Saturday was supposed to be my day off, but my phone rang just after I poured my first cup of steaming coffee and settled comfortably into my chair with a book.
A Roma woman from the Little Darda Church, S., told me she needed to go to the emergency room—her stomach was in extreme pain and she had not been able to keep food down for a couple of days. I sighed when I hung up the phone…was this a real emergency? Was this the moment I was supposed to set a firm boundary?
S. is a tiny woman, both endearing and feisty. Certain things can be difficult for her to understand since she sustained a head injury when she was young. She is also completely illiterate. Whenever she sees me, she throws herself into my arms in a fierce embrace—her heart insatiably thirsty for love.
“I want God to love me the most,” she told us once.
After consulting with a friend, we decided to go pick her up (20 min. drive away from Osijek) and bring her back to the emergency room. Her husband came out to greet us, cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. I knew they had a way to get into Osijek—just yesterday I saw him pedaling an old rickety bicycle while she perched on the back like a small bird. But when S. hobbled out, bent over clutching her stomach, I knew it would have been difficult for her to sit on the bike for the 12 km to the hospital.
My friend, also sick with a bad cold, sat in the car as I went with S. into the emergency room. I had prepared myself for the hours-long wait that is typical in American emergency rooms, but was shocked to find the small, nondescript ward empty, the doctor and nurse waiting calmly at their desks.
Unfortunately, I was not the best advocate or support for S., since I myself was feeling somewhat feverish, the Croatian medical terms swirling around my head like buzzing gnats. The doctor tried to understand my relationship with S.—this obvious foreigner speaking halting Croatian—and then he proceeded to lecture her about calling her social care worker rather than bothering me.
“Mmmm…the plot thickens,” I thought. “She has a social care worker?” Later we found out that S., because of her special needs, had the right to a case worker, but was also required to pay such a person a monthly amount out of her social help. Consequently, she had officially transferred the responsibility onto her husband, so that he would get the money instead. However, I doubt that the same standard of care was transferred along with the money.
Next we were sent to the main hospital so S. could receive intravenous nutrients—her tiny body could not afford to lose any more calories. To me, the Osijek hospital is a confusing maze—probably because I don’t understand any of the words on the signs. Two weeks ago, I became lost in its bowels after visiting a sick friend, and I wandered aimlessly around its darkened halls for 10 minutes before exploding in relief out of the glass doors and onto the lawn. Everyone is always willing to help me when I ask, but they seem to give directions as if we were in a small grocery store instead of an impenetrable labyrinth.
Such was the case again—S. and I asked four different people before finally finding another smaller building behind the main hospital. There, they drew S.’s blood and hooked her up to an IV. I looked at the slow drip and settled down to wait. Just then, a nurse walked up to me and handed me a small fishing tackle box.
“What is this?” I asked.
“It is her blood. Take it to the green and white building for emergency testing.”
Next thing I knew, I was walking across the hospital lawn looking for the right entrance to the main building, gripping the tackle box firmly in my hand. I must have looked more competent than I felt, because a man stopped me to ask where the cardiac unit was located.
Unfortunately, I had to descend back down to the bowels of the main hospital, but this time, I paid special attention through which doors I was going and into which hallways I was turning. “The problem is that everything kind of looks the same, ” I reflected.
After her infusion was complete, we were instructed to drive to a pharmacy to pick up her medication. “We can’t pick it up here?” I asked. The nurse smiled and shook her head.
By this time, hours had passed, I was tired and in no mood for the crabby pharmacist who was telling me that I had to have a doctor’s receipt in order to pick up the said medicine. “But I’ve just come from a couple of doctors at the hospital!” I argued. Defeated, I trudged out to another building only to be chagrined at the line of people waiting for the doctor inside. I could feel my annoyance rising rapidly. I walked back to the car.
“Okay, I need you,” I told my Croatian friend, even as she was coughing and sneezing. S. was still weakly gripping her stomach in the back seat. After more waiting and discussion with the people in line, we were able to get the doctor’s prescription and retrieve the medicine from the pharmacy.
“S. is extremely vulnerable and extremely resilient, ” I reflected to myself later that evening.
Doctors were handing her sheets of paper she could not read and giving her verbal instructions that she did not understand. Even more unfortunate, she did not tell them she did not understand, but would just vigorously nod her head in agreement. Although we encountered compassionate care throughout the day, I saw that someone like her could easily be treated carelessly should she be so unfortunate to encounter that kind of person. On the other hand, I knew how much she had survived in her life, and how she was surviving now, and that her spirit appeared to be undaunted.
But this day further confirmed that the layers of problems and issues facing people like S. are such a baffling labyrinth that it is difficult to know even the first place to turn—and the chance of getting lost in its dimly lit corridors without some kind of navigation seems more than likely.