10 Fascinating Facts About a Hospital Stay in the Czech Republic

I was living in Prague, the beautiful capitol city of the Czech Republic, when I got sick. A scary prospect at any time, but besides being in a foreign country with limited facility in the language, I was unaccustomed to being sick. I ended up in the hospital for three weeks. Here are some of the fascinating facts, I picked up along the way.

1. It’s called a “nemocnice.”
Well, it’s unlikely they’d call it a hospital since that’s an English word, and the language of the Czech Republic, not too surprisingly, is Czech. The particular hospital in which I spent that lovely interlude was called, “Fakultni Nemocnice Motol.” Czech is a Slavic language, related to Russian, Polish, and a few other Slavic tongues. It

 has also been influenced by Latin. Like most national languages, it has developed and evolved independent of the related languages. It’s a relatively difficult language for Americans to learn. The Foreign Service Institute ranks Czech as a Class IV language, meaning, “Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.” (LINK 1). They don’t use a lot of vowels, and some words are difficult to pronounce. A good word to learn, however, is zmrzlina, which means ice cream.

2. The doctors are not MDs. They’re MuDrs.
Czechs, and other Europeans, are fond of titles. They’re important in that society. When I had cards printed in Prague, I had to make sure that I used my professional title, something I would not do in the United States. But the designations of the various degrees are not necessarily the same as in the US or UK. For instance, the master’s degree is referred to as the magisterské stadium. On a business card or an office door the person’s title would appear as Mgr (magistr). A lawyer would take the degree JuDr, and a PhD, would be designated PhDr. All of these would be prominently displayed on the business card. (LINK 2).

3. The ICU is called the JIP.
While I was in the hospital (nemocnice, remember), I was moved around a bit. I was in five different rooms in those three weeks. First I was in a seemingly private room (there was, after all, nobody there but me) in the infectious disease ward. This was, of course, in a separate building. They didn’t know what was wrong with me. Since I’d been in deepest, darkest Africa the previous year, they didn’t want to take any chances. When I had a bit of a crisis, I had to go to emergency surgery. My outpost was so far away from the main building that I had to be taken by an internal ambulance to the other side of the campus. After that surgery, I was put into the Gastroenterology JIP. This is the Czech designation for the ICU. It stands for Jednotka Intenzivni Pece, which, surprisingly, translates literally as Intensive Care Unit. BTW, after leaving that JIP, I was placed in a ward. Then I had a heart attack. Off to the Kardiac JIP, after placement of a stent.

4. All the doctors speak some English.
One of the biggest fears as one enters a foreign hospital may be that you aren’t going to understand the doctors. You might end up agreeing to have your liver cut out, when all you need is a zit lanced. But, have no fear. You can count on your doctor to have some English. For many, especially those trained in the post-communist era, it’s part of their training. It’s also true that many Czech medical professionals continue their training in English-speaking countries. But, don’t assume that their English comprehension is absolute. If it’s possible to have a translator around, that’s a good thing. At times, after getting an explanation from the doctor in English, I would hear the explanation given to a friend in Czech. Invariably it took four or five times as long to explain (presumably) the same thing. But, they do have some English. (LINK 3)

5. The nurses probably do not.
In the several different accommodations I had the pleasure of inhabiting while at Motol (the nemocnice). I found several levels of both English and nursing care. In the JIP almost every nurse had conversational English. This proves very helpful when he or she comes to hook up yet another IV, or give another shot. It also helps when it is necessary to explain one’s bathroom needs or level of pain. These nurses (referred to as sestra – sister – even the men) were skilled in all the aspects of nursing which I required. They drew blood painlessly and gave shots in the same manner. In the wards, however, such was not the case. English was really lacking and the level of care ebbed considerably. These wards are where I experienced the most discomfort and pain. I decided that the top 10 percent of the nursing classes must end up in the JIP, while those in the wards may not have graduated at all.

6. “Neni krev” is a good thing.
It’s amazing how much Czech you can learn while in the hospital. Of course, the phrases one learns are not readily transferable to any other part of society. For instance, it was here that I learned the importance of the accents in Czech. The Czech word moc that I had been singing about in church means power. But don’t confuse it with the word moč. That one means urine. Since I started out with abdominal surgery, it was some time before I was allowed to get up and walk to the bathroom like a big boy and do what was necessary. Even when that great event occurred, I had to stop on my way out of the toilet (toaleta) and report either krev or neni krev. Neni krev is the one I wanted to report. It means “no blood.” (LINK 4).

7. Men and women share the bathroom in the wards.
The wards in each department had the same configuration; three beds against a wall, separated by hanging sheets. A television, with one remote sat in the middle (BTW, did you know that Walker, Texas Ranger speaks Czech?). On the way out the door we find a bathroom. In this room are two sinks, one toilet, and one shower. Straight across the narrow room from the door is another door. It leads to the women’s ward. That’s right. Six patients, half male, half female, shared one toilet and one shower. The doors did not lock. I tended to wait until after midnight to get my showers, but my abdominal surgery forced me to have other needs considerably more frequently.

8. Want sleep – go home.
This one, of course, is pretty universal. One does not go to the hospital to rest. Late at night the sestri, (plural for sestra) would be at your bedside to take blood, administer meds, and probably a dozen other things I never quite understood. Then through the night the sounds of the hospital, coughing, wheezing, moaning, sometimes yelling, would continue. After all that sweet slumber, bright and early in the morning, a different sestra (yes, they got to go home and get some shuteye) would come in and test blood (krev), urine (moč), temperature, blood pressure, measure out the meds, and a few other things. I did learn to catch naps during the day, while I waited for the next contingent of MuDr wannabes to come through on rounds. It is a teaching hospital.

9. Want coffee – forget it, but “white coffee” is in the hallway.
I’m not an addict. I can quit coffee anytime I want. But, I didn’t want to when I was forced to reside at Fakultni Nemocnice Motol. On my first transfer into the wards, I found out that I could have a drink anytime I wanted one. All I had to do was go out into the corridor and get it myself. The offerings included fruit tea and something called “white coffee.” Now I have attempted to find out exactly what constitutes white coffee, to no avail. It certainly is not what some Americans would consider white coffee, dark, caffeinated brew with cream added. Two facts, however, I can attest. It is neither white, nor coffee. The first was obvious. It is a sickly pale brownish, concoction. Taste was negligible. The second fact is that it is not coffee. This I did find out when I asked an English-speaking sestra. “No,” said she, “we could not allow you to drink a caffeinated beverage.” But, I could have as much white coffee as I wanted. At breakfast, they even brought a cup.

10. Want beer – bring your own.
Beer is another matter. Remember, we’re talking about the Czech Republic here, the home of the first pilsner beer (Pilsner Urquell) and the original Budweiser (Budvar). Beer is the primary beverage in the nation. Czechs average 140 liters (37 gallons) of beer each every year. (LINK 5). The beer is so good that Germans junket to Prague to drink Czech beer. I have friends who go to a conference in Germany once each year. They always load up the trunk of their vehicle with Czech beer to share with their underprivileged German colleagues.
Well, there I was lying in my hospital bed, when I heard a visitor come to see the man in the bed to my left. I thought I heard the sound of bottles clinking and I looked over to see the visitor taking two bottles of Krušovice (one of the popular brands) from a paper bag. He’d forgotten the opener, so he asked one of the staff for one. And he got it. So, the two friends, one of whom had just gotten through abdominal surgery, just as I had, sat and chatted and enjoyed a beer together for a half hour or so. But, it is not on the menu (there really is no menu). It’s definitely BYOP – Bring Your Own Pivo.

11. BONUS: it’s not called Czechoslovakia anymore.
When people ask me where I lived (sadly I don’t live there anymore) and I answer Prague, more often than not they would respond, “Oh, Czechoslovakia.” No, the Czech Republic. Czechoslovakia came into existence with the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1917. It’s existence ended on January 1, 1993 when the two peoples, the Czechs and the Slovaks, separated and created the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. They remain on the best of terms. In fact the split has been referred to as the Velvet Divorce, a reference to the Velvet Revolution of 1989, during which Czechoslovakia split from the Soviet Empire without firing a shot. (LINK 6).