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Greek Medical Week

This is Greek medical week. Not officially of course, otherwise it would have been capitalized and probably such a week does not exist. But for me this is Greek medical week. It began with my brother having to get an emergency hernia operation from the moment he stepped off the ferry in Mytilini. I heard from reliable sources that he was scared shitless but the operation went fine and he has a new found respect for the abilities of Greek doctors. He is now recovering in Mesotopos, Lesvos and we are all very relieved. Meanwhile back in Athens, Andrea's Aunt Anna had to have a stint put in. You probably know what that means more than I do. Yesterday Andrea went with her father and the ambulance to take Aunt Anna from one hospital near the Hilton where the operation was done, to another hospital in our neighborhood where she is staying a few days to recover. When Andrea and her father got to the hospital the doctor took them into another room and asked for the money they were supposed to pay, in cash. He told them some of it was for the anesthesiologist, and some for the nurse and probably some for the main doctor and some for the guy who cleans the blood off the floor and who knows who else gets a cut. But it was a private hospital so you expect to pay. The funny thing is that the same thing happens at the state hospitals which are supposed to be free. I guess this explains why doctors in Greece don't pay taxes. Even the doctors at the state hospital are paid in cash, given envelopes of cash on the way to the operating room. I am not sure exactly how the system works but it sure seems fishy to me. I wonder if my brother had to pay something extra before they would untangle his intestines. Our next door neighbor went to a state hospital to have her baby and the doctor refused to deliver it because she did not have an 1800 euro bribe. It is the ultimate hostage situation. How much is your life worth? Ask your Greek doctor.

In the ambulance going from one hospital to the other with poor old Aunt Anna strapped to a gurney, both the driver and the medical technician were smoking like fiends, filling the vehicle up with smoke, which surely can't be healthy for the patient. Maybe its OK to smoke in non-emergency situations like the transfer of someone who just had major surgery. The ambulance had no shocks and every bump caused them all to bounce around and things to fall off the shelves. It was so bad that the next day Andrea's father could barely walk, his back hurt so much.

Greek doctors all smoke it seems. I remember when Andrea burst her eardrum the specialist we went to examined her ear, with a lit cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Andrea who has no problem going up to a stranger who is smoking in a no-smoking area of a ferryboat and telling him to put it out, for some reason, perhaps out of respect for the profession, said nothing to the doctor. I had this Greek language course a few years ago called Ellinika Tora which has these conversations that you listen to and one was a visit to the doctor and in it you can hear the doctor taking drags off his cigarette and coughing as he dispenses valuable medical advice about not staying in the sun too long when it is hot while blowing smoke in their faces.

Later that day when Andrea went back to visit Aunt Anna in her new hospital she told her that during the operation the surgeon was swearing the whole time. "Ela gamato, doso mou to machairi, re malaka ochi to psalidi". "Ti ekenes re posti, ochi ekei... etho gamoto!" (Ask your Greek friends to translate this for you). It troubled her because she wants the person who is cutting her open to be calm and even though she was sedated and feeling no pain it made her a bit nervous as one might expect. Perhaps the doctor had one too many frappes or was annoyed that he could not smoke in the operating room.

But I don't think of Greek doctors as real doctors like we have in the USA. Most doctors I know in Chapel Hill seem to love medicine. I don't think Greek doctors are all that interested in medicine. I think they love money and medicine was the road they took to get it. This is not to suggest that all Greek doctors are like this. Everyone I know here has a doctor who they swear is as good or better than any they have had in the USA, but then again most of the people I know are foreign and have money and can afford a good doctor. Most government ministers fly to London when they have to have any kind of serious operation but this could be because they don't want to be at the mercy of a citizen with a scalpel in his hand.

I suppose there are lowlifes in any profession so I don't want to condemn all Greek doctors. Probably the biggest problem with the older Greek doctors is that the day they got out of medical school was the last day they learned anything new about medicine. Everything they needed to know they learned 40 years ago in medical school and even if entire medical theories had been overturned so that a specific treatment for something was the opposite of what the treatment should be now, the doctor would have no way of knowing and no interest in learning it even if he found out. He does not subscribe to any medical journals and probably does not even get his alumni newsletter anymore because he never donated to it.

Well I should stop here because if I should have a heart attack tomorrow and find myself in the hands of a Greek doctor who has read this article my chances of survival may be drastically reduced. Unfortunately this is one of those subjects that I could go on forever. We had a friend who was prescribed a certain medicine that made her nervous, so she went to her Greek doctor who told her to start smoking!

When Aunt Amarandi was dying she was about 90 years old, weighed about sixty pounds and looked like a skeleton, had terminal cancer and several other fatal diseases, was in a coma, and the doctors were still doing everything to keep her alive, no matter how much it cost and what kind of damage it caused to her already misery-wracked body. "Well that didn't work so lets try this..." Meanwhile, Aunt Amarandi does not even have the ability to say "You idiots. I am dying. It's normal. Can you just leave me alone so I can do it with integrity and my family does not remember me as this withered old thing with tubes coming out of her hooked up to a breathing machine?" They beat her up so badly we had to have a closed coffin.

When I was in high school in Athens I was terrified of going to the dentist. I had two teeth pulled before I was sixteen years old and they were not even wisdom teeth. The reason? Because all of us American kids who were not entitled to go to the embassy dentist or the dentists at the US Air Base had heard a story of a dentist in Kolonaki who was working on a boy about our age, while the father sat in the waiting room. After a couple hours the father was wondering why a simple dental procedure could take so long so he knocked on the door. When nobody answered the door he opened it to find his son in the dental chair covered in blood (dead of course) and the dentist gone, having jumped out of the open window and disappeared forever. OK. This probably did not happen. It would have been in all the papers if it had. But we believed it enough to be willing to suffer great pain to avoid going to the dentist because to us, if our mother made a dental appointment for us it mean that we were probably going to die.

But now it's different. I had a dental emergency and went to a really great dentist by the Hilton who squeezed me in and he had gone to school at Emory in Atlanta and was an interesting guy to boot.

My daughter Amarandi was not so lucky and we had a near catastrophe when she was about fifteen years old. The school nurse said she might need braces because her bite was off and recommended an orthodontist, who we went to. He put braces on her and then told us that her wisdom teeth were impacted and she needed to go to an oral surgeon to have them removed and of course he recommended a friend of his after seeing the x-rays. But the oral surgeon was only going to give my daughter a local anesthetic and so she refused to have them pulled until we went back to the USA for Christmas. When we went to an oral surgeon in Chapel Hill he looked at the X-rays and said not only was it not necessary because the wisdom teeth were not impacted, but to remove them would be major surgery and require cutting through bone to get them out. (Remember the part about the local anesthetic?) In other words there was no point in pulling the teeth because there was no problem and to do so was dangerous. And yet two Greek doctors, one an orthodontist and the other an oral surgeon had told us that this procedure was necessary. What could possibly be the motive of two learned professionals to endanger the health of a 15 year old child by doing an unnecessary operation?

So having discovered that the orthodontist could either not read an X-ray or else was a criminal with a license to inflict pain on children I took my daughter to an American orthodontist to see if the braces he had put on, which were causing her a lot of discomfort, were put on correctly. In the words of the American orthodontist: "I can see what he is trying to do but it is not going to work." So that meant after a year or two of wearing braces and going through the pain and the discomfort of the adjustments, my daughter would have the exact same situation in her mouth as before she got the braces. I suppose there is one way of looking at this, that it teaches you that sometimes in life you can work hard and suffer pain and there is no reward. At least not one that is immediately recognized. But I don't really want a Greek dentist to teach moral lessons to my daughter. I want one who can fix her teeth. Unfortunately when she went back and told him what the American orthodontist had said he got angry at my daughter, told her she was the worst patient he had ever had, that she was a terrible person, that he wanted an apology, and then removed the braces as roughly as possible, complaining the entire time about her. Now to me, this is not the behavior of a learned professional. It is the behavior of a spoiled child that somehow made it through dental school.

Then there is the doctor in Kea who hired Dellapizza to make a patio for his villa in Koundoros. Dellapizza gave him a low price and the doctor was so pleased that he told him to start right away which he did, hiring a few Albanians to help him with the heavy stuff. But when they finished the patio and came to be paid, the doctor had disappeared. Dellapizza tracked him down and the doctor kept making excuses saying he would send him the money but he never did. In the meantime the Albanians wanted to go home to Albania for Christmas and were bugging Dellapizza for the money and Dellapizza was going around trying to borrow the money so he could pay the Albanians so they could go home. Finally Rolando lent him 1000 euros and he was able to pay two of the Albanians and the other had to stay in Kea for Christmas as did Dellapizza who had absolutely no money even for food. As of today the doctor still has not paid Dellapizza and this is a very successful doctor who is worth millions. Well anyway this guy is a gynecologist and if the motives of a normal Greek doctor is suspicious to me you can imagine what I think about Greek male gynecologists. But it is an example of someone who is rich and powerful taking advantage of someone who is poor and weak and the fact that he is a doctor makes it worse because what is a doctor without compassion? Unfortunately for the doctor he is the subject of a new series of paintings by Dellapizza and by the end of the summer there probably won't be an orifice on the island he can stick his fingers into besides his own.

But I have to say that all my experiences, when I myself have had a physical problem that required the care of a doctor, have been very positive. The most notable happened about ten years ago when I dove off the rocks in Galiskari and my foot hit a piece of metal that was attached to a rock and made a three inch slice that could have been used in an anatomy class about the workings of the human toe. We wrapped my foot in a towel and got a taxi to take us to the clinic which was closed because it was Agios Pnevmatos, the Holy Spirit name-day, a 3 day weekend like Memorial Day. So we called the phone number posted on the door for emergencies and in about 15 minutes a young doctor in a beat up old car drove up and brought me inside the clinic and sat me on the table and because there was nobody else to help, he had my daughter Amarandi assist him while he cleaned the wound and then sewed me up. It was an experience that neither Amarandi and I will ever forget and it is probably the best scar that I have. I think the key is to make sure you have a young doctor who has only been out of medical school a couple years and so is relatively up to date and has not had time to forget everything yet. Like the Hippocratic oath for example.

But my brother is alive and recovering and so is Aunt Anna so I really can't complain too much. Except that Andrea just came back from visiting her in the hospital and she was eaten alive by mosquitoes just sitting in the waiting room for five minutes, which reeked of cigarette smoke because the beautiful bleach blonde receptionist was chain smoking and then Aunt Anna complained that she could not sleep all night because they turn the air-conditioning off. Andrea asked the staff and sure enough they do turn off the AC at night and today, the man who turns it back on at 11am every day was late because of the taxi strike and he had to use the bus to take blood to another hospital and nobody else in the hospital knows how to turn on the AC so all the patients had to suffer until he returned. (See how specialized medicine in Greece has become).

Do you have a story about Greek doctors, good or bad that you would like to share? I would love to read it and if it is good, post it.

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