About a month after my trip to the dermatologist with the laser, I meet my surgeon. His practice is located in a beautiful Art Deco tenement not far from the original home of Vienna’s most famous doctor, Sigmund Freud (not, as commonly believed, Artur Wörseg star of Alles für die Schönheit, Austrian television’s premier docu-soap about silicone implants).
I am buzzed in to the building and climb a few steps into the midst of an entrance hall reminiscent of a chapel. My heart, momentarily lightened as the pain of life retreats into remission, flutters slightly, which is fortunate given I am about to visit a doctor. Flanking me on both sides are two incredible stained-glass windows, framed from above by a ceiling of opaque, backlit panels. It is like a mini version of the entrance hall to the avant-garde wonder that is Amalienbad up in the 10th district, combing modernist angular beauty with uncomplicated lines and unfussy colours. It is an extraordinary sight demanding deference and reciprocal silence. And I am moved. Which is just as well because inside the door to the right, disturbing the aesthetic simplicity of this most tantalizing of architectural spaces, is a badly printed and hastily mounted sign castigating me – in the typically terse style of the Vienna reprimand – not to leave my bicycle in the hallway. Welcome to Nag-Zentral, I muse.
But fearing censure from my peers for superfluous, descriptive drivel, I slap myself about the face and get a grip. Unfortunately, madness is just round the corner because in front of me is a lift. Not just any old lift but an exquisite, masterly, superbly endowed lift, with its inner and outer doors and pristinely upholstered bench seat typical for such elevators during the zenith of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Even in its essential state, a functional machine, all polished wood, mirrors and intricate metalwork, it is engineered with an elegance and refinement that will almost certainly elude Apple or Samsung for another hundred years of unimpassioned design. I must write and warn them.
When they were built, such lifts – it was never sure in the early days whether they were rooms or means of transportation – redefined what cultural sociologist Andreas Bernhard calls the “semantics of space”. In other words, re-drawing notions of anonymity and intimacy like no other shared setting (this still persists – I bet if you are first in one you always stand in one corner at the back, the next passenger in the opposite corner and rarely speak). So it was never sure if men should remove hats – in a carriage, no, but always when entering a room – and whether it was polite or in fact decorous to speak to a woman (if you tried it now you would be banjaxed in the bollocks and rightly so).
Indeed, according to Bernhard, before lifts were popularised and made safe, upper floors in buildings were essentially an anarchic maze reserved for the poor or servants. The advent of safe lift technology changed this completely (think today “penthouse” or “loft apartment”) where the higher you go the more expensive it is and the more likely you are to meet a crook with nukes. But in the early days lifts were terribly slow (these old ones are not much quicker now) hence the inclusion of a skilfully upholstered bench so you could park your bum for the leisurely ascent through the innards of a building. Although, never seated in the company of a woman.
With this in mind, I enter the “secular confessional” (Bernahrd again – and my phrase of the year) and journey to the second floor where I meet my surgeon. I am ushered inside and for the first time in my life wish I had studied a bit harder at school or at least been born into privilege. The first question I am asked is whether I have private health insurance. No, I explain, I live in Austria and I already give most of my income to the state for health provision. The surgeon nods, disappointedly, but with sympathy. No matter, we could do the operation in the state-funded hospital where he is based. In fact, what about next Wednesday?
We discuss my condition and I am probed as to what I know about my diagnosis. Haunted by the curse of knowledge, I explain I may have supplemented the dermatologist’s medical analysis and sneaked a peak at the internet. I confess that I know it is an exercise in futility, which the surgeon does nothing to dissuade, but I am pretty well informed and everyone is going to die from diabetes, obesity or cancer (or most likely all three). Also I had recently read Risk Savvy by Berlin based behavioural psychologist, Dr. Gerd Gigerenzer, so I wasn’t in the mood for any Spompanadln (Viennese for giving me the run around). To prove so I flick open my copy to page 224 and with as much cachet as I can muster, read:
“In the twentieth century health care was not primarily for the patient, but for selling drugs, screening technology, and other goals. Patients were often treated paternalistically. The twenty-first century should become the century of the patient!”
(Gerd is a bit of a stickler for asking doctors (and bankers) the right questions. This is based on the modern misconception that we always trust Doctors to act in our interests rather than their own, the interests of drug companies or the college fund for their kids.)
With my position made clear and clarity restored, the doctor appeases my concerns with a mixture of professional understatement and some soothing Viennese sarcasm. I have a deep regard for the absence of prevarication in any circumstances and my temporal state is lifted by some simple, straight words from a person exuding total confidence (although I am sure the service guy who tried to fix my Vespa in the summer made similar noises of optimism). Nevertheless, with an agreed date for the “OP” (pronounced “Oh-pee”) for the middle of November, there was no time for crap translations of German idioms and I would have to make steam (Mach mal Dampf or in Vienna: “Hüsch! Hüsch!” or “Zah ‘an!”). In just two days I would have to present myself at the hospital in the sixteenth district to register, check all the dates and find out what tests I would need to do prior to the operation itself (answer the full medical kitbag). Things were now moving very fast and all I could think about was a sit down in that lift in Jugendstill stairwell outside.
Two days later, I arrive at the hospital for my agreed appointment which I realise is just a formality to get the ball rolling and the scalpel sharpened. I am given a list of the tests – explained by my surgeon – with instructions to return a week later where I will be allowed to wait three hours with people double my age to speak to an anaesthetist. The list seems insurmountable. I have seven days (actually four days) to round up the kinds of tests you normally do when you enrol in astronaut school. However, I had already discovered Viennese healthcare could be swift if you gain the right contact and I am now a master of the chase. Of course, I am not really a master of the chase but by now my false consciousness has superseded my judgement and I have to internalise my predicament in any means possible.
And so, with the nights drawing in and yet more articles on the best Christmas markets in the capital of Punsch filling up cyberspace, let us pause for breath and take a look at the halftime scores:
Robert J. Barratt – Vienna Healthcare Treasure Hunt 2014
Pointless trip to the dermatologist in May – 1
Follow up (and decisive) trip to new dermatologist start of October – 1
Mentions of food so far in this blog – 0
Initial meeting with surgeon, first week of November (Monday) – 1
Hospital registration, first week of November (Wednesday) – 1
Appointment at GP to get Überweisung for blood tests, x-rays, ultra-sound and pre-op clearance from an “Internist” (Wednesday) – 1
Blood test (Thursday) – 1
Pick up blood tests (Friday) – 1 (although they forgot my “sample”)
*weekend – mild panic and drinking*
X-rays and ultra sound, second week of November (Monday) – 2
Pre-op check by musical loving Internist including EKG (Tuesday) – 1
Back to hospital (Wednesday) to deliver ALL test results and speak to the narcotics guy – 1
Back to second dermatologist (Wednesday) for last opinion after tumour seems to be disappearing – 1
Contrived mention of food for blog – 1 (fantastic lunch – Wednesday – at Balkan Burek in Vienna’s tenth district)
*rest of week – diaphoretic anxiety and a little more drinking*
And so, with the third week of November arriving quicker than shit through a goose with viral gastroenteritis, and only sixteen days after I had been momentarily wowed by some posh interior decoration in the 9th district, I am heading to the hospital. As instructed I am nüchtern – in the medical world this means “nil-by-mouth” although it also means sober. Yet any sense of hunger is negated by the comparative unease I feel of what will or might follow in the next twenty four hours. And so I sit silently in the back of a taxi whisking me west, wondering if I have left the gas on.
For once my taxi-driver is a local and throughout the journey, as we travel at speeds not designed for inner city streets during the Viennese version of the rush-hour, I am consumed by the incongruous notion that I may spend my last moments in a Skoda Octavia estate in the shadows of the Schönbrunn Palace. But with fate providing safe passage, we arrive impressively early and I extricate myself from the rear of the cab impressing the need to get some fresh air and regain my composure.
I thank the cabbie, tip generously for delivering from the gates of judgement to the gates of hospital and, with a fraternal goodbye, recommend he should take a job as an ambulance driver. I walk the short way up the hill to my “pavilion” (I won’t mention the name to protect the innocent and my fellow patients) and present myself at the “Ambulanz” (German for casualty, A&E or simply the front desk for the ward proper). It is 7.30 in the morning. Outside, with the sun just peaking through the early morning clouds, is a huge oak tree full of restless crows, descendants from the winged agents of Satan from The Omen (parts I, II and III). Oh crikey. Oh very, bloody crikey …
Concluded in part three with a promise to mention food …
© RJ Barratt 2014