Sunday, June 24, 2012

My Back Is Whack: More Fun with Slovakia's Health Care System - Part 1

So, some of you may recall the back blow-out that I had last November shortly after we returned from our honeymoon in Italy. Well, after our Budapest trip at the end of April, I had another one, and the symptoms were frustratingly similar. My lower spine was bent so that my torso jutted out to the side from my pelvis at a disconcerting angle. I felt like a human S-curve and looked like a sign post that'd been clipped by a drunk driver. And of course, the lower left portion of my back was in considerable pain. After a couple days of lying flat on my back and icing it while taking the last of our supply of Advil from the States, Tony took me to a local emergency room so that I could get an injection and a good, pain-killing prescription. Again, readers may recall this seemed to work like a charm the last time around, so I had high hopes.

However, Tony and Terezia took me to the hospital in Ruzinov this time instead of the one in Kramare, where he took me back in November. Sitting in the waiting room seat was excruciating. I wanted to lie down on the floor, and might have had it not been so worn and grimy. Every time I stood up after sitting down, the pain in my lower spine was absolutely unbearable. When it was finally my turn to go in, the elderly doctor took a look at my back and proclaimed "Jesus!" (pronounced in Slovak like yeh-zheesh), and chastised us for not going straight to an orthopedic specialist (which we can do now that I'm insured). But after hearing Terezia speak for a bit, the doctor commented on how nice her Slovak sounded and ascertained that she and Terezia must come from the same region of the country (the area around Hrinova in the south-central part of Slovakia), after which she quite noticeably lightened up and acted very pleasant for the remainder of our visit.

The doctor wrote me a prescription for some pain killers, her assistant gave me an injection, and we went home. Sadly, unlike last time, this injection seemed to do nothing and the prescription offered scant relief.

After another excruciating day with zero improvement, we decided on Friday morning to go to an orthopedic specialist at a clinic/outpatient hospital a few blocks away from our place, which happens to be a state-run, yet catholic (I know, I don't get it either) facility, complete with pictures of various popes on every wall gazing creepily out over the suffering patients. We called to see if we could make an appointment, but we were told that you just have to get there around 6:45 in the morning and wait our turn. In fact, this American emergency room style of waiting for a doctor seems to be normal here in Slovakia, as apparently simply letting patients call ahead to schedule an appointment for an agreed-upon time is a totally alien concept and would make things far too easy.

Also, just like Slovakia's bureaucratic state offices, it seems that many of its doctors only work half days on Friday. Because of this, the mood in the waiting room was fraught with tension, what with the late comers fearing they may not make the 12:00 cut off. After arriving at 6:45 AM and waiting for nearly two endurance-defying hours we finally got to go in, and upon seeing my back the doctor immediately exclaimed, "Jesus!" and promptly sent me downstairs for an x-ray. I was surprised at how few questions he asked about the pain I was feeling. In fact, he didn't even get up from his chair once. After looking at the x-ray, he simply said, "Oh, well I guess that's just how your spine is!" Um, no - my spine is normally not shaped like a paperclip that someone has attempted to straighten. I really didn't have much confidence in this doctor's opinion. The fact that he appeared to be well into his 70s and acted as if he was counting the days until retirement didn't help.

At any rate, he prescribed 10 days of physical therapy treatment and a pain killer called Aflamil and something else to help me sleep. Unfortunately, I would have to wait a week before I could start the therapy.

I suffered through the weekend and still not feeling any progress, I decided that we needed to find a chiropractor. I saw a chiropractor in Oakland who helped ENORMOUSLY when I'd had problems in the past, and since there was just no way I could spend several more days lying around on my back in this painful, crooked state, we needed to find someone fast. The problem is that chiropractors are apparently still kind of a novel thing here in Slovakia, and asking people if they know of one is pretty much guaranteed to elicit blank stares. Tony asked around at his work anyway.

As it turned out, a co-worker of Tony's just happened to know of a guy who had helped her with a serious back blow-out, and she highly recommended him. Tony called this chiropractor, or whatever the hell he was, and the guy told us to come over that evening. He works out of his home in Galanta, which is about a 45 minute drive outside Bratislava, so Tony kindly drove us to his place.

I had no idea what to expect. Visits to my chiropractor in Oakland required hour-long appointments, during which he'd start off by asking lots of questions and gently move me around in different positions to pinpoint the source and nature of the pain. He would then have me lie face down on a massage table and place heat packs over my lower back and electrodes over the muscles around the affected area and leave me like that for 15-20 minutes. Next he would give me a deep and soothing massage, and for the finale he'd do the adjustment, after which he'd send me home with a bunch of pilates/core exercises to do. He was extremely methodical and thorough, and I always felt better when walking out of his office. I wondered if I'd receive the same kind of attention from this guy in Galanta.

When we got to his house, there were a few people in line ahead of us holding items ranging from large bottles of slivovice to a plucked duck carcass, which we took to mean this "chiropractor" worked on a barter system for people who were short on cash. We were soon called into his "office," which was a palatial, expensively tiled bathroom. The guy was sitting on his massage table, and he was so incredibly massive that I swear he looked a bit like Jabba the Hut from Return of the Jedi, but, of course, without a scantily clad Princess Leia on a chain at his side. I stood in front of him, took off my shirt, and when he looked at my back he blurted out with his deep, stentorian voice, "Jesus! Do pici!" He said I looked like I needed surgery and that he was shocked at what he described as the criss-crossing angles of my lower vertebrae, especially in relation to my pelvis. He also noted that my lower back muscles were visibly swollen and wondered how I could even manage to walk.

He took his knuckles and began jabbing them sharply and deeply into both sides of my vertebrae at key points along my spine. Each jab made me flinch and tense up - it kind of hurt! He went up and down the length of my spine a few times, literally jabbing the vertebrae back into place with his thick and powerful knuckles, and he ended with a couple of sharp yanks on my pelvis. And that was it. It took all of two minutes. He told me to buy some anti-inflammatory gel and use it liberally, and then to come back the next morning once the swelling was down so he could work on me a little more.

We asked him how much this visit would cost, and he asked us where in America we had moved from. When we told him San Francisco, he said that we could pay him by inviting him out there and hooking him up with a blonde woman one evening and then a brunette the next. Funny guy.

When walking back to the car I noticed I was already feeling looser and more flexible for the first time in over a week. There was still soreness, but two minutes with Jabba the Hut really seemed to have made a difference.

Wanting to cover all bases, Tony was nice enough to then drive us to the hospital so that I could get another injection. This time he took me to the one in Kramare. While we were in the waiting room, this very visibly soused man with a blood-soaked bandage covering his head and a wide stream of dried blood running down the entire front of his flannel shirt stumbled out into the waiting room. He was apparently looking for his backpack. A nurse brought it out to him and told him if he wasn't so drunk that he wouldn't have misplaced it. Call me crazy, but I think that perhaps pointing out his blood-soaked, bandage-covered head might have been a more apt way to scold him for his drunkenness.

At any rate, the young female nurse called me into the office and told me in English with her thick Slovak accent to "pull down your pants, I inject you in your ass." I complied with her instructions and tried to relax my buttock as the long needle went in.

Fast forward an hour later, and my god, this injection was doing the trick. Not only was I feeling even looser than earlier, but the pain had decreased a bit. I felt incredibly drowsy yet stupidly happy, and my limbs were like floppy wet noodles. I don't know what the hell they gave me at that other hospital in Ruzinov the week before, but this injection definitely worked.

We went back to Jabba the next morning and he was impressed with the improvement. The swelling was gone and the spine was straighter. He did some more of his sharp, painful jabbing, and when he was through he had Terezia look at my spine, and they both agreed: it looked totally straight. Again, this took all of two minutes. He told me that I shouldn't do anything for the next two days, including having sex. He told Terezia that she could have sex, but just not with me. Funny guy.

Over the next week or so, my spine remained straight for the most part but I was still feeling pain, especially when sitting down, when there is a lot of pressure on the lower vertebrae. Meanwhile, I was going to my physical therapy appointments at the catholic yet state-run clinic every morning. These involved spending 10 minutes with electrodes hooked up to the muscles around the problem area, and then another 10 minutes with this strange, heat-emitting lamp resembling a prop from 2001: Spacey Odyssey shining directly onto my lower back. I was also taking pain killers around the clock. Despite all this, I still felt like I wasn't making much progress, and my spine would still occasionally shift back out of position, so it seemed a second visit to our soon to be retired chair-bound doctor was in order.

To be continued....

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