Friday, January 1, 2010

A hospital in Haifa

Dave has a chronic eye condition that starts acting up every few years. The first episode happened about a month or two after he and I started dating. He was prescribed drops that he had to put into his right eye four or five times a day, and in that prehistoric age he was very scared of touching his own eye like that so I had to hunt him down on campus and try to spring the drops on him unawares. I remember we used to meet up at the library downstairs by the vending machines that sold chicken, tuna and egg salad sandwiches and Kit-Kat bars. Dave remembers us meeting up on the second floor of the library, where he could lie down between the stacks. We did the drops on the benches in the quad between the library and the science buildings and on the lawn by the college of business. Also in the dorms, in his or my room. The second episode was a lot less fun, took years to get under control, as a result Dave had to get a cataract removed in his right eye, and that wasn't even the end of it.

The third incident happened today. It began a few days ago when Dave started seeing something that looked like a hair in his right eye, a hair that would not go away. When it didn't go away for three days straight, Dave emailed his ophthalmologist in San Francisco, and she told him that this is a potential emergency and that he should see a doctor right away. The symptom -- its official name is a "floater" -- could be indicative of a condition that, if not treated right away, could lead to blindness. This sounded scary enough that we decided to let our families tour the medieval Jewish city of Tzfat (or Safed) without us and find the best hospital we could. In the morning, we packed up our computers and notebooks, chocolate and fruit and got a taxi that delivered us straight to the doors of a hilltop hospital with a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean. We passed through the metal detector to get into the lobby and then had to navigate Hebrew signs to find the ophthalmology or simply "eineim" department. We had looked up the Hebrew spelling for the word "eye" in advance, but there was almost no need to bother: people in the hospital were friendly enough to speak sign language when they didn't know enough English to answer our questions. We found the right department right away.

I don't know how the system works for the locals, but for tourists it seemed quite streamlined. At the reception desk downstairs we paid 937 shekels (about $250) to be seen by a doctor. They gave us a receipt in English to show to our American insurance company. They also gave us a folder to take up with us to the 5th floor, to the ophthalmology department. The doctor on duty saw us within half an hour. She let Dave explain his medical history, took his basic measurements, put drops in his eyes, and gave him a full exam another half an hour later. Her diagnosis was the worst case scenario with surgery as the only treatment option. She said she would call a more senior doctor. He showed up within 40 minutes dressed in jeans -- it was obviously his day off -- and saw everyone else, all the simpler cases, before he saw us. There was a young boy who needed stitches in his eye after another boy threw a rock at him. There was an older man with his very elderly mother who had very high pressure in her eyes and was possibly developing glaucoma -- the man wore a kippah (a yarmulke) and told us in English that he worried about having to stay in the hospital during Shabbat. There was a couple who spoke Hebrew and Russian, but so quietly that we didn't get to hear what their problem was.

We waited in the lobby. The ophthalmology department shared a floor with the geriatric care department, and we saw all the patients get their lunches: a dish of boiled carrots and green beans and mashed potatoes on the side. The doctors and the nurses each got a cup of chicken soup. A few patients received family visits from large extended family. The Mediterranean shone and sparkled in the large window of the lobby. Dave was suffering not as much from any eye-related discomfort as from the hangover from celebrating the New Year's the night before. He was feeling feverish and nervous, and he wanted to lie down, but there was only a metal chair upholstered in black pleather in the lobby and my shoulder. I twiddled my thumbs. We had a Blackberry with us and were reading Wikipedia articles about Dave's latest diagnosis. It seemed almost certain that surgery would be required but there were options, and after the certain types of surgery Dave would be prohibited to fly for 4 to 6 weeks. We started making mental lists of what we needed to take care of if we were stuck in Israel for the next two months. We could pay bills online. We could ask our neighbor to water our plants. Dave would need to get disability insurance benefits. In the end, it started to seem as not all that bad. We decided we'd use the time to take an intensive course in Hebrew. Hebrew Braille?

Finally the doctor got through all of the straightforward cases and called us in. Both he and the junior doctor who saw us initially spoke very good English. They joked and laughed with each other. They asked us questions about being tourists in Israel. The senior doctor said he was supposed to go to the thermal baths near Hebron today but that his colleague was obviously jealous and didn't want him to go. We laughed, and it helped. Dave let go of my hand and I started breathing regularly again. The senior doctor spent a long time looking into the depths of Dave's eye. At the end, he decided that the condition was not an emergency and that it could wait until we finish our vacation and go back to the US. This was excellent news, so excellent that we weren't even a little bit upset over the vanishing chance to spend the next two months in Israel wading in the Mediterranean and learning Hebrew. We rode the taxi back to the hotel, shared the good news with our families, rested a bit, and then had a large extended family dinner at an Italian restaurant up on the hills not too far from the hospital.

I think the taxi cab drivers who drove us to and from the hospital were the only drivers on this trip who didn't try to rip us off. One turned on the meter without us having to ask for it, and the other one charged us a very reasonable flat fee. Both of them seemed scared to turn towards us, possibly because of the danger that we might sneeze. In the hospital itself, the containers with the liquid anti-bacterial wash were placed on every door, desk and bed without exception. The hospital seemed to be one of the places where the Jewish and the Muslim populations come together to work and for treatment. Hence the metal detectors at the entrance? All of the doctors and the nurses on staff today seemed to be non-religious.

To hear amusing anecdotes from the patient himself, read his blog.


  1. what a Dad had an eye surgery back in 2008 (detached retina) and I wish he could have it in Israel, quite honestly, and not in Moscow

    good luck with your rest days of journey in Israel

  2. Thank God everything came together-- that is scary