I had a premonition. Whenever I thought about our upcoming riverboat cruise on the Blue Danube two images came to mind: Bratislava and my father-in-law John suffering a heart attack while we were there.
12 April, Friday 2013
We set sail from Vienna at midnight and arrive in Bratislava at six in the morning.
I am the first to leave our cabin on the ship and when I see that John’s door is open and his clothes are on the floor by the bathroom I am alarmed and alert Chris who is not far behind me. But, I carry on to the lounge to finish writing post cards – there are only two days left on the cruise – we are due to return from Budapest, Hungary after breakfast on Sunday morning. The end of an eight day trip.
When I am done I climb downstairs to the dining lounge to look for Chris and John. After I walk around the entire room I joke to the last couple seated by the door that it is not like my husband and father-in-law to skip a meal.
The first thing I see is John’s empty bed and when I realize that he has lost control of his bodily functions I know this is serious. John, who is wearing white boxer shorts and a white tee-shirt, is sitting in a chair by the bed and Chris is standing by. Chris tells me that his father has had a really bad night and that he needs to go to the hospital. The staff has been alerted and the paramedics are on their way.
John is sweating profusely and struggling to breathe,. He remembers me opening the window. I move to his side and ask him if this is all right. “Yes,” he says, “I’m dying.” Doctor’s have a name for this conviction: Angor animi, Latin for ‘anguish of the soul’. According to Dr. Gavin Francis, “as a sensation it carries great predictive power”. In the emergency room a patient’s belief that they are about to die is taken seriously.
I place my right hand on the nape of his neck and my left hand on his forehead while I assess the situation. John is drenched in sweat. I race to the bathroom sink and wet two wash cloths and place one behind his neck and he takes the other to wipe his face and head. Then he returns to bed, which is one step away, but he does not slide down far enough and his head is in an awkward position.
Most people know not to lay someone with breathing problems flat and John is struggling. I show Chris, who is about to pull his father forward, how to reposition John by reaching under his armpit and grasping his back. This works and together we are able to move his upper body forward. I place a pillow so that John is able to sit up.
Again I place my right hand on the nape of his neck and my left hand on his forehead. “I’m dying," he repeats "No you’re not," I say this as though it is a ridiculous thing to do. I’m thinking, we’re on a cruise! John says that he can’t breathe and that he has water on the lungs. We can hear what doctors call the death rattle, when saliva accumulates in the throat.
I am loathe to tell my father-in-law what to do and when he mentions that he quit taking his diuretic as prescribed I do not say a word. But, now I remind him, “Once you receive your medication you will feel all right again”. I say this reassuringly.
I encourage Chris to make John’s bag of prescription drugs available – the doctors will want to know the names and the dosages. I grab fresh towels from the cart in the hall and cover John and the bed.
The Prestige is due to set sail at noon and I know it is going to leave without us so I suggest we start packing. First I send Chris across the hall to our room. I watch through the open door as our things are hastily thrown together. I call him back and suggest he pack for John – that way he can stay by his father’s side.
We are all set to go when the paramedics arrive with Peter, the twenty-five year old Slovakian waiter from the dining room who serves as our translator. As the paramedics work their magic I move partially onto the bed, close to John’s right ear, and explain what is happening. “There are three paramedics here and a doctor,” I tell him. This turned out not to be completely true – there was no doctor. John opens his eyes for a moment and smiles. "Good" he says. "I like a lot of attention." This is true.
Chris later told me that when he first saw his father John was seated on the toilet. He told Chris that he needed a minute – he had a bad night – and he said that he needed to go to Stanford Hospital right away.
Chris told a cleaning staff member who was in the hallway that his father needed a medical doctor. Wesley, the activities coordinator, came and told Chris that there was not a doctor available who could come to the ship, he had two choices. John could have an appointment with the doctor at 11 a.m. or he could go to the emergency room. Chris asked Wesley to call for an ambulance – John needed to go to the emergency room.
By this time John had made his way to the chair where Chris had placed a towel. He told Chris that he thought he had died last night. He woke up sweating, he could not urinate, he was in pain and he had difficulty walking and breathing. He said he was very uncomfortable and he just wanted to die.
John leaves the ship in a sling chair, as he is being wheeled through the lobby Artur, (this is not a typo) the Portuguese manager, tells me not to worry about the cost – Viking will take care of it. “Keep on thinking positive,” he says, “and everything it will be okay.”
Two ambulances – sirens wailing – John and Peter in one, and Chris and I in another arrive at the University Hospital Old Town (Univerzitná Nemonica Staré Mesto). We are in the medieval center of Bratislava.
After a brief stay in the emergency room John is wheeled to the coronary care unit (Interná Klinika Koronárna Jednotka). As he is about to enter the elevator he turns to Chris and says, "Remember what I said earlier about wanting to die, well I changed my mind."
Dr. Papinčák, who is studiously calm and attentive, does not take his eyes off me as he speaks, his gaze is piercing. He informs me that John may be able to fly home on Monday with a medical assistant. He is concerned about the high altitude. John suffers from congestive heart failure (CHF).
“One of the most important problems for travelers with congestive heart failure is altitude… All patients should be able to walk 100 yards and climb 12 steps if they are to attempt a long plane flight. Heart failure patients may also be particularly susceptible to the symptoms of altitude sickness, which may include shortness of breath and profound fatigue. In general, patients with congestive heart failure should avoid traveling to locations at high altitudes.” – Internet Scientific Publications. The Internet Journal of Health ISSN: 1528-8315 Travel Concerns For Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) Patients.
Chris uses the hospital’s computer to email his sisters. Typists beware, the z and the y are reversed and the apostrophe and the @ symbol are no where to be found.
“Dad maz have had a heart attack last night. He is okaz now, in the hospital… if it will help with medical evacuation…. I would like to get him to Stanford… I think he had a heart attack in his sleep earlz this morning. It is fridaz at ten thirtz here and I§m using the computer at the hospital. I will also trz to make phone calls and e=mail, but communications are difficult right now.” – Chris’ email
While Chris is typing Dr. Papinčák comes out to the hall to tell me that John is asleep. As we leave the hospital with our bags a grounds worker Feró, points us in the direction of the Hotel Saffron. This four star hotel is located just around the corner from the hospital and the Staré Město (Old Town) is a fifteen minute walk in the other direction. There are shops, markets, ATM’s, restaurants and cafe’s in between. Everything is within walking distance.
At this point we feel tremendous gratitude. First of all, we are grateful that we are docked when the heart attack happens, secondly that the paramedics respond quickly, and thirdly that Chris has family to help with the logistics. And, we feel grateful to be in a position where we are able to stay in Bratislava for as long as it takes for John to recover and deemed fit to fly. We see nothing but the positives and we are excited. Exploring medieval Bratislava will serve as a good distraction and our eight day trip has turned into an indefinite adventure – my favorite kind.
I skip lunch but as Chris orders the Pakistani behind the counter seriously wonders, “What are you doing in Bratislava?”
Back at the hospital I monitor the activity in the hallway while I give Chris and John time alone. If there are any last words that need to be spoken now is the time.
Despite the double expressos and the warm overcast spring afternoon (good for photography) once we settle into our room we are unable to leave the hotel. For the first time ever we decide to settle in early.
While Chris figures out how to call his sister using FaceTime I watch racy and fast paced MTV videos on the television. When the rain starts to fall softly I soak in a hot bath. Our large window opens wide – we do not realize that we are facing southwest until the moon sets. It does not get dark until 9:30 p.m.
13 April, Saturday
The big questions are; how much damage was caused to John’s already congested heart, what are John’s chances of recovering from pneumonia, which we just learn he has, and when is he going to be well enough to travel home? There are no immediate answers forthcoming as the doctors need information on John’s previous condition.
While Chris sits with his father I visit an ancient who is laying in the bed closest to the door. I am pleased to learn that she speaks German, all the older people do she tells me – that was until the communists came to rule in 1945 and stayed until 1989 – now that generation speaks Russian as a second language. This woman, who has two sons, tells me that she has an uncle and relatives who live in “cosmopolitan” Canada, Toronto.
14 April, Sunday
We learn that ejection fraction measures how much volume the heart pumps with each beat, 55% to 6o% is considered normal and 20% is too low. John’s ejection fraction in his left ventricle, is 20-25% , it was 35%. C-reactive protein (CRP) is a blood protein that indicates inflammation of the arteries. Levels rise in response to inflammation. You are at high risk for heart disease if your CRP level is higher than 3.0 mg/L. John’s levels reach 140mg/L. And, his leucocyte levels, which measures the number of white blood cells and indicates infection, are high.
I have a private talk with Dr. Kašperová. I would like to know what are John’s chances of survival. She tells me that culture is growing in lab – soon they will know specific antibiotic to give him. The doctor thinks a two week stay is optimistic. What is most essential at this point besides hydration is for John to be optimistic. She believes his survival depends on this.
Today John is NOT feeling optimistic, he wants out by weeks end. He does not know that he is looking at a two week minimum stay and we are not going to tell him. And, he is concerned that he has no appetite. This does not bode well for John. “Your body is trying to heal,” I tell him. This is what I told my friend Carol when she expressed the same concern a week before she died of congestive heart failure on 23 May 2012. But, we just brought him hot soup and he is eating after two days of no food. It is not until later that we learn restaurant soup is verboten – too much salt.
Today is my mother’s 79th birthday. It does not occur to me until now that I can send her emails using Chris’ iPhone. I write: Father-in-law John had a heart attack on Friday and he is in the hospital in Bratislava. We will stay in Slovakia until John is well enough to travel. In hindsight, emailing my mother would have been a good opportunity to write and keep track of our adventures. Viking had kept us busy starting early every morning. It was a great trip while it lasted, in fact, everything was much better than we expected and we only missed the last two days.
Except for the ubiquitous and jumbo sized chocolate chip cookies (yes, there is such a thing) I like the small portions of food Viking serves, although John informs me that not everyone is of the same opinion. And, not being a big meat eater, I look forward to the hot rueben sandwich which is on the menu for tomorrow’s lunch. “You know I’m not supposed to eat that,” John tells me, “Too much salt, but I’m going to, I eat whatever I want.” This is not the first time John brags about his see-food diet. The last time it happened he ended up in the hospital with a heart attack. I predicted that would happen. The body keeps count.
The first few days we stay with John only briefly as he is tired and sleeps most of the time. We start the routine of dropping off a decaf latte in the morning which progresses to one in the afternoon, and everyday we bring him food and the International Herald Tribune.
Near the end, as a treat, we buy him a New Yorker 12.50 € ($17.00) which John has subscribed to for almost sixty years, and a Time magazine which features the 100 most influential people in the world. When we are not hunting for food and gathering reading material for John we explore the medieval city center of Bratislava and I start to learn the Slovakian language.
The Slovakian word for thank you is Ďakujem. I have one of the nurses on my voice recorder repeating this word over and over again. I admit that it took me one long week to learn how to say ďakujem without thinking – that is how difficult this word is to pronounce and why the locals are so appreciative when we make the effort. The Slovakians and the Slovenians use ‘Prosím’ for please and there are some other similarities, but the Slovakian language uses diacritics that I have never seen before. My curiosity is piqued.
15 April, Monday
It is a huge relief to see that John is feeling much better this morning after he briefly lost his optimism. For the first time yesterday we saw the possibility of darkness settling in. But, I notice that the right side of his body is bloated.
“We visited Dad this morning and he is doing noticeably better than yesterday. He is more alert and energetic, and his appetite is better. He has bronchial pneumonia in the right lung which is being treated with two antibiotics. He appreciates everyone’s concerns and good wishes. Once the pneumonia clears up and he is stronger we can go home. Although he wants to go home he realizes that he is too weak to travel.” – Chris’ email
“Dr. Papinčák says it’s too soon for Dad to walk, that he needs to start by spending more time sitting up, physical therapy will start tomorrow. When we visit in the morning we will have him sit up with his legs over the side of the bed and his feet on the floor. He said that Dad is improving, responding to the antibiotics as measured by a lower CRP number. He also said that his heart was not damaged that much more by this heart attack as measured by the EF number. Finally he said that Dad may be ready to travel by Friday or Saturday. We brought him OJ, salad, decaf latte, a blueberry muffin and the Herald Tribune, everything he wanted. Things are going as well and as fast as they can go for now. We are optimistic. – Chris’ email
16 April, Tuesday
We wake up to the news that terrorists attacked the Boston Marathon. We feel safe in Bratislava.
John is definitely making progress. He is one tough Greek and I tell him so, but he is not convinced. “Wait until we’re in the air,” he says not realizing the potential danger that lies ahead. I notice that he is not coughing. The double dose of two different antibiotics must be working and the right side of his body is not as swollen.
“We are going to get an update from the doctor in the morning and hopefully an approximate timeline for when Dad might be able to travel. He is very much hoping to leave Friday, but I don’t know about that. While he is clearly improving each day he still has pneumonia and is very weak.” – Chris’ email
Today I discover that Dr. Kašperová understands every word of the German language but, like her English, she struggles to speak. The first thing she tells me, without any prompting on my part, is that John is not going anywhere in a hurry.
17 April, Wednesday
This morning Dr. Kašperová introduces us to her daughter Julia a blonde medical student who speaks English well. This is a teaching hospital and Julia is studying to become a cardiologist just like her parents. Her grandfather Julius was one of the founders and the main cardiologist in the Slovak Cardiovascular Centre in the former Czecho-Slovakia. In two years she will complete her studies. Julia is twenty-three years old.
Chris buys a disposable telephone at T-Mobile on Ivánska cesta 12, John’s daughters are eager to speak with him. This turns out to be a good call as John’s spirits lift and for the first time he sits up in bed with his feet flat on the floor.
It is a little after 4 p.m. when the first call is made. Church bells are chiming, sirens are wailing and John is coughing, a dry hacking cough that does not let up. “ It’s bad.” he tells them. He would like to go straight to Stanford hospital when he arrives in San Francisco.
Chris wonders how I know that to call abroad from Slovakia one must dial 00 – the exit code.
Today we learn that we must pay the hospital bill in full and in cash on the day we leave. The University Hospital does not accept credit cards. Dr. Kašperová will give us an estimate after she speaks with the billing department.
The first option we look into is a money transfer. Western Union is surprisingly expensive, so we go next door to the bank, the only one in the area that deals with money transfers. For a surprisingly small amount we are able to open an account. But, we think this is too complicated, and the bank does do not open until 9 a.m. Instead, John gives us his password and twice daily we withdraw the cash limit from both of our accounts.
A few days later Dr. Kašperová tells us that the daily cost of staying in the University Hospital is 113€ ($150.00) plus medicines and procedures such as x-rays and electrocardiograms. We will not know the final cost until the day we leave.
John urges Chris to build-up a cash reserve of $3,000€ and then changes it to $4,000€. Chris is hesitant, he thinks this is too much. I want that Chris should take his father’s advice as I am not convinced that John is going to make it home alive. This will not be the first in flight death we will have experienced. Once we had to make an emergency landing in Goose Bay, Newfoundland, Canada. I wonder how complicated it will be to have John cremated, how much it will cost and in which country it will happen. We are told, by someone who knows, not to tell the airlines that we are traveling with a high risk passenger.
18 April, Thursday
John continues to make great strides. Today he walked across the room and back and he was wheeled outside into the sunshine to the radiology department to be x-rayed (antiquated is the word he used) and his catheter was removed. We are all happy about this.
This morning Dr. Kašperová tells me that John, who is eager to leave, can go home whenever he wants. I think this is good reverse psychology and I was going to use it on him. When I tell him that he can go home whenever he wants, John says, "Let’s wait and see what the doctors say.”
More drama today when we find out that John’s eighty-nine year old brother, Spiro, has passed away. We suspect that, if not for John’s pacemaker, he and his brother would have died one day apart.
Poor Chris, there have been some difficult moments for him. We are on the street in Bratislava when his sister calls to tell him the news. This is not easy for Chris as he loves his uncle Spiro.
I am a little surprised this afternoon when John asks what else was said during this conversation – I was not expecting Chris to tell him unless he asked the specific question. John had made it clear that he did not want to hear anything about Spiro while he was on the trip. Chris finds this moment too difficult so, just like a scene in a movie, I lean in close, gently place my hand on John’s right shoulder and whisper in his ear, “Spiro died.” John, staring off into space, does not say a word. “That’s why we looked so glum when we arrived,” I tell him “I hadn’t noticed.” John replies taking a quick glance over his right shoulder. This is where I stand.
Two years ago John threw an eighty-fifth birthday party for himself and invited his close family and friends. At the end of the bash one of the questions I was asked was, who is this woman, a mother of two, with the same last name. John, a psychologist who spent twenty-five years in analysis, never thinks to introduce his children.
“You might have introduced your children, “ I say to John as we all pile into the car early the next morning. “People were wondering why …” I get cut-off as everyone agrees. A good idea too late, but it makes no difference, no one feels slighted.
John, who lives in Palo Alto, California feels grateful that he flew to New York City the week before our Danube cruise to reminisce with Spiro after he refused further treatment for lung cancer.
Near the end of his life Spiro was engulfed by blindness. In part, his obituary read, “Even while struggling with his blindness, Spiro could not be deterred. Throughout the rigorous training at the Guide Dog Foundation, Spiro rallied his classmates, transforming a tense and strenuous course into one filled with laughter and friendship. In appreciation, his classmates named him the honorary “Chief” of the fictitious [Where the?] Fugawe Tribe. It was one of his proudest achievements.” – The Suffolk Times
Uncle Spiro worked on the Manhattan project. It says so in the Suffolk Times. Chris says he’s known all along, but he does not know more.
We were told that Spiro died in peace and he was joking up to the end. The service was last Wednesday, the church was full and it was a gloriously beautiful day. Aunt Joan, who also has lung cancer, won’t last another three months.
I tell Dr. Kašperová in private and in my limited German, that John’s brother Spiro died. And, I tell her that he had requested that he not be told, but since he had asked about him the other day and if he were to ask again we were going to tell him. I want her to know just in case John finds the news too depressing – she can knock him out. The doctor agrees, John should know, and she wants to know how he died. Then she tells me that every day when she comes to work she wonders if John is still alive. Dr. Kašperová explains the obvious: John ist alt und er ist krank mit schlechten Herz. John is old and he is sick with a bad heart.
Chris is exhausted and he would like to return to the hotel, but I discourage this with wide-open eyes. This is not a good time to leave, John has just learned that his brother has died. Chris agrees and sits back down.
We spend the next three hours by John’s side as he reminisces. I mention that he is the last of three brothers to survive. John tells me this is something he is going to think about. The eldest Mary, died of pneumonia at the age of two. John’s father showed him a photo of her of one day in his flower shop in the Bronx. John did not learn that he had a sister until he was ten years old.
As we get up to leave I tell John that if he gets too sad to ask the doctor to put him to sleep. “Juliana,” he says leaning forward from a sitting position. He takes an unflinching look into my eyes, “I don’t mind being sad,” he tells me emphatically. Then he repeats this for emphasis. Of course I know this already, but who wants to use the words “too depressed”. Now I learn to speak even more plainly with John.
Seven days after John is admitted to the hospital he says, “It’s ME time, tell the extended family about ME.” They do not know that John is in a hospital in Slovakia.
19 April, Friday
Today the doctors start preparing the paperwork, this is a good sign. If, after the weekend, Dr. Papinčák tells us, John continues to improve we can go home on Tuesday.
This morning we leave the hotel and walk right past the public park, also known as the medical garden (Medická záhrada) on our way to the Ondřejská Cemetery. This is a pleasant surprise, a green oasis in medieval Bratislava. I would like to stay longer and photograph all the angelic tombstones, but Chris, who practices moderation to the excess, is hungry, and like his father, he takes his food seriously.
We are in the eastern part of the Staré Město and on the way back Chris takes us to see the Catholic Church of St. Elizabeth, also known as the Blue Church. It sits on the corner of Bezručova street and Groslingova. This is another surprise, art nouveau in medieval Bratislava. Built between 1907-1908 everything about the Blue Church is astonishingly blue – inside and out.
Chris has been a vegetarian for 34 years now so the lunch menu is somewhat limited. But, this fact is rarely a problem especially in cosmopolitan Bratislava. The restaurant he chooses is owned by Jordanians and our server is an Afghan. While Chris eats his falafel I eat a delicious bowl of vegetable soup made by an Indian chef. When we are done a Slovakian waitress prepares a gyros for John. While we wait I watch CNN with three Jordanians males and learn that the terrorists who blew up the Boston marathon are two young brothers from the Russian Caucasus area.
Back at the hospital I wait outside and explore the grounds while I give Chris and John time alone. I know that my behavior is suspicious and that I am being watched when I take notes and speak into my voice recorder. But, it is when I start to take photos that the security guard comes over and asks me not to photograph. “Nerorazumiem,” (I don’t understand) I tell him understanding fully. I want to practice my Slovakian on him. “Razumien.” (I understand).
Okay, so there is no soap in the bathroom and the hospital could use a paint job and some Spackling paste and I will not get into the elevator – still it is a solid structure with a set of surprisingly elegant and dilapidated stairways that face each other in the biochemistry and molecular genetics building. John is laying under cathedral ceilings next to two large arched wooden windows that he is free to open. He feels the breeze and he has a view of a Linden tree, Slovakia’s national tree that is measured in centuries, and he can see the church steeple. Like us, he is on the fourth floor. John continues to be amazed that the doctors are working to identical standards and he has a favorite nurse, Anna, who bathes him in the early morning light.
This evening I notice that John’s dry hacking cough has returned, I think that this cannot be good. We wait and wonder: What will the doctors have to say about John leaving the hospital on Tuesday morning?
20 April, Saturday
I am sure that Chris feels like we abandoned his father this morning but I insist on changing the routine. I think that since John is not sleeping as much he would prefer to receive his newspaper in the morning instead of the afternoon. And, what if they sell out! Plus, I am drawn to the the medieval city centre. I want to walk there and I want to walk fast. On our way I talk just as fast, in part to distract Chris from his uneasy feeling. I think that I have Chris convinced that the doctors are stringing him and John along. Everyday the doctors tell them only a few days more when in private they tell me how dire the situation really is, which is obvious to me.
After we buy the newspaper at Interpress Chris relaxes enough to take a detour to the Bratislava Information Service (BIS). He would like to climb atop Michael’s Tower before we leave Bratislava. Chris is sure our trip is about to end.
It is here, at the information center, that we see the beginnings of what promises to be an even more exciting day. This year Bratislava is celebrating 20 years of independence from Czecho-Slovakia. The Gentle Revolution, also called The Velvet Divorce, took effect on 1 January 1993. The Slovak Republic, also called Slovakia or Slovensko, is Europe’s newest country.
As we race back to the hospital with John’s coffee and newspaper we agree to make a dash for the exit, but first Chris would like to make sure that his father is going to be all right. Of course, John gives us the okay and like little children we run out the door and down the street to the Square (Primacialne Namestie). It is 11:00 a.m. and the parade has just begun.
We follow thirty professional actors dressed in period costumes, horsemen, drummers, and soldiers, men and women, carrying long rifles, swords, flags and banners. Together we march up to Michael’s Gate (Michalska Brana) built around 1300 and the only surviving of four gates that were used to enter the mediaeval city. A large banner depicting St.George slaying the dragon and the message Bratislava Pre Všetkych (Bratislava For All) bars the entrance.
Here we watch performances so arresting that I put down my camera. After a four rifle salute declarations are made by someone who looks like the mayor of Bratislava, Milan Ftáčnik, and the banner is raised signaling the unsealing of the city gates.
We follow the parade back to the square where we watch a soldier stand on his horse, drape the horse’s leg over his shoulder, lie underneath the horse and place the horse’s foot lightly on his chest while he is laying flat on his back. In the square we are joined by a king and queen. This year Bratislava is celebrating the 450th anniversary of the first royal coronation.
Formerly known as Pozsony by the Hungarians and Pressburg (in reference to the castle) by the Germans, Bratislava, became the new capital of Royal Hungary in 1536 after the Ottoman Turks, under the leadership of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, swept into Hungary and overtook Buda at the battle of Mohacs in 1526. Bratislava, the official name since 1919 when it was made the capital of Slovakia in the newly created Czecho-Slovakia, was honored to be the city of coronation and it lasted for almost three hundred years. Ten Habsburg kings and nine queens were crowned in the gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral using the crown of St. Stephen the first king of Hungary who was crowned on Christmas Day in the year 1000.
The medieval Crown of St. Stephen, also called the Holy Crown of Hungary, is the symbol of Hungarian nationhood. People from far and wide will come to watch the authentic coronation ceremony which follows the exact same ritual based on historical documents.
Nota bene: The coronation ceremony is held every year during the last weekend of June in honor of Maria Theresa who was crowned on 25 June 1741.
We are on a mission to find the closest thing we can to a Greek Orthodox church to light three candles for Chris’ deceased kinfolk. At John’s request. On the way up to St. Nicholas, which sits under the walled castle and is in the old Jewish Quarter we stop on Židovská 1 (Jewish) to visit the Museum of Clocks. I see a clock with engravings of the different phases of human life. A poignant reminder of how time affects all of us.
It is a steep climb up the stone stairs to St. Nicholas which is hidden behind a row of buildings. Built in 1661 the entrance to this nondescript baroque church is flanked by trees. A statue of St. Nicholas stands in the niche above the door and above a coat of arms which is partly obscured by leafy branches. When we walk in through the open door we are stunned into silence. There are no pews only chairs lining the south and east walls. The adherents are standing in the center gathered around three heavily bearded Orthodox priests dressed in black cossack robes and wearing pectoral crosses. It feels as though we have just stepped into the Middle Ages.
“We found a beautiful, old Orthodox Church today, St. Nicholas, and lit three candles… and gave them a donation as Dad had requested. We took lots of pictures to show him, and he was pleased. They were in the middle of a ceremony with singing and prayers, the Church was full, and 40 minutes later everyone left and the Church was locked up so we just made it.” – Chris’ email
I do not have a voracious appetite during our sojourn in Bratislava, I only eat two full breakfast’s and three main meals, one of which is a delicious bowl of goulash soup mit dunkel Brot at the Pivnica U Kozal on Panská 27.
We sit outside. When I am done I walk through an archway and climb down a broad set of stairs to the restaurant/bar deep underground. Who can believe this place with its low arched ceiling and dim lights. There is only one group of men sitting at a table immediately to my left as I enter and a lone man sits on my right a few tables over. I pay them no heed and carry on. I feel uncomfortable as I try to open the door to the WC (water closet) and realize that someone is in there and I have to wait. But, I think it is only a case of nerves and after I calm myself down by looking at the art on the wall I ask the lone figure if there is anyone in there as I try to open the door once again. This time it opens.
I find my fear curious and take some time to soak in the atmosphere in this most unusual restaurant underground. I am looking at a vintage tin beer sign across from the men when one of them orders me to, “COME, SIT!” I am paralyzed by fear. Then I am ordered to “DRINK BEER!”
What happens next to my field of vision is interesting. All I see as I turn around is someone pushing something aside and patting down a place for me to sit and I see a table topped with huge glasses and a pitcher filled with pivo (beer) which one of the men is holding aloft. I never see the men themselves, but I know by how they sound that they are big burly types who have been sitting here for a while.
I find the thought of joining them and drinking beer, in this cave, in the middle of the afternoon so ludicrous that I laugh out loud and in the same loud and commanding voice I reply, “THAT is NOT going to happen." There is dead silence. Released from my paralysis I take this opportunity to escape and run up the stairs without ever looking at the men.
Once outside I tell Chris about the unique restaurant/bar below and still curious about my fear I follow him downstairs and hang out while he uses the WC – still never looking at the men. But, as we are walking out I lift up my camera and take a photograph. In the photo one of the men is lurching drunkenly towards me. I count a total of six big celebrating Slovaks. It is not until we arrive home that I learn that Pivnica means cellar.
Today John walks across the room and when he arrives at the sink he shaves himself. Talk is still about returning Tuesday and for once I believe that if John continues to make progress we will indeed return sooner rather than later.
21 April, Sunday
No matter how many times we mention the festivities taking place in Bratislava this weekend John does not let us go. Instead of music, dance shows, and horse races this morning we wheel John outside for some fresh air and we walk the length of the corridor, twice.
This whole thing feels surreal – we’re in medieval Bratislava, Chris is pushing his father in a wheel chair and I’m looking over my shoulder every time I want to take a photograph.
Dr. Soña Kiñová tells us that John’s cough will last for a couple of weeks. And, she tells us that John is good to go home on Tuesday. But, this is not her decision to make – still we prepare ourselves mentally.
Dr. Soña speaks fluent English. We pepper her with questions about Bratislava and Slovakia. Then she tells us about the students who study at this University Hospital. They come from all over the world, she explains, because it is relatively inexpensive to study here. Twice she mentions that the Greeks are the laziest students and she explains why. In Greece, in order to own a pharmacy, one must be educated as a doctor. The Greek students do not want to learn, but they want to own pharmacies.
At first I think it is interesting that the Greeks are the laziest students, but after she mentions it a second time I start to feel uncomfortable and I look at Chris and John, but neither say a word. I think Dr. Soña knows that John is a Greek but Chris tells me this is not so. I think she knows by the name – Beletsis. Anyone with any experience with Greeks knows that a family name ending in "sis" hails from mainland Greece.
Michael’s Tower, also called Michael’s Gate because it is a combination of the two, was built around 1500 and it is more than 50 meters high (seven floors, I counted). Climb the narrow circular staircase for a postcard view of Bratislava.
Only so many people are allowed entrance at a time and there is a guard on every level and a military museum with a collection of medieval arms and military uniforms. The enthusiastic guard on the top level insists that Chris take a photo of me from the inside looking out. Since he speaks no English he gestures wildly for me to step outside and come around to the window. He thinks this is an excellent idea. I photograph them from the outside looking in. The guard poses but he does not smile.
When we visited the Czech Republic in the spring of 2000 I read that the people complained that the playwright president Vaclav’s Havel’s new wife since 1997, the actress Dagmar Veškrnova, smiled too much.
John, who is wearing a hospital gown, leans out the window. I too lean out the window. He comments on the good weather. I quote Chris. “We arrive in winter and stay until spring.“
22 April, Monday (Eleven days later)
Our airline Lufthansa is on strike. Hopefully it will last for one day only. I lay awake and wonder, what will Dr. Kašperová say about John leaving the hospital on Tuesday morning?
There is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that we can leave tomorrow and the bad news is that a medical escort will not be available for one more day. Will his father play it safe? I make Chris a bet and I lose. John is adamant about leaving the hospital tomorrow.
John is sitting up in his hospital bed munching on a gyros – not looking at anyone. Chris is standing on John’s left leaning against the wall and I am standing to the right of John. We are near the foot of the bed where Dr. Kašperová stands deep in thought – she is looking down. There is silence.
Dr. Kašperová is in charge, she is the one who must determine when John is fit to fly and she has just received the news that John has decided to return home tomorrow without a medical assistant. Chris and I look at each other and together we look at John who refuses to look at anyone. We look at Dr. Kašperová who is still deep in thought and looking down at the floor. This goes on for some time – around and around Chris and I look while John continues to munch refusing to look at anyone and the doctor continues to thinks things through.
I tell Dr. Kašperová that John has an option – stay one more day and return with a medical assistant. Dr. Kašperová does not take her eyes off me as she digests this information. John, who is adamant about returning tomorrow, looks up at Dr. Kašperová and with great cheer says, "I’m fine! “ Then he tries to explain that he lives in an independent and assisted senior living retirement community. Dr. Kašperová demands more silence as she looks to the floor once again for answers. Around and around we go again. Chris and I look at each other, then we look at John who continues to munch and refuses to look at anyone. This makes us smile.
Dr. Kašperová looks up and tells me that she had made it clear on Friday to those responsible that John could go home on Tuesday and that she had ordered a medical assistant. Earlier in the day Dr. Papinčák had also made this clear to us – arrangements were made on Friday. I acknowledge this and express our frustration with with those who are responsible for our predicament. We all prefer that John return with a medical assistant by his side.
Finally, Dr. Kašperová says that it is fine for John to travel home tomorrow and she suggests that he have a drink – whiskey. This makes me laugh and I feel relief that John will be able to leave without a medical assistant and with the doctor’s blessing. Dr. Kašperová explains that she will give us medicine if Johns blood pressure should rise and if he has difficulty breathing. She gives Chris her email address and her mobile telephone number and asks that we contact her when we arrive in Frankfurt.
This is our last night in Bratislava. John is in high spirits as we prepare his clothes for a 7:15 a.m. departure. Piece by piece I hold them up for his approval. When I come to his boxer shorts I hold them high. John exclaims, "Aren’t those cute Juliana!" After eleven days in the coronary care unit John is excited and ready to return home.
Bratislava, located in southwestern Slovakia, is the only European capital that borders two countries – it is within walking distance to the Austrian and Hungarian borders. The trip west to the Vienna airport by private car will take one hour. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the driver we hire is the hotel receptionist’s boyfriend, Matej.
Back at the hotel we pack, one small backpack each. We have reservations, but no tickets. It is not until late into the nights that we learn that all the arrangements have been made. Lufthansa will fly us from Vienna to Frankfurt and United Airlines will fly us direct to San francisco.
23 April, Tuesday morning
7:00 a.m. Sharp
Matej is waiting for us in the hotel lobby. He greets us with a smile. He drives what seems a long way out of the way as the hotel is just around the corner. But, he explains that the car must take a different route. While the hospital guard and Matej figure out where to park Chris jumps out of the car and I miss my opportunity to say goodbye to the doctors and nurses.
Chris said that when he went to pick up his father it didn’t look like anything was happening. The curtain around John’s bed was closed and the staff was busy. Chris drew the curtain aside and there was John, he was laying down, fully clothed and ready to go. Dr. Kašperová came over and John’s favorite nurse, Anna, helped him into a wheelchair, but not before he surprised her by giving her a big hug. It took only a few minutes to pull it all together.
When John is wheeled into the daylight he calls my name. I turn to look at him and in the excitement of the moment I clap my hands and give him two thumbs up. This is indeed an exciting time.
On our way out Matej, a compassionate humanitarian, tells me that our kindness made the old man with the cane cry. While we waited we helped him to his seat on the bench. “Dobrý!” (Good) I exclaim with a big smile once he is settled. I see that his eye is red and teary, but I do not make the connection. I think this is due to his condition.
Matej, who was once a tour guide, takes us on the scenic route to the Vienna airport. Along the way he tells us that, “Socialism has good sides and the bad sides. Bad thing is, the bad sides stayed and the good ones are gone.”
As we check in to special assistance the attendant says to John, “Good children, you are flying business class.” John replies. “I feel very special.” She does not know that we came directly from the hospital.
Because he can, Chris sends Dr. Kašperová an email. She promptly replies, “Dear Chris and Juliana, it is nice to hear from you, thank you for the message. We wish you good luck and a lot of strength for Mr. John. Kind regards, Viera Kašperová”
We arrive early and the Frankfurt gate reads destination Brindisi. I happen to know that this is where one catches the ferry to Greece. I am ready to keep moving and ask John a spirited traveler. I can see us heading south and me racing him around in a wheelchair.
In flight, Chris and I check on John several times. I ask the flight attendant to keep her eye on him and I explain that John is a high risk passenger. John later says that the flight back was really difficult for him, but he shows no signs of distress. He just looks like a worn-out traveler.
In San Francisco we hand over John to his daughters and son-in-law who take him home and we catch our flight to San Diego. We sit by the emergency exit doors. The flight attendant would like to know if we are willing and able to help in case of an emergency. She would like that all the passengers see that we are reading the instruction manual.
On our way to our car I quiz Chris. “In what position do you place your arms when you slide down the emergency chute?” Chris holds his arms high in the air and says “Whee!” It feels good to laugh again.
It is not until we are on the I5 (Interstate 5) heading north that it hits me. I sure am glad that things worked out well as they did, after all, it was me who suggested we invite him on this trip. John said that he was glad that we made the best of being in Bratislava and that we did all the right things. He thinks that we saved his life.
It turns out that my father in-law did not suffer a heart attack after all. Although, what he did experience, a heart exacerbation, a sudden worsening of an already bad condition, is just as serious. John did all the right things. He ate a salty lunch which is verboten, he drank alcohol which is verboten and he stopped taking his diuretic as prescribed.
Complicated times (his words, not mine) for John indeed. The difference between the photo taken of him on 7 April about to embark on the ship in Passau, Germany where the trip started and 7 May, two weeks after he arrived home, is astonishing. John came back an old man leaning on a cane. His doctor tells him that it will take at least six weeks for John to feel well rested and to regain his strength.
The Danube Waltz
My father-in-law was lucky, his last trip abroad nearly cost him his life and travel insurance covered his flight home and trip interruption. The hospital bill, which we paid in full and in cash the day before we left, amounted to only 1,889.36 € ($2,500.00) and that was covered by his medical insurance and Travel Guard.
John, who would like me to make him look heroic, spends eleven nights and twelve days recovering in the oldest teaching hospital in medieval Bratislava. During his stay Boston is shutdown by a manhunt, the death toll rises when a Texas fertilizer plant implodes and his last remaining brother Spiro dies. John loses his sense of humor only once when he is hungry and it is brief. His unshakeable optimism and indomitable spirit saves us all.
I have an easy time with it all, in part, because I do not concern myself with the logistics. I provide moral support and look to my late friend Count Alfonso de Bourbon for words of wisdom, “Don’t make it any more difficult than it already is.” Chris agrees, “It is what it is.” Plus, the doctors are really nice and they think we are “awesome people”. They “threaten” to come and visit us when they come to California, but not this year.
We are somewhat of a novelty in Bratislava. Most tourists come for a single day, riverboat walking tours last two hours. We stay in Bratislava for twelve days and for the most part we frequent the same markets, cafe’s and news stands. The Bratislavs are curious.
Free wireless and John’s cafe latte’s are not the only reason to go to The Green Tree Cafe on Obchodná ulica (street). It is helpful that Chris has a sob story to share with the staff – father is in the hospital, we’re going home soon, I’m buying the coffee’s for him. These girls are young and they are sweet, but they never ask about John, it is me they wonder about. “Where is your wife?” they ask when I am missing. They are curious and they are always smiling.
What to expect if your father-in-law has a heart attack In Bratislava, Slovakia and the ship leaves without you? Expect the doctors and nurses in the University Hospital Old Town to be ”exceptional” – John’s word.
“Not only were they competent, but how much they cared about me, how concerned they were about my getting home safely and how Dr. Kašperová wanted to know, after I got home, by email or a phone call, that all is okay. Most people complain about doctors, that they’re very impersonal, they don’t pay any attention to them, they don’t really care about you they just want to get doing what they have to do, and get rid of you, These doctors and nurses were so different. It was very special and unusual to have that kind of care shown by anybody and we after all we were strangers too – which makes it even more important." – John Beletsis
Tagged: , Story , Storytelling , Bratislava , Blue Danube Cruise , Father-in-law , Angor animi , Blue Danube , Slovakia , Travel stories , Dr. Papinčák , Dr. Kašperová , Dr. Soña , Europe , Viking Cruises , Univerzitná Nemonica Staré Mesto , Ejection fraction , The Prestige , Congestive Heart Failure , Hotel Saffron , Danube Waltz , Human Interest Story , Euorpe