Only a few short months after my move to Deutschland would I discover one of the absolute best things about this society: the healthcare system. A freak yoga accident landed me in the ER with a broken lumbar vertebra. I remember first arriving and having to wait about 3 hours before I was seen. Long waits are often a point of criticism of socialized healthcare, but fact is I had to wait even longer in the urgent care in Colorado, pathetically trying to hold my arm in place because my smashed collarbone couldn’t do the job anymore. At least this time around no bone was threatening to poke out of my skin and the pain had subsided so much that I figured it was just a bad muscle pull after all, and I wouldn’t get slapped with a $175 copay before I could leave.
Upon finally being seen by the doctor, I mentioned I wasn’t sure if anything was really broken, although the initial impact was incredibly painful. The doctor rolled his eyes and said something to the effect of “yeah, I don’t know why people come in here saying ‘oh, I hurt my back.’ like, your back hurts, that’s no reason to go to the hospital. but we’ll go ahead and x-ray you.” Ooooookay, asshole. I felt angry that this guy would try to mansplain my pain as well as try to embarrass me for having it. I’ve found this behavior typical of Germans working in any service industry, including the hospital – the customer is always wrong. Unfortunately this time I was right, which he told me sheepishly (though without apology) as he showed me the x-ray of my L2 vertebra squashed like a fallen cake. I immediately started crying, which seemed to embarrass him further (yeah I’m rubbing it in, you prick.) I asked how much it would cost – “oh about 2000 euros. but if you have insurance it’s free.”
FREE as in I will pay nothing for my ambulance ride, emergency room visit, spinal fusion surgery, 10 days in the hospital, prescription opiods, numerous doctor visits, 10+ physical therapy sessions. This and the fact that I’m not paralyzed are the only bright sides to what has otherwise been an incredibly jarring and disheartening life event. I can’t believe that my three previous surgeries in the USA were each about $50k before insurance, and this one less than a tenth, and then actually free. My insurance here (which is private, for “young travelers”) costs 40 euros per month and covers everything. This is totally normal to Germans – to them it is only natural that the government should care and provide for their well-being, including any accidents that may result from a miscalculated handstand landing smack into a 150-year-old schrank.
Actually, there is a third bright side to this whole ordeal, which is that I quickly got really comfortable with speaking German. That doesn’t mean that everything I was saying was grammatically correct, but I felt no self-consciousness or shyness despite my clumsy syntax. This is often the biggest stumbling block for people learning a foreign language – being terrified of saying something wrong and sounding dumb, so instead opting to say nothing at all and thus not improving. Funny how you stop caring about that when you find yourself having to ask nurses for an enema because you haven’t shat in three days post-anesthesia. After losing all sense of pride, I’ve just continued to roll with it, shamelessly blathering on with various doctors and physios and office assistants. Surprisingly, they buy it, and many don’t even bat an eyelash. I’ve managed to conduct all healthcare communications exclusively in German, with a sprinkling of hand motions and sound effects (they always really love the smack-into-the-schrank one.)
Last week, I passed a B2 practice exam. I’m not sure if I would have been able to do that had I not broken my back and been forced to communicate to a hospital staff with extremely limited knowledge of English. So although this experience has set me back mentally and emotionally, it’s also served as the impetus for me to reach my goal of B2 fluency months before I’d planned. And every day, every appointment I get more and more comfortable, and my pride inflates a little – not yet to pre-enema level, but I’m confident I’ll get there soon.