It wasn't quite planned that way. See, our trip, or at least mine and the girls', was supposed to be three and a half weeks, timed so the kids would miss "only" two weeks of school at the end of Term 2. We would arrive back Thursday night on 12 July, in time to rest and start school for start of Term 3 on 16 July. I'd be back at work Wednesday, leaving me a further delicious two days to potter around by myself beforehand.
Y was staying an extra 2 weeks, coming back on 23 July. I had to talk him into this funnily enough, but I knew once he got there he'd want to stay longer than 3 weeks and spend more time with family, as he hadn't been back in nine years.
Our first day in Greece, as soon as the plane touched down at Athens, I was excited. It had been ten years since my last trip here and I love, love, love this country. As soon as I saw the city, the airport, the signage in Greek, the brilliant sunshine, I felt wonderful.
At the airport we had a couple of hours until our connecting flight. We whiled away some time at a cafe, then I visited the toilet.
In the toilet, I did what I had to do then waltzed towards the door. As I smiled at the lady cleaning the floors and thought to myself "Hmm, the floors are very wet, I'll be careful here", I suddenly skidded and fell on top of my outstretched arm. Next thing I knew I was wailing in shock and pain and the cleaning lady was trying to help me up while my arm flopped like jelly in front of me.
I'd never broken a bone before, unless you count my tailbone when I fell backwards on roller skates onto my bum when I was 11. They can't put a cast on that one, it just heals by itself - but I had a little shooting pain every time I sat down for the next 8 years.
Anyway, this time I had broken my humerus quite badly - it had snapped through in a jagged break, and the two halves were out of alignment. It was not too painful at first, but it certainly was by the time I got to the hospital. And that was just the beginning of things!
As I sat on a chair outside the toilets, the cleaning lady's supervisor and two policemen got details from me of what had happened, and the cleaning lady ran to get my family from the cafe. They arrived back at the same time as the ambulance, and the kids got to watch me being loaded onto a stretcher and wheeled to the ambulance. M. stared in shock and A. was in tears clutching her cuddly Rabbit to her face. I wasn't in huge pain and smiled and told jokes to the kids and said "Look what silly Mummy did, I had an accident! And look, now we get to ride in an ambulance!"
Inwardly I was a little shocked, because before we left for our trip Mum had told me all about the problems that Athens General Hospital was having due to the economic crisis, including severe shortages of essential medical supplies like bandages and medicines. "Whatever you do, don't do anything to be sent to hospital!" she'd said. "Yeah right!" I laughed; I bought a First Aid kit for our suitcase, and joked that I would take it to the hospital and sell it there.
Now as they loaded me into the ambulance I kept thinking "I can't believe it, I'm actually going to the hospital!"
Initially we were taken to the first aid clinic attached to the airport, which is airy, modern and impressive. By this stage I was in some pain, and they gave me a Panadol. The pain soon escalated and I asked for something stronger but they said "We do have stronger stuff but we can't give it to you now because you had the Panadol."
The nurses guessed the arm was broken and wrapped it and put it in a sling, unfortunately having to cut through my favorite shirt to do it. Ah well.
We had to wait awhile for an ambulance to go to the real hospital. We were recommended to wait for the ambulance rather than take a taxi, to get quicker treatment at the emergency room. So we sat on chairs outside the main door and the paramedics who'd brought us smoked and kept us company and chatted about the crisis and the political outlook. At one point as I grimaced and sweated in my chair, one of them considered me and said to Y, "I thought women were supposed to be good at handling pain?"
This was me just grimacing and squirming a little mind you - not crying and screaming.
"I am handling it!" I said shortly.
Finally the ambulance came and in we went; the guys loading me in made soothing noises, and as any time I have been in the health system I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the care given by paramedics and nurses; they are always not only professional and calm but so kind - it makes me tearful every time.
As we drove through the city I played I Spy with the kids and we marveled at the glorious weather. The area around Athens has the best climate in the country - warm, dry and breezy.
When we arrived at the hospital the paramedic told us to wait while he got a wheelchair. "I don't need one!" I said but he insisted - with a wheelchair they'll take you seriously and you'll be seen sooner, he said. Also, we had to make sure to tell everyone I haven't yet been treated, as they might misinterpret my bandage and sling to mean I'd already been seen.
It seemed he might have been right about the wheelchair. Y pushed me into the emergency room and told the triage desk what had happened, and we were sent straight to the room with the doctors in it. I don't mean to be ignorant here, but that's what it was - a small room where the doctors were, where only a few patients were admitted at a time.
Now I know full-well that appearances can be deceiving, that things don't have to be pristine and shiny to work, and that every country has its own systems and standards. I also know that medical treatment differs in the details from country to country, and that broken arms don't need the same type of care and equipment as, say, trauma accidents and cancer.
Nevertheless, I'm going to tell you that the interior of this hospital is a little frightening. No air-con in the corridors and most rooms I saw; peeling paint; grimy surfaces; very old and basic equipment; private security guards patrolling the halls and barking at patients; and patients in varying states of injury and distress lying on trolleys, sitting in chairs or standing in hallways waiting for their turn or (occasionally) yelling at staff. I was embarrassed to be in my wheelchair but frightened as well. I only offered to give it up once and a kindly doctor patted me on the shoulder and made me sit down again, and after that I didn't offer it again. I admit even surrounded by others with worse injuries than mine, I just wanted to do everything I could to make sure I got treated fast and out of there.
We also had the kids with us, and some of the scenes were potentially traumatizing. At one point a doctor yelled out "Whose are these kids, they shouldn't be here!" but relented when told we had no one to leave them with - we were in transit in Athens. I also wasn't going to let Y out of my sight, as I needed him to get me through the system. My Greek is fluent but doesn't extend to medical and administrative jargon, and I was in shock.
So the kids saw it all, unfortunately. They saw the old lady moaning in pain on the trolley; they saw the badly gashed man from a car accident writhing and crying; they saw the man covered in blood with multiple stab wounds, including a slice from mouth to cheek, who insisted he had cut himself by accident; they saw people yelling at security guards and doctors and they saw their mum crying and yelling in pain when her bone was set without anaesthetic...
I (honestly) had no wish to push in line, but didn't want to get lost as well, so I paid attention when the doctor gave us a piece of paper and told us where to go to get an x-ray, and at the hallway outside the door where we waited I pushed Y. to knock on the door and make sure we were seen and put in the queue. We waited our turn with others and as everywhere in Greece people talked to each other; we had no shortage of kindly smiles and comments and compliments for our kids.
The x-ray room was air-conditioned and bare except for the huge machine. After the x-ray we saw the doctor again who considered it grimly, then gave that very Greek expression of lips pressed together and eye-brows raised, which means "things are bad". "What can I tell you," he said. "You've broken it very badly. This is about the worst kind of fracture you can do. But these breaks usually heal. Usually."
The next step was to have the bone set and cast applied. That took place in a small room with an open window to the street where the sun shone and a gentle breeze blew; there was one man working there, and the room contained a couple of chairs, a board to hang up x-rays, a cupboard of supplies and the vat of casting plaster. The man was sullen and unfriendly, and I soon understood why. His working conditions are difficult to say the least.
There was another woman in there with a broken arm who already had her cast on and was preparing to go, and then it was our turn. I handed over my x-ray and the technician hung it up, but before he could look at it some guy came in - a former patient from what I could make out, if that was even possible - and started yelling at him. Good God, I thought nervously, Don't make this guy angry!
Unlike the nurses and doctors in the other rooms, the technician did not take the yelling calmly. He rounded on the interloper and yelled back, and they both went at it full boar for a good few minutes.
When the man left I said nervously to the technician, "You have a difficult job."
He nodded grimly. "Joyless!" he said simply.
He removed my sling and set to work unwrapping my bandage, and though he was not unkind, he made no attempt to soothe or be gentle. I was soon crying out in pain. He looked repeatedly from the x-ray to my arm and felt along with his fingers, and before I knew what was happening he was pushing the bone into place and pressing down hard on my arm.
I tried not to yell, I really did. I had told Y to take the kids away but they all stood just outside the door looking in, so I did try not to yell. But it just came out involuntarily, every time he moved or pressed on my arm - which was lots. Not just to set the bone, but to apply the cast, as my arm had to be lifted each time he wrapped the bandages around it. He ignored me when I asked for pain relief, and kept going, not letting up until the cast was complete.
I was feeling multiple things at once - pain and fear, incredulousness, embarrassment that I was yelling, anger that there was no anaesthetic, contrition when I reminded myself that others were more badly injured and the nation was suffering such shortages.
I also thought of the kids seeing and hearing all this, and how traumatising it probably was. I was traumatised myself!
One remembered phrase gave me comfort on this issue though - turn down the volume. This is Martin Seligman's advice to parents of children subjected to non-violent trauma: don't make a big deal of it, and they won't be traumatised. Kids are much better at processing and moving on from things than we think - perhaps because they don't fully understand them.
So that night in our hotel room I made jokes with the kids about the "scary" hospital and about Mum crying, and soon they joined in and everything was fine with them. There have been no nightmares, and I hope they will not be too frightened next time they need to go to a hospital or break a bone. I have told them since that if they break a bone it will not be as bad for them and they won't go to the same hospital.
I have to say too, that the kids have been amazing. I like to think the experience matured them a little bit and was in some way perhaps even good for them. They were unbelievably good throughout the whole 3-day ordeal (travel, hospital, finding a hotel, etc) and have been extremely helpful to me ever since - not just jumping up to help me, pass things to me, carry things etc, but also adjusting their behaviour and expectations to suit the circumstances.
And there were positive aspects to the experience: the whole episode at Athens General Hospital took less time than we would have spent in an Australian hospital; the doctors and nurses were kind and impressive, working hard in a frankly horrible environment; and finally, follow-up x-rays showed the orthopedic technician had done a very god job setting the bone. Also, I should mention, to be fair, that they did give me a jab of something for pain as we were leaving.
And... there were other positives.
I got to spend my holiday truly relaxing - sitting down doing very little in a Greek village is no mean feat for a woman, I can tell you! (I spent my time in a Greek village like a man, ho ho!)
We had a much slower holiday than planned - less travel, more staying put and relaxing with family and friends. The kind of holiday that in fact I have never had. Two weeks in the village, a few days in a beautiful spot under Mt Pelion, another week in the village and a few days on the beaches behind Mt Olympus. Perfect.
|Out of the cast and into a splint|
And finally, my three-and-a-half week holiday became a five-week one! As I couldn't travel back with kids and luggage alone, we initially tried to change Y's flight to come back with us. There were no seats on that date, so we changed ours to come back with him. It was a bit costly, and it was inconvenient - for work, school, dog kennel, cat minder, mail, bills, etc etc etc - but it did make for a brilliantly lengthy and relaxing holiday.
It's always interesting the way things happen.