Bleeding Abroad: My First Visit To A Foreign Hospital

This is the second post I've written after finishing Nomadic Matt and David Farley's Travel Writing Course. Let me know if you can notice the difference!


I'm standing in the kitchen of a fish restaurant with a man who, I'm told, is a brain surgeon. On a stainless steel counter in front of a large window overlooking the ocean he is examining my hand, poking and prodding away at my ring finger which is tingling with the loss of sensation. It's also bleeding profusely, for I've just severed the tendon on a broken porcelain jar.

“If it was just your skin, I could sew it here no problem but your tendon is perhaps 70-80% cut. You will need to go to the hospital I think.”

The wound, while unattractive, is far from life threatening. Were I in my Canadian hometown of Napanee I would have simply strolled over to the hospital, perhaps after popping home to grab my e-reader for the inevitable wait.

But I'm not in Canada, I'm in Sweden. On an island. A particularly small island, at that.

The Island of Åstol in Sweden

This particularly small island – a mere 0.15 square kilometres – is called Åstol. Residing on this off-the-beaten-path isle are just over 200 inhabitants, the majority of which only stay for the oh-so-fleeting summer months. Once a fishing mecca, the island is now home to an interesting mix of Old Guard fishermen and younger well-to-do Swedes, many of whom also own houses on the mainland or abroad. Boasting a cozy cafe, a simple grocery store, and a posh restaurant (where I presently find myself bleeding), the island really has all one's basic needs covered. All it's missing is the sunny, sweltering heat one might expect from summer. Where my home province of Ontario offers 30 degree sunshine and stifling humidity, Sweden offers 20 degrees, stiff winds, and a midnight sun. Something of a fair trade, I suppose.

While the weather may be different, I'm fortunate that the health care systems are relatively similar. That is to say, my upcoming hospital visit wont cost me an arm or a leg...or a finger, I hope. My private brain surgeon suggests I visit the emergency room in Kungälv, a Swedish town on the outskirts of Gothenburg, the nation's second largest city. It will require a boat ride to the mainland followed by a 40 minute car ride to the hospital. Presently I have access to neither a car nor a boat, and as the surgeon deftly wraps my throbbing wound in a sterilized bandage I watch the ferry come and go. It wont be back for almost 2 hours and I'd rather not sit around bleeding until then. There is a helipad on the island, though my ego isn't quite that demanding nor my injury so serious. I'll have to find my own ride.

The ferry to and from Åstol.

The ferry to and from Åstol.

Leif, one of the co-owners of Åstols Rökeri  (the restaurant whose floors I've now stained with blood) has volunteered to take me to the hospital. He is a charming, charismatic man and his kindness is most appreciated. Halfway to his house to grab his keys (a walk of about 200 meters) we run into another island local – my partner's sister – who is already on her way to the mainland. I hitch a ride with her, clutching my semi-severed appendage as the waves bump and jostle the small vessel all the way to the mainland.

With only one functioning hand I struggle to phone my partner Christine who is visiting family in a nearby town. She's already two glasses into a bottle of red wine, knee-deep in Netflix. Not only is she reluctant to drive (“I'm in the middle of a movie!”) she's too inebriated to do so – Swedish law is zero tolerance, and rightly so. I nevertheless force her to tag along and share in the inconvenient journey to the hospital, relying on her generous sister to be my makeshift ambulance driver.

After traveling to over thirty countries this is my first visit to a foreign hospital. Sure, I've had my teeth cleaned in Thailand (zero cavities!) but that hardly generates the excitement of an emergency room visit. This is also my second time visiting Kungälv, the first visit being only a few weeks prior when I stopped at the cookie factory here. I walked away with almost 300 cookies and likely another reason to visit that dentist in Thailand.

We enter the emergency waiting room and take a number – because everything in Sweden involves taking a number. It really isn't much different from Canada, though, which was reassuring. There's a poorly-maintained kids section littered with out-dated toys, half a dozen glossy (and boring) magazines, and of course a close-captioned TV. The waiting game begins.

When my number is called, Christine explains the situation to the secretary. After taking my essential details she then hands me a brochure all about the hospital. It also includes my "emergency ranking," a colour-coded system used to determine who has first dibs on treatment. Red is the most severe, green the least; yellow and orange make up the middle. I've been given a yellow ranking, which means I'll be waiting...but not as long as anyone not bleeding. I was hoping for orange.

I wait only a few minutes before being taken through triage, though as anyone who has been to a hospital knows it's here that the real wait begins. I've got a bed at least, and there is even free wifi though the brochure reminds me – in english, no less – not to take any photos or video. I promptly choose not to comply, sending blood image after bloody image with zero explanation to my family, counting down the minutes until I get a frantic email from my dear mother. I'm eventually hooked up to an IV (another first!) though I think this is done purely to keep me from goofing off with my camera. Well played, Sweden.

Injured in Sweden

An hour passes. I talk to a young doctor who, after freezing my hand, pokes away at the wound. I watch my skin bubble up as he injects me with anesthetic, feeling a cold, slow numbing trickle as he nimbly peels back the skin. I'm gritting my teeth out of more disgust than pain as he investigates, for the hanging flap of bloody skin reminds me of pickled ginger, perfectly sliced. I worry I'll never be able to look at sushi the same way. As the numbness now encompasses my entire arm he informs me that he needs a second opinion (apparently the opinion of Åstol's brain surgeon doesn't count) and so we wait for another doc. And wait. And wait.

I get up and wander around, dragging the inconvenient IV bag with me as I head to the bathroom. I can hear the occasional groan echo in the scentless environment; mumbled conversations and squeaking wheelchairs are some of the only noises that escape into the soundless and sterile hallway. As I shuffle along, passing room after room, I catch glimpses into the lives of others. I see bed-ridden elderly, half clad and immobile. I hear the dragging footsteps of people like me, those just passing through, as they come and go having received their stitches or crutches. Most of us are here just for the day, the result of an unlucky and inconvenient mishap. We can deal with the hassle because of its impermanence; for us there is an ending, an escape in sight. But that escape is not available to everyone.

I watch a few beds roll by carrying stoic patients who are not just passing through and I feel the bleak and bland walls close in around me. This is a pit-stop on my journey, though for far too many it's the final destination. It's a depressingly heavy thought to ponder, especially as I try and go to the bathroom with just one hand – which is a fucking hassle, just fyi. 

Eventually another doctor stops by and does some prodding of her own, declaring I need surgery. After reminding me there is a finite window for repairing a severed tendon I'm told the surgeon wont be back until tomorrow. After spending almost 3 hours at the hospital, me and my dangling finger will have to come back. Just like Canada, indeed.

I return bright and early the following day, sitting through an hour-long bus ride that drops me off at the emergency ward. After checking in I'm promptly told I can, in fact, go home and that they will call me before surgery. I sigh. I explain that I don't, in fact, live nearby and so they rustle up a hospital bed for me to chill out in. Once more I'm hooked up to an IV, and since there isn't much else for me to do I get my nap on.

Eight hours later I'm prepped for surgery, awkwardly discarding my clothes for hospital attire with the help of a friendly nurse of jolly proportions. It is here I'm told that they are actually going to knock me out for the operation, a revelation I find rather shocking and confusing. As I'm wheeled to surgery and brought into the operating room I'm then informed that I wont, in fact, be knocked out but merely given a morphine drip. Not really sure what is happening, I just kick back and let the doctors stab me with their needles, fill my veins with drugs, and do whatever they need to do. A screen is erected so I can't actually view the procedure, leaving me to quietly lay there as they operate on my severed digit. One hour, 3 stitches, and a plaster cast later it's over. My arm completely without feeling, I'm wheeled to the recovery room to, well, recover.

The surgeon pops by briefly to see how I'm doing, informing me that I'll be wearing this cast for the next month after which I'll need to do physiotherapy. I'm completely shocked. A month? AND physio?

“Well, am I able to leave now at least? My ride is here waiting for me...”

The doctor shakes his head no.

“Not yet, sorry. But I can bring you a sandwich.”

I explain that I'm vegan but he assures me that they will have something.

“This is Sweden, we have many vegetarians here!”

A few minutes later a nurse brings over a piece of bread slathered in butter and mayo, topped with a few slices of cucumber and a slab of processed meat.

I politely smile. It's going to be a long month.