Is there anything more terrifying than going to the doctor? Yes, I think there is. But the worst is going to the doctor as a foreigner in Spain or another country that doesn’t speak your language.
In my early days in Madrid, I’d take my husband along. I’m not sure why, as I’d only seem to get into worse trouble. Take for example the time I went for my first routine breast examination. I’d only just arrived in Spain and my Spanish was extremely limited. We entered the doctor’s office and he mentioned something about “undressing”. When I asked my husband what he’d said, he replied. “He asked you to go behind the screen and take everything off”. I thought this was quite odd for a breast exam but sheepishly obeyed.
Eight years later, and I can still picture the horror of the doctor and nurse when they ventured behind the petition and found me standing there in my birthday suit. When I saw their shocked reactions, I immediately turned the color of a beetroot and started sweating profusely. The faster I tried to dress, the more I stumbled around trying to put my clothing back on! Oh, the shame!
I don’t know what is worse, trying to muddle your way through an appointment in Spanish, or when you get a kindly medic who offers to speak in English. “Miss Six” at one point had a very sweet and very old pediatrician. He insisted on carrying out the consultations in English, but every time he spoke he´d wrongly label the parts of the body. I tried to insist that “I didn´t mind speaking in Spanish”, but to no avail. After one too many diagnoses of “needing drops in her elbow” for an earache, I decided we needed to change doctors.
The problem is, even after several years of conversational Spanish, just how many times are you going to use the word gallbladder or bile duct in day-to-day banter? Sometimes after my medical visits, even my husband who is a native can’t tell me what certain medical terms are without looking them up. So, what chance do I have of working these things out!
Then there are the medical professionals who never admit they speak English. I went to a consultant four times and he never once let on that he was completely bilingual. I sat there stumbling my way through, literally inventing my own language when words failed me. It was only after a friend went to see him that I learned from her that all their appointments were always in English.
I think it´s always polite to try and speak the host language, and then cross my fingers I´m going to come across a medic who spent ten years studying at the Harvard Medical Centre. I have come across a great ultrasound specialist at the local hospital who is only too happy to brush up on his rather rusty English. On one visit when he was asking me to describe my symptoms he said, “Do you feel like you are going to puke?”. I gently pointed out you’d only use the term “puke” if you were a teenager talking about alcohol-related experiences. I told him the word “nausea” was much more suitable.
The most serious and potentially dangerous consequence of not understanding properly can lead to serious problems. I had a friend who was worried that after three days her daughter wasn’t responding to the medication she’d been given. When I checked the script, she’d misunderstood the doses of the antibiotics. Thankfully she had been underdosing rather than overdosing her child.
Oh yes, and try and go with someone. Two years ago when I broke a bone in my foot I went alone to the closest private hospital where I was x-rayed and plastered up in no time. I was then wheeled to the waiting room. I then asked for the crutches so I could make my way home. I was told that I had to go to the pharmacy to get them. I was like a boat without oars. How could I go and get them when I had a plaster cast halfway up my leg??? My husband was stuck in a meeting and couldn’t come. Finally, after an hour and a half, another friend arrived but had been held by language problems. She’d gone to the pharmacy and asked for ¨maletas¨which means suitcases, rather than ¨muletas¨which mean crutches!
If I had “white coat syndrome” before moving to Spain, then I certainly have it threefold now. My best plan of attack now is prevention. Hopefully, if I keep eating an apple a day, this will keep the doctors well and truly away!
English Speaking Medical Services
“Treatment in Spain”
Provides information regarding healthcare and services throughout Spain.
Has a specialized medical and dental directory in English regarding health and dental care in Spain. Also has an English speaking Customer Service line.
Telephone: 902 102 400
Unidad Medicina Angloamericana
Private English speaking medical group.
Calle Conde de Aranda number 1, izqda
Telephone: 91 435 1823 or 647 870 068
Ana Suarez – Gynaecologist UK trained
Telephone: 91 730 2684
By Suzanne Bernard – an Australian ex BBC Television journalist and producer who has lived in Spain for ten years. Her husband, who she met while working in London is a Madrileño, and they have a six year old bilingual daughter. Suzanne lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Amsterdam before settling in Spain.
Read our blog to know more about the lifestyle as a foreigner in Madrid