Alone in Greece: How a Near-Death Experience Changed My Life
I almost died by myself in a Greek hospital. It was terrifying.
Two years ago, a then-unidentified virus, which had infiltrated my brain and central nervous system, forced me to take an urgent trip to the emergency room, suddenly and violently interrupting what would have been a glorious week in the Greek summer sun with a near-death experience.
But let’s start at the beginning. It was 2019, and I had taken ten days off of work for my first proper vacation in two years. My friends had been traveling around Europe and were currently parked on the magical Greek island of Crete. I flew out on one of those cheap Norwegian Air flights that no longer exists and, when I arrived, the girls were already doing yoga topless on the sundeck and my friend had prepared a fresh summer salad of fruits and veggies picked from the garden.
It looked like it was going to be a great week.
The next morning, I awoke in my bed at around 6 a.m. feeling a deep sense of unease. I needed to evacuate my bowels so urgently that I couldn’t even make it to the bathroom downstairs, so I literally shat all over the kitchen floor of our Airbnb. I managed to clean it up—I knew I needed medical attention but also knew that my housemates would not be super inclined to help me if they saw what I had done to the kitchen. I threw the wadded-up paper towels into an alley outside and woke up my friends, telling them something was wrong and I needed to go to the hospital.
A Near-Death Experience Is Essentially an Expiration Date
At first, they thought I was hungover and being childish. They joked around for a minute until they realized I couldn’t even figure out how to put my shirt on, at which point my friend Tim rushed me to his car. I couldn’t figure out how to open the door. He drove to the nearest hospital, which turned out to be a VA that wouldn’t admit me. They pointed us to a general hospital, but when we arrived, I couldn’t figure out how to open the automatic sliding doors of the emergency room, so I started banging on them. The doctors inside thought I was just a drunk tourist and were about to ask me to leave when Tim walked up and explained that I was very sick.
All I remember from this time was that it was incredibly hot outside, and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being allowed into the hospital. I stuck my head into a nearby trash bin outside the hospital doors, found a half-empty water bottle (when you’re this sick, the glass is “half-empty,” not “half-full”) and tried to drink it. Tim stopped me and ushered me into the hospital. From this point, my memory is about half-blacked out, but I know I became incredibly cold to the point that I was convulsing and shivering violently. I begged the staff for a blanket. After deliriously screaming at some babies who were being too loud for my liking, I was shown to a triage bed and covered in what seemed like a cellophane burrito wrapper from Chipotle. They wrote the day’s date in a Sharpie on my forearm, like an expiration date.
The glaring insufficiency of the blanket actually added insult to injury, crinkling loudly every time I moved. At this point, I realized I was in a Greek hospital, by myself, with no idea where my phone was, no ability to call my family and no way to communicate with the Greek-speaking doctors. It was probably the most scared I have ever felt in my life.
I Didn’t Think My Near-Death Experience Could Get Any Worse, but It Did
To make matters worse, when the doctor finally rolled up, I mustered enough strength to ask him if I was going to die. He looked at me blankly and said, “We don’t know yet…it seems you have meningitis, and we aren’t sure yet if it is the bacterial type, which is lethal and highly contagious, or the viral type, which is not.” Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more terrifying, he informed me that in order to ascertain the type of meningitis in my brain, it would be necessary to inject a large needle directly into my spine in order to extract spinal fluid that could be tested using a PCR test. I started to consider that dying might be the preferable alternative.
Soon, they rolled me through the CT scan machine like a package of chicken breasts being scanned at the Trader Joe’s checkout line, then plunked me back on the triage bed and began to unsheath the needle. It was God awful. I would not wish my worst enemy to get a spinal injection. (OK, maybe my worst enemy—fuck that guy. But nobody else.) As if I was not already in enough pain, one of the nurse’s cellphones began to ring, one of those horrible, old 8-bit ringtones, like the Nokia you had in middle school. It just rang and rang, incessantly, all the while the needle was being plunged deeper and deeper into my spine. I berated her belligerently.
When this was all over, I just laid there and laid there. And laid there. For what seemed like hours. My recollection of the rest of the day’s events is a little fuzzy, thanks to the inflammation of my brain tissue and all that, but I woke up the next morning in an actual hospital room. My first thought was that I was furious that my vacation was being ruined. This wasn’t supposed to be how the week went. Where were the topless yoga girls? Oh right—they were at the Airbnb, avoiding me like the literal plague for fear of their lives.
Even After Nearly Dying, I Was Still Hung up on Missing My Vacation
When the doctor came in, I emphasized my dissatisfaction to him, explaining that I was here on vacation and didn’t want to be hospitalized. He informed me that, due to the potential contagiousness of my condition, I would be required to remain there for at least two more days while they awaited the results of the PCR test to make sure I wasn’t at risk of dying or infecting anyone else. Two days seemed like a death sentence.
The hospital was old, dark and dreary, like a relic of the Cold War; it reeked of disinfectant, and nobody spoke English. The halls were completely desolate, with no trace of human life at all. At one point, I walked outside my room and actually thought the hospital had closed for the night and all of the staff had gone home. That’s how barren it was. To make matters worse, I had only been in the country for two days and didn’t trust its healthcare system or the competency of its doctors. Americans have this ridiculous way of thinking everything in our country is better than anywhere else. More on that later.
After the doctor departed, I was left alone with my thoughts, a gown and a needle taped to my forearm injecting water into my veins. Each time the doctor came back, I asked if my test results were ready. After three very long and nerve-wracking days, he returned with the news that I had viral meningitis, not the life-threatening or contagious kind. An enormous sense of relief washed over me, but he explained that I would need to remain there for another week. To be completely honest, I don’t remember the reasons he gave now, but I’m sure they were medical and legitimate. It was crushing to me. I was happy to be alive but still couldn’t get over how gutted I was about my Greek vacation being in shambles.
Takeaways From My Near-Death Experience Story
Over the ensuing week, I learned two important, existential lessons: Tomorrow is never promised, and some things are out of our control. I vowed to cherish life and live it to the fullest, and I promised myself that when I made it out, I would get a tattoo of the date they had Sharpied onto my forearm as a reminder of the first lesson. The second lesson took another few years to fully sink in. There is actually a huge sense of relief accepting that some things are out of our control. Once I had accepted my fate that week, I slowly began to realize how grateful I was to simply be alive—and for the fantastic care that the Greek doctors provided me.
After the fourth or fifth day, when I was feeling myself, I quietly and nervously informed the doctor that I didn’t have any type of health insurance at all. To my amazement, he informed me that while I would be sent a bill for the services, I could simply choose not to pay it, since I didn’t live in the country. I couldn’t believe it. If this whole episode had happened while I was home in the U.S., it would have easily cost me $30,000, maybe $50,000, to be hospitalized for eight days like that. Or, more honestly, they probably would have just sent me home with some aspirin and a prescription for something that would probably create five new problems.
On my eighth and final day, I had reached complete acceptance of, and gratitude for, my situation, which I began to view as an incredible blessing. It was almost as if God had whisked me away to Greece in order to afford me free treatment for this terrible virus that would overtake my system.
I left the hospital, called a cab, went straight to a restaurant and ordered so much food that it wouldn’t fit on the table. Nearby diners stared. I finished all of it, then went to the airport, grateful for the experience, the existential life lessons and the newfound knowledge of the international health care system.