Heartburn, Dr Wonka and Me

I seem to be at the age when you are no longer young but still not old. It is an age where you begin to consciously sense the fallibility of your body, and cannot quite believe that it is happening. If I was a car a light would be blinking on the dashboard as an incessant reminder that I would need a look under my physiological bonnet. People tell this is typical between the ages of 40 and 50. It is time to take stock of your physical health, run some diagnostic checks and get tuned. Maybe some go faster stripes and some flared arches.

A couple of years ago I started getting heartburn. I could not quite understand this as, on average, I only drank 2 bottles of Sekt per night and restricted my intake of lobster and heavy sauces to Saturdays. At first I blamed it on the stresses on becoming a father but it soon became apparent that something more acute was afoot. As such, I hot-footed (press-ganged by my wife) to a specialist who stuck some tubes down me (and up) to reveal I suffered from a malfunctioning muscle at the lower end of my oesophagus. Scholars of fear inducing web medicine will know this is called Reflux and although it is largely a inherited disease, lifestyle can exacerbate the symptoms. And perhaps having children.

So I started taking medication which combined with watching my diet helped to eradicate the worst effects. This worked remarkably well and before you could say, “This won’t hurt, Mr Barratt,” it was oysters for lunch, vintage port and evil banker sized cigars. But after two years or so I felt the need to locate a more long-term solution, which led me to the 9th district and the ominously new private ordination of one of Vienna’s leading authorities on Reflux. It had posh furniture, it was gleamingly white, it was surgically clean. It looked like the room for Wonka TV. It had to be good. It had better be good. I don’t willingly raid the kids’ piggy banks without expecting something for their money. Normally, I wouldn’t go private, but for the price of a consultation was only the weekly shopping, and the Kinder would understand. So I there I waited.

Out the window, a mere stomach’s throw away, I could see the looming, gigantic presence of Vienna’s general hospital or AKH (Allgemeine Krankenhaus). Built on the back of a Vienna’s 1970s socialist driven flash-the-cash agenda, the AKH is not only one of Europe’s leading hospitals it might also be one of the biggest. The place is an enormous, cutting edge healthcare facility boasting some of the best medical specialists in Austria, all for a city of just under two million. And with typical Viennese irony, a shop on the ground floor selling cigarettes to the over-worked, the terminally ill and the restless relative.

The hospital and I have some form. It was the place that I witnessed the rapid deterioration in health and eventual death of my then 42 year old brother-in-law from an aggressive and untreatable form of cancer. Yet equally it has been a place of great happiness (and more fear) as the hospital where my two children were born. In Vienna, so the myth goes, only “at risk” births are carried out in the maternity unit of the AKH, but somehow we nabbed a place for both. I never found out why.

The first (birth) was largely uneventful with me doing my best to look compassionate and fatherly. The second was more screwball, a two in the morning dash across town, older son in the back asking why we had not had breakfast, me driving like a Wiener in a hurry, jumping traffic lights and breaking the speed limit. On arriving, hospital security asked us if they could help and I thought, as my wife made noises of someone close to birth, ha! the famous Wiener humour. Naturally, my reply was a cunning mix of the unambiguous and mildly panic induced (an apt word if ever there was one.) The nurses were jokers too enquiring why we had not come by ambulance. In any case, 30 minutes after arriving he was here and I was still catching my breath.

Healthcare in Vienna is, broadly speaking, pretty good. I have made the point before that citizens pay a lot in to the system, but the system generally pays back. I have no idea how it compares to other countries except the UK. But one thing that continually surprises me is that in any quarter you can choose any general practitioner or dentist you want (assuming they have a contract with your state insurance company, which is most). And being well-trained in the art of getting what you pay for (by my war generation, straight-talking, south London grandmother), I have been to loads of doctors and dentists here over the years.

Of course, I had an early brush with the Viennese health system (which would have pleased my mother, as she was not sure if Austria had social security). Not long after arriving my wife tried to poison me with some dodgy mussels I had cooked from the Naschmarkt (where tourists take photographs of vegetables). So much so that in the early hours of one weekend, I was carted off to hospital in the back of an ambulance with only a couple of paramedics for company making snide comments about how the Brit could not handle his Austrian beer.

I spent the night in a double room with another man who could not speak German, both of us terrified when the nurse came round carrying a big syringe and a pair of surgical scissors. It was at this point, giddy in all the excitement and the drip in my arm preventing my stomach feeling like it was being head butted by a rhino, that I resolved to consolidate my local language knowledge. Which is the thing about foreign countries; you never know when you are going to have to answer questions about your genitals. But life is like that sometimes. It can take a violent reaction to shellfish to spur one into action. It is what an economist would call an unexpected consequence.

But what of the good doctor? Well, we chatted away for about 40 minutes and decided that what I needed was another test or establish the root cause (and if I needed some kind of corrective surgery). “So the tests I had 2 years ago and the medication since we’re a waste of time?” I asked. “Not really,” the doctor explained, “just they don’t tell the whole story and maybe they are not the optimal solution for you.” I see,” I ventured, cunningly checking my online banking App to see if I could afford another consultation. “And how much will all this cost?” I coughed. The doctor explained the procedure and what I would get for my money. Well, I could sell a kidney, I thought.

And thus my brush with private medicine ended with the offer of an apple and I left. I felt, like the last, forgotten balloon at Carnival, deflated. More questions than answers, probably more tests, potentially more money. It was not how it was supposed to be. And where was my Wonka bar?

© R. J. Barratt 2013

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