I thought since my own National Health Service is being roundly decimated* I’d write a bit about my recent exchange patient experience in a Latvian hospital.
Slow down, beating hearts! I wasn’t ill – I just had to prove it. Because I volunteer for a charity that works with disadvantaged children – day to day, this involves a strenuous workload of losing at Uno for five hours in a row – I had to acquire some offical documentation which stated I could breathe, had a blood pressure, and didn’t have TB. Apparently my ability to move and talk, and the massive vaccination scar on my left arm, was not evidence enough.
I had been directed to a health centre a few minutes walk from my house. After some preliminary investigation I decided the best course of action was to pay them a visit, wearing my best Latvian. You will be pleased to know that since we last discussed the matter, my Latvian language skills have progressed a little further down the road to fluency: I can now add to my list of essential phrases ‘I work with children’ and ‘Please can I have this?’, the latter accompanied with a hopeful gesture. With these two phrases waiting on the tip of my tongue and a bit of paper stating the exact form I required, I approached the receptionist.
She was the first and last person I met in the health centre who spoke any English. This was not unexpected but it certainly added a fissure of unwanted excitement to the proceedings. I performed my piece for her; she told me to go ‘over there’. I duly went ‘over there’ where about twelve other people were sat. I joined them, dug out P.G. Wodehouse’s Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen from my bag – could you find a book less Latvian, or rather, more conspicuously English? – and waited. An hour later, when I’d all but reached the end of Bertie’s adventure (he got engaged, had some comic japes with an animal, a fight with an aunt and was right in the pit until Jeeves came to his rescue – who’d have thought?) everyone else was gone. I had not been looked at once, never mind twice.
Wondering if I had gone to the right ‘there’ after all, I approached a doctor and recited my little speech to her. (As well as not speaking English, every professional I encountered from doctor to telephone answerer was a woman.) She gave me a variant on the classic Latvian Death Stare – more benign, but mixed with flushes of ‘you’re an idiot’ – and took me back to the receptionist.
Yes, my instinct proved right. I was not meant to be there, but there. There turned out to be a previously undiscovered room just to the right of reception. I creaked open the door having no clue what to expect on the other side. There were two woman who looked liked some degree of administrator. Time for that BAFTA awarding-winning recital again. This time my performance was met not with directions or death stares but questions.
Questions! I had not bargained on questions. I had my name, personal code (like a national insurance number, needed to do anything official here) and bit of paper with Precise Document Name on. What else did they need to know? Quite a lot apparently, so here I caved and rang the wonderfully bilingual head of the kids’ centre, and asked her to do a spot of interpreting. I know not what they said, except at the end of their brief conversation I was issued with an A6 booklet, a sheet of A4 paper and two small slips of paper barely a few inches square, and a demand for 10 lats (about £12). All my bits of paper had been photocopied to within a smudge of their life. I completed some personal details in my book, and in return I was given a stamp on one of the pages.
Achievement unlocked. I had now progressed to level two. I was instructed, in Latvian, to pay my money and then ‘come back when I was done’. So pleased was I that I had understood this instruction that I forgot to ask the crucial question: done what?
Paying I could do. I went to the receptionist. She relieved me of my cash and put two more stamps in my book. Uncertainly, I turned my attention to my bits of paper. Through the dark haze of photocopier ink I could just about make out a room number on each of the smaller slips. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to try my luck in the first, Room 214.
I eventually located this in the depths of the building and knocked on the door. No answer. But my earlier unnecessary waiting was instructive after all. I knew that whoever lay behind that door was with another patient and I simply had to wait, but this time with a magic appointment slip. We’ve been here before I thought, and dug out P.G. Wodehouse. About 10 minutes later it was indeed my turn.
I was gestured in, and Laurence Olivier himself would have swooned at the way I gave my ‘I work with children’ lines in perfect iambic pentameter. I was, however, entirely uncertain what the doctor was going to say or do to me. I sat in the patients’ chair at the side of her desk and tried to give a look that was a mix of amenable and expectant. Before long I had been examined and it was confirmed that I could breathe and my heart was beating (but not too fast). At least, that’s what I assume. The important thing was that I got two more stamps and was allowed to leave.
It was a similar story in Room 19, though I have even less idea what happened in there. I knocked and was called in instantly. After a standing ovation for what I hoped would be my final performance, the doctor invited me to take all my clothes off. The consulting room was a long rectangular affair on the ground floor. Along one of the long walls ran pane after pane of glass windows with no frosting or curtains, looking straight out onto the street. Or to put it another way, the street was looking straight in. There were some blinds, but as the window sill was lined from left to right with pot plants, it seemed unlikely that they were ever used.
I decided to defrock one piece at a time until she was happy. Surely she didn’t need me quite as God made me? Luckily not. (But if she did, how many stamps would I get?). In the end my state of undress was about 50% – I will not trouble you with the details – and I stood in the middle of the room while she answered the telephone. I turned my back to the window and waited, wondering if I could just reach over and stamp my slip myself.
Before long, we were back to me, but I still had no idea what I was meant to be doing, or even where I was. It is a very odd feeling indeed to be standing semi-naked on public display and have no real idea why, or any way of asking. The doctor took matters, and me, into her own hands and guided me towards a large brown plate with metalic lines across it that was pinned to the wall – right by the huge window, of course. She arranged me face first against this cold sheet and then ran away. There may have been a flash, but in my bemused confusion I can’t be sure.
She came back a couple of seconds later from a closet at the other end of the room. I can only assume I was x-rayed. If so then, teeth excepted, I’ve just had my first exposure to the revealing rays and I barely noticed! Ah well, all she has to do now is stamp by book and then –
Except she didn’t stamp my book. She told me to come back the next day. Return I did, only to find a different doctor in Room 19. Brilliant – an encore! This doctor stamped my book and slip, and victorious I returned to the admin people with all my ink and paper and did the hopeful/expectant look that features so prominently in my repertoire. The admin person looked at my vast collection, then promptly went back to the x-ray person to get a couple more. By this time, I estimate, I had about 11 stamps.
On her return she gave me a couple stamps more for good measure and then, the magic word – viss! All is done. You may go, officially certified as unharmful to children. So here I stand now, with all manner of awards and decorations. Now no one may doubt my Uno-playing qualifications, or, it seems, my ability to negotiate the unfamiliar world of post-Soviet healthcare. So far.
(I should say this much – despite my diversions into exaggeration and irony, all the staff in the health centre were helpful and understanding, slowing down their speech and gesturing where needed to help me to comprehend what delights I faced next. I don’t mean to demean them in any way. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised about how conceding they were to me. So, in the unlikely event that you go to the effort of translating this, thanks.)
*For those of you struggling with this assertion, I refer you to the Guardian Style Guide entry on use of Latin phrases: Some people object to, say, the use of “decimate” to mean destroy on the grounds that in ancient Rome it meant to kill every 10th man. [However] as our publications are written in English, rather than Latin, do not worry about any of this even slightly.
Secondly, I would note that the NHS, and everyone it serves, would suffer greatly from being reduced by even 10%. (I am not a supporter of the cuts that are currently being inflicted on the UK in the name of government.)
For those of you trying to work out what ’roundly decimated’ looks like, just understand that 10/π looks decidedly unhealthy and we’ll leave it at that.