Back Off, Grim Reaper...

Published on 6/30/2008 in Health

Hospital in SpainIn late 2007, Nerja-based author Eddie Crockett  was hospitalised in Velez Malaga. By any yardstick, it proved a life-changing experience....

A sudden loss of physical coordination and balance triggers a tsunami of indignation, confusion, panic and anger. I tell myself there is no way this can be happening to me.

Think again.

Natural defence mechanisms kick in almost at once. The initial groundswell of indignation/confusion/anger/fear (delete as appropriate) quickly morphs into a feeling of detachment. I am an interested but serenely impartial observer. The prelude to an ‘out-of-body’ experience, perhaps?


But let the record now show: that is me down there, the pathetic creature floundering on his back, vainly scrambling for purchase on the slick marble floor. I watch dispassionately as, in a futile bid to get to his feet, the creature at last contrives to flop over on his front, then tries to lever himself up into a kneeling position. Fat chance. He slithers this way and that, slams into kitchen cabinets, claws at door frames, all the while emitting dislocated grunts and groans that could at a stretch be misconstrued as human speech.

‘You’ve had a stroke’, says Sheila. ‘Sit there and don’t move!’

Authoritative, focused.

How did she do that? Suddenly materialise from nowhere?

‘I’m okay.’

Slurred. Unfocused.

Best do as I am told.

I sit. I do not move. I reckon I’ve had better days. I can see next to nothing out of my left eye. There is no feeling in my left arm; it hangs limp, the hand contorted into a claw. The corner of my mouth sags uncontrollably. A rivulet of spittle dribbles down my chin.


Suddenly, I find my voice. Bolder now. Decisive even: ‘I’m dying for a cigarette.’

Never said a truer word.

An ambulance arrives in no seconds flat (seventeen minutes). The male paramedic is a colossus (six foot max), a towering figure with immense but gentle hands and an outsize voice. If anything, the female of the species is twice as tall and correspondingly more intimidating. Several thousand neighbours (a half dozen) crowd wide-eyed around the vehicle.

‘Is he alright?’ ventures one. (What do you think, expletive deleted?)

Within seconds, lines are in, blood is drawn, first jabs are administered, oxygen is sucked greedily down into lazy lungs.

This is me again: I’m back with the programme. And it’s high time to apologise for the inconvenience caused – how British can you get? – time to thank the jolly green giants for all this care and attention. I make the effort, but the words don’t come out right. Why bother?

They aren’t really listening anyway.

I’m delighted they’ve switched the siren back on, however. Its insistent cacophony makes all this seem official.

I am lying on a narrow cot (an elevated stretcher more like) facing away from the direction of travel. Every now and then I manage to crane my neck sufficiently to peer out of the rear windows. Sheila is a sight to behold: hunched behind the wheel, overtaking anything and everything in sight, slaloming in and out of roundabouts, tailgating the ambulance. Headlights on full beam, hazard lights flashing, horn honking intermittently.

I’ve heard of ambulance chasers, but this is ridiculous. I make a mental note to tell her as much when I see her again.



It emerges that the first twenty-four hours are make-or-break time. Consensus is that the odds are stacked against my making it through the night. Sheila tells me later she didn’t take too kindly to this nugget of information.

As it happens, nobody bothers to tell me I am on the way out. I don’t think so for one minute. Granted, going mano a mano with the Grim Reaper has been a pretty one-sided affair so far, but I’m determined to make this a near-death experience as opposed to the real thing, thank you very much.

Mercifully, my creature has returned and I am out of the immediate zone again. I can watch from a prudent distance as his trolley is trundled along interminable corridors under a honeycomb of neon. I watch as he is wheeled and shunted this way and that, in and out of elevators, past cryptic colour-coded signage, into dimly-lit rooms with flickering computer screens and faceless green-gowned figures wearing stethoscopes and conversing in whispers.

I watch as tubes and wires are hooked up to every appendage and orifice. I continue to watch as he drifts off to sleep, the archetypal patient etherised upon a table. It’s abundantly clear that the creature is in excellent hands. I note with particular approval that he is at no time left completely alone or unattended.

Never, not even for a second.

I open my eyes. I am completely alone and unattended.

Enter white coat stage right. Ten years old at most. Cute rather than angelic. Not – emphatically not – celestial. No heavenly choir then. On balance, this has to be good news.

I try for cool. Instead – and to my enduring embarrassment – I blurt out the highly original question: ‘What am I doing here?’

Shirley Temple smiles understandingly and gives me a reassuring pat on the arm. ‘You’re enfermo. How you say? Sick? Poor? Ill? This is hospital.’

So it is. Could’ve fooled me.

Alligator clips are attached to my wrists and ankles, metal tabs are positioned on my chest, a stubby hypodermic is plunged into my lower abdomen. Miss Frankenstein may only be ten, but she seems to know what she’s doing.

A blue-white name badge dangles from her left tit.


I should have guessed.

Sheila materialises out of nowhere. (She’s getting really good at this.) ‘They’ve moved you to a private room. They called during the night to let me know. At three-thirty in the morning. I ask you, I nearly had a heart attack.’

I look around. This is a private room? ‘Here?’

‘Of course not. You’re here for another scan.’ She points. ‘Through there.’

‘Scan? Not inside one of those effing tube things? No way. You know I’m a shade claustrophobic.’ (A shade? And, incidentally, what do you mean, another scan?)

‘Don’t be a wuss.’

‘Easy for you to say.’

The python’s jaws distend. It swallows me whole and digests me slowly. It’s dark here in the reptile’s large intestine. What wouldn’t I give right now for an out-of-body scenario? Where is my alter ego when I need him most?

To stem the rising tide of nausea and panic, I console myself that I’ve made it this far and that
I’ve done so without some well-meaning clown or other telling me this has been a Warning, a
Wake-Up Call or a Shot Across the Bows. That has to be worth something.

After all, clichés can kill.

Regurgitated by the scanner, I am wheeled to my new quarters.

Things have taken a sudden turn for the better. The room is well-appointed, bright, clean, neutral. There is a view of sorts. The sky is its usual uncompromising blue. The Med still glitters in the distance. The bed is reassuringly comfortable and cutting-edge versatile, with a push-button console that controls take-off, rate of climb, glide path, angle of descent and touchdown. The en suite loo and shower facilities are as yet an unknown quantity, a bridge too far until I’m half-way steady on my feet.

I segue in and out of sleep, prodded awake by Angela clones at seemingly arbitrary intervals and invited to swallow a pill, pee in a bottle, or reject truly disgusting food. To preclude downstream starvation, I resolve to stockpile my yoghurt ration, opting primarily for the strawberry variant. This is a defining moment. It marks the first real decision I have taken since everything went pear-shaped back there in the kitchen several centuries ago.

Things are genuinely looking up. Some semblance of feeling has already come back into my arm and leg and I am no longer seeing double. Looks like I might just make it. I will survive.

Place your bets now, ladies and gentlemen.

Rien ne va plus.

If you ask – and I’m a self-styled authority and self-confessed bore on this subject – I’d say that primary healthcare in Spain is pretty much on a par with its French counterpart. There could be no greater compliment: the World Health Organisation routinely identifies the latter as far and away the best system on the planet in terms of hands-on efficiency and thoroughgoing professionalism underpinned by state-of-the-art technology.

But, when it comes to post-trauma hospitalisation and treatment – secondary healthcare, for want of a better phrase – Spain falls into a different category entirely. Terms such as ‘Chaos,’ ‘Bedlam’ and ‘Babel’ spring readily to mind as the lunatics duly take over the asylum. The only rule seems to be that there are no rules, although the following facile guideline observations are perhaps relevant.

Visiting Hours?  Day or night, as and when you please. Stay as long as you like, but please slam doors on departure.

Visitors? The more the merrier. The number of visitors clustered around each bed is open-ended and discretionary. An entire contingent of family, neighbours and friends can be scrunched at any one time into the limited space that becomes available once other visitors have been elbowed aside.

Kids? No problem: there’s ample room for them to yell and run riot in the corridors. Encourage them to bring a ball, a tricycle, a toy trumpet, a CD-player. The youngest can safely be abandoned in their push-chairs to howl incessantly.

Cellphones? On no account should these ever be switched off. Instead, remember to ramp up the volume on the ring tone. Be considerate: make calls from the corridor so that everyone can hear and join in. Ambient noise kills conversation, but shouting usually helps.

Television?  Every ward is wired for TV, so you needn’t miss a second of Real vs. Barça. Feel free to cheer, groan, clap, stamp your feet, whistle, shout, curse, break wind. To be honest, it’s every bit as enjoyable as actually being there – and much cheaper, too.

Food and drink? On the premise that hospital food always sucks, bring along plenty to munch on and slurp – enough for yourself (of course) and an extra helping or two for the starving patient. Place empty packets and cartons next to but never inside the receptacles provided. Ideally, empty Coke and beer cans should be left on corridor floors or balanced on window sills.

Note that bed linen and towels are intended to be changed on a regular basis. Family members and sundry visitors are reminded that they are expected to assume overall responsibility in this respect, since hospital support staff and orderlies are typically reluctant or ostensibly too busy to do so.

On fiestas and public holidays, please do not activate call buttons in the event of emergency or distress; for the benefit of staff, this facility is routinely suspended until after the celebrations are over.

Last but by no means least, please remember that many members of staff walk around in white coats in the vain hope of being mistaken for doctors. Do not under any circumstances approach them for information and/or help.

Is the above checklist a scathing indictment of the Spanish healthcare system? No way.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Those front-line paramedics and ICU personnel are real pros who get my vote any day of the week. So who cares if things are subsequently a bit too laid back? For openers, not yours truly. Besides, watching patients, families and friends resolutely doing their own thing is not only entertaining but also strangely uplifting and – who knows? – restorative.

For all that, I’m in no hurry to go back. Sheila says I’m doing well now and gradually becoming more like my old self.

Cynical. Aggressive. Grumpy.

No change there, then …

Written by: Eddie Crockett

About the author:For all your health insurance needs please visit Hamilton Insurance

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