Some years ago I was operated on for one of my physical illnesses at a clinic in Barcelona. As the post-operative period lasted few weeks, I had enough time to get to know well the ins and outs and the staff of that wonderful clinic. I have never believed the clichés about some demonyms, being myself just the opposite of what people usually say on mine. Surrounded by Polacks!- people warned me in my hometown. I was very nervous, since my only vocabulary in Catalan was at that moment pan tumaca (crisped bread slices rubbed with a garlic clove and tomato) and visca el Barça! (long live Barça, a phrase to gee up the team). But I totally ignored the doomsayers who foretold me complicated relationships with native Catalans. There are kind, polite people everywhere, and one of the basic premises of good manners –at least the good manners I have been taught in my childhood-is to avoid speaking a language that not everybody in a group can understand
After my surgery I found myself bedridden, invaded by nasogastric tubes, urinary catheters, wound drains and intravenous infusions. My arm was helplessly attached to a chrome IV pole on wheels, next to my bed. From this device several plastic bags and glass bottles hung, sending their fluids directly into my vein. The nurses on my floor soon started to look after me. How nice they all were to me! So sweet and professional! Besides…I could understand them! Praise the Lord, abdominal surgery had made me a polyglot!
I was suffering terribly, but I was happy. Through the haze of my torture I would start short conversations with my carers, despite my feeble strengths, my guardian angels in that pitiful condition.
How comforting their tender words were to me! How they boosted my spirits! I was the perfect patient. I welcomed the arrival of the bedpan with exhilaration, actively cooperating throughout the procedure. I showed ostentatious enthusiasm for the morning washing with the disposable soapy sponge and the daily change of bed linens.
I would thank them very warmly –in my reedy voice- for the ready change of the bags that were hanging on the iv pole, with the drugs that would help me to get better. I soon felt more confortable, quite at ease because I could understand everything with no effort at all.
One afternoon a nurse I didn’t know came into my room and opened the door with that military energy typical of people used to giving orders.
-Bona tarda! Vinc a posar-li la injecció diària d’heparina (Good afternoon. I have your heparin shot here)–she blurted out, standing with the syringe ready. She just uncovered my belly and stung me ove my belly button. I howled in pain. She didn’t give me time to choose another part of my body: my thighs, my arms, my butt-cheeks…but for goodness sake, not that zero zone that was merely a chunk of aching flesh!.
-One of the bags is empty- I told her, keeping my eyes low like an obedient geisha, eager to please no matter what.- I had seen air bubbles entering the system and, as I was completely ignorant of intravenous therapy, I truly feared for my life.
-La seva pressió sanguínia impedeix que entre cap quantitat significativa d’aire a les venes (Your blood pressure prevents that a significant amount of air should enter the veins)- she explained to me while regulating expertly the flow rate – doncs al acabar-se el sèrum no s’exerceix pressió per introduir el contingut del sistema a la vena. I encara que per qualsevol motiu li aconseguís passar alguna bombolla, l’organisme és capaç de reabsorberla perfectament i i no corre perill la vida del pacient (So when the iv bag is empty there is not enough pressure to allow the air get into your vein. And even if for some reason an air bubble should go into you vein, your body is perfectly capable of reabsorbing it and your life will not be endangered) . After such a sanitary speech, she wished me a “bon dia” (good day) and left the room.
I had not understood anything that phlegmatic nurse had tried to teach me with such effort! What a fool I was, shame on me! I really had to put things right because it was all my fault! I asked my husband to buy a wirebound notebook and some gel pens. As angry as he was about my bright idea, his only choice was to look for a stationary shop at Carrer de Sant Mateu, under the threat of my pulling out the IV tubes from my vein and guide my skeleton, RoadRunner-like, where nobody could find me.
I would listen to the songs by María del Mar Bonet and Lluís Llach all day and all night long and then I would memorize the vocabulary. I watched some plays staged by Nuria Espert, Silvia Tortosa’s beauty tips, a bunch of comedies starring Carmen Conesa and I also read some of Teresa Gimpera’s self-help books. I would prepare myself fully for the afternoons, when my female executioner used to come. I admired her dedication, her iron will not to make things easier for me and force me to outdo myself.
That is the way it should be- I thought, as I never let an opportunity pass to learn something new. I adored that nurse.- She just wants the best for me – I would tell my husband. –You can’t understand her! She wants me to make an effort, she wants me to learn, to leave this hospital not only physically cured but also cured of my supine ignorance that had me immersed in the dark regarding Catalan language.
It’s completely unforgivable to come to Barcelona and not be able to say in Catalan something so dead easy such as “ I think the blood flow is impaired. Please, don’t insert there the peripheral IV catheter”.
My husband would only nod, resigned. He knew that I would never leave that hospital before I could speak and write like Mercè Rodoreda.
I would apply myself to the study of grammar during the day, and I would do a lot of written exercises with a shaky hand on my ruled notebooks.
My eagerness to learn quickly and show my progress in front of that nursing Pygmalion made me ambidextrous. I would ruin one of my hands until it was unusable, and then I changed it for the other. Regardless of my state of exhaustion, I kept at my task.
I was released from the hospital after one month and a half. I gratefully said goodbye to the medical team that had taken care of me. But the most affectionate hug, the most heartfelt, was the one I gave my teacher.
¡Mil gràcies! (A thousand thanks!), I told her, squeezing her hands, my eyes moistened with tears. – Mai oblidaré el gran favor que m’has fet (I will never forget the very great favor you have done to me)- and I smacked a noisy kiss on her martinet face. Unmoved, she just let out a laconic “adéu” (goodbye), adjusted her cap and went back to work.
I do testify that the popular saying “spare the rod and spoil the child” is absolutely true!