Surgery in a Foreign Land

My Health Care Experience in Poland

I was uninsured from Obamacare to Medicare (which was 2021 for me). Most of that time, I lived off the grid in the Idaho backcountry. I did not get paid for being an amateur adventurer and only occasionally worked for wages as a guide, packer, or cook. Since neither vocation provided social benefits, I went without health insurance. I went without seeing a doctor for about twelve years, too.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to see doctors or visit clinics or hospitals. I got banged up a time or two, but no serious injuries or infections. About the time I got to my sixties, though, my right hand started morphing into a talon. I put off treating the mostly cosmetic affliction; it didn’t hurt and usually didn’t cause any trouble. And I didn’t have health insurance.

texas yeti hand
Dupuytren’s Contracture

I had a Dupuytren’s contracture in my right hand which I waited too long to address. My little finger curled into the palm of my hand and could not be bent outward, and the index finger started curling, as well. And I needed that finger to write books and articles. By the time treatment became a requirement, I had moved to Poland, become a Polish resident and a member of the national healthcare system.

Polish National Health Care

One requirement for residency in Poland is current national healthcare insurance. Ela took me to Wroclaw where we met with an agent. I was amazed when she told me how little it cost; about $225 per year for a major medical insurance policy. When combined with Medicare, my health insurance was comprehensive.

We scheduled an appointment at the local clinic on the day that the orthopedic surgeon was in town. In turn, he referred us to a specialist. Insurance would cover all costs if we waited in line (which could be months; a common problem with socialized medicine) or I could pay for private service, which was the option we chose.

private health care in Poland
The Polimed Clinic in Wroclaw

The orthopedic surgeon served at the University Hospital a day or two each week, served national care patients once a week at the medical office in our town, and served private care customers in a clinic in Wroclaw. We were able to see him within a week and scheduled outpatient surgery for the following Tuesday. Blood work was done at a local clinic, just like it would be in the States.

Standard Health Care

In fact, the whole process felt very much like it would have in the States… without the burden of insurance paperwork and inflated costs. In Poland, I went to the private clinic, met with the doctor and staff, received professional services at a high standard, and paid on my way out. Nothing was substandard; everything was as modern as it would be in the big city stateside. The clinic was high-tech, clean, and comforting. The operating salon was brightly-lit and organized with all the appropriately space-age equipment.

surgery in Polish clinic
Outpatient Surgery in Polish Clinic

The only unsettling thing about the whole process was that no one spoke English. The doctor spoke a little bit, but it mostly made him uncomfortable so we avoided talking. The only person I could speak with was Ela, and she was not allowed in the surgery. I knew I would get a local anesthetic for pain and, honestly, I was anxious. I hadn’t experienced anything like that in 20 or 30 years.

I was right to be anxious. The pain from the pain killer was the worst part of the whole procedure. You might think that a guy like me who served as a Marine, worked in the oil field, hangs out in the rugged wilderness for months at a time or whatever macho you want to spread on there… you wouldn’t think a guy like that would worry much about pain. But I do. If it hurts to do something, I probably won’t do it. Not if I have a choice.

Like the Dentist

“Don’t worry,” Ela said. “It will be like going to the dentist.”

Which made sense, at first. And dentists stick the needles in your mouth, which HAS to be worse than in your hand. Except that the dentist uses little tiny needles… just a little bit bigger than a hair… and start just a little bit down under the surface of your skin. I wasn’t sure it would be the same thing for my hand.

Then I remembered my vasectomy. They stuck a needle in me to deaden that pain. I didn’t really want anybody hacking around on that part of my body, and I sure didn’t want to feel it. So the doctor stuck a needle right in there. I get pale and break out in a cold sweat just remembering it.

“If I could handle that,” I thought, “a shot in the hand should be easy.”

Health Care Hurts
The Day After

But I was wrong. I wanted to tell the doctor and his nurse that I was wrong, but I couldn’t speak Polish. I wanted to change my mind… maybe pay for a hospital visit and some general anesthesia. But I didn’t want to embarrass Ela, so I pretended to be tough.

He didn’t give me one injection but five or six. In each finger. Deep down in between the bones… and I know that’s what he was doing because I could feel it. I didn’t scream out loud or run away, but I probably let slip a few juicy English expletives. Cold sweat rolled off my head and I started feeling a little anxious. The nurse noticed my ashen face and put a cool rag on my sweat-soaked scalp. By then, the pain of the painkiller had passed.

Polish Health Care Experience

I did not feel any pain during the surgery. I could feel the doctor scraping the tendons. I could feel him pluck that bad stuff away from those hand cables and tug on my fingers to straighten them. He did a great job and it only took an hour. I walked out of there with my hand in a half cast, my fingers stretched out completely.

He wrote a prescription for 30 tablets of Tramadol, a moderate- to severe-pain reliever which we filled downstairs. I did not use my insurance; we paid less than a dollar cash. Not $1.00 per tablet… but for the entire prescription.

at the pharmacy
The Clinic Pharmacy

We walked back to the train station and within a half hour were onboard our train to Strzelin. Two follow-ups but no additional costs. Including train fares and lunches in Wroclaw, the cost of private treatment for Dupuytren’s Contracture in Poland was less than six hundred dollars. No insurance paperwork, just a simple credit card transaction at the clinic… like getting a car serviced at a high-end shop.

In the end, my first experience with national health care in this foreign country was a good one. I had a great doctor and that made a big difference. He had a professional assistant during the surgical procedure, but he took care of everything else himself. He dressed my wound, cast my hand, and took the stitches out himself. I know it sounds a little corny, but my doctor seemed to care about me as a patient. And in the Polish national health care system, he would have been my doctor either way.

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  1. Finding a good specialist so quickly is sometimes not easy. We succeeded. Full professionalism and great medical care and at the reception point. You were a patient and brave patient. I’m glad that you are happy.

    • Thank you for organizing everything, Kochanie. I would be in big trouble here without you!

  2. Some surgical physicians practice because they care and some for the big bucks. Hopefully this fixes it for a long time.

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