''Heart surgery is no fun for anyone anywhere, but the prospect of an aortic valve replacement in a Spanish hospital when all I had was a practiced skill of gestures and signs and a vocabulary of greetings and partings, was daunting. The cardiologist at our local hospital said Spain had a good reputation and if I was operated in England I might have to wait six to eight months. The surgeon In the Costa Blanca hospital spoke English quite well, said I was in urgent need of attention and could accept me in two months and the charge would be on their national health service. So I signed the papers, had the preliminary catheterisation and eventually was admitted.
I had one immense advantage. My daughter lived near, was always on hand to help me through the initial tests, and in fact slept beside my bed when eventually I was released from the intensive care ward. It is very doubtful whether I could have coped without that support.
I was in the operation theatre for about four hours and awoke in the usual disoriented state one expects from major surgery, but without too much distress. In this hospital there is an effort to minimise the anaesthetic to aid rapid recovery. Sometimes an epidural is used but in my case I was injected with morphine. I staggered from the bed the next day and was able to concentrate enough to do some solid reading. My daughter and wife were able to visit each day whilst I was in the reanimation ward, as it was called, at 7.00, 13.00 and 21.00 but only for fifteen minutes each time.
Language was a problem. I had to learn basic words like ‘bedpan’ and ‘nurse’, but with a sweep my hand and a grin the curtains would be closed, and gracias and bien and the occasional groan went a long way to showing how I felt. The quality of care was excellent; the cleanliness exemplary. The food was well designed for a non-fat and unsalted and easily digested diet, but was hard work for the first days when appetite was low anyway. The surgeon attended each day; some doctors spoke a little English. I was uncertain what was happening some of the time and wished I could communicate more with the nursing staff, but I always knew I was being well looked after.
After convalescence in my daughter’s home and after a couple of blips, I learned to trust the renewed dynamic. I was signed off by the surgeon six weeks after the operation (so long, because Christmas and the Three Kings got in the way). He said I could now begin to climb mountains and at 72 could expect to live for another twenty years! I was given printed advice, which of course was in Spanish but which is replicated in the sort of information that can be got from the inter-net (see the British Heart Foundation -www.bhf.org.uk) and Action Heart (www.actionheart.com). I don’t know what sort of rehabilitation is offered in Spain. Back at home it has not been easy to get quickly in touch with my local hospital though three months after the operation, but that is now in process with the usual waiting time for an appointment.
To sum up. The service in this particular hospital was superb and I believe it to be typical of Spain in general. You can get by with minimal Spanish. You are well looked after. But you do need a Spanish- speaking friend as mentor, and rehabilitation arrangements should be fixed up at home before the operation. Oh, and you must have a sympathetic Spanish doctor to recommend you in the first place!"
By Bryan Rippin