My immune system resembles that of an infant child, meaning that I spend inordinate amounts of time in doctors offices, swallowing horse-size pills and obtaining notes to convince employers and professors that I’m really not faking it. If someone sneezes several houses over, I will likely develop the flu instantaneously. So it’s no wonder that my baby-like defense against germs continued to fail me during my time abroad.
Last July, I found myself chugging cheap beer on a party boat in Budapest. I had been feeling tired all week and was experiencing a deep chest cough, but I chalked it up to the heavy, heaping portions of Eastern European potato that I had forced my stomach to consume for too many days.
“What better way to combat fatigue than binge drink?” I asked myself, unironically.
Perhaps my night of boat drinking, trying to socialize with people I didn’t really know, and exploring the city with a cute Hungarian hostel worker until the sun rose wasn’t the key to a healthy body (but I’d like to think otherwise). I woke up after a restful three hours of sleep and found that my hacking cough had turned into a hacking, bloody cough! You know it’s going to be a good Sunday when your first observation is that your phlegm looks like a science dissection gone wrong.
I changed into my nicest outfit—a slightly stained white t-shirt and shorts with a subtle-but-still-visible rip in the crotch—and descended the hostel stairs, hoping that I wouldn’t have to be buried in this ensemble.
WebMD had informed me that I had cancer, was dying, and might already be dead.
On the ground floor, I was immediately greeted by Lochy, an overly-enthused Australian who had just become manager at the party hostel. “Howya DOIN’, LAUREN!” Lochy yelled, apparently unaware that it was 10 AM and that backpackers are like gremlins in the daylight. “HAVE FUN AT THE PARTY LAST NIGHT!”
“You know, I did, Lochy,” I started, drumming my fingers along the sticky front desk counter, attempting not to cry in front of this eager, floppy-haired man. “I was also hoping you could help me. Because…I don’t want to sound too alarmed, but I started coughing up blood this morning,” I explained.
“Like…how much blood?” this was the first time Lochy’s voice didn’t end in an exclamation point.
“A lot…” we stared at each other, each seeing our respective deaths in the others’ gaze: he, as the new hostel manager who had a young woman perish during his reign; me, as the actually dead one. I don’t think I’ve seen a white man’s skin turn markedly whiter so quickly.
I quickly learned that all doctors and 99% of hospitals in Budapest are closed on Sundays. Apparently disease goes away on the Lord’s day of rest in Hungary—how convenient! Normally, I would ignore my illness and power through until Monday, but another jolly, heavy-set hostel worker decreed, “yeah, that really doesn’t sound too good.” When two Australians have decided that your illness sounds bad, it’s the WebMD equivalent of “already dead.”
After some intense googling, I found what looked like a pulmonology (lung) clinic in the Hungarian suburbs, and decided to roll out and hit up the ATM for this exciting road trip. Hungary’s currency is ridiculously inflated, so I stuffed hundreds of thousands of HUF currency into my sickly little hands. I felt like a Russian oligarch headed to a strip club—time to fuckin’ party.
Alas, all I found in this countryside clinic was a gaggle of drugged-out looking patients in striped pajamas, staring aimlessly at tress, no nurses or doctors, and certainly nobody who spoke English. So a few hours later, after finding a bus that lead to the metro that lead back to Budapest (with the help of a man who lacked teeth but certainly made up for them in kindness), my lungs were still bleeding, and I wandered my way towards another medical facility that looked only half abandoned. At the top of an otherwise silent building, I found a roomful of patients, and a gathering of what looked like doctors and nurses.
“Doctor? DOCTOR?” I screeched, to anybody and nobody. “Sick…need medicine,” I explained, wildly gesticulating towards my chest. Two nurses shared, “who dis bitch?” glances, and the other two somehow conveyed “dude, we’re busy,” by pointing to their card game and plates of food.
Ah, yes…apparently “get the fuck out,” is a universal language.
My eyes must have seemed frantic enough, as the doctor stood up waved her hands and spoke Hungarian and plopped me down in a stiff chair to wait, and then a few minutes later, I was half-naked and strapped down to an EKG machine, perhaps more fearful for my life than before. The nurses kept giving each other confused looks (always reassuring in a medical setting), and jabbing random wires onto various parts of my body over and over. Finally the lead doctor came in, sighed dramatically, and arranged the scary machine herself. I was crying again—are you really surprised at this point?—and the nurses patted my leg in what might have been a comforting way if it hadn’t been so forceful.
After more tests and medieval-looking devices, a decrepit man wearing a white t-shirt, sweatpants, and crocs led me to the basement of the facility, a completely dark space, save for one flickering light. Here, in the near-darkness, what I hope was a medical professional took an X-ray scan of my chest.
Hours later, it was determined that I didn’t have pneumonia, the doctor deemed I would live (another comforting smack conveyed the message), and I walked out with a prescription, and no idea how I would obtain the medicine.
The details of finding an open pharmacy involved similar wandering, frantic questions in English met by blank stares and useless attempts at using Google translate. But that doctor’s smack was right: I did live to tell the tale.
I treated myself to a dinner of mediocre pad thai and large antibiotic pills, and checked out of the party hostel and into a nearby hotel for a couple of nights. As much as I appreciated Lochy’s enthusiastic questions and living in a 20-bed dorm, it seemed that my lungs and liver were fighting back against the arrangements.
Throughout my remaining travels, my immune system failed me again and again, and I found myself in other hospitals on different continents, with varying degrees of language barriers. But nothing quite matched that day in Budapest, when my tears and bloody phlegm could have filled the Danube river (really sorry for that visual, guys).
Months later, I received a thick envelope at my home in New York. On top of stacks and stacks of indecipherable Hungarian paperwork was a bill. For one x-ray, an EKG scan, two bitchy nurses and a wrinkled man in crocs, I owed the hospital $20. But nothing could quite quantify a day of wandering around Budapest and its environs, wondering if thick Hungarian stew would really be my last meal, and experiencing two near-empty hospitals that looked like abandoned psych wards.
Now every time I miss Budapest, I’ll have a detailed Hungarian report on my medical condition to remind me that I should probably just stay in America.