A Guide to Greek Hospitals
for travellers and sailors in Greece
As liveaboards on a boat sailing between various countries one of the questions we are often asked is “What happens if I get sick when I am abroad?” Recently I learnt first-hand what it is like to get sick and spend time in a Greek hospitals. I think it would rank alongside poking your eyeballs out with a sharp, shitty stick for enjoyment but I will let you decide.
Getting sick when in Greece.
For a while I have been feeling lethargic and finding it difficult to breath. Being a man, I didn’t need a doctor, just a few pints of beer to cool my temperature and eventually whatever I had would go away.
The trouble was that after eight months it was not getting better and drinking more beer was not doing anything to help. I was also getting a sharp pain in the ribs that felt like I had been drop kicked by Chuck Norris’s donkey. My temperature was causing me to melt leaving a pool of sweat wherever I went.
I did the man thing again and asked Dr Google what was wrong with me. He gave me 25,032 answers in 0.012 seconds but suggested it could be pleurisy which did not sound good. He also said it usually occurs as a secondary infection to other things like cancer. Thank you, Doc Google, but you need to work on your bedside manner. Play some soothing music and dim the lights before telling me to forget about buying eggs as I did not have time to boil them.
Going to the local Greek hospital
My life expectancy was now in milliseconds and I really believed I may pass out. Being Saturday, the doctors were closed so I took a taxi up to the local Greek hospital. The taxi driver was very obliging considering all I was now was a pool of sweat with lips on his back seat. He told me that as it was afternoon siesta time I may have trouble finding a doctor.
On entering the hospital all the signs were in Greek and my basic understanding of the language does not extend to “If you are dying then crawl this way”. I had arrived at the hospital almost on my knees but had no idea on where to go. You may get a meet and greet person with a permanent smile in a supermarket but go to a Greek hospital and it was a ghost town. I did consider just collapsing on the floor so I could get help but it looked particularly dirty and I may catch something worse than I already had..
Seeing the pearly gates to heaven.
Eventually I decided to go exploring and managed to find myself in a long, dark, deserted corridor. At the other end, it looked like there was someone in white and a bright light. Was I in a corridor leading to the afterlife? Was that Saint Peter guarding the pearly gates? Was he waiting to ask me some questions I really did not want to answer about only being kinky the first time? Was it a nurse type person who would also ask me some questions that may be easier to answer. I staggered towards the light and luckily found that it was a nurse.
This was a hospital and I expected people with broken limbs, men who had accidentally sat on bottles or got hoover hoses stuck in awkward places, women with festering tattoos and a few dead people queuing up for 10 hours to be seen by a 16-year-old doctor, but there was no one. Luckily the nurse spoke English so I explained I had a pain in my side, was finding it hard to breath and was melting very quickly.
This nurse wanted my body.
Now this nurse was my kind of nurse and I really thought I was in. Within seconds she had me in a room laid out on a bed and was almost ripping my shirt off. She was sticking electrodes all over me as well which seemed a bit kinky for a first date but hey, I could roll with that. Then she started getting needles and all sorts out of her bag of tricks. This was either going to be some wild sadomasochistic ride with me as the victim or she really was a nurse and I was going to be the one on the receiving end of a rather large prick! In my fantasies, it was always the other way around for some reason.
Turns out she was a real nurse and she subjected me to every test imaginable and drained off more blood than I thought I had. A man then suddenly appeared with a wheel chair which meant I really was very sick. The porter wheeled me down 20 meters of corridor to the X-Ray room where I had a couple of snaps taken of my chest. The good thing about a Greek hospital is that when they take an X-Ray the images are yours to keep and they give them to you so you can put them in photo frames around the house or invite the neighbours over to view your internal workings.
The porter duly wheeled me and my pictures back to A and E where I let the doctor and nurse check them out. Two minutes later I was invited to join them although I was not asked for a consultation.
Relief- I am only really sick.
Now I will tell you a secret here. Being a smoker, I am petrified of chest X-Rays in case they show something I don’t want them to. It was one of the reasons I had stayed away from the hospital and doctors in the first place. I would rather walk round out of breath thinking I was dying rather than seeing a doctor and being told I was dying.
Well the results were in… I had really bad pneumonia in the left lung and had done so for some time… I was jumping for joy (well I clenched my fist and went, yeah.). Pneumonia, I was happy with that. I did ask if I had pleurisy as well because Doc Google said I had but the doctor said no. (Turns out I did have a bad case of pleurisy but hey, a search on google or a million pounds spent educating a doctor. She was young and attractive so I would go with what she said).
Committed to a Greek hospital or is that admitted?
I was ready to get a prescription and be on my way after the good news. No, such luck. The porter with the wheelchair appeared again and I was told I was to be admitted. Usually people turn up with a jacket rather than a wheelchair and say I should be committed. I had a dangerous temperature, needed oxygen to stop me fainting and that was before they started trying to treat my hyper man pneumonia flu type infection. I was told I would be in for 3 or 4 days.
Its our way or no way… just guess what our way is.
I was wheeled up to a ward on the third floor and left standing next to a bed. I would like to say it was a well-equipped ward but I was stood in a large storage cupboard with the door taken off. There were two antiquated beds and the room was open to the corridor and everyone passing. I was the side show. Next, a nurse turned up and threw two sheets and a pillow on the bed. Yes, the sick and dying make their own beds then lie in them in Greece!
I was expecting one of those backless gowns where your arse is continually hung out for the world but no such luck. You got nothing. There was no welcoming pack, no nurses in stockings helping you undress, no promise of a Thai massage later and not even a bunch of the obligatory grapes. I soon discovered the clothes you were wearing when you were admitted were the clothes you wore and slept in, no matter how dirty they were.
What are those rubber gloves for nurse?
A stealth nurse just appeared with a thermometer and wearing rubber gloves. I feared the worse but luckily, she just wanted to stick it in my arm pit. This happened every three hours regardless. Blood pressure was taken twice a day. Next, the nurse came along with a drip and added a few bags of saline solution and a liquid form of paracetamol to lower my temperature. I also got an injection into the stomach to protect my thyroid or so I was told. Personally, I think it was punishment for being sick and as a reminded never to come back. I also had an injection to stop my blood clotting and finally one to protect my stomach lining from dissolving with the anti-biotics that were added to the drip. This happened every day. I was also given oxygen continually day and night. This is basically all the nurses did. Administer injections, checked if you were melting and occasionally looked to see if you were still pumping blood around your body. There were no bed baths, no bottles to pee in or bed pans, no changing of sheets or words of comfort, nothing else… just basic medication each day. I also have a phobia about needles but every time they added a new bag to my drip my veins would not except it so the shunt into the vein had to be changed to the other arm. Once they did it 4 times in a day and that was besides all the other injections. I lost count at somewhere over 30 injections.
Thunderbird’s are go to help me escape.
The one thing nurses were very good at was leaving bits and pieces from the medical items they were using in your bed. I was very busy doing nothing so I started to keep a collection and got up to over 26 pieces of discarded equipment such as needle covers, thermometers, sticky tape, blood soaked cotton wool and the list goes on. I was quite pleased they left something behind for me to hunt for a as there is only so many times you can count ceiling tiles. (87 if you are wondering) I was hoping for one big piece to be left then I could have built a model of Tracy Island complete with all the Thunderbird’s. I even had plans for lady Penelope. It is strange what a Greek hospital can do to your mind and besides I was having problems getting Lady Penelope in just the right kneeling position.
A survival guide to Greek hospitals.
Over the next eight days I learnt a lot about Greek hospitals and how they run. No one will tell you anything and there are no instruction papers. You just have to learn on the job as it were but this is a brief survival guide for Greek hospitals.
The nurses are not there to look after you in anyway but in a medical capacity. They are not going to bring you drinks, tuck you in or assist with any personal needs. They are there to give medication and that is it. If you refuse their requests they are fully qualified wrestlers with some extremely painful holds that will make you submit immediately. There was no way to contact the nurses for help from your bed. If you are about to die in the next 12 seconds you have a 50/50 chance of them turning up to screaming but I did learn they will check your temperature first no matter what.
Families and friends in hospital
Behind me is a relative sleeping on the floor
You must let friends and family know you are in hospital as they the ones who will look after you. This does not seem to be a problem if you are from Crete as everybody on the island is related so at least four thousand relatives will show up within 30 seconds of admittance. A family member or two will usually stay with the patient all the time and will sleep anywhere they can. They are there to wash, shave (well you know Cretan women), change your bedding, clothes, get you drinks or food and any other requirements such as taking you to toilet. A lot of the people on the ward were incapable of looking after themselves and had to wear nappies. I was moved to a room and put in the middle of two such men. Believe me the smell makes you reach as they are changed by family members several times a day. There are also no curtains for privacy. Everyone can see what is happening so if you go in hospital then you need to leave your dignity tucked neatly in a drawer at home. Relatives usually have little consideration for others in the room. They will talk loudly (as all Greeks do). They will shout on the phone or people would be ringing them as you tried to sleep. This would often keep you awake. Some would even stand at the door smoking!
Getting drinks when you cannot walk.
The only drink you are given is a sort of tea or coffee in the morning. You are in very hot temperatures and may be sweating with a fever. This is not a good position to be in. (My bed was drenched most of the time but there was nothing I could do on my own). Then again, being a good husband I am used to sleeping on the wet patch.
There is a good shop in the hospital two floors down which sell cold drinks but you need friends or family to get them for you. I was lucky in that people visiting me from the marina would bring them for me. On more than one occasion I had to take my oxygen mask off and sneak out with my drips to get drinks or some decent food. I should admit here to nearly collapsing on the stairs, drenched with sweat with my IV in hand… I really did think I would not make it but at least I looked like Poseidon when I was doing it.
Food, glorious food, hot potatoes and ……. hot potatoes.
I did not eat anything apart from a couple of biscuits for four days. I just could not face food. They brought breakfast, lunch and evening meals but is was always the same. Two pre-bought French toasts and a jam in the morning, potatoes and either fish, chicken, beans, or a burger and melon pieces for lunch and the same for evening meal… sometimes if you were lucky you got potatoes with, more potatoes. You always got dried bread though. The meals were not tasty and very bland but they stop you dying of hunger although no one ever checks to see if you are eating anything.
Clothes and washing.
I spent the first four days in the same clothes I came into the hospital in and I had no facilities to wash myself. I must have really honked. I had to get a message to someone in the marina to get some fresh clothes and wash stuff. Then I had trouble changing because of the drip in my arm and the oxygen was not portable. I also had to learn to turn my oxygen off and find a bathroom somewhere when I needed to go to toilet or get washed. It is difficult when you struggle without the oxygen mask and have a drip hanging around you wherever you go. It took an eternity just to wash your parts and forget your hair. That is never going to happen.
Getting medical information
Once a day the doctors (usually about four of them) would come around for a chat and a check-up. I cannot explain to you just how much I needed to get out of that Greek hospital as I was getting really depressed. After about a week two doctors agreed I was just about fit enough to leave but another refused to agree. He had me there for another few days and as much as I don’t want to admit it he was 100% right. Any earlier would have been far too early and I would have ended up collapsing somewhere. One problem I had was that the doctors spoke in Greek most of the time as you would expect so I had to ask specific question to get help or answers to anything. I was getting hallucinations from the drugs but when I mentioned it the doctors just laughed.
The nurses only spoke the odd word of English and I could not make them understand my most basic needs (no, not that one although). That is not their fault but mine. In hospital, I began coughing up large globules of blood which really worried me. I had to wait almost 16 hours before I could find a doctor to talk to about this. During that time, I feared the worst.
Greek hospitals and austerity .. breaking the rules.
Everyone knows that the Greeks are living in a world of austerity. This is most evident in their health system which seems to have taken the brunt of the cuts. The hospital I was in was dirty, lacking in basic facilities and needed repairs almost everywhere.
Dirt on feet from dirty floors
Crumbling walls and antiquated beds
The beds were antiquated and often too small. I found a way of taking the board off at the end of the bed to stick your feet through which was the only way I could sleep. As I mentioned before unless you changed your own sheets (which is difficult when attached to a drip and oxygen) they will stay on there no matter how dirty or wet they become from blood or other bodily fluids.
Once a day a cleaner would come into the room. She had a large mop to clean the floor with water which took her less than two minutes. This was the total amount of cleaning I ever saw and often there were very dirty floors from all the visitor’s comings and goings.
There were no bins in the rooms, only in the corridors outside which meant disconnecting my oxygen and taking my drips on tour every time. Nobody collected old meal containers so these had to be taken to the bin along with everything else. I had a plastic bag by my bed because I was coughing up blood into toilet paper and I needed to put it somewhere until I could get to the bin.
All around the ward and rooms was a balcony which was often used by visitors and patients to smoke. Bearing in mind I was on a chest ward with some very poorly people (one died during the night when I was there) this smoke would be continually drifting into the room.
View from the ward door where everyone smoked
In the corridor outside there were a team of painters who were rubbing down old paint creating dust and then painting. The smell of the paint and dust were everywhere. I just could not believe it.
On the last day, I was in my room when a maintenance man came in and told us that we would have to leave the room as he was cleaning the air conditioning units! We were all on drips, oxygen and some could not get out of bed but the maintenance man had the power to kick us all out. He was wearing a protective suit and mask yet there were no safeguards put in place for the patients and the room was not cleaned afterwards.
When it came to basic health and safety I imagine every rule you could think of was being broken.
I was told that on occasions the doctors would say the patient needed a drug that the hospital did not have or could not afford. The families would then go out and pay privately for it and bring it back to the hospital.
I have also been told by people within the health service and other cruisers who needed operations that these can be moved forward if you are willing to “help” the doctor with some of your own money.
Certainly, when I was there, there were a lack of beds so I spent the first days in a cupboard with the doors off. There was also a bed in the corridor for several days as well and he had his family sleeping besides him on the floor.
Professionalism of Greek doctors.
I must say that conditions were dire but I cannot fault the professionalism of the doctors and nurses at all. They are very well educated and cope amazingly in very austere conditions. They are without doubt excellent and the medical care you get in relation to your ailment is brilliant… It is just everything else but the health system concentrates on what is important and you have to applaud them for that. To me, with their money problems they have got it right.
Can you compare the Greek hospitals against other systems?
They are just some of the points I discovered whilst in a Greek hospital and it may help prepare others who find themselves in the same position. The main thing is that you need someone there 24 hours a day to help you.
So how does it compare against something like the National Health Service of the UK (NHS)?
Well certainly the NHS is cleaner, has amazing facilities, newer buildings and some of the best nurses anywhere but I have a big, big problem with the NHS. It is no longer what it was designed for and is haemorrhaging money on business managers it does not need. The patients are being forgotten and waiting times and lists can be very long. I went into the hospital in Greece and was seen by a nurse and doctor immediately and had multiple tests and X-Rays done. Within 30 minutes I was not only on a ward but they had my initial treatment prepared and everyone was aware of what to do. If I had needed a CT scan or an MRI scan that would have been done as well. Would this have happened in the NHS if you walked in yourself? … I doubt it.
Which type of hospital would you choose?
So, you have a choice… A hospital which is cheap, not too clean and the family look after you but as a patient you come first, are dealt with very quickly and get the treatment quickly or…..
A modern hyper-clean hospital where family are not expected to do anything but you may be waiting months to see a specialist or get the proper treatment. Thousand, nay millions are wasted by business managers on non-medical things.
My time in the Greek hospital was not nice, but I was not there to be treated like a guest in a hotel. I was there to get well and as quickly as possible. That is what happened. You certainly would not choose to go to a Greek hospital unless you really were sick.
When I was released I was given medicine and told to come back in 10 days, get an X-ray and see the doctors. I went back after 10 days and within 5 minutes I had my X-ray in hand and took it up to the ward. The doctors there looked at it, we had a quick chat and they told me to come back in a month. How long would you be waiting in the NHS to do the same? The whole process took 20 minutes from walking in to leaving.
What are your experiences of foreign hospitals?
What about you, what are your thoughts. Have you ever been in a foreign or Greek hospital and how was it for you? Where would you rather the money be spent in the health service? We would love to know your thoughts on foreign or Greek hospitals.