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Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Power of Language

By Ole Larsen

I woke up Wednesday morning and fired up my laptop to check my mail. My friend in Vancouver was online and I was chatting to him for a bit, and he pointed out and rightly so that I should perhaps make some effort of learning Spanish outside "hello". So I got up and took a bus into town, grabbed a burger for brunch and hit a bookstore. I found a couple of decent-seeming children's books (which I was going to translate with my dictionary) and browsed the shelves for some English books. When I found them and bent to pick one up, my back decided to go on a vacation and quit working in a blaze of pain. My knees give out and I fall to the floor.

I'm lying half-prone in a very awkward position, trying to find a way to position myself so it wouldn't hurt so much. One of the staff approached clearly aware that something was wrong, but I waved him off so that I could assess the damage in peace. I knew that since it was a back injury of some sort, I would know immediately if it was very serious. Since I was conscious (even if barely), and I could definitively feel the pain and all parts of my body (which, I reasoned, was a good thing) it was probably nothing deadly. I struggle myself to an upright position, pouring sweat and cursing under my breath. The staff member returns and I make the decision. "I need an ambulance," I tell him, in both English and my own Spanglish. He disappears and apparently asks the manager for help, since he (the manager) came and told me he had called for help. I was near fainting at this time, so he helped me sit down. That's actually a beautification of what happened - he took me to a bench and I more or less fell on it.

The ambulance crew shows up - no lights or anything, thank God. The manager had apparently told them that while it was an emergency, it wasn't an Emergency. They help me up and into the ambulance (I went through the side door, which was excruciatingly painful) and ask me for some biographical info, and where I want to go. The man in the back with me didn't speak much English, so again with my English/Spanish I tell him that I don't care about the cost (since my insurance would cover it), just take me to some private hospital where they have English-speaking doctors.

I was taken to a second-rate hospital where hardly anyone spoke English, and those who did only knew a few words. One of the nice things about being a gringo is that everyone assumes you have money (for good or ill), so I was quickly ushered in to a doctor. He hammered my knees and poked a bit at me. Then he said it was probably a contraction. I didn't know that word in English - that is, I understood the word but not in that context. After I ask him a few different questions and glean that it's something muscular and, as I had already concluded, not really dangerous. That was all I was told before they took me to intensive care. Here I launched my campaign for calling my insurance agency. They wanted me to pay a deposit. That was fine, but I told them repeatedly I needed to call this number, indicating my insurance card. They got a phone and put me in touch with an operator who spoke English but didn't understand what I wanted from her until I had explained with more and more strained patience that I needed to call a number to Denmark (which took a goodly ten-fifteen minutes to get across). Then she announced she couldn't help me with that, for unclear reasons, then started speaking in Spanish. I tell her, like I've told her five times already, that "mi no habla Espanol", but to no avail. I wave a nurse over and give the phone to her, hoping/assuming the operator would explain what was up and the nurse would help me. Futile hope. The nurse disappeared, the phone disappeared, and despite several requests, they didn't produce it again. They wave the deposit slip in my face and I've little choice but to give them my Visa, which I had by pure happenstance brought with me (I don't usually carry it on my person), and told them I didn't know if there was money on it. Turns out there was just enough money to cover the deposit. So I get taken to x-ray, then back to the intensive ward where I'm fed more drugs and ... nothing happens.

I wait around for some forty-five minutes, asking four or five times for a phone with no luck. A new doctor shows up and asks me some questions but gives me no answers. He disappears and I finally manage to convince a nurse to help me at least call my hostel. I talk to the owner there, who speaks both English and Spanish, if he could please tell the staff that it's important I call my insurance company. I give the phone back to the nurse, who talks to the guy for a few minutes, then hangs up and disappears. I never saw her again. My bed is pushed behind some curtains and I remain there for a couple of hours, eventually falling asleep. Another nurse wakes me up and tells me it's time to go home. At this point, I could stand and (after some deliberation) walk, and I kind of wanted myself out of there anyway, so I make little objection and walk to the reception. Apparently the deposit wasn't enough and I had to pay some more money, but my Visa was rejected. I give the guy what cash I have, and am left with enough for a taxi and some food. Fortunately, because of time differences, I could write a mail to my parents which they would read and act on while I was sleeping, so I sent a request for money when I got back to my hostel . I had also been given some medication I didn't know what was, and nobody had actually told me what the problem was/had been. I talk to the owner of the hostel who was wondering why I didn't call him first. I replied that I realized at a later point that that would indeed have been the wisest course, but I was in pain and kind of concentrating on handling the situation and not in a very reasonable corner. Then I ask him if he could call the hospital and ask what the problem had been, he does that and helps me decode what the medication is (basically, two different kinds of painkillers). I go to bed, fall asleep and woke up an hour ago, feeling much better. In case you're wondering, it was a second degree contraction, which is as far as I understand it, basically an extreme case of straining a muscle. Not a very heroic injury, perhaps, but it did hurt like hell.

Lessons learned: Always bring ID and your insurance card with you. Do some research and find a decent hospital and write the name down and keep it with the insurance card. Learn Spanish. Don't panic.