Monthly Archives: November 2013

Labyrinths, Culture, and the Croatian Health Care System

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.

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Reflections on Imitation and Transmutation*

The four of us entered his house, and he greeted us somewhat sheepishly.  His table was littered with piles of loose tobacco and large cartons of cigarettes, and it seemed as if we had interrupted him in the middle of a grand cigarette deconstruction and reconstruction project. I looked with surprise at the washing machine and new big screen T.V. in the cramped but clean room. I knew he had an occasional job in some kind of forestry work, but surely his sister who lived in England was also sending some money.

The normal rituals ensued—he offered us juice and coffee, we refused the juice, but he ran out to the market and bought some Sky Cola anyway. He put a džezva on the wood stove to heat some water for coffee. At our request, he went over to the neighbors, also part of Little Darda Church,  and invited them into his home.  We knew that visiting their house was still taboo—I suspect because they were ashamed of its dilapidated  condition.

The couple entered, the woman’s face glowing with the unanticipated pleasure of our visit.  We got down to the business of conversation and drinking coffee, hearing about the woman’s ongoing headaches over the last week.

Had she seen a doctor, we wondered?  She said that she wasn’t registered to have health insurance—such a lack of proper documents is a common problem in Roma communities.   We asked her if she needed help to do this, urging her to take it seriously.  She replied that she would go register after she was feeling better.  She shyly looked at her husband, who used to regularly beat her.

“He prayed for my head,” she said, grinning openly, the hand that used to hover protectively over her mostly toothless mouth remaining on her lap.  The husband described the event—he had put one hand on her head and stretched one hand toward the sun.

I thought perhaps I had misunderstood the Croatian—always a very real possibility in my daily life.  Why was he stretching his hand toward the sun while he was praying for his wife?

“I saw you do that,” he tells us. “I thought it was important to point toward the sun while you were praying.”

Momentary sadness flitted through me in light of this misinterpretation of our actions, and I realize again the enormous challenges of modeling for others one’s own interpretation of following Jesus.  Although faith communities are usually where we learn to express and practice our faith, a significant problem arises if people never move past the imitation of the faith community and into the imitation of Christ himself. This can not be merely empty rhetoric, but rather must be a subtle reorientation that leads one away from a faith that functions as behavior modification and into a different way of being altogether.  Otherwise, we reduce the radical nature of Jesus’ life—those who wish to save their life must lose it—to a static rule list that has no real bearing on our present context.

This man thought that he could manipulate or coerce some kind of sun power through his prayer—but this is not just a mistake made by beginners in the faith.  Many of us either covertly or overtly believe that the function of prayer is to manipulate power towards the solution you would pick  if you were a god.

At the end of our conversation, we all stood and prayed together.  The husband was too bashful to pray, but everyone else in the circle urged him to tell God what was in his heart.  Finally, his wife, smiling in the light of her ever-growing confidence, told him, “Just say what I say.”  She led him in a very simple prayer, and line for line, he imitated her.

It became clear to me then, as it should have been before, that these house visits were not just a stepping stone to “forming the church.”  Rather, in this particular Roma village and culture, the house visits are the very core of the slowly-forming faith community. It is inside the Roma home where real life is lived, where connections happen naturally over coffee,  and our listening becomes the door to our understanding.

*To completely change the form, appearance, or nature of someone or something.