And This Is No Way To Recuperate…

It’s a cliché to say “My heart bleeds…” but there’s a sharp heart pain as we wheel Zac up to the ward, still teary eyed. The porter physically lifts him from his gurney and deposits him into his bed.

I’ve never had surgery, let alone had surgery while travelling, so I have no idea what to expect. I was not expecting this much post-op pain, that’s for sure.

I head to the nursing station. “He needs painkillers,” I say, but the English-speaking nurse isn’t there.

I make up some pidgin Greek. “Pais emou poly aesthesis. Poly aesthesis. Paraketamol! Anaesthesis? Anaesthesis?

No dice.

The English-speaking nurse arrives. “Not yet,” she says. “Three hours. There is still anaesthesis from the… the… ”

“The surgery?” I say. “Kheirourgeia?

“Yes,” she says. “From the surgery. No sleep yet. No sleep for one hour…”

I head back to the room to break the news. “They say you can’t have more pain relief just yet. You need to wait three hours. How bad is it?”

“It’s getting better,” says Zac, stoically.

“And you need to stay awake for an hour,” I say, rather dubiously.

I see the surgeon passing and grab him. He gives me a big smile. “Everything very well!” he says. “Everything very well! All complete!”

“That’s great!” I say, meaning it. He has done an excellent, painstaking job under extreme pressure, amid a health service that is collapsing with the Greek state. “Thank you! Ummm… He’s in a bit of pain.”

“I put inside,” he says, pointing at the site of Zac’s intramuscular incision. “Inside here.”

Ah, I think. That’s why it’s getting better.

Zac’s hooked up to a saline drip in lieu of eating and drinking – he’ll be allowed water and milk that evening, but no solids until the next morning.

“I saw Doctor I!” I say. “He says everything’s successful!”

Zac is super-chuffed.

“But you can’t have any painkillers for three hours,” I say. “Unless it really gets bad.”

“That’s OK,” says Zac. “It’s not so bad.”

His dad calls from Australia. Zac updates him.

I update my parents via text, and they pass the news down the line to the family.

I apparently need to keep Zac awake for an hour.

“Right,” I say. Like most mothers of teen or tween boys, I automatically zone out of any conversation that features computer games. “Do you want to explain how Civilisation works to me?”

“There are seven ages,” he begins. “The Ancient Age, the Classical Age…”

Doctor I comes in for a quick check and pronounces everything good. A nurse checks his blood pressure and his temperature, and, his hour up, Zac drifts off to sleep.

Can he have pain relief now?” I ask the English speaking nurse, once he wakes up.

“Yes,” she says. “But the doctor says… I don’t know the English… Not in the, the…”

“Not in the drip? The saline? Natrio?”

“Yes! Not in the… saline. A supposit… Suppo…”

“Suppository?” I ask, heart sinking.

“Yes! Do you want to do it?” she asks.

Oh Jesus, no! “I don’t know how!” I say. “We don’t do it in England…”

“Some mothers prefer to do it,” she says.

“Let me ask the boy,” I say.

While he must be au fait with the concept from Family Guy (‘Peter! Are you eating those?’ ‘Of course I’m eating them. What am I supposed to do with them? Shove them up my butt?!’), I don’t really want to inflict yet another painful indignity on him after three solid days of indignity.

“Ummm, honey,” I say. “About the paracetamol. They can’t put it in your drip after all. And the doctor says it has to be, umm… Because you’re nil by mouth, it has to be, umm…”

“Oh god,” he says. “A suppository. I suppose that’s normal here. It’s not part of our culture, but it’s normal here.

That afternoon, my parents drive three hours to the hospital to check on Zac’s progress – “What about the brake pads?” “Oh, it’s alright, darling! We just go downhill in second!” “But… What about the autobahns? Might you not need to brake on those?” – and allow me time online.

I head into town, find a cafe with wifi, check my emails and find out the address of the place I’ve booked in Athens.

I haven’t, I realise, planned this at all well.

We are now locked into a web of interconnecting flights – by the eternal application of sod’s law, I now have more flights booked than at any time since I stupidly bought a round the world ticket almost three years ago – culminating (from Zac’s perspective) with three unmissable, unreschedulable weeks in Australia with his dad.

Further, because the operation was delayed, Zac will no longer spend his first three days recovering at Granny and Grandpa’s house.

And, because he was going to be recuperating at Granny and Grandpa’s house, I haven’t arranged an apartment in which he can recover, with easy home comforts such as hot drinks, cereal and home-cooked meals.

Frankly, I got nothing.

You see, we had, all of us, been anticipating a minor surgery – which this, in the scheme of things, still is.

We’d been looking at a fifteen minute operation, with Zac released the same day.

We were expecting him to be groggy from the general, a little sore and in need of at least a day in bed.

But we had thought, all of us, that after a day in bed, he’d probably be ready to do a little light sightseeing or even a quiet day on the beach, with no swimming.

I had then envisaged the two of us tootling up to Athens, catching a ferry down to one of the Greek islands that fringe Turkey’s Aegean coast, and from there tootling up to Istanbul.

Looking at the state of him now, it seems ridiculous that I could ever have thought this practicable, let alone enjoyable.

Back at base, we’re saying fond farewells to Granny and Grandpa.

It’s been a rubbish week all round, all in all, what with surgery and missing brake pads, and, given our route takes us into savagely cold climates and, after belting across Europe back to the UK, they will be heading south in early 2013 to escape the English winter, we won’t see each other for a good few months. Zac is the only grandchild on either side of his family.

“I need a pee,” Zac says.

He wriggles and swings himself painfully round until his legs are dangling off the edge of the bed. I stand by.

He puts his feet on the floor, manages half a step, turns grey, breaks into a sweat and buckles.

I catch him under the arms. “It’s OK,” I say. “I’ve got you. I’ll carry you. Granny can go and get a nurse…”

I hoik him into the bathroom. “I remember this from when I had surgery,” Granny says. “It’s common. That shocking sick feeling that your muscles don’t work…”

As I carry Zac bodily back to bed and hoist him into it, I can’t quite believe that he is being discharged tomorrow.

“Are you going to go to Athens?” asks my ma.

“I’m not sure,” I say. “I’ll play it by ear. If we need to, I can get a hotel room here. But I’d probably rather Athens.”

“The Archaeological Museum is excellent,” says my dad. “I wouldn’t bother with the Parthenon.”

“I’ve SEEN the Parthenon,” says Zac. “There’s nothing there since the Venetians blew it up.”

There is a weird plastic shovel-type thing in the bathroom. I am wondering if it is a bedpan.

It’s something I’ve read about in books, but I’ve never seen one.

Come morning, Zac has only low-level pain except on walking, which remains virtually impossible. He is comfortable sitting up, and can wear pyjama bottoms, the two basic prerequisites of coping with a bus ride.

Doctor I comes round to inspect his handiwork.

“Yes,” he says. “Very well! Very well! I give you paper. You can go.”

“He can’t walk,” I say. “He has a lot of pain on walking.”

“Yes, yes,” says Doctor I. “No walking today. Tomorrow, a little walking. Today bed!”

He gives me aftercare advice. “Solububble! Seven days! Solububble. One betadine, this one! No water!”

“So, betadine here, once a day?” I say.

As surgery while travelling goes, we’ve not done badly on the language front.

Zac flinches at the prospect of Betadine straight onto an incision.

“Yes, yes,” he beams. “You can wash here and here, not here. No washing until solububble.”

Some good news for Zac, at least.

I thank Doctor I profusely. So does Zac.

“In Greek, please,” I say. He thanks him in Greek.

I am now in a logistical nightmare. It’s one of fairly few moments over the last two and a bit years when I’m acutely aware that it would be handy to have another parent on tap.

Had everything gone to plan, we would have brought only an overnight bag into the hospital, and gone to my parents’ house on discharge for Zac to recuperate for three days.

Now my parents are en route across Europe, and we have three main options.

Our first is to go to Athens, where I have a reservation, which involves two taxis and a bus.

The second is for me to leave Zac here, if I can communicate why I’m doing so, cab it into town with a laptop, and, using a combination of wifi and street-pounding, find a workable hotel here, check in, cab it back to the hospital, collect Zac and all our stuff, move into the hotel, then head to Athens at a later date.

The third is for us to leave with all our stuff, cab it into town to the place with wifi, and leave Zac there with the bags while I hunt around for a hotel.

Zac and I discuss. He’d rather go to Athens and get the travel leg out of the way. Also, if the place I’ve booked is crap, I’ll have a broader choice of accommodation in Athens than here.

Adding to the joy of nations, we have a lot more “stuff” than usual. I’ve asked my parents to bring some of our cold weather gear from England in preparation for Nepal and Northern China, and we’re up to the gunnels with hospital entertainment materials.

We have a backpack each, a tote bag for laptops and books, and a camera bag.

Zac weighs 32kg. Our stuff weighs less than he does, but not so much less that I can carry both him and our bags.

There’s a taxi rank at the hospital door, so that’s not problematic.

But, there’s no way I’m getting everything down in the lift in one go, not without spraining something or dropping Zac, and the orderly has given me Boratesque advice about the dangers of theft from the “Geepsee” across the hall.

Right, I think. Onwards and upwards.

I grab the camera bag and the tote bag, pick up Zac in a way that we’ve established isn’t painful, and lumber out into the hall.

The nurses, who, I think, are treating Zac as if he’s a two-year-old who’s had a 15-minute op rather than an 11-year-old who has spent an hour and a half having embarrassing and sensitive areas “dissected”, do not approve of this namby-pamby approach to mothering.

Which must, given his length, look ridiculous.

Not that I’m seeing the funny side right now.

“No, no, no,” says the English-speaking one. “He needs to walk!”

“But Doctor I said no walking today!” I say.

Still, I put Zac down. He hobbles, painfully slowly, like a splay-legged centenarian, to the wall, clings onto the hand rail and begins to inch towards the lift, wincing.

It’s going to take us five minutes to get to the lift at this rate.

The nurses give way.

“Use this,” says the English speaker, pointing to a wheelchair. “Back here!”

Zac climbs into the wheelchair. I go back to the room, grab our small mountain of stuff and arrange it about my person, and we head down into the lift towards the taxi rank, where I leave Zac sitting on our bags while I return the wheelchair to the fourth floor.

In Greek hospitals as in London hospitals it is usual for patients to be discharged to recuperate while they’re still barely capable of walking, and it’s also usual not to have your own transport.

The taxi driver pulls up right next to Zac and loads up the bags. I help Zac into the back seat.

“Ktel Athina please,” I say, in rubbish Greek.

He takes us to the bus station and unloads the bags at the correct platform while I help Zac out of the taxi and into the cafe.

The next bus leaves in an hour for the two hour journey. I buy food and drink and book tickets. Zac eats half a sandwich and has a lemonade.

“I think you should have a pee before we go,” I say. I’m allowing half an hour to manage the logistics around this, and I’m figuring, push comes to shove, I can take him into the ladies with me.

I scout out the loos. They’re downstairs. Bugger.

“OK, honey,” I say. “I’m afraid the loos are in a basement. That means stairs…”

He hobbles over, incredibly slowly, resisting all efforts at support, but leaning on the wall from time to time. (Jesus, I think. The nurses WERE right.)

“Aha!” he says. “A lift!”

We catch the lift. He goes to the gents, solo. Some while later, we make it back up.

Zac reads perfectly happily on the bus, though I’m worried he’s not eating or drinking enough.

We get off at the right stop, and grab a taxi from the rank.

Perhaps in deference to Zac’s condition, he only fleeces us a little.

Zac is still moving like an old, old man, pyjama bottoms flapping above his sandals.

And, as when I was once in a wheelchair at an airport, I begin to realise how some parents of disabled children must feel.

It’s the stare that avoids eye-contact, the look of silent sympathy that avoids, the question marks raised and left hanging…

The sympathy, I realise, weirdly, directed not at the child, or the wheelchair user, but at the parent, or the person pushing the wheelchair.

The silent wondering: “What is wrong with him?”

And, I think, the implication: “What did you do wrong?”

My child, just by his hobbled movement, is no longer the happy, good-looking kid that folk smile at, but an invalid whose eyes they avoid.

The hotel, though clearly not full, has no record of our reservation, which I made for one night only on the basis of price a week ago, when I’d thought Zac would be right as rain and we might well be hopping straight on a ferry to an island, possibly with a couple of hours looking around museums first.

Do I have a printout?

Aaarrggghhh. Don’t do this to me!

“No,” I say. “I have it on the computer.”

We check in, agonisingly slowly.

“Don’t use the lift!” says the guy on the desk. “We have a power cut.”

Our room is on the third floor.


Zac winces and cringes his way up the stairs, bent almost double, violently cursing the guy on the desk.

“LOOK!” he says. “I’ve CALLED the lift. It’s working.”

“Just take the stairs,” I say. “If they’re having power outages, we could get stuck.”

And… for twenty (count ’em) euros, it’s a blinder of a room.

Which is good, because otherwise I would probably have cried.

We have a balcony, a desk, a bathroom, a fridge, fast wifi, a decent amount of space, and inoffensive corporate-neutral décor.

I’ve paid triple the price elsewhere in Greece for that, and this is central Athens (it’s the Aristoteles Hotel, if you’re in town).

Well, I figure, at least something’s going right.

I extend our reservation, book flights to Istanbul, and head to the shop for recuperation snacks, as Zac defaults to his preferred position, supine.

He is now well enough, I can’t help but notice, to balance his computer on his knees.

4 Responses

  1. Poor kid.

    I have had over 10 surgeries and 3 were while traveling. Its’ all part of the experience!!!

    He’ll be up and running as your travel buddy in no time.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Marina. Wow! OK, so you just roll with it? I’ve found it really challenging logistically. But, yes, I’d agree you get a different insight into a country having medical treatment there…

  2. I found the international health care, outside of US, is great. As long as it’s private 🙂

    Can’t wait to read more about your upcoming adventures with Zack!

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you! We’re British, so used to state health care, and I’ve found decent state health care pretty much everywhere we’ve been. With the exception of Mali, 20 years ago, which was NOT a place to be sick…