Well that was different.
If you are a frequent traveler, like me, you might long, at times, for an "authentic experience" when in a foreign country--something off the beaten path of the normal tourist route. You might even hope to pass as a native, rather than just another slack-jawed, mouth-breathing, Fodor-toting American. This is understandable. But now that I have paved the way on at least one authentic experience in a foreign country, let me publicly state that it's really not all it's cracked up to be. Yes, two days ago I got to take a ride in an ambulance in Madrid and check in to a hospital, after passing out on the floor of the Prado museum, and after enduring all of that, I'm going to go ahead and strongly recommend that you just stick with the tourist tour. Trust me on this one.
In retrospect, it's funny how much the body and brain try to warn you in advance. Why we don't listen, I do not know. But consider it a New Year's Resolution that I will be doing that more in 2010.
New Year's Day in San Lorenzo de El Escorial was spent in much the same way as New Year's Eve was: Eating (a LOT) and drinking (alcohol). On the eating part, there's no two ways around it: I pigged out. As did everyone. The food here is phenomenal--especially if you are a carnivore. So even though I was still full from our New Year's Eve feast, on New Year's Day we had yet another feast, which went on, in true European style, for hours.
This was accompanied, as of course it should be, by booze. I am not a very good drinker. I'm a lightweight, and I honestly don't really enjoy it all that much, other than beer---and even then, if I order a second pint it's a somewhat rare occasion (needing to get on a motorcycle afterwards contributes to this, but even at home, not driving or riding, I'll only ever have one.) I do enjoy wine quite a bit, which is a requisite if you are going to marry a French person, but, I don't know my 50 year old vintage Cabernets from my 2009 Boone's Farm. That's one of those Life Projects I have yet to attend to. And hard liquor? Forget it. It sure looks great in the movies when tough guys pound down shots of whiskey, but, sadly, that is not the lifestyle for me. And yet, it was New Years Day. And we were eating a ton. So, really, the red wine, white wine, champagne, and whatever that hard liquor was at the end did not make any of us actually "drunk". And I poured less, and stopped earlier, than any of the other adults anyway, knowing my limits. Still, there was way more alcohol than usual in my body, and guess how much water it was all accompanied by? Zero. Not one glass, not one drop, either during the meal, or the rest of the night before falling asleep (sober) hours later.
The next morning, we got up to go to the Prado. Whether the subsequent incident was entirely alcohol related is, in fact, not entirely clear. Two other people--our friend Belen, who has been hosting us and cooked the fabulous feast, and her 8-year-old son David---both were feeling queasy, and it's certain that David did not have any booze, at least that we saw. So there's the possibility that there was some kind of virus floating around.
In any event, by the time we were in the car, I clearly was not 100 percent. As we had been doing the entire trip, our party was divided into two cars: The Woman Wagon and The Manmobile (or Der Mensch Machine, in deference to both my and Eric's love of Kraftwerk), due to the large size of our group. The great thing about Der Mensch Machine is that we had the iPod with us, piping through the car stereo speakers. On most drives, this is cranked to something appropriately loud and rockin: Mastodon, Aerosmith, and Primus all were prominent soundtracks to our Spanish voyages. On this morning, however, I asked for something mellow, because I was not feeling too good. Andres Segovia was the music of choice. And because I had woken up feeling a bit queasy, I passed not only on coffee (a true sign that something was wrong with me), but also on any food whatsoever--until The Wife force-fed one lone piece of bread on me.
But we were no more than a few kilometers from home when my brain/body began sending out an urgent message. As we drove out of El Escorial on the highway, I announced to Eric, "Ya know, I'd like to buy a bottle of water before we go to the museum." I personally felt no particular urgency about it--yet--but it definitely was on my mind that I wanted water. Nothing else. Just water. We drove along into Madrid with no further incident, but after parking in the garage near the Prado, I got out of the car and immediately felt lightheaded. I gripped, for a moment, on one of the cement columns in the garage, just to regain my balance. No one noticed, and I didn't comment on it, but at this point I knew something was up and that I needed to do something.
The Woman Wagon arrived moments later, and we walked the two short blocks to the museum, amidst the New Years Day crowd. A gigantic line awaited us at the museum, but being the resourceful, modern humans we are, we had smartly purchased tickets online earlier, and were thus able to go immediately to the Smarter People's Entrance, where there was no waiting. But my situation was rapidly worsening.
It turned out there was a snafu with the online tickets, and so The Wife and I were allowed to enter, while the rest remained outside for a couple minutes while the problem was being cleared up. But no sooner had The Wife and I set foot in the museum (we had been told to "go ahead and get started") than I said I needed to sit down, and that I needed her to find me some water. I sat on a bench, next to some other tourists, and, remembering multiple movie scenes, put my head down almost between my legs, because I vaguely recalled that might help me in some way. It didn't, but it didn't make things worse either.
The Wife came back a few minutes later, with a 7Up, all she could find, and just as the rest of our party was arriving inside. Happy that I had some kind of liquid, at least, I chugged half the can immediately, and got up to join them as we all beelined to Heironymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, not only one of the most famous masterpieces at the Prado, but also, conveniently, one of the paintings located closest to the entrance. As expected, there was a huge mass of humanity clustered around the painting, and I only survived about 30 seconds in that dogpile before having to bail out, without really getting a look at it, because the heat and crush of people was about the last thing my body could take at that point. Instead, I went solo to a couple paintings that had no one around them, and was trying to enjoy them but was now feeling worse than ever.
So I made a quick decision: I needed to sit down. Or even lie down. I needed to tell everyone else to go ahead. I'd catch up. After the rest of our group emerged from the Boschpile, I announced said plan, but, because they were all heading up one floor and they didn't want me to get lost, they said to come up with them and find a bathroom and/or place to sit down up there. I was feeling like this was a mistake. I wanted to sit down RIGHT NOW and not take another step. But I was outnumbered and was rapidly losing energy.
So we walked to the elevator. It felt, to me, like it was taking hours to arrive. I said to The Wife I need to sit down now, I can't wait for this. The doors opened. A mass of people were already inside. We inched our way in. I put my hand on The Wife's shoulder. My head was swimming. I felt myself leaving the scene, rising somewhere above the elevator. The last thing I remember was hearing her call my name. And that was that.
My next conscious moment was right out a movie or TV show. Now I know why they have scenes like that. From a totally black screen, the camera opens on a shot of a whole mass of faces looking down on me, looking concerned. I had no idea where I was. I had been dreaming. I thought I was back home in bed. I only recognize my wife's face. All the others are unfamiliar to me. I feel someone holding my legs up. I can't keep my eyes open. People are talking to me but it sounds as if I'm underwater. I can't really understand what anyone is saying to me. Then it starts coming through: "Can you hear me Jeff?" my wife is asking. I can. I tell her. Yes. I can hear you. I feel the cold on my back now. I'm on the floor. The mass of faces looking down at me: Oh jeez, I'm at the museum. I'm on the floor at the museum, and there is a crowd around me. I can't keep my eyes open and I am freezing. I'm hearing various English phrases "He's American", "he fell on me in the elevator" accompanied by lots of Spanish I can't understand. I'm trying to talk and keep my eyes open but it's a struggle. I realize that everything is completely blurry out of my right eye, and only find out later that my contact lens had popped out when I fell.
As I start to come to, I feel terrible. I mean, emotionally. It's the first conscious thing I really remember: I've ruined the trip to the museum. I've turned this big outing for two families into a personal emergency. I start telling them to go ahead, I'll be fine. I start apologizing. I keep trying to get up, but I'm being held down, gently, by two women now, both doctors who have arrived on the scene--one employed by the museum, another an Italian tourist who stumbled upon the scene of the collapsed American. Her husband handed me a water bottle. I am alternating between feeling better and wanting to sleep. My hands and feet are freezing. The museum doctor has taken my pulse and blood pressure, and my blood pressure is low, but not alarmingly so. I'm feeling like it's starting to pass. Which it kind of is.
The worst of it is all over.
Sensing no further drama--I'm not going to die, or cough up blood, or go into some sort of raving spasm--the attendees begin to disperse. I'm no longer experiencing life as a second-by-second alienated befuddlement. I can start to joke about it. Even though I'm still feeling pretty crappy.
It's just a few more minutes before a wheelchair arrives for me, and I'm taken down a couple floors to the museum's little medical room. It makes you wonder how many public buildings like this have secret built-in medical facilities, filled with all sorts of equipment and beds and stuff. How did they know? I'm glad, in any case, and lay down with my wife at my side, my daughter (who has been crying and scared to death, though I've already begun to reassure her that I'm fine) and friends right outside the room. The doctor says I can stay here for awhile and rest up. They bring me water. It's at this point that the diagnoses begin, and we start going through what might have happened, and why. And among all the adults, it's the first time we really realize that no water has been drunk, combined with the previous night's alcohol, combined with the possibility of a virus, combined with the crush of people at the Bosch painting. Not a particularly promising combination, ya think?
I want my family and friends to now move on and try to enjoy the museum. I'm going to be fine. My wife dutifully insists that she wants to stay to me, for which I am reminded once again why I married her. And just at the point where we think I can probably get up and move on, I have a small relapse: My head begins swimming again, I tell my wife I need to throw up, we hurry me over to a sink, with the doctor, and I kind of almost do. This actually makes me feel a little better, but the doctor has now seen enough. Her prognosis: It's time for me to go to the hospital.
I really don't want to do this. It feels like overkill to me. And I know it's suddenly going to turn a relatively small incident into an ordeal. But, we understand where she's coming from. She's not being Nurse Ratchet here. She's just doing her job. An ambulance is called, the paramedics come, ask me questions that I am helpless to answer, thanks to craptactular public high school Spanish from which I've only retained one single phrase ("Donde esta la casa de Pepe?") that does me no good here, and then soon I am being wheeled through the museum and into the ambulance, once again a cool new exhibit for the tourists to observe. It's The Collapsed American! Today Only! Take your pictures now!
We cruise through the streets of Madrid. There's no windows in the ambulance, so I can't see any sights. I hear the siren going occasionally, which is cool and makes me feel important. I remember I have my Flip videocamera in my pocket, and instantly realize that filming this might make for a cool YouTube video, but I only get about a minute in before The Wife yanks it away with a kind of "are you kidding me?" remark. But, hey, I was a journalist! It's what we're trained to do!
By the time we get to the hospital, the feeling shared by me, The Wife, and Belen, who has accompanied us in the ambulance to help with translation, is that we are approaching overkill. And Belen's worry, shared by the ambulance driver, is that because we are now entering the largest public hospital in Madrid (socialized medicine--it's free! HEY MAYBE WE SHOULD TRY THAT TOO, AMERICA), it's going to take hours to get me settled in, and that this is liable to only make me feel worse, when what I really outta do is just go lie down somewhere. Unfortunately, the paramedics' hands were tied: They can't defy the museum doctor's orders. And, like I said, we understood why she ordered it. But now we just kinda want to get out of here and get me home.
It only takes about 3 minutes before a doctor approaches me in the wheelchair and looks at my chart, takes my pulse and blood pressure, and says that I seem to be okay now, if a bit cold. Belen explains the situation. The doctor looks around the waiting room, which is full, and then down at me, a clearly recovering dumb American, and pretty much agrees. Get this moron home and into bed. She does, graciously, say she wants to do one thing first before actually releasing me: An electrocardiogram, just to be sure. If anything is up with my heart, I'm staying. But otherwise, I'm free to go, and they'll just not type up anything and forget I ever walked in here. No paperwork for them, no day in the hospital for me. Win win.
I pass the electrocardiogram. Hallelujah. We cab back to the museum. I joke that maybe now we can go back inside and I can see the damn museum at last. But, yeah, no. They drive me home. I fall asleep in the car. We get home, they put me in bed, and other than one 1/2 hour revival, in which I stumbled downstairs to watch a game of Risk begin, I proceed to sleep for the next 16 hours, straight.
And that's pretty much The End! Yesterday, the day after this fun event, I was back up, and we had a completely normal, touristy day in the wonderful, walled town of Avila. The only difference for me? I was now carrying around a humongous bottle of Aquarius, which I believe is the Spanish equivalent of Gatorade. I had chugged two full bottles of it before leaving the house, and will drink this entire tank of it before the day ends.
I could have done with that out-of-body experience. More important, I could have done without scaring my loved ones, who got it worse than me. They had to watch me lose consciousness with my eyes open, talking to me and getting no response, my contact lens flopping out of my eye, my face going bloodless. No one should have to experience that.
So listen to me when I tell you, gang: Drink water. Drink it a lot. Keep your dang selves hydrated, for cryin' out loud. It's just basic survival we're talking about here.
But if you do have to collapse in a foreign country, I can say, as an experienced traveler now, that you may not get any finer care than in the Museo Del Prado in Madrid. Museum experience: Unknown. Medical facilities: 5 stars! Highly recommended!
I'll see y'all back in the US real soon.
Editor's Note: Two late edits, one for political correctness by my kid, the other for accuracy. "Girl Wagon" is now "Woman Wagon", and Spanish drink now correctly identified as "Aquarius."
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