An Innocent Patient Abroad

Special To The Jewish Week
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Perhaps it was divine retribution for the blatantly treif lunch I’d enjoyed so much at one of Zichron Yaakov’s new boutique eateries earlier that day. But somehow, late into the second evening of a long-awaited trip to Israel, I suddenly found myself aw akened in my Tel Aviv hotel room by excruciating abdominal pain. Several hours of doubled-up suffering later, I finally was no longer able to deny the obvious and succumbed to the incredible reality: I, longtime Hadassah devotee and immediate past president of my Stamford, Conn., chapter, was about to visit an Israeli ER that was not run by my beloved Women’s Zionist Organization. An hour-long ambulance trek to Jerusalem was simply out of the question. Our hotel’s paramedic, advising against what he referred to tongue-in-cheek as Wolf-“sof” (end) hospital, shuttled us off by taxi to the closer Sourasky Medical Center, better known to locals as Ichilov. At a moment so infused with guilt about ruining our plans and fear of being seriously ill so far from home, I could hardly have anticipated that this unplanned, unwanted side tour would end up making my trip. After a miniscule waiting period and not a single inquiry concerning insurance, I was directed to the surgical ER and promptly diagnosed with acute pancreatitis caused by an apparently errant gallstone or two. I was told that I’d be admitted for a minimum of several days of IV antibiotics and a total fast. I wasn’t sure whether to be elated that God wasn’t punishing me or totally humiliated when the head of ER bluntly opined that my condition was more likely the result of overindulgence in calories rather than violation of kashrut. But at that point I was truly too sick to care much about anything except when the morphine drip was to begin. It soon did, and I was eventually carted off to my temporary abode in a private room on a sparkling new surgical ward, more accurately described as a private trauma unit, that being the only immediately available space. At the time I was thankful for the benefits of universal healthcare, the splendid view of the Azrieli Towers and, not in the mood for interactions or conversation, the solitude. Among the visitors later that day was Carol, a perky and efficient American-Israeli from the office of Medical Tourism. She began to shepherd us through the inevitable red tape of illness abroad while regaling us with stories of her attempts to import the concept of bedside manner to Israel. Despite the influx of painkillers, I was sufficiently clearheaded to suggest she begin with the delightfully diplomatic ER doc who had basically just called me a fatty. Next on the scene was the first of an onslaught of constantly changing residents who shooed my bewildered husband out of the room for both examinations and rounds — one of many medical culture differences we were to experience. A young intern then arrived and announced his intention to take blood and fix my IV. A tall, striking product of Kibbutz Beit Hashita, David explained that since he’d received his medical training in Italy he was now required to spend a year doing “all the jobs no one else wanted to do” in order to qualify for his Israeli license. Savvy enough to realize you never want any doctor to draw blood if it can be avoided, especially on someone with my notoriously “deep hidden veins,” I gently got rid of him after a few futile pokes and used my Hebrew to politely beg for a nurse. In the wee hours of the following morning, it became quickly apparent just how invaluable my fluency in Hebrew was to be.  Overhearing two student nurses discussing the insulin shot they were about to administer for my sakeret, I knew enough about Hebrew roots to decipher that sakeret came from sukar (sugar) and must mean diabetes, a condition I hastily informed them I didn’t have. Moving into my semi-private room precipitated the first of many encounters with patients and staff that were to provide insights into Israeli society I would never have had as a mere tayeret (tourist). The first of my two roommates, Shoshana, was a gregarious, sophisticated elderly lady, starving for compassion and someone to listen. An articulate, Alliance-school educated, well-traveled wife of a high-ranking Tzahal general, she explained with sadness how she had sacrificed any normalcy of life for the army, essentially raising their two daughters as a single mother. She described the constant anxiety of Israeli life due to ongoing fears of war and terrorism and concluded by asking almost in the same breath, both “What kind of life is this?” and “What choice do we have; how can one leave one’s home?” In stark contrast to Shoshana was my next roommate, a taciturn Russian woman whose teenage daughter and seemingly gruff husband took turns camping out at her bedside round the clock, providing comfort and food while also annoyingly monopolizing a bathroom that I needed rather desperately not to be locked out of. I quickly forgave both the bathroom hogging and the daily 6 a.m. alarm clock din of Israeli rock music, when I discovered upon her release that Tatiana, an immigrant supporting her family by cleaning houses, had had her arm operated on for cancer and that the alarm clock was to remind her to take crucially needed medication. The hour of my impending freedom finally approached when I became fever-free and my stomach pains were considered manageable enough for me to continue my travels. I readily agreed to the cancellation of a strenuous visit to the red rocks of Petra in 100-degree temperatures, as the idea of becoming a patient abroad in an Amman hospital was not high on my wish list. The middle-aged Yemenite custodian who had been the steadfast provider of fresh nightgowns and towels for close to a week vigorously mopped the floor of my room in preparation for the next occupants. As always, he chatted incessantly as he worked, at one point passionately bemoaning the 51 percent divorce rate among young Israeli couples after only one year of marriage. As I was contemplating how disturbing this statistic was, if accurate, a young nurse entered as if on cue. As she confidently withdrew my IV, she told me of her recent divorce and her plans to emigrate to my hometown of Montreal with her two very young children to pursue her nursing career. Unhooked from all apparatuses, I was almost ready to go. I had reminded my most recent resident of Medical Tourism’s advice to get at least the summation paragraph of my discharge letter in English. He barely disguised his irritation at my assumption that he would not know this without having to be told, yet the first version arrived totally in Hebrew and had to be sent back for revisions. The delay must have been “bashert,” however, because while sitting in the atrium I developed a wordless yet meaningful acquaintance with a 2-year-old Arab girl awaiting outpatient chemotherapy. Language and age barriers were irrelevant as we smiled, gestured and made each other bracelets out of fallen pieces of decorative foliage. The second time around my letter was actually issued with pertinent sections in translation, thereby finally releasing one very relieved and appreciative tayeret. And the tab for five days at Ichilov, including ER fees, tests and meds, you’re wondering, given the national debate on health care costs taking place in the U.S. Congress? A relative pittance at $4,100, of which Blue Cross (provided through my husband’s employer) reimbursed the hospital $3,800, leaving us with a payment of $300 out of pocket. I was grateful to have my health restored to the point where I could enjoy the rest of my trip with few restrictions and grateful for having been granted permission to have my gallbladder removed later on in my “homeland,” as the discharge papers put it. Most of all, though, I was grateful for the unexpected insider’s view of Israel and Israeli medicine. I wish shalom to Ichilov and to all those within her walls.

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