Tribute to Spain's public health services

Updated August 17, 2019


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THE 2008 global economic slowdown, triggered by the sub-prime mortgage crisis, had serious consequences for social-sector spending across the world as government bailouts of the affected banks involved billions of dollars. Side by side, the size of the economies also shrunk rapidly, and deficits soared.

Western nations, which prided themselves on the quality of their public services, cut a sorry figure as they had to dramatically curtail their outlays on health, education and other social services. Where once, for example, the UK’s National Health Service was the envy of even developed nations, post-2008 one heard of its inadequacies on a daily basis.

A simple ultrasound appointment would normally be given after several months, and God help you if you needed a more ‘expensive’ MRI or CT scan. The waiting lists were so long that you were left wondering if nature would heal you first or whether you would have no option but to answer the summons of the Creator.

Harassed doctors for months on end would try to mitigate the symptoms as they waited for diagnostic test results to finally be able to treat the disease which was manifesting itself in the symptoms.

This fall was different. The pain was enough to drive anyone insane.

Spain’s national health system seems modelled after the UK’s, and the country was far worse hit compared to the UK by the 2008 economic crisis. Its economy shrank drastically, unemployment rates skyrocketed — in particular, youth unemployment climbed to nearly 50 per cent at one point. Madrid needed a bailout from the EU to stay afloat.

Over the years, there have been a large number of protests decrying government attempts to cut health services, and I know for a fact that even consultants (my wife’s brother among them) have finished their hospital shifts and moved straight across the street to join the protesters.

Let me tell you why I am so very grateful that the citizens proactively resisted all attempts to decimate public health services.

Last month, we decided to take a week’s break in north-western Spain’s Galicia region, renowned for its hilly terrain, natural beauty and mouth-watering cuisine.

We arrived after a day and a half’s drive in the small village of Ribera del Sacra, some 900 kilometres from where we live, and checked into a small rustic hotel situated on the slope of a hill overlooking a fast-flowing river a couple of hundred metres below. The view was breathtaking.

The next day was spent in sightseeing and hiking and then we settled down to a quiet evening in the hotel with the soothing sound of water flowing in the river almost putting us to sleep. That was the nice bit about the brief holiday.

Disaster struck on day three. My wife and two daughters were ready to head down into the valley to take a river cruise and I was the last in the shower. A moment’s carelessness — and I slipped and fell. Having lived with polio in my left leg for all but three of my 59 years, slipping and falling is nothing new to me. Neither are aches and pain.

But this fall was different and the pain in my hip was enough to drive anyone insane. I knew I had hurt myself badly. Our hotel was in a village some 20 minutes’ drive from the nearest town, Ourense. Anthony, the owner, immediately called an ambulance. It arrived within 15 minutes.

The paramedics examined me and expressed the fear that I had fractured my hip. Our hotel room was accessible via a narrow wooden staircase with a couple of tight turns. They had a stretcher but also a contraption which they inflated and it totally enveloped my leg and hip in an air cushion and brought relief from the pain.

Nothing short of heroic was how they brought me down the narrow staircase and into the ambulance. My elder daughter rode with me while my wife Carmen and our younger daughter followed in our car.

To cut a long story short, it was decided at the Ourense Hospital that their orthopaedic surgeons preferred to move me to the hospital in our area which is rated among the 10 best in the discipline, given that my polio-affected leg fracture would need a far from straightforward operation.

During the four nights I spent in that hospital, the staff left no stone unturned to make me as comfortable as possible. On the third evening, an ambulance arrived from Valencia on the east coast of Spain. The driver Juan and the absolutely angelic nurse Delia had been deputed to ferry me back.

I was dreading the journey but early next morning when we started, I realised Delia had every kind of painkiller and for the 10-hour drive sat next to me without even a five-minute shut-eye. I was so comfortable that 900km seemed to be covered very quickly.

On arrival, the hospital staff was waiting for me and the registration process took all of three minutes before I was shifted to my own room. The same evening doctors started preparing me for surgery scheduled for Monday. Orthopaedic and trauma consultant Dr Ahmed Rajab led the surgical team. An operation that normally takes an hour took four hours in my case. I wish there was space enough for me to name each individual who extended such kindness to me.

The attention and level of care I received at the hospital was staggering. On Thursday, my surgeon discharged me and sent me home in an ambulance. The following Monday a nurse arrived to change the dressing and the week after to remove the staples. Three weeks on, I have started taking baby steps again.

My road to recovery will be slow and I will need to dig deep into my nearly non-existent reserves of patience. I am told I will remain in pain for a few weeks more. But to be honest I was grateful that if the mishap had to happen it happened in Spain where the level of care and empathy among the staff was the stuff that dreams are made of.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2019