Chicago to Croatia and Back Again – Week 16 1/2

Here’s to Your Health

Being away from my family over the past few months has gotten incredibly lonely. One of the worst weekends for me was Thanksgiving weekend. Even though I traveled to Bosnia as a distraction over Thanksgiving weekend, I still felt a palpable emptiness sitting alone in my apartment. This emotion combined with a physical pain of injuring my knee almost a month ago was a combination that prompted me to order a plane ticket home to see my family for Christmas. I just couldn’t stand to be without them during another holiday!

I hurt my knee walking home from school. Zadar’s streets can be like an obstacle course. There are divots, cracks and all sorts of obstructions as part of the masonry that makes up the Roman limestone slabs. I have been extra cautious while jogging each day and was pleased in not twisting an ankle or losing my balance, but the day I hurt my knee was the exception. I was briskly walking, talking with one of my colleagues, not paying attention in looking down, when I tripped over a stone that blended in with the bumpy sidewalk. My body propelled forward as my foot caught and yanked on my left knee. I am a runner. My knees have endured pounding, stretching and strains for a few decades, but this was a type of shooting pain I had not yet experienced. Unfortunately the only form of transportation I have in Zadar is walking. My apartment is 4 flights of stairs, without an elevator and I carry a heavy bag of supplies to school each day. Getting injured was not an option. Yet, here I was, icing my knee, taking Advil and hoping the pain would quickly subside. It didn’t.

After 3 weeks of icing, elevating and wrapping my knee in an Ace bandage, I asked my colleague if there was a nearby clinic she could take me to in order to get a physician’s diagnosis. This started an interesting dialogue regarding healthcare in Croatia.

According to the “Expat in Croatia” website, Croatia has a universal healthcare system providing a form of mandatory insurance of all people. The population is covered by a basic health insurance plan as required by law and optional insurance administered by the Croatian Health Insurance Fund. The social health insurance system is based on the principles of solidarity and reciprocity, by which citizens are expected to contribute according to their ability to pay and receive basic health care services according to their needs.

Healthcare contributions in Croatia are mandatory for all employed citizens and are paid for by their employers. There are hundreds of healthcare institutions in Croatia, including 79 hospitals and clinics caring for more than 760,000 patients per year. Ownership of hospitals is shared between the state and the counties of Croatia.

To gain “free” access to hospitals and diagnostic services, a referral from a public general practitioner with a contract with the national healthcare service. This referral is called an “uputnica.” An “uputnica” is an order of sorts, used for diagnostics such as blood and urine tests, prescriptions, and procedures.

Uputnicas are critical when using the Croatian healthcare system. They are used at every level of healthcare, from simple blood tests to the anesthesia required for surgery. Croatia is paper-heavy and orders such as these are not transmitted digitally. What happens if you lose your uptinca?

The medical professionals are probably not better or worse than anywhere else, but the management level in the Croatian public health system is criminally low. This is an inheritance from the communist past when almost all levels of managers everywhere – medical services included – were nominated based on their political rather than professional suitability. This has not changed.

My colleague told me how she had injured her back a few years ago. In order to schedule a MRI test, she would have to get on a waiting list for up to 2 years. She said many Croatians will go to neighboring countries for medicines and tests. The waiting time is unbearable. And once a patient is fortunate enough to see a doctor, the equipment and conditions are far from modern. For example, one of the only magnetic resonance (MRI) scanners in Zadar is more than 10 years old. When the unit breaks down, hundreds of patients wait for months for a scan, or have to go to the private clinics.

There are close to 6,000 private practice offices in Croatia. But I couldn’t possibly ask my colleague to take me to a private clinic knowing that she did not have access herself. How could I jump the line and not wait? So, I decided to wait until I returned home in order to see our primary care doctor.

As far as the health of the nation is concerned, Croatia’s main problems are smoking, alcohol and obesity, which are risk factors for a number of diseases, while at the same time the prevention within the healthcare system is not developed enough. Therefore, Croatia is among the countries with the highest number of deaths which could be prevented by medical interventions, and the average life expectancy is three years shorter than the EU average. Heart diseases, stroke, lung cancer and colon cancer are major causes of death in Croatia.

What are You Doing Here?

I took a flight from Zadar to Zagreb to Vienna to Zurich (this last leg of the trip was added due to poor visibility and flight delays) to Chicago. It was about 22 hours total and my husband Brian was there waiting for me at the airport with a bouquet of flowers, ice water and an enormous hug. I had intended to surprise him first because he was off work the day my flight arrived. I talked with him via phone the day prior and at one point he started texting while we were talking. I asked him who he was texting and he said he was picking up another shift for one of his colleagues who suddenly needed the day off. “Oh no, you’re working tomorrow?” I asked. He told me he just picked up the shift and it didn’t matter really because I was in Croatia and our daughters’ Christmas break had not yet started. “But you have to be home!” I exclaimed. He started to get irritated with my pleas and asked if I was delivering something. “Yes, there will be a delivery and you need to be home.” He asked me to change the delivery time and I said I couldn’t change it. Then he asked if I was delivering an animal and why would I deliver a living creature during the holidays. I paused and said, “Yes, it is a delivery. I am delivering me!” And then he realized I was trying to surprise him, but it all worked out because he picked me up at the airport and we both decided I would surprise our daughters one at a time as they arrived home.

The first to come home from the University of California was Madison. She thought Brian was picking her up at the airport (in fact he was working that day) and I was in a “disguise” with a USC baseball hat pulled down over my face while Brian texted her as if he was the one picking her up from the airport. When I got out of the car to hug her she was completely surprised and started crying! It was such a special moment to hug her and be with her during Christmas week.

The next surprise was Morgan, coming home from Cornell University in New York. Again, she thought Brian was picking her up from the airport. This time we drove together and Madison and I hopped out of the car in the arrivals of O’Hare International Airport. Madison captured the moment with her phone as I wore a Cornell baseball cap and literally followed Morgan to the baggage claim area without her knowing I was walking directly past her. I stood in front of her for a moment and took off the hat, walked toward her and tried to hug her. Morgan jumped back. She had no idea who I was! I actually scared her! She was shocked and asked, “What is going on? You are supposed to be in Croatia!” It was magical.

Christmas Eve Crime?!

We spent the next few days at home and then went to Chicago to celebrate our annual Christmas tradition at the Walnut Room in Macy’s, looking at the lights and going to the Christkindle Market to eat warm nuts and grab a cup of hot cider. This year we went to Chicago on Christmas Eve because of our crazy schedules. Surprisingly it wasn’t too crowded, especially since the weather was around 52 degrees and partly sunny – unusually warm for this time of year in Chicago.

We stopped for lunch on State Street at Potbelly Restaurant for a few sandwiches before walking toward Michigan Avenue. I removed my long coat and hung my small backpack on the back of my chair.

When I looked into my backpack to put on my hat and scarf I immediately noticed that my wallet was missing. I approached the front counter and asked if I had possibly left if on the counter because we had recently paid for our food. The staff said they had not seen it and then I quickly realized I was a victim of a crime.

We spoke with the store manager on duty, Tyrone and he introduced us to Christian, the security guard. Christian told us there were 2 men sitting behind us and when they watched the security surveillance footage, these men had taken my backpack, taken out my wallet and stolen it.

I immediately began to call credit card companies and our bank, but the thieves had already made it down the street to Macy’s department store and charged approximately $1,000 in the very short time that they pickpocketed me. While I was on the phone with my credit card companies, they tried to charge another $1,000, but they were declined. I felt so violated, sitting with our daughters, eating lunch on Christmas Eve! Pickpocketing is a form of larceny that involves from a person without them noticing the theft at the time. I had no idea that they had taken my wallet from my backpack until it was gone. This is the first time I have been a victim of this crime. It was an awful jolt to our safety and my fault for not being more diligent and not letting my backpack leave my side.

How ironic that I had to fly all the way home to have my wallet stolen?

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