Everything Is Going Wrong, Part 2: The Kidney Stone

I’d started writing another Part 2 but that will have to wait…because today, I can share with you all the drama of our first medical emergency abroad!

BTW – I cleared this with Ralph. Might be a little TMI – but there’s also some useful information on what to expect if you end up in a German hospital. 😉

Everything started out great a couple of Fridays ago. We were so productive! The most exciting part was taking delivery of our car, which we hadn’t seen for months – complete with a collection of stowaway cicadas (all dead!) courtesy of the Port of Baltimore.

But after we picked up the Esso card which gets us VAT-free gas in Germany, Ralph started wincing in pain. There was a sharp stabbing sensation on his left side. Could it be…another kidney stone? He’d had one in the 90s and believe me, I’ve heard the story a time or two. The WORST pain of his life.

We got in the car and started to drive off base, but it was getting stronger by the second. I had him switch with me so I could drive us home. By the time we got to the apartment (only 10 mins or so) the pain was so severe he was nauseated and struggling to walk.

He laid on the couch and I started looking for those papers with recommended hospitals. Google showed that the nearest two were both 40+ mins away with the Friday afternoon traffic. Not a great option.

Ralph moaned from the couch “call the parademics.”

Shit was getting real!

Um…how?

I’d read through the emergency info months before and couldn’t recall a single thing.

“Dial 112!”

So I did.

Entshuldigung. Ich lerne Deustche. Sprechen sie Englisch?”

Luckily, the operator spoke enough English to copy down our address and the details. It wasn’t long before we heard the sound of the multi-tone siren blaring down the busy road. I sent one boy out to walk the dog, and the other to let the emergency crews inside.

They started an IV, busted out a well-stocked medical kit with vials upon vials of medicines, and got to work. Three separate teams arrived, and they did an EKG before popping Ralph into the ambulance to take him to the nearest hospital.

I couldn’t go because of COVID precautions, but one of the EMTs gave me a card with a list of hospitals on it and put an X next to the right one. Handy!

That night, they did a CT scan to figure out where the stone was. If it was passable, the plan was to send him home with pain meds. If not, the alternative was a procedure called a ureteroscopy (sounds fun already, doesn’t it)?

I bet you can guess which option was necessary. Yup – the surgery.

So they kept him overnight, and the next day I arrived with all the basics – phone charging cable, underwear, deodorant, etc.

But first, I prepared for the visit by researching what I wanted to say. Basically, “I am looking for my husband. He is here preparing for surgery” which in Google translate reads something like this: “Ich suche meinen Mann. Er bereitet sich hier auf die Operation vor.”

I told this to the security guard and she waved me on to the next step – speaking with a woman at a booth.

I instantly picked up on a bad vibe. This woman was staring intently at a computer screen and even after four minutes had not acknowledged my presence. There was another couple speaking with the woman next to her, and it was unclear if I should advance or wait until they left. Ugh.

Finally, she called me over and I gave her my rehearsed line. I told her Ralph’s name but she says he’s not at the hospital.

“Ya, er ist hier!” I insist.

Then she starts giving me attitude, saying “WO IST DEIN MANN?” louder and louder, with her eyes all big and mean. And I’m all like, “GENAU. WO IST MEIN MANN?” (which means, “EXACTLY. WHERE is my husband?”)

She starts throwing out all these names of different medical departments and I’m approximately 0% prepared for this. I’ve been proud of my progress with the language so far – I can go to restaurants, ask a few questions, understand a few things. But my German medical knowledge is non-existent.

This is so different from in the US. I thought I could just tell her his name and she’d look him up and then I’d be on my way.

Thankfully, the other woman came over and sorted things out. She directed me to the B-corridor and without so much as signing in, I’m off wandering the halls of the hospital, looking for Room 28.

I find the room and call out “Ralph – are you in there?” Awkward – but there aren’t any names on the door. Luckily, I don’t end up surprising a stranger, and we have a good visit before it’s time for me to head out so he can prep for surgery. Instead of doing it in the morning, emergent cases pushed his time slot until later in the day.

Now I’m no nervous Nellie, but as the hours ticked on with no word from Ralph, I started getting anxious. His phone was off, so I tried calling the hospital. After speaking with four people, I was transferred over to his doctor who said that he was out and things went okay.

Okay does not sound great. Maybe it’s because the Germans are a little less enthusiastic with the adjectives, but I was hoping for something like “super!” or “mega!”

Eventually, Ralph calls me and says that he’s in his room, he has no idea what happened, and his kidney doesn’t hurt as much – but his bladder is killing him. Hmm…

Later that night, everything hurts so bad that it’s impossible to pee. They take him down to the ER where they work some magic (aka do gross things that are too graphic to write here) and someone mentions something that chills him to the bone.

The stone was too big and they couldn’t get it out.

Hold up…what?!

In these hours, I’m becoming so empathetic for what it’s like to feel completely in the dark because of the language barrier. I have so many questions and no answers.

Fortunately, one of Ralph’s coworkers sent us the information for a patient advocate. This is a person who speaks fluent German and English and understands all the medical things. They translate the information for you so you know what is going on and what to expect. Just as she called with her info from talking to the nurses and doctors, the surgeon himself came in to share the update.

We learn the next morning that the stone was indeed too big to remove, so instead, they placed a Double-J stent inside the kidney and bladder. Are you twitching just thinking about it? Yeah…me too.

Then they gave us discharge papers and a couple blister packs filled with pain meds. There was nothing to sign, no one to wait for, and no wheelchair ride out to the car. So very different from the US!

I’ll spare you the details of what happened next, except to say that after an exceptionally painful 13 days, multiple visits to other doctors, specialists and yet another surgery, we are back home and Ralph is feeling much, much better.

So what did we learn from four overnights at two different hospitals? I’ll put a list below, but keep in mind that everything can change from one visit to the next! It’s also worth mentioning that yes, we are Americans who don’t yet speak a ton of German, and that may have impacted our experience. Plus, this all happened during the time of COVID, and regular procedures may vary. But in case you find this useful, here ya go!

Things We Noticed About Healthcare in Germany

  • Hospital bracelet? Maybe... One time, Ralph got one – the other time, nope.
  • Use your patient advocate. In the States these were people you’d engage if things went wrong, but if you have access to one, the patient advocate is your LIFELINE. She did the research, made and canceled appointments, translated info, and came up with alternatives when things weren’t working for us. I can’t be more thankful for her help!
  • Unless it’s a major operation, don’t expect a call. This one really got me, especially since I couldn’t wait at the hospital. NO ONE called me after either surgery to let me know he made it out okay, even when I specifically requested it. I had to wait until he was lucid enough to text me.
  • So…how’d your surgery go? Unlike the U.S. where the doc usually comes to tell you how things went once you’re awake, there was no post-surgery update. Awake and alive? Yes. But did they get the kidney stone? Hmmm…just wait until the doctor makes his rounds in the morning and you’ll find out then. WEIRD…am I right??
  • Pack your bags! In Germany they won’t kick you out like they do in the U.S. You should be prepared to stay a night or two, so bring your toiletries, towels, and a phone charger. Get comfy!
  • Discharge is super chill. Seriously. Like they might slip you a couple of papers in an envelope and a blister pack of meds and tell you goodbye. Nothing to sign, no big procedure. Then you just shuffle on out on your own!
  • Huge hospitals, but strangely empty. In my wanderings I was struck by just how huge and empty these places were – maybe because of COVID? In the US, around 7am the line the hospital parking lot is booming and employees are marching into the hospital like an army of ants. Not here! It was sleepy and I could park right in front of the hospital. The halls were dark and it was rare to see other people – not even a bustling nurse’s station. Kinda gave me the heebie jeebies, honestly!

Overall, I guess we had a good experience, though we are still recovering from the stress of this protracted ordeal.

Ralph said the nurses treated him well, and he felt lucky to have two Spanish-speaking nurses so he could get a clearer picture of what was going on. We still haven’t been billed yet, so that will be the next big difference as medical care tends to be less expensive here.

We are glad to be inching back to normalcy and happy to put this chapter behind us!

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