Getting Sick in Sweden
It’s 10:35pm and still so light the kids are outside playing badminton with Cooper. I’d love to join them but I’m sick. The kind of sick that when you bend over you feel like your head might explode. In the beginning, my voice turned husky, seductive, like Melissa Etheridge singing the blues; it wasn’t so bad. Now I sound like Kermit the frog on helium—a kind of rasping croaky squeaking sound that makes people wince when they hear me. I have a sinus infection, a bad one. Not that there are any nice sinus infections, it’s just this one has lasted the greater part of three months and what’s more, for no good reason. I’ll explain…
You see, back when my voice was just husky and I felt like crud and not so close to death, I got an appointment through the Embassy nurse at an “excellent” Stockholm clinic. I explained my symptoms to the doctor, the same ones listed under Sinusitis on Web MD, (yep, all of them). And the doctor, trying to show patience, nodded and informed me, “In the usual course of an illness it takes the body 4 weeks to start feeling better and until that time period is over you do not require antibiotics.” I was on week three, one week too early to be seeking medical attention. So that was that, I had a virus, in his opinion, nothing more.
But before I left, the doctor said he’d do a “lab in order to rule out any infection,” or perhaps to humor me. He pulled, from a package, something that looked like an interdental tool—a long toothpick with thick bristle brushes on one end shaped like a tree. “This is going to hurt a little,” he said, pushing the tree end up my nostril, through my sinus passage and into my brain, (at least it felt that way). Tears coursed from my eyes as I tried to recover from the shock. He told me afterward, through my nose blowing, “If anything shows up I’ll call.” In the meantime, he gave me two asthma medications to control my “reactive airways.”
There was no call and another month went by. I was busy with school parties, graduations, and life. I didn’t have time to wallow, even if I was feeling like the bubble gum stuck on the bottom of someone’s shoe. But then after school was out and things finally calmed down, I realized I couldn’t take it anymore. I hit some kind of wall. I dialed up the Embassy nurse and told her my plight. She agreed, I sounded terrible and she said she’d call the doctor to try to get me antibiotics. When she called back an hour later she was apologetic. She got the prescription; only, she regretted to inform me…it had been at the pharmacy all along.
“What?” I asked.
“Sorry, but no one called you to let you know the lab was positive; you have an infection.”
Can you say angry in Swedish? It’s easy, “Arg!!!”
Now, to be fair, it’s not that this couldn’t have happened in America, it does and something similar happened to my mom just last week, a mix up at her HMO. But when you’re an expat and things like this happen, and you’re already feeling vulnerable and weary from your illness and the energy you’ve expended just finding a doctor (and getting there by train), you run the risk of blaming the entire country, getting mad at Sweden. It’s not logical, but for an afternoon I wanted to pack my bags, fly to America and go somewhere people cared. Boo-hoo!
And then the drugs kicked in and now I can forgive, but dealing with medical issues in a different country, in a different language, can be one of those deal breakers that make you want to quit the expat life for good. And it’s not just this time, I can still recall the other times…like when I went to the hospital in The Netherlands for a terrible ear infection and they tried to extract a sample of blood from my earlobe (yes the lobe) as I lay naked on a gurney with EKG wires strapped to my chest—don’t ask me why. Or the time I gave birth in Austria and the nurses wouldn’t give me any pain medication following my C-section because I was breastfeeding…hello logic? I was in so much pain I couldn’t hold my baby, let alone feed him!
But here’s what I’ve learned…you have to adapt. Right or wrong the medical systems around the world have their own take on what’s approved and not approved. I agree it’s wise to take precautions and smart to try alternatives before taking drugs, but I for one am grateful to Sir Alexander Flemming who in 1928 discovered penicillium and all the other microbiologists who followed, giving us small miracles in a bottle. I’m not going to take them willy-nilly but when I go to the doctor for medical attention and make the effort to tell someone how horrible I feel—it’s generally because I’m on my last leg. I’m not just trying to work the system and get a sick day (moms can’t take those).
So for those of you still brazen enough to travel or do something absurd like board a plane and move somewhere you’ve never lived before, here’s what I suggest: go to Target, locate the OTC aisle and load up on whatever medication you currently take or use seasonally. Here in Sweden (it’s similar in The Netherlands), medication for adults is the equivalent of what we give to children in The States. The highest dose of Guaifenesin you can buy in Sweden (the main ingredient in Mucinex and many cough syrups) is 20 mg for adults, while one tablet of Mucinex in America contains 400 mg!! I took my bottle into the local pharmacist and showed the girl behind the counter just to see her reaction. Her jaw dropped. “So the stuff we sell,” she remarked, “is just like drinking water.”
“Not a bad comparison.” I said.
After talking to my Swedish pal, based on what she suggested, my plan for my next doctor’s visit is as follows…
1. Tell them I’ve been sick for 4 weeks, at least, maybe longer.
2. Give the symptoms for what I have, plus a few more for dramatic effect.
3. Tint the area below my eyes with green shadow.
4. Walk slowly and use slurred speech if necessary.
5. Bring along a wooden stick to bite in case of a “lab.”
Expats are survivors of one kind or another, and if what they say is true…what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…then expats have to be some of the strongest people around.