Sunday, June 5, 2011

One Temple, Two Hospitals, and a Friend







Recently, I saw a different Vienna -- in the corridor of a hospital neurology unit.

Remember my friend Gillian who has MS? Gillian’s luck ran out and she reluctantly had to accept the IV steroids that her doctor recommended.  Her treatments were administered at the oldest still-operating hospital in Vienna, the Krankenhaus der Barmherzigen Brüder,  (Brothers of Mercy), located in the Second District, Leopoldstadt, the same district of the Prater suicide swings and flak towers we featured in past blogs.  

When we were looking at apartments almost a year ago, our Iraqi taxi driver made this comment as we passed the Second District, “That’s where the Jews live.” The observation was unsolicited and matter-of-fact, but its utterance gave us pause. We’ll write about the tragedy of Jewish Vienna in a future blog, but for now, these few facts and photos will suffice.

Jews: Baptism or death
Temple site
The Second District became a Jewish ghetto in 1625, when it was decreed by Emperor Ferdinand the II that Jews had to live outside the city walls; then in 1699 Emperor Leopold I banished the Jews from the area (I don’t know where they went); then in 1781 Emperor Josef II allowed them back in. All this happened after the first expulsion of the Jews in 1421, when hundreds of Viennese Jews committed suicide rather than be forced to become Christians. And this is only a partial history of a people subject to Vienna’s anti-Semitic whims. 

In 1938, on Krystalnacht, all of Vienna’s synagogues but one were destroyed by Nazis, including what must have been a magnificent temple in the Second District, now commemorated by four stark columns.  A series of plaques on an iron fence where the temple stood (top image) commemorate some of the thousands of Vienna Jews killed in the years after Krystalnacht. 

The Temple

The Church
The Catholic churches and monastery in the Second District had a much less tumultuous history. Jim and I ducked into this one on Sunday, only to discover a small group of Asians worshipping in what sounded like Vietnamese. 

Spending time in a Catholic hospital reminded me of St. Mary’s, the only hospital in Pierre, South Dakota, which was begun in what many Americans consider a long time ago: 1899.

The Viennese Krankenhaus, however, was established in 1614 by Brothers of Mercy, a religious order inspired by an intriguing character, later sainted as John of God. This man, born in Portugal in 1495, either ran away or was kidnapped at age 8. He became a shepherd, a mercenary fighting the Turks, a bookseller, a traveler in Africa, and, when he suddenly found God, an unwilling patient in an insane asylum. Once released, he devoted himself to the care of the sick and mentally ill and to this day is considered the patron saint of nurses. 

A Big Brother of Mercy 
St. Mary’s was begun by five duped Benedictine nuns traveling by train from Yankton with their total savings of $20.


According to St. Mary’s website, Pierre’s city fathers had put out a regional plea for teachers because they needed a school. Many religious orders had declined the offer to move to “such a bleak and desolate area,” but these Benedictines were made of sterner stuff.  The Sisters faced the daunting task of cleaning up a dilapidated, garbage and rodent-filled hotel, the Park Hotel, which had been abandoned seven years earlier. This was to be the site of the new school.  Then the city fathers pulled a bait and switch. The nuns came to create a school, but after the women began cleaning, the men insisted on a hospital instead.
St. Mary's then 

One of the doctors involved in this (who perhaps was a bit bitter) had been unexpectedly stranded in Pierre in 1882. Dr. D.W. Robinson, a Pennsylvanian of Scottish descent (he was apparently a descendant of the well-known Stuart line of Scots, according to the Web) was en route to begin a medical practice on the West Coast, but this highly-educated doctor apparently “misread” the railway brochure and hit the end of the line in Pierre.
Duplicity apparently played a significant role in the civilizing of my hometown. And this ethically ambiguous attitude cost three of the nuns their lives. They succumbed to one of the three scourges of the time – typhoid fever (small pox and pneumonia were the others) – contracted while treating patients rather than teaching children.

St. Mary's later
Back to 2011. Gillian’s husband, Ronnie, accompanied her to her first day of treatments during which her misadventures included an encounter with a “pretty boy” who thought that his handsome face would make up for his ungentle treatment of Gillian’s veins. It didn’t. It only solidified Gillian’s theory that pretty boys should not work in medical fields, and for days she had the bruise to support her view. In addition, she first met a character who would enliven our visits, and of whom we would eventually become somewhat fond, a woman she nicknamed, “Frau Wien,” Mrs. Vienna.

Gillian is decidedly not a fearful person, but to say she is terrified of needles borders on understatement. She suggested that this might be from her childhood when she would rummage for coins in her mother’s purse. Her mother, a psychiatric nurse, had a habit of carrying needles in her handbag. 

Gillian & IV
From Tuesday through Friday, Gillian and I went to the hospital daily, and she received her treatments with amazing composure while sitting in the corridor of the neurology wing. 


It seemed a bit odd, but numerous patients, primarily elderly and clad in either hospital gowns or pajamas, were sitting in the corridor watching life pass by rather than hidden away in their hospital rooms. Gillian, whose experience includes Scottish hospitals as well as a Florida hospital (a horrifying, post-outpatient-surgery, life-threatening experience – take note, those of you who still think the U.S. has the best health care system in the world), found this arrangement initially odd. Here’s how she describes it on her blog: 

I have to admit that I had been pushed a little out of my comfort zone the previous week when I had blood taken (while sitting next to my friend Misti) in a busy corridor, but I had now come to prefer the Austrian approach of ‘corridor treatment’ and saw it as the best possible location for run-of-the-mill medical procedures.
I have a few reasons for this… In a corridor you are a) unlikely to be alone, providing you with both distraction and witnesses, b) unlikely to see trays of scary medical instruments lying around  – causing that horrible stomach churning feeling that the merest glimpse of a sharp, pointy thing can inspire and c) under less pressure to assume the role of ‘sick person’ when you are doing something as normal as sitting next to a coffee table (albeit attached to an IV drip).

The entire procedure took from two to 3 hours, so we had a lot of time to soak in the atmosphere.

Once again, contrary to popular folklore, not everyone speaks English (and there’s no reason why they should). While the neurologist and several of the staff spoke nearly flawless English, a few spoke almost none. With regards to serious medical procedures, this can be disconcerting.

The first day, Gillian had an uncomfortable introduction to Frau Wien. Gillian told me that this woman accosted her any time she was alone demanding “her” chair back in hissing Deutsch, an alarming situation any time, but particularly when your arm is attached via an inserted tube to an IV pole. Gillian was repeatedly rescued by her husband and staff.

Over the next few days, I met Frau Wien, who was dressed in a hospital gown and brightly colored Crocs.  She would speak to us in quick German even after we explained in slow German that we couldn’t understand anything she said.  On Wednesday, after casting many suspicious glances our way, this hunched over woman with a scalp barely covered by wispy strands of gray hair, suddenly approached with a smile and a gift. She handed Gillian a huge wad of crumpled up, coarse toilet paper, which Gillian, masking her horror with a sweet smile, accepted with her free hand, and then placed on the table and subtly pushed as far away as possible, never taking her eyes from Frau Wien’s face and carefully noting her proximity to the IV stand. 

Unfortunately, Frau Wien bumped into the IV stand during one of her “visits”, which “shuggled” (Scottish for jiggled) the line in Gillian’s arm; in any language, this was painful.

One morning Frau Wien wandered the hall clutching foliage, which we coveted but did not receive. On Thursday, we noticed that she had a small pouch around her neck filled with scraps of paper, and in her hands, a dark, dripping object, the identity of which we didn’t even want to know.  Frau Wien followed us to the door to make her escape. I entreated her in my best German to stay put and dashed off to find a “Krankenschwester,” nurse. 

Gillian and I wondered what occupation Frau Wien once had – perhaps a waitress (she liked to carry things) or a spy (perhaps the shards of paper were notes on “the foreigners” in the hallway). The staff treated Frau Wien, whom we learned from her roommate has Alzheimer’s, with kindness, patience and gentle humor.

Our Cafe, Closed
The best part of each day, however, was leaving the hospital and enjoying lunch in a sidewalk café.

Unfortunately, Gillian developed severe edema, so after a quick visit to the wonderful Austrian neurologist on Friday, more steroids were ruled out; however, Gillian was still suffering the painful effects days later. 

Last Wednesday, Gillian, Ronnie, and their two dogs  (including one-eyed Tasha – the victim of a vicious dog attack on their winter drive home) were packed into the Bentley for the two-day drive to Glasgow. After arriving in Glasgow, Gillian e-mailed me that she had become intensely ill during the drive and had to be flown home from Amsterdam. 

I know I’m way too old to expect life to be fair, but that this intelligent, warm, charming young woman should be suffering this way, in my dad’s words, “just ain’t right.”

Being in the hospital corridor with Gillian reminded me of my Candy Striper days.  As an early teen who vacillated among many career choices (and this was in the 1960s when most working American women were nurses, teachers, or secretaries), and who lived in South Dakota, not exactly a bastion of feminism, I nonetheless was a pretty ambitious girl. I wanted to be a doctor or a pianist or a writer or a naturalist, and I thought in the best of worlds, I could do them all. Naïve doesn’t begin to describe it.


I began my exploration of medicine as a volunteer when I was in junior high school. I remember the crisp, always freshly-ironed, red and white striped jumper with the dazzling white blouse as being particularly smart. We girls cheerfully delivered flowers, helped with the dinner trays, folded laundry, changed bedding, ran errands and worked side-by-side with the nuns. Fortunately, these hospital nuns were of the type not to proselytize. But it was then that I realized that some nuns, much like some women in the larger world, can be bitches.

I was born in that hospital, and fortunately the birth was by all accounts, an easy one. My mother, who was pregnant 8 times in 11 years (five babies survived) was once asked by a doctor if she were Catholic. She said, “No, just a loose Lutheran.”  It made her a little nervous delivering babies in the Catholic hospital (the only hospital within a 100 to 150-mile radius). She told me the policy was that if a choice had to be made between saving the life of the laboring mother or the life of the newborn, the staff was to let the mother die no matter how many children were at home awaiting her arrival. The husband’s opinion didn’t matter. Luckily, my mother delivered babies with astounding ease.

It might have been after hearing about that policy that I developed my deep suspicion for advice given by experts with little real-life experience – childless child psychologists, for instance.

I just googled Candy Stripers to see if the program still exists (it does) and if they wear the same uniforms (they don’t), but what I also discovered is that Candy Stripers have inspired their own movie genre. There’s Candy Stripers, from 2006, in which the traditionally barely-pubescent stripers have been replaced by fully developed strippers with heaving bosoms.  Rather than with innocence and good cheer, these beasts infect an entire hospital with insidious aliens passed from mouth to mouth. The movie is replete with scenes of bloody sex and ripped-out organs and Candy Stripers shot through the head. The “best” scenes are actually available on You Tube. A 1978 film, also imaginatively called Candy Stripers, features the “sexual adventures” of these little tarts in red and white. 

I ask, is nothing sacred?

In the neurology wing of the Brothers of Mercy, I saw no young girls of the Candy Striper or Stripper ilk, but since school is still in session, and we were there on weekday mornings, perhaps the volunteers simply weren’t available. 

The latest update from Gillian is that she is recovering both from MS symptoms and from 10 months in Vienna as a “trailing spouse,” and rediscovering the joys of life in her own home, which is located right next to the ruins of a castle.

As older people, we’re a bit amazed that Keir’s American and Austrian friends have met each other, well, kind of. Keir plays X-Box wearing headphones and friends from both continents join in and “meet.”   In a similar fashion, I would love for my American friends and family to “meet” Gillian by going to her blog.

Gillian is a fine writer and poet (her love of the war poet, Wilfred Owens, is infectious) who writes about her MS with humor and a lack of self pity (MS “fairies” and Michelin Man symptoms), about the travails of life with two dogs much too small to be so much trouble, and about the joys of the Scottish language. Now that Gillian is back in Glasgow, I’ll have to suspend my dream of becoming trilingual: English, Deutsch and Scottish vernacular (awffy crabbit, anyone?).

For an entertaining introduction to Scottish, check out her blog “Parliamo 
Glasgow,” from Feb. 22.  Anyone who has MS or knows someone who has MS or is merely curious should read Gillian’s descriptions of the disease in her regular blog or under Diagnosis. For her evocative, elegant poetry, which has been one means by which she has coped with her illness, click on Saor Alba. My favorites are “The Wake,” “Croy Shore” and “Ice."

A few blogs ago I was lamenting the absence of shared history that results from leaving friends and family behind. With Gillian, I’ve learned the obvious: that history – personal and otherwise - just keeps happening.  When I visit Gillian in Scotland this fall, all I’ll have to say is “Frau Wien,” or “pretty boy” or  “Prosecco, bitte - zwei”  and  she’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.


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