Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Experience in a German Hospital - Part I

On the night of my mom's birthday, December 4, my husband had just come home from work. I was feeling vaguely unwell. He was hungry so he heated up some leftover curry we had made the previous night for both of us. While it warmed up on the stove, I felt progressively worse. I ended up never touching my food.

We took a cab to a nearby hospital. My husband had called them to let them know we were coming, so the woman at the desk was expecting us. I was limping in pain, and she acted like it was no big deal. She sent us to wait to be seen outside an ambulatory clinic in the basement. Damon helped me down the stairs, and we were a little surprised she just left me to try to get down them without any hospital help. Meanwhile, she called for someone to come see me.

The hallway in the basement where I had to wait was dreary and abandoned and the clinic was locked. We weren't even sure we were in the right place. I sat there for about 10 minutes, waiting, wondering if I was just being a hypochondriac or if I really needed to be there. Being sick when you're young sucks - you always wonder whether doctors/nurses just think you're crazy or attention-seeking, because who gets sick at your age? Is that why no one was coming? In reality, 10 minutes is nothing to wait for emergency care, but it felt like an eternity.

Finally, a nurse who was clearly suffering from some kind of upper respiratory infection sloooooowly made her way down the hall toward us. Slooooowly she unlocked the clinic door. We followed her in. Slooooowly she took my TK (insurance) card, my blood type card, and my other information, and she explained that if I wasn't admitted to the hospital I would have to pay a co-pay for coming to the clinic in the off-hours. I was sure she thought I was a hypochondriac because she acted like nothing could possibly be wrong. Then she sent us back into the hall to wait some more for a doctor to come. After a while, we heard the door and I got hopeful. No, it was just her again, to take my temperature. (Sloooowly.) Then more waiting. Again, it felt like an eternity, but was probably just 10 - 15 minutes. Finally a doctor came and they called me back in to be examined.

She did a lot of various things and asked a zillion questions, but was mostly quiet and looked a little concerned. I started to get concerned too, especially when she asked me how long it had been since I ate or drank anything, and whether I was sure. Then she said she had to call the Oberarzt - the head doctor. Oh shit.

The head doctor showed up pretty quickly, did all the same examinations as the previous doctor, and was halfway through explaining that I needed surgery immediately while quickly and painlessly installing an IV port in my wrist before I realized what the heck was going on. Damon came over to the side of the bed from his position off to the sidelines. He looked green, like he might pass out, throw up, or both.

Everything happened very quickly. I signed papers consenting to surgery, saying that I acknowledged all the risk and dangers that go along with surgical procedures and general anesthesia. I could get an embolism, I could have a deadly allergic reaction, I could need a blood transfusion that gives me a disease, etc. I should mention here that I used to work in patient safety when I lived in Boston. My job involved reading all the reports when things did go wrong in the hospital. It will suffice to say that I'm terrified of surgery and general anesthesia. But, it seemed there was no choice; the risks were far greater if I didn't have it. It's probably best that it was an emergency, reducing my time to fret to mere minutes.

They provided all the information in English to me. I got a sheet explaining the procedure, with the disclaimer that I might not have time to read it anyway before going in. I had to go to the toilet, but wasn't allowed, because I could pass out. (I hate to think what happened when the anesthesia kicked in...) I had a lot of questions, only because of my former job, another aspect of which was to drill into patients that they should always be a part of their own health care and ask questions! They took it to mean that because I was an American, I looked down upon the German health system and didn't trust them to do a good job. They assured me that they were very experienced, the hospital had all the best technology, and that this was the best and least invasive procedure for my problem. All of which I had never had any doubts about.

I was wheeled into a pre-op area where I got a hospital gown and special anti-blood-clot socks and they took all my jewelry and stuff away. I recalled all the reports I'd read at my old job about people's personal belongings getting lost in the hospital. Then they told Damon that he could not wait there and that he might as well just leave. I thought I was going to die of misery. The nurses, however, were so sweet and sympathetic.

Damon disappeared and I was wheeled off to the operating room. It was well-staffed but so, so cold. I was still in a lot of pain - nothing had changed there. So I was shivering like crazy and guarding myself and they thought I was a nervous wreck. Well, not that I wasn't. They had me lying there all ready to go and the surgeon (the same Oberarzt who examined me) had to run to quickly attend to another problem. All the OR people spoke to me in English and were really friendly. They gave me a big hot blanket and then, because they thought I was so nervous, told me they were giving me a little drug in my IV port while we waited for the surgeon that would make me feel sleepy. I didn't get sleepy. They gave me more. Still not sleepy. I wonder if it was a placebo. I am, sadly, somewhat placebo-resistant.

Finally, they said the surgeon was on his way. Anesthesia time. Ugh. Before looking at the big green mask they told me to look at, I glanced at the clock. It was almost exactly midnight. Just in case of surgical disaster the likes of which you only see in the news, I tried to think of my family, but the nerves were totally scrambling my brain. Then I went under.


  1. I'm curious which hospital this was in.

  2. Are you OK now, C? Best wishes for a speedy recovery!

    I admire many aspects of the German character. Emotional intelligence, flexibility, and a lack of self importance, are perhaps not among them.

  3. HB8: Do you mean to imply that those character aspects are especially lacking among all Germans? That's kind of how it reads to me over here. Was that your intent?

    CN: I've been wondering for a while about this, since it was right before your visit to Regensburg last year. I'm sorry the whole experience was so stressful for you. I have to give my local neighborhood hospital props for the 12:30am emergency intake they did for me during my final gall bladder attack (about 9 hours before I found out that's what it actually was). I had the benefit of choosing when to have my ensuing surgery a few weeks later. I went through what sounds like an identical process (patients' rights, anaesthesia disclaimers, etc.) — but at a leisurely and confidence-inspiring pace. I'm quite pleased with the treatment — medical and otherwise — Sarah and I both got throughout the process. That might it much less of an ordeal.

  4. I'll agree with HB8. I had an emergency admittance and while finding the folks very lovely, all with their British accents, they were very, perhaps the word is astonished, at my questions and my belief that I had a right to ask them rather than to do exactly as I was told.Great experience in the end, though.(And no, I did not get any of my info in English- you are apparently more privileged in the former West.)
    CN- we know the happy outcome :), but what a way to leave us hanging.

  5. Headbang - I'm fine :)

    Cliff - I definitely never lacked confidence in the hospital, but it was clear they were afraid I would because I was American. They seemed a little defensive when I asked so many questions and one of the answers insinuated that they thought I was insinuating that non-American hospital care would be of poor quality. I guess it's just something they've heard before. But also it's a symptom of the sometimes hierarchical doctor-patient relationship that exists everywhere (particularly with surgeons), which they are just now trying to start to chip away at in the US. (And the US is more fertile ground for this sort of movement, for cultural reasons.) Many people all over the world would never question their doctor.

    G - glad you had a good experience overall!

  6. Mm, the ambulatory clinic being located in the basement actually makes for a good guess at which hospital this was in since there are only two clinics in HD with setups like that.

  7. @C


    You're right to pick me up on my tone. And to my discredit, yes, I did mean to imply something like it.

    I have had a few run-ins with Germany Inc. of late which coloured my view. Especially where it comes to dealing with those of other nationalities--let me bend you ear over it, soon.

    That said, you are right to pick me up on what I wrote. We all share a common humanity, and my many German friends and colleagues display an unmatched warmth and kindness, from which I have benefited on many occasions.

    So yes, what I wrote cannot apply to everyone, on all occasions.

    With the help of the wise and generous Sarah, you remarked in a recent post that some people just like to complain. I'm afraid that when I wrote the comment, that was me!

  8. @C

    Sorry about the blank spot in the last post. What it was meant to contain was relief to hear that you are fine, and continued wishes for the best, health-wise!


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