Saturday, August 9, 2014

Greek Island Medical Care in Action.

I’m sitting here in a doctor’s office on Mykonos, an orthopedist to be precise.  Nothing serious, just a war injury. Okay, so not a war injury, a battle wound.  Sort of.

It’s one of those injuries for which I won’t earn a purple heart…though possibly a “mysterious black heart” is in the offing.  After all, I sustained it in close quarters literary combat with poets, not as one of those self-inflicted carpel tunnel sorts incurred in conflict with oneself across a keyboard.

Notice my right elbow.

No, mine came from a higher form of sacrifice: Active-duty panel service. 

Bet you didn’t know that three hours of sitting in front of an audience listening to a mass of foreign languages you don’t understand could lead to physical injury. And I’m not talking about fingernails torn off trying to maintain an air of concerned interest over words you do not understand as others continually cheer and applaud.

I’m talking about the kind earned through three solid hours of leaning forward across a table, elbows resting strategically on the tabletop in an effort to maintain that appearance of dedicated interest—taking care all the while to shift often in your chair so that your back does not make the same ultimate sacrifice as your psyche.

Imagine my surprise to wake up the next morning with a fevered bump the size of a golf ball on one elbow. No exaggeration. Exaggeration would be a tennis ball. I shall spare you my photographs validating my description.

My first thought: How do I get to Athens? And back to the US? This is not my home island of Mykonos, there is no airport on Tinos, and a boat ride out of here to anyplace where I know doctors will take hours. By then my elbow will have exploded.  [Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but Barbara likes that line as a description of my mood, so I’ll leave it in.]

Second thought, call for help. So, I reach my buddy on Mykonos who puts me in touch with a mutual friend on Tinos who immediately leaves her business to come to my hotel and take me to the public clinic. [Thanks again, Eleni.]

Wait a minute.  “Did I hear you say ‘public clinic’?” I asked. That’s for folks who can’t afford private doctors.

She says, “They’re the best, they’re used to dealing with everything.”

Imagine the emergency ward of a major US city at its busiest.  But this is an island town on a Friday morning.  No reason to ask why it’s so busy as I already know the answer: Greece is in crisis, people can’t afford private clinics.

My friend sees the line at the far end of the hospital corridor, scoots ahead to collar the doctor waving for the next patient, points at my elbow and asks, “Is this the right line?”

There’s a special elbow line? 

He gestures no in Greek—mistaken often by Americans for yes—and points back down the hall in the direction from whence we came.  So we’re off to knock on a door designated orthopedics   A Greek-style Tommy Lee Jones sort of character shouts “Come in,” takes a one look at my elbow, points in the general direction of the entrance to the building and says “five euros.”   My friend and Barbara leave and I start to follow but he says, “not you,” and points for me to sit in the corridor outside his office.

A moment later Tommy comes out of his office walks past me waving for me to accompany him, and yells out a woman’s name. Like the Pied Piper, I follow him down the hall into an operating room.  It’s Tommy, Barbara, our friend, a nurse, and me.  

“Sit,” he says pointing me toward the operating table.

I do, and before I can say, “Let’s talk about whatever you have in mind…and in English…” he says, in English far better than my Greek, “You have an inflamed bursa, which is a fluid-filled sack between your elbow’s bone and skin that allows the elbow to move freely beneath the skin.  My guess is you’ve been sitting with your elbows propped up on a tabletop.”

CSI had nothing on this guy.

I confessed, and told all.

“Oh, a writer.  So, here’s the deal. I drain the cyst of the excess fluid, give you a cortisone shot, wrap it, and send you home.”

“What’s behind door number two?”  [I really didn’t put it that way.]

“There’s no other door except ice, Advil, and waiting it out, but that can lead to other complications.”

So I agreed, he did the procedure WITHOUT A BIT OF PAPERWORK signed by me, and I was on my way.  I asked how much I owed.

He said, “You already paid it.”

Five euros!!  Dare anyone venture to guess what all that would have cost me in the US?

Okay, that was a public hospital. But as soon as we returned to Mykonos, Barbara insisted I see a specialist here. I battled her. She won. Surprise.

So a week ago I went to see this highly recommended orthopedist. He’s new to the island but well respected. His office is modern, neat, with Brahms playing in the background. All the trappings of, “This one ain’t gonna cost you five euros, Jeffrey.”

Not quite like this, but you get the idea.

He looked at my elbow, said the other doctor had done the right thing, told me to leave off the bandage, take Advil twice a day, ice it three it times a day, and see him in a week.

I asked how much I owed him for the visit, and he said, “We’ll talk about that when you come back.”  From past experience, that sort of comment did not bode well for financial demands to come.

Now the week has passed and I’m back in his office. Waiting to hear the prognosis. And the price.

Whoops it’s my turn.  I’ll let you know what happens…

I’m back. Good news.  He said it’s getting better, that I should keep up with the ice, stop the Advil, and never see him again.

So I pop the $64 question—or more likely the $6400 question if asked of a US orthopedist—“How much do I owe you?”

He tells me.

I was right. It’s not five euros.

“You owe me nothing. I didn’t do anything for you but look at someone else’s work.”

Can you image a specialist in the US ever saying something like that?  I mean ever.

My total cost for three doctor visits, two doctors (not counting the one who pointed me down the hall—a consultation in the US), use of an operating room and surgical nurse, the surgical procedure, cortisone shot, bandages and assorted ointments…FIVE EUROS.

Match that US healthcare.

You just gotta love it here, crisis and all.


PS.  Please take a gander at my new website.  It went live 48 hours ago and I'm quite proud of it.


  1. I'm delighted to see you'll be ready for your panels at Bouchercon. I don't think I could stand hearing you whinging the whole time.

    I had a similar experience recently. Worried about strange things happening in my left eye I visited the emergency rooms in state hospitals in Cornwall and Denmark. Both times was seen promptly, initially by a nurse, then by an opthalmologist. Total cost for each visit €0! Both said the same thing - aging! Sigh. But I still have weird things happening.

    1. Hmmm, in order to make a proper diagnosis, Stan [notice I did not use the more familiar "old man"], I need to know whether the "weird things" are happening in your left eye or elsewhere.

      That will be 50 euros, please.

  2. Jeff, I have had similar experiences. In Italy: the doctor in Perugia removed a fish bone from my throat and dispensed antibiotics on the spot (no trip to the farmacia). Total cost--Zero, niente. And in London: the doctor came to my hotel room, diagnosed an ear infection, and dispensed a prescription (trip to Boots required). Total cost: Zero.

    1. Considering the responses I'm getting here from MIE stalwarts, Annamaria, I think we should consider changing the name of the blog to "Medicine is Everywhere."

  3. An enlightening post, Jeff. I shared your link on my Facebook page.

    1. Thank you, Sandy, that's much appreciated! Hope to see you in Long Beach for Bouchercon.

  4. This is very reassuring since for the last several years I have been afraid to travel abroad. I need access to good doctors, perhaps on short notice.

    I broke my wrist in Arles and needed immediate surgery. I received the operation, spent two nights in the hospital, was visited by doctors several times (my surgeon looked like Omar Shariff), and had a very good cast made for me so we could finish our trip. The whole cost was under a thousand dollars and they billed us.

    Having said that, I have a six-star doctor here whom I adore. When she tells me her husband wants to retire to Hawaii, I tell her she can't because while I think it is a great place for a vacation, I don't want to move there. But, alas, I am old enough to have Medicare so my out of pocket costs are very low. The "alas" has to do with age, not my coverage.

    1. Let me see, Barbara, I have a doctor who looks like Tommy Lee Jones--though (my) Barbara thinks he's a John Steinbeck look-alike--and you have Omar Shariff. Pray tell, who does the Hawaiian doctor look like? And please don't say Deborah Walley as some Gidget fans out there might just lose it.:)

  5. Yeah, but the U.S. has the best medical care money can buy! Umm...

    Thanks for the detailed explanation of the elbow pain. I occasionally will get a tender right elbow from sitting at the computer with my chin in my right hand, and for a week or so I have to be strict with my chin about supporting itself. Now I know why, and I also know better than to ignore my elbow's whinging. I don't want to turn into an idiot old fart (although I'm beginning to have suspicions that avoiding it is not an option, and my wife keeps trying to convince me that my efforts are too little and too late). But I really hate the thought of being in the same bed with Jeff...

    1. Yes, Everett, I hate to tell you, but assuming The Thinker pose with your elbow on a table top is bad for the elbow. You'll just have to try supporting yourself another by getting a job as a "don't end up like this model" for school kids. And don't worry your pretty little head about your final ain't happening--I couldn't take the kvetching as well as your long suffering wife obviously does.:)

  6. Wow that is crazy. You have to love American medical(not)!

    1. At the higher end of specialist medical talent, I have to say it's hard to beat the USA.

  7. Great new website, by the way! Just make sure you don't have to see the doctor regarding the usual swelling of your noggin.

    1. You always make me laugh. But since you raised the subject of "swelling noggin" on my new personal website blog in connection with my October release, "Sons of Sparta" , permit me to proudly tell you, my (much loved) Professor Moriarty, than an hour ago I learned from my publisher that SOS received a STARRED REVIEW from Publishers Weekly. Yippee Yay and all that stuff!

  8. Same experience in Greece.

    Wishing you a speedy recovery.

    1. Thanks, Liz. Now to get the finger better. But that's another story. :)

  9. We had a similar experience in The Mani this year with attorneys. (You and Joel in particular can appreciate our experiences). In the spring we had a question about steps required to buy a house and found ourselves in the office of not one but two attorneys, a father and son operation (son spoke English better than dad.) We'd arrived without an appointment, been made welcome and after 30 minutes, with our questions answered, we asked how much we owed. Nothing, was the answer. . .they had done 'nothing' but answer our questions. When Joel quipped about how that compared with the US practice the son laughed and suggested he come teach a class in Greece. Later, this summer, with the attorney we'd hired (a different fellow) we also stopped by with questions and again our offer to pay for the impromptu visit was simply waived off. . .included in the (most reasonable, I might add) fee.

    1. There is a reasonable explanation for both of our experiences, Jackie and Joel, tied into the way Greeks value the service professions. My experience both here and in the US is that traditional Greeks do not put much value on something you cannot touch or own. A craftsman creating a statue, yes. A piece of real estate yes. But if you're the lawyer who made the deal happen or an accountant who structured it in a way that saved the client money. Uhh, uhh, you haven't given them something tangible. The information your attorneys passed on, and the second opinion of my Mykonos doctor all fit within that mindset.

      Whether that's good or bad is a wholly different question.

  10. Whew! Close call. Glad you got quick medical attention, which was correct, and only paid 5 Euros.

    Whereas, in New York, the local news did a story a few weeks ago about a man who went to an Emergency Room for a cut finger. No stitches. Only a bandage.

    Bill: $8,000!

    Better stay in Grace, or travel to countries with governmental health care.

    1. I'm thinking of following your advice Kathy. :) The finger story proves my point. And raises another story I shall not go into in depth. If you look at the closeup of me you'll see a bandaged finger. A simple pinch to the tip of my finger thirty days ago has brought on a series of events leading to a stitch last week and a bandage still in place. It's included one private doctor visit (charge 50 euros) and three public hospital visits and two more to come (no charge). Yes, it's been a heck of a summer...maybe I'll do a medical mystery next.:)

  11. Sounds like a good idea to stay in Greece. Or as I mistakenly typed above in "Grace," which isn't a bad state in which to reside.

    Medical mystery on Mykonos: "Mykonos Medicine" or "Hellenic Health Care." Good idea.

    I wonder if people over here have any idea how a health care system could be operated without gouging the public.

    1. Interesting thought, Kathy, but if it's all the same to you I'd prefer not achieving a state of "Grace" any time soon. :)

  12. Mentally a "state of grace," not literally.