Our theme for the month of October is “the elements.”
A couple of weeks ago Calvin recommended some cuts to alleviate budget shortfalls. Included among them was the German major. The theme for this month is “the elements,” the things that make us what we are. As I owe only a little less than the entirety of my post-collegiate life to the German department and the education I received there, I feel obligated to share a few thoughts. But first I want to tell a story.
Two years ago in Vienna, my sister Anneke was rushed into emergency surgery because of stomach pains. She was studying abroad as part of a Central College program, a program that has come to rely on Calvin students just as much as students from the host institution. I was there because I had done the same program two years prior, had fallen in love with Austria, and had come back after graduating.
We take a taxi to the hospital. Anneke doesn’t have Austrian insurance, and who knows what an ambulance costs? On the insistence of some nurses, despite Anneke’s still comprehensible objections, we go first to the urologist, who gives her a test, diagnoses her with a urinary tract infection, and sends us on our way, telling us that sure, if we want to we can swing by the gynecologist for another opinion on our way out. The episode is already playing far too easily into my conceptions of socialized health care.
Anneke, now unable to speak, walk more than three consecutive steps, or stand up straight, nods her head at me to indicate that she considers this a good idea. We navigate the publicly-funded halls of the Allgemeines Krankenhaus (AKH), one of the best-reputed hospitals in the city. She’s clutching her side with her hands and stops every two meters to lurch forward in pain. It’s a grim scene only enhanced by our surroundings. There are no pastel wallpaper prints or upholstered waiting room sofas, just a grid of fluorescent corridors ushering patients and their horrified brothers from WARTERAUM U3 to WARTERAUM G7. On the way, we pass the man we later learn is the gynecologist, who even given my sister’s rapidly-deteriorating state, might mistakenly think that I, my face transfixed in a state of wide-eyed, lock-jawed dread, am the patient.
We wait a half hour before Anneke can see him. I’m told to wait in G7, which is color-coded green to distinguish itself from the other numbered G waiting rooms. The way the overhead lights meets the green walls almost sets the room in motion. When I’m called in, Anneke is not just nonverbal, but non-expressive. She’s sitting on a hospital chair, breathing in abbreviated bursts, clasping her left side with her one hand and holding a bloody tissue in the other.
The doctor tells me she has a Zyste im Eierstock, which means cyst in egg stick, which means cyst in ovary. Then he tells me it’s the size of a softball and has tangled itself up in the adjoining blood vessels, and they need to operate and potentially remove some, if not all, of the egg stick—or ovary—but it’s okay, she’ll still be able to have kids. I remember that oh yeah, that’s what an ovary—or egg stick—is for. He pauses for only a second when I tell him Anneke is insured in the United States, but not in Austria. “Wurst,” he says, which means “sausage,” or “Shut up, stupid American, that doesn’t matter right now.”
They wheel her into the hallway on a hospital bed. Before they cart her off, Anneke expends her first words in hours to tell me not to cry. The surgeon comes to take her away and tells me to go home and come back in an hour or two.
Obsessed as they are with the macabre, the Viennese are said to dream of a “schene Leich” (beautiful corpse). As the nurses steer her away, it occurs to me that we may never be as authentically Viennese as we are in this moment. I mutter a prayer that Anneke might, for the next hour and a half, resist total cultural immersion.
Two hours later I’m back in the AKH, sitting on the mustard tile floor, dialing every ten minutes a phone number that is supposed to connect me with a nurse who will update me as to my sister’s status. She’ll be out in fifteen minutes, I’m told, then an additional twenty, then fifteen more. A cheery old woman comes from around the corner, sits down next to me, and tells me first with her beaming smile, then with her accented German, that her daughter just had twins. She explains that she came to Austria thirty-some years ago from what was then Yugoslavia and that she likes it here, but she still doesn’t know why the Viennese are so cranky. I tell her I need to get up and walk around. She says goodbye, wishes me the best, and tells me she hopes Anneke can have twins someday too.
While pacing the halls, I run into the surgeon in front of the elevators. He extends his operating hand and I shake it. The operation went well, he says. They had to remove part of the egg stick—ovary—which they’ll send to a lab to test.
When I see her again, Anneke is reclined on a hospital cart, hands at her side. She can barely move, but she can breathe, speak for the first time in hours, and eat the chocolates my friends bring her. Three days later, before we leave the hospital, we swipe a credit card and send the receipt to an American insurance agent, who happily agrees to cover the costs. He’s probably seen more expensive hospital elevator rides in the States. The next day, Anneke feels healthy enough to disregard the advice of my parents and her nurses and board a train to Italy, leaving half of a lab-bound ovary behind.
On Thursday I woke up to the news that the German major was being retained. Living and working in Germany, I’m recognizing daily new ways in which I’m indebted to the liberal arts. Here, especially in the corporate world, my liberal arts background has more than once required an explanation (inevitably a defense) of the liberal arts. What can the liberal arts teach us today?
Maybe we can go to an Austrian operating room for the answer. What can the liberal arts teach us? Not just the virtues of socialized health care or the German word for ovary, not only how different cultures respond to life and death. They teach us who we are, what we’re really made of, and the things that stay with us even after they’re taken away.