That Time I Got a Kidney Stone in Greece

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Ah, Greece.

This ancient country pleasantly surprised me over Christmas, 2016. This past winter, in Thailand, I fell in love with the PBS/British series The Durrells in Corfu, and longed to return to the Greek islands. (Pro tip: Support PBS with a $5 donation monthly and you can watch this, and other, series online, even when “locked” to general viewers.)

So here I am, back in Greece! Yay! Crete, this time. Holy history, Batman.

In case you forget or never knew, the last day before I left Greece in January 2017, I spent my day in a hospital.

I guess I’m a sucker for tradition, because my second day here was spent the same – in hospital.

Of Toilets and Private Hospitals

Skip this paragraph if you hate anything descriptive of medical issues, but, basically, Very Bloody Urine scared the hell out of me after a long day of walking, since I have no uterus and that sort of thing is a distant memory for me.

Afterwards, I spent the night panicking about all the things it could be. I googled, trying to find the Least Scary Things. I decided it had to be some five-months-in-Asia-and-all-I’ve-got-to-show-for-it-is-this-parasite thing. Secretly, I feared OMIGOD I HAVE CANCER AND I’M GONNA DIE.

The next morning, yesterday, I walked to the best private hospital on the island. When a well-dressed man arrived for my intake, I knew this would be pricey. Yep. They wanted 140 euros just for me to consult a doctor. Given my hysterectomy last year and the abundance of blood, I couldn’t be sure this wasn’t a “pre-existing condition.” That’d make travel insurance moot and put me out of pocket.

“And the price for ultrasounds?” I asked.

“200 euros,” she said.

Welp, that’s it for me, I decided.

Slumming it in Public Hospitals

I had to visit a public hospital, among those on which the Guardian famously did a story called Greece’s Public Health Meltdown. Basically, cutbacks on support staff mean shortcuts are taken on hygiene and there’s been a surge in infections of all kinds.

But you gotta do whatcha gotta do.

At least this hospital had surgical hand soap in all the bathrooms. NOTED. Last year’s ER opted for antibacterial rub rather than soap. That bothered me long before I read that article. Antibacterial rub is bad; soap is good. Ignore the marketing.

I do digress.

So, upon arriving, it was as bad as I feared – dozens of others all waiting for their time with doctors.

How To Be a Patient in Greece

I arrived, took in the waiting room craziness, felt defeated, and sighed. Then I approached reception, gave them my ID and name. It took a few minutes to get processed. After, I looked around completely overwhelmed, and went to wait in line at the triage door. Shortly, a kind (and sexy) Greek man came and told me I needed a number. I took the number, he pointed to the LED sign to watch for my number to be called, and said I’d be waiting awhile.

It took about three hours for the 39 people ahead of me to be seen – dozens were there. It’s like going to the hospital is a game the whole Greek family can play.

In the waiting room I chose, there were six LED number displays all with Greek names above them. I had to watch for mine, which was easy as it was the only three-digit number at the time.

But once the number came up, things got surprisingly efficient, albeit a little do-it-yourselfy and confusing.

Triage and Paying Up

This is when I headed into the triage room, met with a doctor at a desk, told her all my symptoms. We talked a bit, she made a long list of tests she wanted done, then sent me back out to the reception desk where I originally checked in. This was also the cashier in addition to being reception. Greeks get their care free, but others do not. (Euro Zone people may, I’m not sure, and I don’t care enough to look it up, sorry. Unpaid blogger here, yo.)

But what I wound up paying for seeing the doctors and all the blood, urine, and stool samples she ordered, was 55 euros, or about $85. Have cash, if you can, because, like all things Greek, there’s no guarantee you’ll get to pay with credit card. My machine was down, so it was a good thing I had euros.

Once paid, I ignored the line at the triage door and marched back in with my papers and barcode stickers. Nobody will blink if you just barge past them, because that’s simply how it’s done.

Daunting at first, the “numbered entry” thing is actually great, because once you get access to the triage unit, you can return as needed, because you’re now a prioritized ongoing case.

After more chatting with the doctor and nurse, I had the best blood-drawing experience of my life with the most amazing phlebotomist I’ve ever encountered. I have horror stories of bruises and as many as six attempts to draw blood, so to get a full tube first try felt like divine intervention.

Getting Lost: It’s All Greek to Me

At that point, I left with my “pee bottles” to do my business. This meant heading to the “second floor” – but the second floor is actually the fourth floor, because the emergency is in the basement, the ground floor is floor zero, the next floor is floor one, and finally it’s the second floor.

Remember, all the writing and signage is in GREEK, which, unlike Spanish or French, you cannot bullshit your way through. There’s a reason there’s a saying that “it’s all Greek to me” when we don’t understand something. It was TOTALLY all Greek to me. Luckily I had the nurse write down the Greek word to look for on room signs.

Eventually I got there, submitted my sample to the lab tech, and then had to kill time for one to two hours.

This is one way their system is ingenious, actually – your initial receipt has your “incident number”. That number comes with a bar code. After killing time wherever you like, one returns to the waiting room to visit the computers with scanners affixed to them. Scanning in the bar code takes a split second, and then BOOM, up comes your list of tests. If the box around them is red, you’ve got more time to wait. If it’s green, your results are in.

My results came in under 90 minutes later. Boom!

Getting the Low-Down

At this point, I budged back through the triage lineup with my fist-full of papers, to re-enter the triage room. They recognized me, asked if my results were back, I said yes, they said have a seat. They quickly printed off my results, then spent a couple minutes consulting with a doctor.

My results came back so clean they wondered why I was in, since the shift had changed and there was a new doctor on. I re-explained, showed the pictures I had wisely taken of the toilet after my unfortunate incident (plus the time after, my next “pee,” which was perfectly normal again).

The verdict? With my previous symptoms, my nasty output, and the now-clean tests?

I passed a kidney stone.

No cancer. No death. No “gah, help Steff!” GoFundMe campaign. Just a hot date with many, many litres of water in the days to come.

Note: I’m overweight. This means hydrating my body is harder than others. Those extra pounds need more water. I really struggled to stay hydrated in the tropical equatorial heat of Cambodia; sweating profusely made it hard, and obviously I failed. Kidney stones can often be related to dehydration over prolonged periods, especially in hot climates. They’ve learned kidney stones are a routine risk for soldiers serving in hot climates for prolonged periods; Northern Hemisphere folk are simply not accustomed to hydrating enough to account for tropical heat over a long term.

All’s Well That Ends Well

This was my second experience of the Greek medical system. All told, I was there for about 4.5 hours.

Yes. It’s a little chaotic. Yes, it’s a learning curve for visitors.

But you know what? Greeks have among the highest number of doctors in the world, per capita. By creating a system that has the patient doing their own legwork, they’ve managed to keep doctors at the forefront, rather than nurses doing jobs they’re overqualified to do — like delivering specimens.

Know the Hippocratic Oath? Greek. These folks arguably gave the world modern medicine.

It’s crazy, it’s chaotic, but it works, and even in the throes of economic meltdown, it’s still working. Yeah, there are incidents happening that shouldn’t, and we can argue all day long about who’s at fault for that, but ultimately, the doctors are on their game. Their system allows for at least rudimentary care for an aging country, and there’s probably a lot that my faltering Canadian medical system could learn to do better from the Greek system.

In the end, my experience with the Greek medical system is pretty positive.

Tips for Greek (and Other) Hospitals

Visiting hospitals alone in any foreign country is terrifying. It’s important to note where you are and what their reputation is. I’m glad I wasn’t in Cambodia still, let’s put it that way.

My experiences in Thai hospitals were great. Albania’s private hospitals? Affordable and amazing. I’m glad I avoided Morocco’s hospitals too. Know where you are, research a bit, and decide if you can afford to visit there or go to another place. Some countries require you to bring your own bedding, for instance. It’s pretty wild how different things can be.

If, like me, you’re travelling and bad things happen, take photos if you’re not confident you can explain later. A picture of a bloody toilet bowl isn’t pleasant, but it sure as hell conveys what your words won’t. Language barriers are serious, and you need the presence of mind to explain these things later, so photograph anything related to your story. And write down symptoms and experiences you’ve had in point-form, because the staff may better understand written English than oral, since your accent may be difficult for them to decipher. My list of notes proved infinitely helpful, and my photos, too.

And always, always, always have Google Translate dictionaries downloaded for off-line use, because you likely won’t have indoor data access on your phone, and WiFi may not exist. English is not as well-known as you think.

If you may need a follow-up visit, be aware most travel insurance won’t cover anything that happens after 14 days past the initial consultation.

Also, in Greece, and in other countries, hospitals will have alternating intake days for the ER. My hospital I visited would not have accepted me on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday.

In Europe particularly, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, hence Europeans are not bashful at pushing you aside in line for faster help. You may be right at the window, actively in conversation with the clerk or admin person, and some granny will try to shove you aside. Do not budge! Do not “be polite” and give her any room! THIS IS YOUR HILL TO DIE ON. Do not even THINK about letting her steal your thunder! Give her an inch, and the next guy’ll take a mile.

Finally, never  assume you know what to do next. Always ask, “Okay, and then what do I do?” before you leave the room. When I had to go pee in those containers, I got all the way to the toilets and didn’t know what to do. No one I asked would help me, so I returned to triage, asked if I enter the toilet and do my bizness. “And then what?” I found out where to go. I got her to write down the room’s name to look for, because the Greek alphabet looks nothing like it sounds. And I asked what I do after that, and after that. Make notes if you’re overwhelmed, but you need a clear idea of what all the steps are.

Anyhow. With any luck, your condition won’t be too serious or threatening, and it’s better to know than to be panicking.

As for me? I’m safe, I’m good, I’m drinking water. I’m glad I am on the other side of the kidney stone, and that my persistent back pain of late seems to have been related to it. Onward! Let’s do GREECE!

Showing 3 comments
  • Avatar

    Sorry for your experience, but thanks so much for the detailed retelling and tips. I hope i never need to recall them while in a foreign land, but you never know. I’m glad you’re well on the way to recovery and can once again explore and share your world views!

  • Avatar

    This is very useful! Thanks for sharing. This and your hysterectomy post are two of my favourites because travel blogs about food and hiking are a dime-a-dozen but how to travel and thrive over the age of 40 seem much harder to come by. It’s been so wonderful to share your journey with you courageous steph.

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