Essays: Aktinografia: an Odyssey through Hellenic health care |
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Aktinografia: an Odyssey through Hellenic health care

by Vicki Woods

I forget which Tory MP it was who issued the elitist call, earlier this year, for Latin and Greek to be routinely taught in all British schools. But his half-remembered words hammered in my ear as I stood in the Naxos Health Centre next to a trolley on which my husband was lying, covered in blood. ‘The doctor’s left,’ he said. ‘He told me, “You can go.” But I can’t move. I can’t raise this leg. I think my hip might be broken.’ If I’d learned even five lines of Homer at school I might have arrived at Aktinografia a bit quicker. Does everyone know the Greek for X-ray? Neither of us had the phrasebook handy. My husband needs an X-ray. X-RAY! I said, in loud travellers’ English. The receptionist shrugged. He was the only person around. It was Sunday; it was also 6.30 in the balmy Cycladic evening and still, therefore, siesta time. My husband needs to get into a bed, I said. What is ‘husband’ in Greek? What is ‘bed’ in Greek? What is ‘a’ in Greek? I had to fall back on a cod Melina Mercouri imitation with eye-rolling, raging and tearing of hair. This prevailed on the receptionist to call the doctor back in from his nap. OK, OK, said the doctor, through a curl of cigarette smoke. ‘He can have a bed. No problem! And tomorrow, X-ray, aktinographia, OK?’ Then he upped and offed, leaving me to manoeuvre the six-foot cripple from the trolley on to the floor, which was littered with bloodied dressings and cigarette ends, into a wheelchair I found, along the corridor and on to a bed. No problem.

The second week of a holiday is always more restful than the first. I’d had a brilliant, lazy Sunday until about three o’clock, having been left alone on the verandah to ‘work’, while everyone else went off to the cool of the mountains in the beach buggy. They wouldn’t be back until late evening. I was ‘working’ away with a book and a glass of ouzo when suddenly my daughter and her friend burst into the room hours early, shouting, “It’s OK! all right? Don’t worry!’ in ominously panicky voices. My daughter was blood-boultered from hair to knee. She said the gore was her father’s. What? ‘He’s OK; he cut his head; he’s in the hospital, don’t worry, all right? A lorry hit us.’ Her friend Lizzie had a makeshift sling on her arm and said in a small voice, ‘I think my shoulder’s dislocated.’ Once they’d seen I was taking in what they said, they both relaxed and burst into tears.

Lizzie’s shoulder was sticking out sick-makingly. Clearly, we had to get somebody to put it back. And glossing over the whys and wherefores and moving swiftly towards the who, there we all were in a camera-repair shop behind the sea-front, awaiting, with rising panic, an old man who used to be a chiropractor. One of us was in agony and one of us was in loco parentis so it was a very sticky wait. The old man, who spoke no English, peeled off his noisome gym-shoe, lay down beside Lizzie on the dusty floor, nestled a great yellow-horned toe into the crook of her arm and grasped her hand. She was fearful not only because she knew what was coming, but also because she was lying head to toe with an old Greek on the floor of a camera-repair shop with the remains of a loaf and a dish of taramasalata on a nearby stool. Lying in my teeth, I said in ringing, confident tones: Trust me! this man knows exactly what he’s doing. He heaved, she yelped and I prayed, both for the bone to pop back and for the strength I needed to go and telephone her mother with a carefully edited version of the above.  

I had no idea about Greek hospitals. Florence Nightingale never lived in Greece. There was no nursing at the health centre. No food, no water, no bed-baths, no bed-pans, no sheets changed, no porters to lift and transport, no one to switch the light on at night. Friendly Greeks kept saying to me, ‘In clinic, your husband? Alone? Better you go.’ I couldn’t think what they meant until, 24 hours after the car-crash, I sat sponging the dried blood off various limbs, tilting the patient’s head to the water-bottle I’d bought and spoonfeeding him taramasalata left over from my lunch. After three days I saw two women in white overalls, white shoes and white caps and asked my husband what they did. ‘Lay you out,’ he said. I thought whole families of Greeks stayed in hospital because they were a gregarious, familial and friendly people. I didn’t realise that the patient would die of starvation or burst bladders unless their wives or mammas stayed with them. ‘Maybe it’s just on the islands,’ I said. ‘I’ll have to get you to Athens.’ In Athens he had to throw 100-drachma pieces at the light-fittings to make enough noise to rouse the nurse. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘But the bell doesn’t work.’ She said, ‘The bell works. It is switched off, otherwise it rings all the time.’

It took five days of arguing to get the invalid first out of Naxos and then out of Athens, from where he was flown to Heathrow. It wasn’t the insurance company’s fault, this delay. There’s a Catch-22 for air-ambulances. A certified doctor has to sign you off with a medical reason. The first aktinographia showed ‘Just bruised. No broken bones.’ Just bruised won’t fly you home. I called in an orthopaedist for a second opinion. He grabbed the leg and waggled it over his shoulder, saying ‘Does this hurt?’ White with pain, my husband burst into a sweat and howled aloud. The orthopaedist ordered another X-ray, in profile. This showed a crack the size of the Grand Canyon — actually, an undisplaced fracture of the acetabulum, as we say in Hampshire — but Greek doctors do not change their minds and once somebody’s said ‘just bruised’, just bruised it remains for days on end, until you call in the police, the British Consul in Athens, the BMA and British Airways, waving your gold Mastercard and offering your house as security. Then there’s a long confabulation at which some bright spark comes up with a face-saver (‘Difficult one, this. Tell you what — let’s try a CAT scan’), and lo — you’re across seven seats of a British Airways 747 (six seats for the stretcher; one for the accompanying doctor) before you can say aktinographia.

There’s an extremely robust attitude to illness or accident in Greece, a kind of Old West frontiersman, bite-the-bullet spirit. At one low point, I wailed at Dr Apostolopoulos that the man was in pain, was completely immobile, was over six foot, wasn’t lead-swinging or malingering — didn’t he understand? Wasn’t there something he could do? Dr Apostolopoulos’s bright eyes suddenly sparkled. ‘There is one thing that will help him!’ he said. `You can buy this here, at the pharmakeio! I will write you a prescription. You must get him kratsis.’ Kratsis? I began to mentally transliterate into upper-case Greek. ‘Yes!’ cried Dr Apostolopoulos, bending his arms and hopping round the room on one leg like Long John Silver. Crutches. Oh, great.

(Spectator Diary, 19 August 1995)