh. Partly because she was brazen enough to do it and partly because she saw what the guy was surfing on his phone for – ewwwww.

Dr. X and Olfa started chatting in rapid-fire Greek  and this is what I think they said:

Dr X: Do you think she knows I haven’t ever stitched up a wound like this? I don’t even know where to begin.

Olfa: Nah. She is clueless! She is American.

Dr. X: What should I do to cleanse the wound before we close it? It looks pretty deep…maybe if I poke it here and there it won’t be so bad.

Olfa: Iodine. Always the solution. Let’s just dump an entire bottle onto her leg and pray for the best.

Dr. X: Do you think we can knock her out so she will remember nothing?

Olfa: No! Pain is part of the process. She will appreciate more of what we do for her if she can feel every little thing.

Nothing makes you feel more out of place, unsure, and completely lost than being put into a medical situation where you understand NOTHING of what they are saying. It is terrifying to not be able to understand the conversation – and I grew up with doctors! I knew what questions I wanted to ask and and I couldn’t do it.

As soon as they finished their little Greek convo, Olfa took a large bottle and without warning just started to squirt massive amounts of iodine onto my knee. I thought my leg was going to catch on fire, it stung so bad. I thought my eyes would burst out of my sockets, the soprano notes I have never been able to hit would be surpassed, and that the asterisk-laced profanity that filled my mind might eventually leak out my open, gasping mouth.

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After gasping for air a couple of times, gritting my teeth and grasping the blue tarp that surrounded me, I managed to eek out a “Are you going to numb me? You know? Shots? No feeling? No pain?” I made the little hand gesture of shooting a needle so she would get my point. But the look that I got back from Dr. X did not provide me much comfort. It was more along the lines of, “What is that funny thing she is doing with her thumb and forefinger…”

Let me start by saying this: needles SUCK. In today’s modern society, you would think that it might be common knowledge to actually numb a person before proceeding to ram a curved stitching needle through their skin several times to close a gash. You would think that, wouldn’t you? AND you might also think that it is pretty much general practice to use GLOVES and other sanitized items when performing such minor surgery, correct? HA! Then you have never been privilege to the Greek socialized medicine system.

There was no numbing. She gave me one shot of something but who knows what and it didn’t do much of anything at all. I think she was just practicing giving a shot to a wound. Then came the first stitch. I think I would’ve preferred them cutting off my leg at that moment. Dr. X was no stitching savant; she yanked and pulled and at one point had to turn the needle over to Olfa because she couldn’t get it through my skin. Olfa, being the kind, sensitive soul that she was, jammed it so hard through my skin to get to the other side, it made me see 10 years into my future.

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With every gasp, I clamped my hands over my mouth and tried not to cry, and kept thinking, ‘this will be over soon, this will be over soon, please, please, PLEASE Heavenly Father, don’t let me catch some crazy staph infection and lose my knee because they don’t use gloves, their cleaning methods are questionable, and the gauze they are padding my knee with looks like it has been open since 1973’.

At one point, I even balled up my fist and tried sticking it in my mouth for a distraction.

Amazingly, the un-anesthetized stitching finally came to an end and my sight began to return. They wrapped my knee up, but not without squeezing another bottle of iodine on my leg first, and Dr. X said, “You must come bahk with-een two days to get wound cleeened again – kay?” You’ve got to be joking. You think I’m coming back to this hell hole?

“You also need anti-bio-tickz and a pro-bio-ticz for the place down (she gestured downward) as it geets upset with theeese medicines. You get teta-noos shot recently?”

“Tetanus? Um, not recently.”

“More than 10 years?”

“Yes, yes, I’m pretty sure it was more than 10 years ago.”

“Okay. You need to also get medicine from pharmacy and bring bahk to geet yure shot.”

“You don’t have the medicine here? I need to go get it?”

“Yes, hospitals don’t have medicine like that. You go to pharmacy, pay, bring it bahk.”

Well, geez, that sure sounds efficient. How does a hospital not have tetanus medicine?

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As I sat up ever so gingerly, my arms shaking from the trauma of what just transpired, I could feel my knee throbbing beneath the bandages. The funny thing was they didn’t even look at my other leg and how beautifully black and blue it was from ankle to inner thigh and how my left ankle was completely swollen. No, not a real thorough assessment of the situation if you ask me. The funniest part of all? Not once did they ever take my name. Not once did they ever ask if I had any allergies, if I was hurt in any other part of my body other than my gashed open knee. When I showed them my insurance card, they both waved me off like, “Get that peasant card out of here; it no good”.

“So, do I pay now? Or how do I pay for this?” I asked Dr. X. She looked at me in wide-eyed amazement.

“Pay? You no pay. It’s free. Greek system.”

No kidding. I think for the service I got, that price is just about right there, lady. Considering that when I get back to the States I will have to have a regular doctor open my knee up again and re-stitch it and probably tell me I’m lucky I really didn’t lose my leg to some massive infection. Yeah, free sums up the service and level of care I received.

Emmy was finally allowed back in to help me off the table. She took one look at my leg and asked the two women, “Aren’t you going to clean up the blood on her leg?” I looked down my right leg and it was completely covered in dried blood. Olfa kind of shrugged her shoulders in a kind of “Why not?” gesture and proceeded to clean a leg that quite honestly should have been done as part of the whole process of patient care. Fascinating, really, that it came more as an after thought.

Even though the “care” was free, the meds were not cheap whatsoever. I picked up the three prescriptions I was given, and headed back to the hospital to give them the tetanus juice to inject in me somewhere fun. Still the strangest thing, if you ask me, to have to go get the medicine and take it back to the hospital so they can inject you with something they should have in stock. But maybe that’s just my American greediness in expecting too much.

The Greeks have such a lovely bedside manner about them, including the sadistic nurse who had to give me the injection. As I am introducing myself and what I needed, she takes the bottle, fills the syringe, and with one fell swoop pops the needle BAM! right into my arm. At this point, nothing took me by surprise and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t get faint from a shot. That didn’t take away from the fact that it really, really hurt.

Once I opened up my other Greek meds, I realized I was in big trouble.  The instructions? They were Greek to me. If I had joined a sorority at the U of U, I might have been able to decipher a few things by looking at all the Greek letters of the alphabet. Instead, I had to go find an Australian pharmacist who told me how to take the meds, when to take them, and what meds might make me a little queasy. I actually ended up getting two more prescriptions (one for pain, one for nausea because of the pain and antibiotic medications) on my follow up visit with a new Nurse Ratchet who scrubbed my knee so hard (again, sans gloves) when cleaning it, I fainted dead away. Fresh stitches? Why you gotta scrub and scour my poor knee like that? And waking up to 5 screaming Greeks is no picnic either.

All in all, I ended up with 5 medications (which, by the way, all come in GLASS bottles; no plastic in Greece), a knee that I couldn’t bend for a month, an 11 hour plane flight from Athens to NYC which thankfully was half full (plenty of room to spread out), a 6 hour flight from JFK to SLC on an overbooked flight (with massive turbulence that caused the biggest vomiting episode I’ve ever seen on a flight; not me, just other people ALL around me), and a scar that people notice right away. “What kind of knee surgery did YOU have?”

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Yep, that baby is the scar on my knee right now. You can SEE every little stitch that they made. When I had my doctor here in the good ole US of A unwrap and take a look at it, his comment was, “Wow, those are some BIG stitches! They only gave you six??” You betcha, doc. Imagine the whole experience sans local anesthesia. Lovely.

The truth is my knee still hurts – way down deep within the layers of my skin. It was a very deep gash and I know that serious healing will take time. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve started volleyball again and find myself falling on my knees from time to time when diving for a ball. It won’t stop me from participating, however. 🙂

As for my other leg, my left ankle is still completely numb and swollen in a 4 inch radius. No change in 3 1/2 months. Still numb. Still swollen. And some days it is very painful. Apparently there is some serious nerve damage that may require more drastic measures in the future should it not come back into the land of living ankle awareness.

So there you have it. The story from A to Knee. And the beat goes on.

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4 comments

  1. Amy Goeser · September 30, 2009

    I’m never leaving the US ever again! Our healthcare might be expensive but at least its sanitary.

  2. Jeff · October 11, 2009

    I’m like…

  3. mavis · October 13, 2009

    ok, I am woozy just reading about it! Just slice it back open and fix it already!!!! Andyour ankle is killing me! So many exclamation points!

  4. Erika Amott · October 31, 2009

    And we’re supposed to WANT standardized healthcare so our system can end up like this? No, thank you! I am so glad you are ok now, despite the scar that looks as though you had full knee replacement surgery.

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