Travel

When the Unexpected Happens…

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We had an early flight on Jet2 from Belfast to Lanzarote and we were elated when the pilot told us it was going to be sunny and 76 degrees when we landed. While Bob and Patrick tracked down our bags, Cary and I went to pick up the rental car. Soon we were once again stuffed in a too small car with too many belongings! Luckily it was a short drive. I remembered Lanzarote as a beautiful place but after all the rain we had recently experienced, the reality truly exceeded our expectations. The sun felt absolutely wonderful. Patrick threw in a load of laundry and Cary caught up on some work before heading back to the airport at 5 to pick up her friend Rados. Shortly after they returned we decided to head down the hill to find some dinner.

Cary grabbed Bob’s walker and carried it down the few steps to the pool area with me right behind her. I turned around to Bob to remind him to be careful on the steps when I missed a step and suddenly realized there was nothing to grab onto and I was going down. I hit with a thud and even remember hearing the back of my head hit the concrete. I’m sure my screaming on the way down was heard by many because soon I had a small crowd encircling me. I couldn’t get up and I didn’t know what to do next. Several people offered suggestions and it was finally decided that an ambulance needed to be called.

When they arrived the paramedic wondered what hospital we wanted to go to. Luckily one of the locals in the group was a nurse and she offered some suggestions. It was finally decided the Hospiten Lanzarote, a private hospital, was the best choice.
Off we went. I’ve never been in an ambulance before and the trip seemed surreal. Here we were in a foreign country part of Africa, with Spanish as the local language. Thankfully so many Brits vacation here that some English is spoken by most.

Hospiten Lanzarote, the private hospital where I was taken

The stay at the hospital is filled with an interesting cast of characters Patrick pointed out that the curtness we were often initially met with, might be a communication issue. Many locals in the Canaries speak English but they will often add, “Just a little.” Their little English is usually very good, but when we are talking about medical issues they don’t have the luxury of subtlety in language. Often the resulting dialogue may appear to be abrupt or even rude but perhaps it’s just that they, and we, lack alternative ways of communication.

That being said, the first person we encountered was the guy who met the ambulance at the hospital. He pointed out that Hospiten Lanzarote is a private hospital and that they don’t deal with insurance companies. That was on us. If I wanted to be seen there then I would need to make a 2000 euro deposit. Ok, done. (Thank goodness for credit cards!)

Perhaps the main character in this story was the surgeon, Dr. Chimelewski. Because I had hit my head when I fell, they sent me for a CAT scan and then for x rays. Dr. Chimelewski came in after the x rays were taken and explained that I indeed had fractured my right hip. He immediately dismissed the idea of flying back to the States for surgery saying that it could be life threatening. I then inquired if the surgery would be done that same evening but no, there was no staff, it was a holiday weekend, and they would operate on Monday. Monday, at this point seemed an eternity away. Dr. Chmielewski first struck me as arrogant and abrupt. But as time went on I began to really like him. His reviews on line spoke to his competence and I liked his very dry sense of humor. Patrick suggested that perhaps he, like many very bright people, didn’t excel in social skills. Combine that with the language barrier and it seemed like a reasonable explanation. By the end of the week we learned that he was from Poland. (I told him how much Bob and I loved Krakow. “You’ve been there?” he inquired obviously surprised.) He had studied at SUNY Stoneybrook and I explained I had taught at SUNY Plattsburgh. His son’s wife was American. And I assume that combined with his time in the US is how he became fluent in English.

Other characters include three hospital administrators, all women. There was the German woman that Cary and Patrick nicknamed Miss Cranky Pants, who appeared to be the administrator in charge. She spread unpleasantness wherever she appeared and seemed to thrive on it.

Then there was the administrator of logistics for lack of better description. She connected with Cary early on and was an absolute delight. We had to pay a deposit to use the television and then another for wifi and when we told her the television didn’t have sound and was in black and white she was on it! She was ready to move our room so we would have a television that worked. But wait! No, she had them take the television down and replace it. This was a results driven woman! She stopped in frequently to ensure everything was up to snuff!

Then there was the crazy lady administrator, a very pleasant but harried woman who appeared to be the person in charge of all the financial details. She always entered the room in a whirlwind. She first explained to Patrick and me that she’s on duty for 90 hours and is often not included in many of things “her” doctors say and do, an obvious frustration. She was from Hamburg; her English was as good as a native speaker, and laughter punctuated her every sentence. She is the person who explained what the estimated costs of the surgery and stay were going to be. She flew in a different afternoon and let us know what we might expect when I was discharged and where to procure the items need for my home care. She continued with a list of what I would need in the way of pharmacy items, even going so far as to write it down for Patrick as well as where the items could be purchased. Then on the day before my release she came in and breathlessly explained that because Jan 6 (the day of my release) was a holiday, there were certain things that needed to be tended to before the end of the day. On my final day, the holiday, she went over my release folder, explaining its contents and telling us the final itemized billing would be sent to me electronically the following Monday, or maybe Tuesday, but definitely by Wednesday. She arranged for the ambulance to transport me to our Airbnb and she was the one who personally oversaw that process as well. She was competent, funny and entertaining but definitely exhausting! We can’t help but wonder if some of her intensity isn’t the result of being accountable to Miss Cranky Pants!

Finally, there was Roger Dodger. The crazy administrator had given Patrick two contacts for the support items I would need at the Airbnb. After trying the first number repeatedly and getting no result, Patrick tried the second, ABC Rental. Yay! The guy picked up. Patrick asked, “Habla ingles?” Turns out the guy on the other end, Roger Dodger as he calls himself, is an American from Union Town, Pennsylvania. I find it interesting to note this is the only American we met during our nearly month long stay on the island. Patrick told Roger what we would need, when we would be moving into the new, all on one level, Airbnb and made arrangements with Roger to have things delivered. Cary, Rados and Bob had already arrived at the Airbnb and Roger was there by the time Patrick and I got there via ambulance (the ambulance that Patrick directed from his Google Maps, because the ambulance driver had no idea where he was going). Roger was a nice enough guy, was very helpful and had a great sense of humor. But boy did Roger like to talk. We learned a lot about his family, how long he had been on the island, about his daughter’s restaurant and finally after many hints, he realized we had things we needed to get done and he went on his way. But he was going to be back the next day delivering a different walker. And sure enough, a man of his word, he arrived just when he said he would. And once again settled in for quite the conversation. This time he also brought me a bowl from his daughter’s restaurant. How very thoughtful! We later ordered pizza from the restaurant and it too was very good. On the day we left he came and pick up the items we had rented. he told us he thinks there are perhaps five Americans on the island. I think that might be the reason he was so eager to chat with our family. As much as he loves Lanzarote I think he really enjoys talking with people from “back home.”

Details of the admittance to the hospital for me are sketchy. I asked if someone could spend the night with me. Of course, I could have a room with an extra bed (at an extra charge) and that person would also be provided meals. I was amazed but we later realized that this may be offered because the hospital is understaffed. When I would get my daily showers they would wheel me into the bathroom and wrap my arms and wound with plastic wrap (right off the roll, just like you’d buy in the local grocery) and then I would be left alone to shower for 10 minutes or so when they would come back and help me dry and dress. I can’t imagine this happening in the US. Even more surprising was when I went down for an MRI, they asked Patrick to help move me from gurney onto the MRI table and then back again.

The staff for the most part was very pleasant and did their best to speak English and certainly appreciated opportunities to speak with Cary who speaks nearly fluent Spanish.

On Monday while we were waiting for them to take me down to surgery Miss Cranky Pants stormed into my room and looked at all of us demanding to know when we were going to pay, and why hadn’t we paid yesterday adding that there would be no surgery before payment. We all took a collective deep breath and someone made the comment that it had been our understanding that we would be notified when we could meet with an administrator and pay and of course, we would be glad to complete the process. Cary traipsed downstairs and gave her a credit card to cover the 22,000 euro estimated cost. (Thank goodness once again for credit cards!)

The only thing I remember about the surgery was coming to while I was still in the operating room, kind of a freaky experience. I mumbled something to the effect of, “So it’s all over?” “Just finishing up,” responded the surgeon. Then to my amazement, someone mentioned they were going to move me from the surgery table to the gurney. The surgeon spoke directly to me, “Don’t help us.” Then he, the surgeon, and others lifted me onto the gurney. I can’t imagine a surgeon in the US doing that.

The surgeon had told me on the evening I was admitted that unlike the US, Spain doesn’t believe in no pain and I wouldn’t be given pain killers like the US. Ok! In the end I didn’t notice any difference except that all pain killers until the day I went home were give via IVs. And on several occasions during my stay I turned down an offered IV.

The staff generally went out of their way to be helpful. Patrick stayed with me in the hospital and on more than one occasion acted as my nurse tracking down something as mundane as ice. (Turned out there was no ice in the hospital.) While I was grateful to have someone stay with me I also think it’s a good deal for the hospital. They were vastly understaffed and so I had my own personal advocate who could run errands and on top of it he was paying the hospital for the opportunity to do so. The day I was released from the hospital, Epiphany, Jan 6, there was only one nurse on the hospital floor.

While I am often critical of the American medical system, I realize now that my primary gripe is the fact that it is unaffordable for so many. Obamacare was a step in the right direction but obviously much more needs to be done. When I compare what I experienced in a private hospital in Spain to what I have routinely received in the US I realize there are so many subleties that bely great differences. Rarely did I see a nurse during the overnight hours unless I requested one. The doctor came in to see me each morning before I had breakfast. He never looked at my wound but talked with me for five minutes or less. (Both Patrick and Cary took copious notes of everything I was told. On the first morning after surgery, the surgeon stopped midsentence and looked at Patrick and inquired, “You are recording?” When Patrick responded that he wanted to ensure he remembered everything the doctor said, it seemed to satisfy him.)

Finally five days after surgery I was released from the hospital. It would still be a few weeks before I would be certified as “fit to fly.” But it was a start. When I talked with the surgeon about starting physical therapy he assured me that it would be possible to have a therapist come to our Airbnb. He gave Patrick explicit instructions how to make it happen. But when Patrick went downstairs to arrange it, he first encountered Miss Cranky Pants who shouted, “No, no, she will have to come to the hospital for it.” In the middle of her tirade a young man walked in and softly told Patrick that he would be glad to come to our home three times a week. I was a bit concerned when I learned his name was Agony! But no need; he turned out to be wonderful! I paid him what I believed to be a very reasonable charge in cash. On our last day Cary inquired if he could provide us with a receipt for his services (that I could submit to our insurance) which he said regrettably he couldn’t do because he was doing this as a favor to the surgeon. Hmmm…interesting.

There are worse places to recuperate than Lanzarote. The weather was relatively warm; most days were in the mid 60s where we were up high in the hills and much warmer down near the beach.

Cary’s friend Rados is an amazing cook and so our meals were always wonderful! Then when he didn’t cook, Cary did! (Well, there were also a couple of trips to some US favorites.)

I can’t remember the last time I haven’t cooked for this period of time! Bob and I got to relax and Rados, Patrick and Cary were able to take a few afternoons to investigate the area but for the most part they spent most of their time running errands, and doing all the caretaking/housekeeping tasks and in addition, while they took time off to support me in my recuperation they both needed to check in with work regularly. Not exactly relaxing for either of them.

The view of the New Years fireworks from our initial Airbnb were pretty spectacular I am told.

But when I was released from the hospital we obviously couldn’t go back to our first stay with all the steps. Cary found us a great Airbnb in Tias, just a few minutes away from the hospital. We were higher up and it was quite windy, but it had a great outdoor area and very nice views…

Two weeks after my hospital release and three physical therapy sessions later I was finally able to try to travel by car. I found several YouTube videos of the process. Patrick wheeled me out to the car (out the front door and up a short but steep ramp) and at that point I would take Bob’s walker to get out of the chair and back up to the car and sit on the front passenger seat, and then lift my legs in. It was far easier than I had imagined. First trip was back to the hospital to see a nurse. I found it interesting that after the surgery never once did the doctor look at my wound, always a nurse. She removed the six staples which she told me had been in too long and as a result were irritating my skin and then sent us on our way. I can’t describe how wonderful it was to be out in sunshine.

It was so great to be out that two days later Cary drove us into Puerto del Carmen and for lunch. We drove down the Avenida del Playa looking for a restaurant that didn’t have steps and then on the second pass, she dropped Bob, Patrick and me off and then went and parked the car. What great service!

From the best we can figure out, airlines require the completion of a “fit to fly” form from the doctor before travel. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we went in for my appointment the day before our flight. We checked in with the receptionist and shortly after, the surgeon came out to the hallway, called my name and then wheeled me back to his office. There he asked questions about how I felt and provided me with suggestions for the travel ahead. When I asked about how long I should leave the wound dressed and other medical details, he referred me to the nurse who he said I should see after I left his office. Again, it was only conversation. He never checked out the dressing himself.

The reaction of complete strangers really impressed us. Before leaving the first complex, Cary said every time they returned people would inquire about my well being. The woman we had rented from even returned the balance of rent for the unused time. When I was being carried into the new Airbnb via stretcher I made eye contact with a woman on her nearby balcony. The next morning she knocked on our door inquiring on how I was doing and was there anything I needed adding that both she and her son would be happy to help with whatever we needed.

The Lanzarote airport was close by so when we left the hospital we took the surgeon’s advice and drove to the airport and Patrick went in to ensure that everything was in place for our flight the following day to London. On that morning Roger Dodger came and picked up the devices we had rented from him. And we were on our way. Lanzarote is a small airport and easy to navigate. Airport staff wheeled both Bob and me through the check in process and through security with both Patrick and Cary at our side doing their own check ins. (Bob tried to clear the way waving my cane as we moved through the airport! LOL)

We enjoyed a brief time in the lounge before boarding. The walk from the doorway of the plane to our seats was a challenge but luckily Patrick and Cary had suggested I buy a cane and it made things a lot easier. The very efficient staff took Bob and me through the boarding process and while I tried to explain that I wished to wait for my son to help me I was told, “He will be here. He will be here.” I felt a little like the old lady the boy scout helped across the street even though she didn’t want to go.

It’s a four hour flight from Lanzarote to London and before we left Lanzarote I had arranged for a taxi to pick us up at Gatwick and take us to the hotel inside Heathrow terminal 2, the terminal that we would fly out of in the morning. Of course it was raining cats and dogs when we got to London but we managed to miss most of the water! First we were met by the Gatwick staff who took us via buggy to the taxi. The taxi was outside but undercover and an hour later we were in our hotel. The desk had provided me with a telephone number for a group who would pick us the following morning and get us to our United Flight.

After a bit of dinner, I was definitely ready for bed. We were to leave for our gate at 9:30 in the morning. In my humble opinion Heathrow is a horrible airport to navigate; it’s absolutely huge and processes are very inefficient. And while our initial trip to the United connection was great, the process getting through security and finally to our gate took about two hours. Our flight to DC was nearly 9 hours but it was amazing! We were on a Boeing 777 in Polaris business class in little cubicles that reminded me of office pods. The service was beyond belief. There were 11 flight attendants on board. One immediately got me ice for my leg. Did we need anything else? There was time for chit chat. With Patrick’s support I got up three times to stretch my legs and each time there was at least one attendant if not two there to support me as well.

We were met by airport staff at Dulles who wheeled us through passport control, then with Patrick’s help picked up our baggage and took us to the door and outside to meet up with Stephen. They were truly wonderful. Patrick headed home on the metro and Stephen delivered us to our Airbnb, which he had already stocked with staples as well as meals that his wife, Sadie, had prepared for us. We’re not far from his house and this is where I will continue to recuperate for a couple of months and continue physical therapy.

It’s been quite a month. But I feel very lucky. Lucky to be in a place where quality medical care was available. Lucky that this fall occurred in a warm sunny part of the world and not in the cold rainy area where we began our holiday travels. Lucky to be able to afford the surgery. Lucky that it was a fractured hip and not something much worse. But most of all I feel very lucky to have had family to support me through all this. Bob and I never could have managed alone. I think at this point, while I want to continue to travel, it’s time to perhaps plan some adjustments of what that looks like. But that’s a conversation is for another time.

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