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Half-n-half: Visiting the doctor

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Trying to speak intelligible Czech with a pounding head and a drippy nose, isn’t high on my fun list, nor is trying to explain to my feisty toddlers, why another doctor visit is necessary since their hacking coughs didn’t clear up with the herbal syrup the pediatrician assured us would do the trick.

But after spending the past three years in Prague going to pediatrician’s offices for routine check-ups, vaccinations and the infrequent illness, I’ve learned to navigate my way through without too much sweat. In the beginning, differences in the Czech medical culture and the language made going to the doctor one of my least favorite activities. However, now that the newness of the chore has worn off, I find myself becoming more comfortable going to the doctor’s and daring to ask questions I’d have left unsaid, even a year ago.

I definitely prefer consulting the doctor in person, as opposed to communicating via telephone. After ending too many misinterpreted phone conversations in frustration or tears, I’m wary of delivering or retaining any important information over the phone in another language. Recently, after asking my husband to call an allergist back whose technical terms had confused me during one of the children’s office visits, I felt vindicated to learn that Radek left the phone conversation equally nonplussed.

Since I’m the one who takes the children to their doctors’ visits, if something comes up that I don’t understand I tend to immediately berate myself for not knowing enough Czech, instead of realizing that these types of situations would occur regardless of where we were living or whether I was speaking my first or second language. Doctors as a profession are notorious for using technical jargon and speaking in terms indecipherable to the ordinary person.

It’s taken me nearly three years to get the courage to tell a Czech doctor to dumb-it-down for me. Surprisingly, when I told my new pediatrician about my experience with the allergist, she sympathized and promised to speak in plain, easy-to-understand terms.

I tested her promise this past week when I made a phone call to inquire about the best way to treat my ill children. We had managed to stay healthy since our move last spring, until this winter’s “Prague Plague” struck. Reluctantly, I called the pediatrician to ask her whether I should bring the children in for an examination. A few weeks earlier, we’d been at her office for a routine visit and she’d discouraged us from returning until the flu epidemic was finished, saying we’d probably catch something just waiting to see her.

Like many doctors’ offices in paneláky I’ve visited in Prague, our pediatrician’s limited office space doesn’t allow for a waiting “room.” Instead, patients sit in plastic chairs lining both sides of a narrow hallway while waiting for their turn with any one of 4 or 5 doctors who share the same hallway.

This set-up ensures that any germ that travels longer than an arm-length will land on the person seated opposite. Since most children don’t sit still for longer than a few seconds unless they’re strapped in a stroller, they spread and contract all kinds of germs while running up and down the hall playing musical chairs as we wait our turn. It seems like a crazy set-up, but it’s obviously been functioning for years. I assume most of the doctors are also telling their patients not to come for a visit during flu season unless it’s urgent.

In recent years, the flu has hit Central Europe particularly hard, perhaps due to the unusually mild past two winters. During most of February last year, Anna’s školka was only half-full, and we went weeks without meeting with friends. I don’t know the statistics on the severity of this year’s epidemic, but there have been news accounts of hospitals closing their visiting wards in order to protect patients, so I assume the rate of illness is on par with previous years, even if the temperatures are a bit cooler.

When the flu struck our household, I was semi-prepared. I’d heard accounts from friends of their battles with a week-long fever and hacking cough, but I (foolishly) doubted that even if we got sick it’d last that long. Still, in the medicine cabinet we had fever reducing supplies (Tylenol, Ibuprofen, etc.) as well as a variety of cough syrups leftover from last year. I also stocked up on babička’s tried-and-true natural remedies: lemon, honey, fruit tea and soup ingredients (including plenty of garlic). Děda would have added a shot of slivovice (plum liquor) or Becherovka (traditional Czech herbal liquor) to the remedy essentials.

When I spoke with my doctor, she asked us to come in for an examination, just to rule out anything more serious. So, we sat our feverish selves in the tiny chairs in the waiting hall, and I reminded the kids to cough into their elbows, although everyone around us had the same hacking cough. When the doctor examined them, she decided that they did have the flu, plain and simple, and sent me home to nurse their fevers and return three days later for a blood test to make sure they didn’t need antibiotics for bronchitis or strep caused by a prolonged bout of the flu.

Earlier, when I had mentioned our flu to my mother back in America, she asked me why we didn’t simply get a flu shot, which is increasingly the norm for children in the States. The pediatrician in our neighborhood in Žižkov had just laughed when I asked her about a flu shot, but out of curiosity I decided to ask the new doctor. She looked confused. I quickly rushed to explain that I didn’t want the shot for my children I just wanted to know if such a shot existed. The way she explained to me, a flu shot is available, but it would only be used on a small child, if the child was born with a heart defect or other serious health problem. I didn’t manage to ask her any of my follow-up questions, such as if the shot isn’t used more widely on children due to expense or limited availability, or if was considered at all risky for small children. The kids were already on the go, and there were other flu patients waiting.

Satisfied that my children didn’t need anything more medicinal than a little fever-reducer, some fruit tea and story time, I left the doctor’s and headed home. I wasn’t happy about having the flu, but there was no reason for us not to wait it out as comfortably as possible.

Every Friday Half-n-half highlights personal stories of bilingual families living in the Czech Republic. The main contributor is Emily Prucha, an American living in Prague with her Czech husband and two children. The Prague Daily Monitor and Emily welcome your feedback on Half-n-half; please comment below or write to [email protected].

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