This was the day I didn’t break my left arm.
Actually, thinking about it, there have been lots of days I didn’t break my left arm. In fact, I have never broken my left arm, or any other bone, so I suppose today was quite unremarkable except for my visit to an Icelandic hospital to verify that my left arm was not, in fact, broken.
By way of explanation:
In my last post, I mentioned that I’m taking a three-week course on writing environmental impact assessments. It starts at 0830, which is a little early, but not overly so; but as I mentioned in another post (and no doubt will again) it’s really quite dark in Iceland in December. On the day I didn’t break my arm, the sun didn’t come up till almost 1100. Given that I’m walking to school these days (about forty minutes through quite a lot of snow), it’s actually very dark. Add in some ice, and it’s a bit treacherous. A slip here or there and a broken bone is really quite a distinct possibility. Which, understandable though it would be, is not how I wound up going to the hospital.
I have a cat.
My basement apartment adjoins a storage room where I keep some items, including my snow boots. Hobbes is convinced there must be something interesting in the storage room, but it’s mostly odds and ends: some lumber left over from the work my landlords did when finishing the basement, a work bench, some suitcases and storage boxes, and some bicycles stored for the winter. Hobbes likes to dash in and explore, but I don’t want to leave him in there when I go to school because I worry he’ll bring something crashing down on himself and I won’t be there to get him out from under it. So every morning, I chase him out of the storage room before I walk to school.
This morning, though, he made a sudden leap as I was about to pick him up, and I lunged for him, and tripped and – bam! – landed on the pile of lumber with all of my weight on my left forearm. There was an ugly splintering sound, and a huge amount of pain, followed by an immediate wave of nausea. Not good.
On the plus side, Hobbes ran out of the storage room at all the noise, so hey: mission accomplished.
I looked at the pile of lumber: no obviously splintered wood. Bad. I looked at my arm: no protruding bone. Good. Some pretty vigorous immediate swelling and an ugly dent right above the ulna, but symptoms like these don’t tell me much because I’m a lawyer studying geothermal power, not a doctor. So I took 1000 mg of Tylenol, put a compression bandage on my forearm, and headed out to school. After forty minutes of strolling through sub-freezing darkness, my arm throbbed a little, but that was it.
Until I got to class, and got warmed up, and then it hurt like hell.
One thing you should never do when you’re waiting for class to begin is look up your ailments, real or hypothetical. It doesn’t put you in the right frame of mind. If you Google “broken forearm,” you pull up a lot of unpleasant text and photos about treatments that are undoubtedly wise, humane, and medically necessary, but really look pretty gruesome. Particularly if your arm is throbbing.
So I shot off an email to Verity (who, as you’ll recall from an earlier post, Knows Everything) about how to set up a visit with a doctor, and she allowed as how I needed to do it Right Now, and so a short while later I was at one of the campuses of Landspítali, the national hospital of Iceland.
Iceland is a country with a system of socialized medicine. Anyone living here becomes eligible for free health care after six months of residency. For me, that magic six-month anniversary is still three weeks away. Drat. Fortunately, I have health insurance for that six-month period, issued by an Icelandic company – it’s required in order to obtain a residence permit. But my deductible is probably going to exceed the cost of the x-rays. Drat again. The only way the insurance will kick in is if there’s something really, really complicated that has to be done to my arm – which, come to think of it, is the point of having insurance in the first place. So, I get checked in, take a seat in a waiting room, and, well … wait.
The funny thing is that waiting to see a doctor at Landspítali is *exactly* like waiting to see one in the U.S. We have the magazines I don’t want to read, even if I could, which I can’t. There’s the obligatory television set with the volume turned to a point just below where I can make out what they’re talking about (assuming I spoke Icelandic, which I really, really don’t). There’s the small crowd of folks who have ailments in more or less the same class as mine (anyone in need of urgent care isn’t hanging out in the waiting room), and there’s the wait – about thirty minutes or so in my case, pretty much on par with what I’d have expected in the States.
Eventually, a staffer called my name and I got to go to roentgenology. Apparently, the term “radiology” never caught on here, and the x-ray department is named for Wilhelm Roentgen, who discovered – you guessed it – x-rays. The technicians there sat me down, positioned my arm for their pictures, went and hid in a lead-lined room (a practice that I understand intellectually but still gives me the willies whenever it’s done), and then took me to another waiting area to wait for the doctor to come chat with me. Which she did about 15 minutes later.
She started off with a cheery “góðan daginn” (good day), and I immediately realized that other than saying the same, I had nothing meaningful to contribute to a discussion in Icelandic. So I apologized, and said in English that I didn’t speak Icelandic, to which the doctor said “oh thank God, neither do I,” and we carried on from there. Turns out she’s from the UK, doing her residency program here.
In any event, the good news was no break, but a nasty bruise with lots of broken blood vessels to make everything swell and generally look ugly for a bit. The doctor gave me pretty much the advice I’d have gotten from a doctor in the U.S. about elevating my arm and applying cold compresses to keep the swelling down, and it wasn’t till I left that I realized there had been one major difference between seeing a doctor in Iceland and seeing one in the States: in the U.S., I wouldn’t have been allowed to leave without getting a prescription for painkillers, whereas here, the subject didn’t come up. I suppose if I wanted something I could have asked – but I was okay with the Tylenol, and the doc was okay with me being okay.
Once I was done, I hiked down the hill from the hospital and across the valley separating Reykjavík from Kópavogur. Not till I got home did I realize that one of the random phrases I learned in my Icelandic course in school, “hefur þu verið á spitala á Íslandi?” now deserved a new response. Instead of answering the question “have you been to hospital in Iceland?” with “nei, aldrei” (no, never), I should now say “já, einu sinnu” (yes, once). I think I’ll be content to leave it at that. If Hobbes plays along.
Cover image credit: Getty Images