Archive | October, 2011

The History of Bananas in Texas

15 Oct


I have a love affair with this flag (picture taken in the Texas State Capitol in Austin).  It sums me up pretty well:


When I first saw the flag on a T-shirt at the Alamo gift shop a few years ago, my mother wouldn’t let me buy it, saying that it would give off the wrong impression.

Well, when my best friend from Switzerland came to visit, we found ourselves unsupervised in the Alamo gift shop and I bought the T-shirt.

Fast forward to an early-morning doctor’s appointment.  I’m in the waiting room of my oncologist’s office, eating a banana after having fasted all night for my bloodwork.  An older gentleman comes in, looks at me, and asks, “Is that a banana on your shirt?”

Needless to say, he got a Texas history lesson.

“The Battle of Gonzales was the first battle in the Texas Revolution. In October 1835, the Mexican government sent word to the town of Gonzales that the Mexican army was going to come retrieve the cannon that it had lent them for protection against the Indians some years before. The residents of Gonzales decided to fight, and 18 men blocked the Mexican army from crossing the river into the town. The Mexican army retreated, but a few days later they tried to take the cannon once more. This time, the residents of Gonzales rolled the cannon out to the Mexicans. They rose a white flag with a black cannon in the middle and the words “Come and Take It” across the top, and then they fired into the gathering of Mexican soldiers.”

I guess it could be worse — my mother thinks that the cannon looks like a penis and my stepfather thinks it looks like a condom.


Froot Loops

14 Oct


As I’ve said before, many times cancer patients overestimate their abilities.  It happened to me (again) when I got out of the hospital after my first seizure.  I must have gone Cracker Jacks.  Or something.

I had just barely overcome aspiration pneumonia caused by the seizure.  I was in adult diapers.  I couldn’t sit up without worrying about passing out.  My new seizure medicine was giving me a real run for my money.

And I was planning on hosting Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner the following week.

The plan was for my mom to do all the cooking.  We would only be having one or two guests, neither of whom kept kosher.  All I would have to do was come up with the menu, look nice and say all the blessings in the right order.

Needless to say, that plan did not work out.  I wound up right back in the hospital with a bad case of anemia that required me to stay overnight to receive two blood transfusions.

I was definitely in Froot Loop land.

Spot the Difference

13 Oct


Unsurprisingly, there are many differences between life in Switzerland and life in the States. In Switzerland, if people don’t pay their bills online via automatic transfer, they pay them at the post office in cash.  Checks don’t exist, and you can’t pay with a bank card.  It’s not unusual to be standing in line behind someone carrying the equivalent of $10,000 in their pocket.  Friends greet each other by kissing three times on the cheek.  Official documents are printed in four or five languages (French, German, Italian, English, and sometimes Romansch).  TV programs are produced from around the world, and if you have the appropriate technology, you can listen to either the original language or the local-language voiceover.

After I moved back to the States and landed myself in the hospital again when I had a seizure, it was inevitable that I would note a few differences between Swiss and American hospitals.

My thoughts from Room 911:

The food:

Switzerland — general, everyday food (hot chocolate with rolls, butter and jam for breakfast, and a meat, a vegetable, and a starch for lunch and dinner) with a little ostrich thrown in now and then for fun.  Usually very tasty.

The US — a decidedly more American flair.  Migas for breakfast, hamburgers for lunch, and cake for dessert.  So far, all I’ve been able to eat is the fruit and vegetables.

The accommodations:

Switzerland — a mix of private and semi-private rooms and four- and eight-person wards.

The US — private and semi-private rooms, and a private toilet!  Nothing better in life than a private toilet.


Switzerland — obsessed with it.  The floors were mopped several times a day, and the doctors and nurses always washed their hands in front of me.

The US — getting better about it.  My mom said there’s a big change at the hospital since my grandma was there the previous year.  The doctors still don’t wash their hands in front of you, though, which kind of worried me – my longest friend Renée’s fiancé Sam worked in a hospital where a scan was taken of each doctor’s hands while on duty to evaluate them for germs.  Most of the doctors had germier than desired hands due to poor hand-washing.

The stay:

Switzerland — they keep you until they’re sure you’re not going to be coming right back through the door.

The US — the length of stay is dictated by the insurance company.  If you stay longer than they want you to, the doctor has to call in an override.  They tried to send me home even when I told them I was too sick to leave.

Reverse Culture Shock: Hygiene

12 Oct


The first time I ever experienced reverse culture shock was when I returned to small-town Texas after having studied in Poitiers, France for a year.  It was mostly rooted in religious differences and a lack of culture and education in the town to which I was returning.  So before I returned to the States from Switzerland, I knew that reverse culture shock is more difficult to deal with than culture shock itself.  You expect to feel different in a foreign country.  You don’t expect to feel different when you come back “home”.

After my experience with returning from France, I knew to expect reverse culture shock upon my return from Switzerland.  I did not, however, expect to experience it at the doctor’s office.  In Switzerland, the doctors and their staff called me Mme [Lastname] (never mind that in the States, that’s my grandmother’s name), had reasonably empty waiting rooms and maintained some professional distance (no overly personal questions!)  And everything was CLEAN.  Floors were constantly being mopped, and doctors and nurses always washed their hands in front of their patients.

In the States, the staff called me Miss (Firstname), asked personal questions, and the waiting rooms were overstuffed with people whose appointment time has come and gone because the doctor was running late.

In Switzerland, everyone’s nails were short and well-manicured.  In the States, the receptionist had grotesquely long fake fingernails that were halfway grown out and had a bad case of black nail fungus.

And the doctor’s office was definitely nowhere near as clean as in Switzerland.  At my first oncology appointment in the US, I was horrified by the abundance of crickets in the oncology center.  In the lab, there were dead crickets in the floor and live crickets crawling all over the technicians’ pants.  And crickets carry germs, y’all.

I haven’t always disliked crickets.  In fact, when I was a little girl, I was obsessed with them.  I loved it when they played their scratchy songs in my bedroom at night, and I was always proud of myself when I managed to catch one.

The most famous “Kitty caught a cricket” story happened when I was four.  My mother was finally returning to work after her maternity leave, and her favorite coworker, a fifth-grade science teacher named Jackie, were working together to set up their respective classrooms the week before school was to start.

I was busy entertaining myself in the floor in the corner of the room, when I found… a cricket!

Me: Mommy!  I found a cricket!

Mom: That’s nice, honey.

Me: Mommy, it’s a girl cricket!

Mom: Okay, sweetie.

Me: Mommy!  Now I need to find a boy cricket so we can have some sperm and make baby crickets!

Mom (whispering to Jackie): Do crickets even have sperm?

Jackie (whispering back): I don’t know.  Let me look it up.

(She takes out an encyclopedia and flips through it.)

Jackie:  Apparently, they do…

Sometime between then and now, though, my love affair with crickets waned.  And I surely do not care to see them crawling around a room where needles will be stuck in my arm.

And the excuse “Oh, San Antonio is just having a cricket epidemic at the moment” does not fly with me.


11 Oct


When you’re an oncology patient, your doctors try to present your illness to you as simply and gently as possible.  After all, they need you to understand your condition as completely as possible without losing hope.  You can’t get well if you don’t know how to take care of yourself or give up hope completely.

When doctors talk about you behind your back, though, they get into all the technical, nitty-gritty details and don’t gloss over anything.  They use all kinds of medical jargon that you didn’t even know existed until you read their reports – words like “retrocaval”, “eosinophilic” and “hilum”.  It’s like the difference between looking at the paper kidney you cut out in 1st grade science to help build your skeleton project and looking at a real kidney on TV on “The Doctors”.  The first one is much more palatable.

So when you move from Switzerland to Texas and have to pore through medical dictionaries and all their complicated terminology to translate your own medical records from French into English, you find out things that you didn’t really want to know — like how much hemorrhaging there was on your kidney tumor when it was removed, or what color and texture your brain tumors were, or exactly how badly your liver and remaining kidney failed the previous January due to a reaction to the contrast agent for an MRI study.

My advice – just stick to what the doctors tell you in person.  That way you’ll be less likely to have a total freak-out moment.

On Feeling Like a Collection Agency

10 Oct


Nobody likes to owe money to anyone else, and usually they like paying back that money even less.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re a single mom struggling to make ends meet or an insurance company – the bottom line is what matters most.

My insurance company had made a couple of billing screw-ups during my year in Switzerland, where they paid my health care providers for their services rather than reimbursing me the money I’d already paid to the health care providers.  I went to the insurance company office to get the problem straightened out, but they told me I’d have to get reimbursed directly by the health care providers (two radiology offices, a laboratory and the hospital).

One of the radiology offices reimbursed me right away.  All the others dragged their feet a little, though, which meant that I spent two weeks making endless calls and sending endless emails, trying to get my money back before I had to close my bank account.

Finally I got fed up with it.  First I went to the radiology office in person to impress upon them the urgency of the situation.  Not having gained much ground there (the woman who ran the billing department was out on vacation for a month), I decided to go out to the hospital billing department.

As a pure stroke of irony, the hospital billing department was not located on the main hospital campus downtown, but on the sprawling, park-like campus of the psych ward at the edge of the city.  By the time I began to make my way down there, I was feeling like I might end up doing something stupid out of frustration that would get me permanently admitted and unable to leave.

The psych campus is enormous and confusing, full of serpentine paths with an inordinate amount of buildings dotting the landscape, and I wandered around aimlessly for a good half an hour, knocking on the doors of those locked buildings to ask for directions, confronting incredulous wardkeepers who were surprised to see a sane face for once.

I finally managed to find the billing center without going completely crackerjacks.  The head of the billing department promised me that I would be reimbursed within a week’s time.  And as a bonus, I found out that the hospital owed me about twice what I thought.

Still, sometimes you wonder whether the hassle is worth the reward!  It’s no wonder that companies hire collection agencies when customers owe them money.

Moving back to the US

9 Oct


After a year of battling cancer in Switzerland, I finally managed to procure a health insurance policy in the States.  Most people in my shoes would probably have been happy to be able to return “home”, but I most definitely was not.  First of all, the insurance plan was not so great, as the monthly premium was seven times my Swiss premium, the deductible was 12 times my Swiss deductible, and I would get about 20% less coverage than what was provided by my Swiss plan. I didn’t really have a choice about going back, though, because my family needed the income my mom could earn as a teacher, and she wasn’t allowed to work legally in Switzerland.

Mom was very happy to be going back, although I wasn’t sure whether she was happiest about seeing her husband, seeing her dogs, having a clean kitchen or having a bathroom to herself.  Or not having to pay to do laundry at a certain time each week.

I, on the other hand, was much less happy about going back.  I was sad about giving up my job.  I was sad about moving far from my friends.  I was nervous about giving up the great network of doctors that I had built up in Geneva.  Plus I just plain liked the Geneva way of life — in my heart, I felt more like a Genevan than an American.  I loved it there.

I defended my thesis and earned my MA just a few days before we left.  Unfortunately, since we were on such a tight schedule to tie up all our loose ends in Geneva and get back to the States in time for my mom to be able to interview for jobs, we weren’t able to schedule my thesis defense on a day when my Swiss Mom could attend, even though the plan had always been to have her there.  It was especially disappointing since I blew everyone out of the water and earned a near-perfect grade of 5.9 out of 6.0.

I wasn’t planning on sitting on my butt and doing nothing once I got back Stateside, though.  I found a local synagogue that looked great on paper — Conservative, slightly larger than my synagogue in Geneva, lots of adult education classes, a conversion class that was to start in October, and a large Jewish library.  I hadn’t seen photos of the congregation, but I was hoping they would have a nice selection of young men in attendance — and it wouldn’t hurt if they were cute.

The state of my health didn’t really let me hold down a steady desk job, but I also planned to look for flexible freelance work that would allow me to take off time for health problems when I needed to.  I planned to take the American Translators Association’s certification exams in French and Spanish, and I wanted to register with the local school district to substitute teach French and Spanish.  I also considered volunteering to guest lecture on Swiss history/culture/civics and organizing private tutoring sessions, conversation classes, and classes for SAT II/AP test preparation.

On top of all that, I also needed to take some test drives around the neighborhood to see whether or not the heart in the middle of my right eye messed up my vision too much to see the road properly.  If it didn’t, I was thinking about buying a used car, because three working adults sharing one car just doesn’t work well.

I had pretty much managed to give my mom the all-around Geneva experience during the year she lived with me – she ate fondue, raclette and fried Lake Geneva perch (and sampled Swiss wine).  She had been in the hospital (both as a patient and as a visitor), dealt with Swisscom telephone service and had a run-in with the little green TPG bus ticket-taker men.  We went on a boat ride on the lake, ate a picnic dinner on the jetty at Bains des Pâquis, and watched the musical fireworks over the lake during Geneva’s biggest party of the year, the Fêtes de Genève.  She walked all around the Old Town, saw the Reformation Monument, and visited the cathedral and the Reformation museum.  She went to concerts in Victoria Hall and the cathedral, and outdoors during the summer music festival.  She saw the Jet d’Eau fountain in the middle of the lake, the enormous flower clock planted in the English Garden, and the rose gardens on the left bank of the lake.  She took a tour of the UN and got to take pictures all through the main building.  She even got to pet the local organ grinder’s cat.  The only major activity she missed was the Escalade historical reenactment. There was nothing I could do about Escalade, since it only comes around once a year, but she did get to have a chocolate marmite with marzipan vegetable candies inside and discover a love of marzipan.

To keep a positive outlook, I made a list of all the things I wanted to eat when we got back. The first stop on the list: Dunkin’ Donuts at Newark airport.