From The Hospital

Mumbai New York Scranton

scrI stayed up till 3:30 am reading this book, Mumbai New York Scranton, by Tamara Shopsin. I started it on the walk back from the library*, weaving down the sidewalk. I made Peter read the first 20 pages, about India and old taxis, the pots of paste for sticking on stamps in the post office, the vintage hotels that feel like 1943 inside.

In late 2005, I got sick with a freak bacterial infection in my heart. In early 2006, I had to have emergency open-heart surgery in San Francisco. Which turned out to be for the best, in so many ways. (One: nurses in California are just plain nicer.)

It was jarring, to say the least, to be dumped in the deep end of the American medical system. There’s a certain preparing-for-the-apocalypse streak to my traveling. Going to countries where the sidewalks are broken and the buses wheeze and you can’t drink the water–and yet, everyone is still pretty happy–gives me a feeling that when the U.S. slides down the pole, I’ll be able to cope. (I was going to mention squat toilets here, but that reminded me I already wrote a tiny bit about this back at the time–here’s the post.)

I just took a whole paragraph to set up how endocarditis and surgery was a big check-your-privilege moment. Tamara Shopsin does it in one sentence, as she’s wheeled into surgery: “I am glad it doesn’t feel like 1943.”

I’m grateful to Shopsin for describing both the charms of India and the horrors of sudden surgery with such economy. Peter was so taken with the India section, I think he might actually want to go. I was so gripped by the surgery section, I was right back there, in that odd hospital-exhaustion zen space, where I was OK with whatever happened, but just felt sad for everyone around me.

It was good to read about an experience that mirrored mine, in a way that wasn’t maudlin or epiphanic. A near-death experience didn’t change me, even though everyone kept asking if it had. It was relief to read Shopsin’s book and have it not be about transformation. Maybe the best thing about being lucky enough to get into the American medical system, and then get out of it unscathed and in fact improved, is that you can be the same old person in the end. I’m blind in one eye now (byproduct of the infection), but otherwise, I can carry along with my life, and travel to strange places, use squat toilets and the whole bit, and just generally not worry.

A few months ago, I wrote thank-you notes to my doctors in San Francisco, on the seventh anniversary of my surgery. This is one for Shopsin too.

*Support your local library! Mine in Queens had this book as soon as it was released. I bought a copy later, because the photos (by Shopsin’s husband) are so great.

Reader, I went to the hospital for you!

Today, in the name of research, I went to the hospital.

I guess I could’ve waited till Monday–or just not gone at all–but I really was curious what a tourist is supposed to do in a non-emergency medical situation. (My situation: constant sensation of vague rocking, and a pain in my ear. Every house I’m in feels like a houseboat.) Funny, the previous editions of the guide don’t mention this in any concrete way. But the truth is, when you’re writing a guide, these details are in the back, the last thing you get to, and you dig up the addresses of a few hospitals and call it done.

Turns out there’s this nifty phone line here in Amsterdam that you can call before going to the hospital–they’ll tell you which place is closest to your house, and put your name in a file so the staff is waiting for you when you get there. Actually, I didn’t really know this last part, so there was a bit more of a wait at the hospital than there probably should’ve been, while the staff finished eating their dinner. “Can it wait till morning?” one woman said, not grumpily, between bites of her sandwich. I said I’d prefer not to, she shrugged, and I went to sit in the waiting room. Everything was pretty and pleasant, and the hospital was handily located on one of the main canals.

Just a bit later, after the sandwich woman saw my name was in the system, she apologized, and took me into the doctor’s office. The doc shook my hand, looked in my ear and throat and pronounced it viral. Nothing to be done but wait a few days. As someone said later, if this had been the US, they would’ve given me a prescription for something, just to placate me.

I felt a bit like a hypochondriac, and was tempted to tell her about my job, but figured that would look just as bad, in terms of interrupting everyone’s dinner.

Oddly, the way I got on the right path to the hospital was a Google search that dropped me at a blog called Dutch Word of the Day. In a post about watje (a cotton wad) was the following aside:

Note that the emergency ward was previously called “Eerste Hulp” (“First Aid”). The name was changed to “spoedeisende hulp” (lit.: speed demanding help) . Since the Dutch health system includes general practitioners (“huisartsen”), people should only go to the “spoedeisende hulp” when there is an emergency. If not, they should visit their general practitioner. Many hospitals have a general practitioner’s ward (“huisartsenpost”) and a emergency ward (“spoedeisende hulp post”) to prevent people with non-emergency complaints to get in the way of patients that need emergency aid.)

From there, more Googling (while mentally commending the Dutch for their genius system, and saying the word spoedeisende several times, to really test its silliness) got me a whole site about the huisartsenpost system, and a number to call. Brilliant.

I came out of the hospital 80 euros (80 expensable euros!) poorer, but so enriched in terms of knowledge. Score for the guidebook!

Fun in Hospital, Part III: Luxe Life at UCSF!

To be honest, I’ve never thought of San Francisco as a real city. There are a few tall buildings, but they’re utterly canceled out by all the cute little pink-and-purple painted houses. And it’s really kind of small.

So when I found myself in the emergency room at the UC San Francisco Medical Center, I had the knee-jerk obnoxious New Yorker reaction: I must flee home, out of the provinces, to where people know what they’re doing! But health status precluded that, and it turned out my surgeon was actually very qualified. Peter’s mind was put at ease when Dr. Schiller, the very heartfelt (no pun intended) cardiologist, took him aside and said, “You know, we’re all from Boston anyway.”

For some reason, I wasn’t thinking of all the thoroughly crappy hospital experiences I’d had in New York. And that’s not the least bit fair, because UCSF was leagues better than even Mt. Sinai, straight from the get-go.

The ER (excuse me, ED–emergency department) waiting room was a soothing off-white, furnished with light-pine curvy Ikea chairs, a warm overhead glow, a smattering of magazines, and, happily, no one waiting. Compare this to the Mt. Sinai ER, where rickety chairs-in-a-row salvaged from some abandoned airport were crowded in the center of a fortress of vending machines, under a grim, dim fluorescent light. Winter air rushed in from a side room under construction, and the ladies’ room made me happy I was wearing boots. It was the kind of place that made you want to wear a face mask.

At UCSF, I was ushered in promptly, and with compassion. Again, not something you find in NYC, where everyone has already seen everything, and your niggling half-blindness is just no big deal, and actually a bit of a pain in the ass to the triage nurse.

Within minutes, I was sitting on a comfy bed in a private room. I can’t convey how astounding this was. If LIJ Forest Hills was Stoner Joe and Buddhist Bob’s Youth Hostel in Nepal, UCSF was the new Uma Paro resort in Bhutan. My nurse was a hip, competent, comforting young woman who explained what they were planning, who they were waiting for, and what would be involved.

And it all happened quickly! Well, quickly for the ER, anyway. Within half an hour, an attending opthalmologist came around; another half an hour, and the opthalmologic surgeon was there. When they said they were going to run a CT scan on me, they came and got me about 40 minutes later–along with apologies for the wait. And directly into the scanner–no sitting abandoned in a wheelchair out in the hall.

I’d go on, but positive reviews are boring to read. Just imagine that for eight days, I had a flock of kindly nurse angels gathered around me–kind of like private butlers. I even got a sponge bath twice. I got whisked from ER straight to the ICU, even pre-surgery. The food was passable, and there was real silverware, not plastic, not to mention butter and yogurt. The nurses made an effort to feed me in off-hours: “We have a very nice fruit-and-cottage-cheese plate today,” one even said to me, as if we were at Diet Bennigan’s or something. (I was, however, very disappointed in the Jello–which was not Jello, I suppose because vegetarians and kosher-keepers would object, but something thickened with carageenan. Humph.)

The only dodgy-feeling part of the whole stay (aside from a really protracted discharge process–but that seems to be the case everywhere) was when I got taken down to the OR for surgery. First, there’s something disturbing about being pushed along at speed on a gurney–I always think of that creepy movie Jacob’s Ladder. Also, we’d descended into what felt like the bowels of the hospital: the halls were narrower, more people were rushing, and everyone was wearing matching scrubs.

I got wheeled into the most cramped quarters I saw at UCSF: a sort of pre-OR holding pen, where gurneys were lined up in rows, separated by curtains. Even then, though, some people got some chairs for my dad and his girlfriend to sit next to me. The atmosphere seemed tense–everyone was pretending to be calm, but they weren’t, and the sense of urgency hung in the air. Imagine, perhaps, a combination of airport and slaughterhouse.

Fortunately the sedative and its amnesiac effect kicked in just when the nurses promised (“It’s like drinking a glass of wine in one gulp,” one said; “I wouldn’t know a thing about that,” I replied), so I have only about ten minutes of memory from there. But those ten minutes did include a nervous-making exchange with the nurses in which I had to alert them to the fact that I’d never been asked what kind of replacement valve I wanted, in case it came down to it.

But to compensate, the ICU room was large enough to accommodate just about every visitor I had at once, and my private room was as big as a hacienda’s dancehall. The view out the window was all wobbly eucalyptus trees, along with some elaborate ventilation systems, all gleaming silver, in the foreground. I felt like I was in some colony on a jungle-covered moon.

Once I got around to walking, I could also take in the view from the fabled solarium, a corner room with a view down the hill and across most of San Francisco, with the Golden Gate Bridge smack in the middle. From there, it really did look like a city.

(Fun in Hospital, Part II)
(Fun in Hospital, Part I)

Fun in Hospital, Part I: from the Roving perspective

As you, dear readers, well know, I am accustomed to jetting off to Amsterdam, Tulum, and Santa Fe to assess the quality of hotels and other tourist accommodations. So the assignment I received in 12/8–NS/LIJ Forest Hills Hospital–was quite a novelty.

My research assistant, Peter, and I set off with a weekend bag and a frisson of excitement. We’d get to ride the V train, and neither of us had spent any time in this part of Queens called Forest Hills, known for its pretty suburban garden developments.

When we arrived, we found we were nowhere near the luxe Forest Hills Gardens; instead, we were on the less savory northern side of Queens Boulevard, amid LeFrak-ish blocks and some swoopy condo skyscrapers that likely dated from the 1960s: the Kyoto Gardens Towers was the name, but, to adapt Vonnegut, there were no damn gardens and no damn Kyoto.

But one shouldn’t judge a hotel entirely on its neighbors. Whisking in through the sliding glass doors etched repeatedly with “EMERGENCY” in a rather chic sans-serif font, Peter and I found a less-than-welcoming front desk. Having to get buzzed in to a room called “triage” is just not the best sign of hospitality, anywhere in the world.

Nonetheless, the staff was courteous, if a bit skeptical (had they guessed my travel writer’s credentials?), and I was told to wait outside…while they readied my room, I suppose. (I had been promised a bed in the elite tower wing, but due to some byzantine bureaucratic requirements–another bad sign for this operation’s professionalism–I was required to check in on the more low-rent side.)

The lobby was a dismal affair, dominated by a large TV with its hues out of whack: a green-at-the-gills Judge Judy declaimed from her emerald-hued bench, and the assorted loungers watched, rapt. One man had his shoes off. A woman was wrapped in a blanket. Either they were very, very avant-garde, or I was in precisely the opposite of a five-star hotel.

Indeed. This became quite clear when my name was finally called, and I was handed a folded sheet. A hostel operation, then.

Peter and I were showed what I was assured was our temporary bed: a less-than-twin arrangement on wheels. Still, we had a bit more privacy than your standard dorm-beds-to-the-rafters situation, with clever little curtains on runners and a bit-too-small folding screen that preserved the barest of dignity of the guest next to us. Service continued to be courteous but spotty, with cryptic claims of “We’re working on getting you a bed” delivered by a range of people, some of whom were just not flattered by the corporate uniform, an all-white smock. This was meant to convey boutique minimalist chic, but frankly it looked a bit dumpy on most of the staff–more tailoring, please! And if that’s a blood stain on your thigh, I hope it’s tongue-in-cheek.

But I shouldn’t quibble. In my experience (yes, I have spent my fair share of nights in hostels, remarkable as that may seem), these cheap-sleep places are all about the people, primarily the other guests. Once I got myself acclimated (in the handy, if drafty, pajamas they’d issued me along with the sheet–an odd perk), I peered around my privacy curtain to get a feel for the social scene in the common area.

Something kept me from plunging right in. Normally, as a guidebook researcher, I am happy to chat with fellow travelers and locals; I do, however, gauge a situation to see whether it’s worth revealing my real job, as saying I’m a guidebook author can lead to all kinds of tedious and repetitive conversations along the lines of, “Dude, that’s coooool!” and ultimately leave no time for tip-gathering.

This crowd didn’t look like it would be too curious about my secret agenda, which was just what I wanted. But it also didn’t look like it would help give me the inside scoop on this place called Forest Hills. One man was hopelessly drunk, which is certainly not out of keeping with hostel habits, but his big fur hat and pointy-toe loafers suggested he was not the typical backpacker demographic. Another woman I made a note to avoid at all costs: “Nurse, can I get some help here?” she kept saying. What a tedious conversation gambit.

Also, the music was setting a distinctly odd, asocial tone. I think it’s what the kids are calling IDM (“intelligent dance music”) these days, but it hearkened back to John Cage, with its series of three tones cycling ever so subtly in and out of sync. Ambient chatter and walkie-talkie noise filled out the drama. Frankly, it was the music of drug fiends and intellectuals. Which caused me to ponder: Perhaps there was some indigenous drug here in Forest Hills, something that intrepid young tourists traveled here to take? That would certainly explain the behavior of the Nurse-can-I-get-some-help-here woman–maybe she was freestyling? Though I can’t imagine what sort of pharmaceutical or natural herb could make one enjoy this particular fluorescent-lit setting.

I retreated to my bed. At this point, I’d given up on the staff’s promises of a better bed and silently handed out grades of ‘F–’ to all of them. Peter was a bit miffed as well, but he’s very professional (though officially amateur in his capacity as hotel reviewer) and kept his lips zipped.

Finally, after I’d dozed off while musing over the local drug culture, I was started out of my sleep by a staff member ready to escort me to a different room. Amazing, if horribly ill-timed. I’d been waiting for a full 12 hours! Does that mean my bill would reflect half a night at hostel rates, and half a night at chi-chi club tower rates?

Which brings me to a hot issue in travel writing: freebies. After someone says, “Dude, that is so coooool!” about my job, they without fail continue with, “So I guess you get all your hotels and restaurants paid for?” It’s sad to burst their bubble, but, dude, no, I do not get any of that paid for.

I also do not get paid particularly well. But it is also my job to assess the quality of hotels well above my station, and these hotels will often offer me a free night or two. This of course creates a quandary. I without fail say that I cannot possibly promise the hotel will be included in the guidebook, but yes, I’d love to frolic on their 500-thread-count sheets. And bring up one of those buckwheat pillows.

But my free visit is constantly haunted with the thought, “What if I had to pay for this?” Sometimes that’s $70 a night; sometimes it’s $400. Sometimes the place measures up; sometimes it doesn’t. And I have to factor in the weirder, fuzzier element of “Would a person who’s willing to spend $400 on a hotel be impressed with this place?” In the case of this mongrel hostel/hotel scenario I found myself in, I wasn’t quite sure what the going rate was, but I hoped it didn’t include a free CD from the house DJ. And I was damn glad I wasn’t paying for it–I’d arranged this stay through a sort of PR firm known only by its acronym, HIP. Even at, say, $25 per night, the hostel operation seemed to be a rip-off–all the money was going into the pretentious music, the unflattering uniforms, and the armies of staff, many of whom seemed to do nothing but stand around chatting about where they were going to order dinner from.

The hotel proper, however, was a little better–though I can’t imagine the rates were cheap. I got hustled into a wider bed with a contemporary version of the “Magic Fingers” technology–an off-and-on full-body massage, with no coins required. Sheets were that trendy jersey knit, with what the bellhop called a “safety pad” laid across the middle. The pad had a rubber facing–what kind of clientele did they get in this place? The decor, which I could make out faintly in the 5 a.m. light, was a hideous mix of ripe pastels of the sort only seen on unfortunate prom dresses, but it was not so charmless compared to the sterile white scheme in the hostel wing.

I slept fitfully for the next few hours, and when the sun was fully up, I peered out the wide window to scan the view. There, to the left, was the glorious Unisphere, great symbol of Queens. I wasn’t far from home, but I was out of my element. Nor can I imagine any sort of traveler would feel at home in this place, so I can’t recommend this schizophrenic, institutional hideaway on the unfashionable fringes of Forest Hills. It just does not make the cut, freebies or no.