Friday, April 28, 2006

My First Belgian Hospital Experience - Chapter Cinq: The Call

Having been duly scanned and xrayed, I was directed back to the waiting room to sweat out the results, or, more appropriately, whatever lurked in the waiting room chairs. As I was walking back to the waiting room, I passed on an excellent opportunity to kick Lil' Lucifer, as he was standing on a chair, no parental figures in sight, when I rounded a corner by the xray department. The fact that I didn't, made me feel good about myself. Maybe I can be redeemed.

I settled into my chair, laying bets with myself as to how long the wait would actually take. Since I all of my prior hospital waiting experience has been in the US, I figured 4 hours would be a fair guess, even factoring in the time difference. A little over an hour later, the ER doc came to tell me that the scans were normal, but the head of neurology wanted to keep me overnight for "surveillance." I figured she meant "observation," but, then again, the receptionist may have narc'ed me out after all. Regardless, I had no intention of being surveilled or observed.

I called Dan to break the bad news. It went something like this:
Cindy: "Honey, I'm fine but they want to keep me overnight to make sure I don't throw up again."

Dan: "All of this could have been prevented! The first thing I'm doing when I get home is throw away those f-ing high heels. (Long pause, presumably when he realizes that he said that out loud and that he has yet to ask about me.) Are ou okay? Do you need me to come down there?"

Cindy: "I'm positive I don't need you to come down. (Short pause to let the irritation in my voice fully sink in.) I forgive you for yelling when I call to tell you that I am being admitted to the hospital. (Long pause to allow guilt to kick in.) Don't you dare touch my heels! (Click.)

(I bet ya'll can guess what the topic of our first counseling session will be!)

I went back to the doctor and told her that I really, really, really didn't want to stay overnight to be observed. When I promised her that I would not be alone and that I would return to the ER immediately if I threw up again, she agreed to call the neurologist and see if he would release me. I guess Belgium doesn't have a problem with hospitals milking health insurance --oh, wait, they wouldn't take my health insurance! -- since, the doctor released me.

Stay tuned for Chapter Six: The Bill.

© 2006 by Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

My First Belgian Hospital Experience - Chatpter Quatre: Mama, She's Crazy

The doctor performed the standard neurological exam and sent me for a CAT scan. (I do feel compelled to point out that, in my opinion, it is categorically unfair for a doctor to give someone who has taken a blow to the head a hard time about not coming to the hospital sooner. There's a reason why we don't let the concussed operate heavy machinery!)

After the scan, I was escorted to a different waiting room, where I sat down next to one of the craziest people I've encountered to date in Belgium. (Mind you, I'm not judging. I can't, considering that, only a few short hours before, I went into a veterinarian’s office and asked to see a neurologist. I'm quite certain the lady with the little brown dog thought I was off my rocker.)

Anyway, back to Sybil. She was in her mid-twenties and probably suffering from several diseases (all of which can be found defined somewhere in the DSM-IV), not the least of which has "paranoia" attached somewhere in the diagnosis. Every 10-15 seconds, she would look all around her, like she was checking to see if someone was following her, and then open her lady-bug purse and frantically push buttons on her cell phone.

At first, I thought she was trying to make conversation with me, but then I realized she was talking to herself. She would whisper something, and then answer herself in a different voice. I'm talking seriously freaky. It would have been worth the price of admission to understand the conversation she was having with herselves. Even a concussed, non-French speaking, layperson like me could see that Sybil needed a thorazine/haldol cocktail with a lithium chaser. And maybe a pretty new white jacket to boot.

When I took out my telephone and took a picture of the old man strolling through the halls carrying his catheter bag, I thought it was going to push Syb right over the edge. (Note for future reference: when dealing with those suffering from paranoid delusions, it is not a good idea to bring out a camera phone that makes a simulated shutter sound.)

Two attendants came and took Sybil away. Hopefully, to a much happier place. I, on the other hand, was off to x-rays.

Stay tuned for Chapter Cinq: The Call.

© 2006 by Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

My First Belgian Hospital Experience - Chapter Trois: Oh, Please! Not That Room!

Turns out, Damian was the least of my problems. (I knew things were not going to go my way in the sympathy department when I looked down at the feet of the nurse taking my vitals and saw that she was wearing those Dr. Scholl's comfort clogs.)

Once she finished with my vitals, the nurse told me to wait for the doctor in one of the chairs lining the wall in front of the exam rooms. I took the chair on the end, which left me with a partial view of Exam Room 3. I say "partial", because all I could see was half of the room and one incredibly gnarled foot. What I couldn't see in Room 3 was made up for in sound and smell.

I'm very much a sympathetic vomiter. If I see someone get sick, if I smell vomit, or, if I hear someone vomiting, I'm right there with them. Come to think of it, I don't do well with other people's body fluids at all. Given that I was queasy to begin with, sitting outside of Room 3 was not a good move, since whatever was connected to the foot in Room 3 had lost control of all his bodily functions. Between the retching and the stench, I thought I just might die.

A doctor came and told me that she would see me as soon as an Exam Room was free. A janitor was then dispatched to Exam Room 3. He arrived with this industrial-sized blue trash can on a cleaning cart. He walked into Room 3, turned around, walked out, picked up a phone, and the next thing I know, another janitor with an industrial-sized trash can cart arrived - STAT. I could see the janitors, who, by the way, are grossly underpaid in my book, mopping and sweeping the room, making faces and holding their breaths. It was BAD.

During the clean-up process, someone came for the patient in Room 3. As they wheeled him past me, I got my first glimpse of the owner of the foot. I swear on everything dear and holy, the man looked like someone straight out of Tales from the Crypt. His skin was pulled tight over his face, his jaw was open and locked, his teeth, or what were left of them, were black. His arms were bandaged and crossed on his chest, a la open-coffin style. Forget knocking on death's door, this guy had a VIP card to get him to the head of the line. As they wheeled him past me, I threw up a little prayer for his soul. (Ok, that's a lie, but I was concerned about his well-being - much later, like, when I got home and started telling Dan about my day.)

Once the janitors were finished, the male one looked at me and said something in French. I knew what he said, but I ignored him, shaking my head as if I didn't understand. He repeated it, slower. I ignored him again. He tried it in Flemish. Again, I ignored him. He started gesturing with his hands, which I ignored as well. He then said to me, in English, what I had been ignoring in French, Flemish and sign language. For some reason, Mr. Clean didn't get it. He could have used 15 different languages and smoke signals, it would not have mattered. There was no way in hell I was going into Room 3!

So as I am walking toward Room 3, I'm thinking about how grossly overpaid - and pushy - hospital janitors are in Belgium. Just as I was about to step into Room 3, and start the whole vicious cleaning cycle anew, I heard my name being called from out in the hall. It was the doctor, calling for me to come to Exam Room 1.

Stay tuned for Chapter Quatre: Mama, She's Crazy

© 2006 by Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

My First Belgian Hospital Experience - Chapter Deux: The Waiting Room

Having finally found the entrance to the emergency room, I signed in at the intake desk. The clerk, who spoke excellent English (thank you, Jesus), asked for my residency card and my passport. Producing the passport was no problem, as I had the good sense to throw it in my purse before I left the apartment (what head injury?). Providing a residency card proved a bit more challenging, since, technically, I don't have one. Yes, that's right. I'm an illegal alien. (Six months later and my paperwork is still being processed!)

Fortunately, the clerk was content with only my passport, or, maybe she just had better things to do than to narc me out to immigration. As a consolation, I offered her my Belgian insurance card. Granted, it's not a lifetime supply of rice-a-roni or turtle wax, but it would show that I am not a drain on the Belgian public welfare system. She was not interested in it in the least, which, frankly, surprised me. Can you imagine, in your wildest, absinthe-induced dreams, a hospital in the US telling you, "no, we don't need your medical insurance information."?

After the clerk entered me into the system, she told me to go wait in the room around the corner. As I was trudging toward the waiting room, I had a brief glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, the blow to my head somehow dislodged the "freak magnet". It was not to be the case.

The waiting room was small and rectangular-shaped, with chairs lining the two side walls and the rear wall, like a giant "U". There was a young girl seated in the first chair to my right, along the side wall. She was holding her hand, as if in dire pain. Since she probably spoke excellent English, I chose not to sit by her. I was not the least bit interested in how she hurt her arm, and she looked like the kind of person who would have no problem explaining to a complete stranger, i.e. me, the story of her life in great detail.

The chairs on the side wall, across from Injured Arm, were filled with Rachel, Monica and Phoebe. You know the type - trauma drama queens. Only one was sick (probably complications from a severe eating disorder), but all three had to come to the hospital. Enough said.

On the same side wall as Injured Arm, but at the end of the row, was The Family. The Father was seated in a hospital-provided wheelchair, although for what reason I do not know, since he clearly had no problems ambulating to the vending machine and to the outside entrance to smoke; The Mother was in one of the chairs, sitting next to twenty-something-year-old Daughter, both of whom looked bored out of their minds. Damian, the four-year-old devil-child, and I do mean that as the possessed spawn of Satan, was terrorizing the waiting room.

He had that shrill scream that grates on absolutely everyone's nerves, except, apparently, family members. He was climbing on chairs, under chairs, through chair arms. At one point, he took his jacket off and started swinging it over his head, barely missing R-M-P. He then found an empty wheelchair, which, up until then, had been parked safely in a corner, and started ramming it into things, including Injured Arm!

When he was not using the waiting room floor as his own personal slip-n-slide, he was eating Smarties (similar to M&M's, but not as tasty), off the floor. The FLOOR of a waiting room in the EMERGENCY department of a HOSPITAL! It was then that I realized that The Family was probably being seen for hearing problems, psychiatric counseling, IV antibiotics, or a combination of the three. (I came to this conclusion because sterilization is generally not treated on an emergency basis, although, if I were in the Belgian health system, I would seriously reconsider this option, having seen the carnage left by Damian).

As Damian made his way towards me, I realized that I had made a huge tactical error in my seating choice -- I had backed myself into a corner. Damn head injury! I quickly assessed my weapons - umbrella, purse and cowboy boots. Under normal circumstances, an impressive lot. When staring down the very face of evil pushing a wheelchair at you at break-neck speed, not so much. I'm not sure whether "diminished capacity" would be a defense to an assault on a child charge in Belgium, but I was willing to give it a go. I opted for the boots. It worked! Wheelchair's forward progress stopped. Damian pissed.

Before the little devil could back up and prepare for round two, the nurse called my name. I stood up, gave him my best, Mommie Dearest/Devil, I Command You to Come Out, stare. He returned it with his best "you've only made me stronger" smile.

Stay tuned for Chapter Trois: Oh God, Not That One!

© 2006 by Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

My First Belgian Hospital Experience - Chapter One: Ou Est L'Hopital?

I left the apartment Thursday morning on a mission to find a neurosurgeon. Three clinics, a pharmacy and two doctor's offices later, I was willing to settle for anyone open. (For non-Belgianers, or, ignorant expats like me, a red cross = clinic, a green cross = pharmacy, and a blue cross = a potentially very embarrassing situation if you walk in and ask to see a doctor without carrying something on a leash or in a cage! Oh well, live and learn, that's my new motto.)

After a couple of miles walking, some of which was in circles, I finally found a large hospital complex on Rue Alexiens, not far from the Mannequin Pis. I walked inside and went immediately to the reception area. The mademoiselle behind the counter spoke no English, but she pointed me toward her colleague, who was on the phone. I patiently waited for monsieur to finish his conversation, and then, in my best Spench, asked if it was possible to see a neurologist without an appointment. He told me "trois etage" a "gauche". I took this to mean go to the third floor and take a left. I went to the trois etage and took a left, only to find the "urology" and "gynecology" departments.

I returned to the reception area and, again, found monsieur on the phone. Since the massive headache and incredible nausea were cutting into my patience, I asked mademoiselle, "ou est neurology?" while pointing to my head. She held up 5 fingers, which I stupidly took to be the fifth floor. Once on the fifth floor, I realized that there was no "ology" department even closely resembling what I was looking for, so I took the elevator to the sixth floor, resigned to searching the entire hospital, floor-by-floor, to find the neurology department.

As luck would have it, when the elevator doors opened on the sixth floor, voila, I had found the neurology/psychiatry department. Between my broken French, the receptionist's broken English, and the willingness of a patient in the waiting room to translate (and I do use that term lightly), I learned that the neurology department was closed on Thursdays. They directed me to the emergency department of their sister hospital – “very close”.

Off I went, address in hand: 322 Rue Haute. Finding Rue Haute was not my problem. Finding the hospital on Rue Haute was a different story. (And, for the record, “very close” is a relative term. For someone with a staggering headache and an urge to vomit every 15 seconds, “very close” means “right around the freaking corner” and not “up the hill, through the major intersection, take a right on the side street, cross a plaza, and then walk the entire length of a very long street.”)

For starters, I was at 62 Rue Haute, which meant I had a whole lot of walking to get to 322. When I got to the 300 block, I did not see anything that resembled a hospital. It looked like a large residential area. Where's one of those red-snakey sign things when you need them?

I finally found this billboard on a chain-linked fence (I'll get a photo posted for your viewing pleasure), which told me to follow the orange feet to the green arrows to get to the "Urgencias" department.

Stay tuned for Chapter Deux: The Waiting Room. (This is where it gets interesting!)

© 2006 by Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

My First Belgian Hospital Experience -- The Prologue

To make a short story very long, last Saturday night I slipped and fell in a restaurant (where's a good lawyer when you need her?) and, four days later, was still vomiting. Since it doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that purging without bingeing is probably not a good thing, on Wednesday morning, I saw a local general physician. She diagnosed me as "concussed", told me to go to the hospital if I vomited again, and sent me on my way with a stern warning not to wear three inch heels. Wednesday night brought more quality time with the toilet, so first thing this morning, I set off to find a hospital.

(Here's a little tip for all you expatters: Find out where the nearest hospital is before you suffer a traumatic brain injury!)

© 2006 by Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Travel Advisory

For those traveling to Amsterdam, please be advised that:

  • "Get the F#CK off the bike path!" in Flemish sounds nothing like "Get the F#CK off the bike path!" in English.
  • It is not recommended that you WALK in the bike path.
  • What you may think is a commotion behind you, may very well be a biker yelling at you in Flemish to "Get the F#CK off the bike path!"
  • There are some bikers that have no problem hitting walkers that don't get the f#ck off the bike path.

© 2006 by Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

My World Is Flat - But I Don't Have Easter Grass

I'm a Texan, in Belgium, by way of California, because I met a man from Ohio, on an island off the coast of Mexico, who works for a Swedish company. Our Canadian neighbor, who works for a Brazilian company, moved here from Croatia. We live in a building owned by a French guy, but maintained by Polish workers, in a predominantly Muslim and Afrikaans section of town. Our favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant, owned and operated by a Persian couple, is located around the corner from the Galician Cultural Center, where I have been Scottish dancing.

A Pakistani man manages the supermarket that we live above. I shop at the Chinese grocery store for American food products and buy wines from Turkey, Israel and South America from a Belgian store that is across the street from a Lebanese restaurant. Our clothes are dry-cleaned by an Arabic family in a shop not far from our favorite Irish pub. At the end of our street is a restaurant owned by a man from Tunisia who employs a Moroccan cook. Our kitchen curtains were made by a lady from Kosovo and we have an English GPS system in our German car.

By all accounts, my world is pretty flat. Which is why I'm completely blown away that in such a diverse and ethnic city, I couldn't find Easter grass OR Easter dye!! (The closest I got is pictured above -- three little vials of food coloring. That turquoise felt thing was the only semblance of a basket to be found in the greater Brussels area.) Since Easter is not Easter without colored eggs, a special thank you to Karen Camp for bringing a Paas Easter Egg dye set all the way from the USA so that we could have colored eggs in our grassless Easter bags!

(Yes, I ripped off the title of this post from award-winning author and NY Times columnist, Thomas Freidman. I seriously doubt that he reads my blog, which I guess is fair since I haven't read his new book, so I think I'm in the clear!)

© 2006 by Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Ma'am, That Hurts!

I've come to accept that some really bizarre things happen to me in Brussels. I don't understand how or why strange things find me, they just do. I'm pretty much beyond fighting it. Some things are simply outside the locus of my control, and, apparently, all things Belgian fall within this camp. But, I do have my limits, and I absolutely draw the line at old ladies beating me with their canes. It's rude. It hurts. It's assault and battery.

Yesterday, I was walking home from shopping on Rue Blaes, carrying a large shopping bag in my left hand, when I came upon this little old lady walking two small white dogs. In her left hand, she had one of those retractable leashes, restraining Thing One. In her right hand, she had an identical leash, attached to Thing Two, and a black walking cane. (Operative word being "cane.")

Initially, I was impressed that she could walk two dogs with a cane and not have everything get tangled together. Now, I just wish her dead.

As I was passing the Lady and the Things, Thing One decided to run in front of me to pee on the building to my right. Fortunately for him, he had enough leash to pull it off. Unfortunately for me, he had enough leash to pull it off. I was clotheslined just below my knees. I stopped, abruptly, and put my right hand on the wall of the building to prevent myself from falling forward. I started to back up, just about the time that Thing Two made a mad dash at the building. Thing Two's leash is now hitting me just below the back of my knees.

The Lady then started yelling at the Things, and, to their credit, the Things tried to return to her side. The downside for me was that they used opposite routes from which they came. Thing One went behind me and Thing Two went in front of me. I looked down and saw a tangled mess of retractable dog leashes, white yapping fur, and the toes of my black motorcycle boots. ("Motorcycle boots" being the operative words in that sentence.)

Call it intuition. Call it reading context-clues. Call it experience. But I knew, knew, that somehow it was going to go from bad to worse. Since my hands were otherwise occupied -- one holding on to the building and the other holding my shopping bag -- I tried to untangle myself by lifting my leg over one of the leashes. Bad move on my part. Real bad.

The Lady interpreted my high-step to be an attempt to drop-kick one of the Things, which I would have done had I known at the time that they were the spawn of Satan, and she began beating me about the knees and ankles with her cane. (I'm convinced the Lady bought her Geritol at Balco, because Granny Bonds had a helluva follow-through!). The Things must have thought this was some sort of game, because they kept jumping up and down and trying to grab the end of the cane. Trust me, it was no game.

I'm yelling at her in English, she's swinging her cane at me and screaming in French, the dogs are yelping and/or barking, depending on the placement of my boot, tourists are taking photos. Sheer chaos.

For a moment, I had this insane urge to yell, "Release the Hounds." But, I quickly learned that there is an inverse relationship in my brain between the part that regulates my sense of humor and the part that holds all the pain receptors. More pain, less funny. Shearing shin pain -- not funny at all!

I would like to think that she dropped the leash to help me untangle myself from the cluster, but I know, know, that she was just trying to get a better grip on her lethal death stick. Once she let go of one of the leashes, I was able to high-step my way out of the leashes, with only an occasional bootfull of white fur.

The tourists had dispersed, taking their award-winning footage with them. There was not a police officer in sight. My pride, not to mention my aching ankles, prevented me from walking to the station and filing a report. Besides, "an old lady beat me with a stick," does not exactly evoke the kind of sympathy that was warranted under the circumstances. So, I limped back home, entertaining thoughts of the old lady being arrested, traded for a pack of smokes, and turned into some big lady's bitch.

© 2006 by Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.