VIENNA, AUSTRIA 1993
I remember hearing the nurse come into the room to do the night rounds. Halfway between waking and sleep, I had turned to face the wall, hoping to doze off again when the nurse shook my arm. She spoke to me in Russian.
“Who are you?” she asked in the quiet midnight darkness.
I raised my head off of the pillow, confused, to look at her.
“The sign over your bed. You speak Russian? Who are you?” she asked again, pointing to the handwritten sign hanging from the traction bar above my hospital bed.
“I’m nobody,” I answered her in Russian.
“You must be somebody to be in this hospital,” she said, checking the tube inserted into the vein in my left hand.
As the cobwebs cleared, I sat up and looked at the Russian-speaking nurse with a puzzled look. Her white uniform glowed in the filtered fluorescent light from the hallway.
“I’m still in Vienna, right?” I whispered.
“Correct. Where are you from?” she asked again.
“I came from Kyiv, but–”
“Really? I am from Odessa,” she whispered back. “Why the sign over your bed?”
“There was a mistake earlier today.” I searched my waking brain for the appropriate words.
“Oh! Are you the American?”
Unable to walk and in debilitating pain, I was flown from Kyiv to Vienna for medical attention and a chance to recuperate from a serious back injury. Only after two days of receiving intravenous infusions of muscle relaxants and painkillers did sleep finally find me in my clean, white hospital bed. Not even the snoring of the large man who shared the room with me could keep me awake once the drugs kicked in. Not able to speak German with him, I could only greet him, smile and try to be considerate of him. We didn’t speak much, nor did I see him much in the daytime.
The night nurse from Ukraine, called Oksana, sat down on the foot of my bed to listen to my side of the story.
“Did you really tell the nurse who gave you the wrong medicines, that you are Herr Guttenberg, your roommate.”
“As the sign says, I don’t speak German,” I explained. “When the nurse came in the room, I thought he said, ‘Guten Tag,’ to me, so I said ‘Gruß Gottes’ back. I did not know my roommate’s is Guttenberg until it was too late. That is why I put the sign over my bed so the nurses don’t speak German to me again. I only know enough to get myself in to trouble.”
“Where was Herr Guttenberg when this happened? Did he not speak up when they called his name?” she asked.
“He only comes here to sleep at night. He is never here over the day time,” I said.
“Oh. He is playing the insurance trick.” Oksana shook her head in disapproval.
“It’s a trick to make his private health insurance pay for his operation. You see, his insurance only pays for an operation if it is serious enough to stay in the hospital overnight. His insurance does not cover outpatient treatments,” she explained.
“So, he has to sleep here for his insurance to cover the whole treatment?”
“It saves him lots of money in the end,” Oksana nodded and glanced at Herr Guttenberg, who was snoring on the other side of the curtain.
“So, the nurse thought that I told him I was Mr. Guttenberg?” I asked laughing.
“Yes, but he should have double checked the bed number,” she scolded, “that is protocol.”
“It all seemed pretty normal to me,” I apologized, “because I get these painkiller infusions five times a day. A new nurse brings them almost every time. How could I have known it was for the guy in the next bed.”
“You know that Sven cannot work for a few days. He has been suspended for a week.” Oksana said looking down her nose at me.
‘Is that his name? Is Sven the nurse who gave me the wrong stuff?” I asked.
“Chief Nurse Gretchen told me he would be suspended. I feel really bad about that. I told her it was part my fault,” I admitted, hoping to deflect some guilt.
“Nurse Gretchen was more than angry. I have never heard her so worked up before. She is always so formal, you know, so professional.” Oksana pinched closed her open collar and stiffened her neck. “But this time, she was screaming. Sven, the nurse who made the mistake, was crying,” she said.
“Did Nurse Gretchen really come to apologize to you?” Oksana asked.
“Yes, and so did Sven. It was very official, very formal,” I said. “But it wasn’t necessary. Mistakes happen.”
“This type of mistake cannot happen. It could have been very dangerous for your health.”
“It was just vitamins and amino acids,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter!” Oksana shook her head, “This was dangerous.”
After the commotion of the afternoon had settled down, I was brought my dinner by the cafeteria server. The stainless steel cart was draped in a starch white table cloth, with stainless a steel serving set and a bottle of clear, sparkling mineral water for me. After the squeamishness caused by the blood and needles earlier, my stomach leaped at the chance for a meal to help it feel better. Already salivating, I removed the shiny silver dome covering my plate. After one look at the main course, I dropped the lid back in place, startled by what I saw. Unsure of my dinner’s origins, I drank the mineral water and ate crackers on the balcony in the setting sunshine, afraid to sit in the room with whatever that was on my plate.
“Are you able to bring me a sandwich from the kitchen?” I asked timidly.
“Did you not get any dinner?” Oksana asked.
“I couldn’t eat it,” I admitted.
“Why? Were you too upset after the mistake?” she asked.
“No. I was very hungry, but the dinner frightened me.”
“What did they serve you?”
“A big pink brain?”
“Why did you ask for brains?” she asked, surprised.
“I didn’t ask for it.”
“Did they not offer you a menu this week?”
“It was in German.”
“You need to ask for help if you don’t understand,” Oksana chided me. “All the staff here must speak English.”
“That’s why I put up the sign!”
Oksana brought me a meatloaf sandwich. Even served cold it tasted exquisite. Food in Kyiv in the wintertime had been scarce for people without local passports. Without a ration card, we had only onions, eggs and Pepsi to eat. During an economic depression it does not matter what type of currency you carry in your wallet if there is nothing on the shelf to buy. Supermarkets were empty. Whenever a new shipment of bread arrived at the bakery, the lines of usually kind, civilized people dissolved into chaos once they sensed that the truck was nearly empty again. That’s when people started fighting.
“I hear from family that the conditions in Ukraine are really difficult right now. Are they?” Oksanna asked as I ate.
“I like it there. The people are wonderful.” I said.
“How does it compare to Vienna?”
“I visited Vienna last year and loved it. I saw the great museums and listened to an opera in the Staatsoper: Puccini. It was heavenly. But now, it’s all so confusing to me. I never realized how rich Americans and Europeans are until I saw life in Ukraine. Vienna is so refined, so orderly and clean. Life in Kyiv is desperate right now.
“Can you buy food there?”
“I’ve had to fight for bread a few times. It can be pretty bad when there has been no bread in the shops for three days. People can get really forceful.”
“Is that how you got injured?”
“No. That was just bad luck.”
With the official break-up of the Soviet Union, the economic situation went from bad to worse. Only the best connected bureaucrats and officers in Kyiv maintained any semblance of their standard of living before Gorbachev’s reforms created economic pandamonium. Without an iron fist gripping the levers, the Soviet economy flew off the rails. Basic human services were no longer able to be provided in many neighborhoods and villages. Uncollected rubbish rotted and stank in the city.
“Will you stay in Vienna or go back to America after you heal? Or will you go back to Kyiv maybe?”
“Vienna is wonderful. This room is so clean. I can get food whenever I want it. I can drink the water from the tap, and there is Swiss chocolate in the vending machines. Couldn’t ask for better. But I will go back as soon as the doctor says I can. As soon as I am out of pain.”
“Why? Why go back if it so bad there?”
“There are people depending on me to go back. People I care about very much.”
“How long were you in Kyiv?”
“Just long enough to learn to speak Russian well. How long have you been here in Austria?”
“Since I was a young girl. My parents left with the other Jews in the late 1970s. The Soviet Union let lots of Jews leave to Israel. My father had family here. So we came here instead.
“Will you ever go back?” I asked.
“We always talk of it. But I know my parents feel safer here, in the west, than there. Politics can change so quickly there, just look how the Soviet Union fell apart last year. We were all shocked.”
Oksana stood to change the drip in my arm. I closed my eyes, whimpered and turned my head the other way.
“Don’t worry. It’s not that bad,” she laughed.
“There was so much blood. I hate blood,” I complained through closed eyes and a clenched jaw.
“Why did it get bloody? It shouldn’t have been bloody.”
“I pinched the tube.” I admitted.
“Because my arm was burning. My hand swelled up like a balloon. It was going all up into my shoulder. I got scared and pinched the tube. It had never hurt like that before.”
“That must have been very frightening.”
“I didn’t know what Mr. Guttenberg was in the hospital for. It could have been chemotherapy for all I knew. Yes, I was panicked!”
“Did you pull the tube out of your hand?”
“Yes. When I saw my blood going up the tube, I pulled it out of my hand. I didn’t know what was happening.”
“What did the nurse say when she came in?”
“She said the one German word I do know. She said, ‘scheizer’ and ran out again.” I chuckled.
“Is that when Nurse Gretchen came in?”
“Not yet. First another doctor came, who spoke English. He was looking for Mr. Guttenberg. That’s when I realized that it was his name on the medicine bottle I was hooked up to. Nurse Grechin came in only after I had taken the bottle down and the needle out of my hand. My arm, my shirt, the sheets were all stained with my blood by then. I was in a bit of a panic. Gretchen started yelling at me in German. So, I turned the bottle around so she could read Guttenberg’s name written on it. Her face went white, and she ran out of the room too.”
“Didn’t anybody say anything to you?”
“No! I asked Gretchen if this was bad for me, but she didn’t answer. The other nurse who came to clean everything up, she wouldn’t even talk to me. I asked everybody who came in if Guttenberg’s medicine was going to hurt me or not. It was very scary for a few minutes.”
“But you didn’t want to have Sven fired? Even after all that?”
“Did Gretchen tell you that?”
“We all heard that you said you didn’t want him fired. So he wasn’t fired,” Oksana revealed.
“Why should he be fired? It was half my fault.”
“Are you mad at him?” she asked.
“No. We shook hands later and agreed that I would have a funny story to tell one day.”
With my drip changed and a fresh needle in my hand, Oksana cleared my plate and empty glass.
“Get some sleep, its two-thirty,” she ordered fluffing my pillow and tucking the sheets under the corners of the mattress. “If you need anything more, I am on duty until six o’clock. Just call. I’ll be right outside.”
I closed my eyes and drifted slowly out of consciousness, lulled into a warm sleep with the help a meatloaf sandwich and the fresh IV of painkillers, both just enough to last me through the night.