Tuesday, July 13, 2010

One Stop Shopping: Harrods & the NHS

19 June
My dad and I have breakfast in the Club Lounge before hailing a cab to Paddington and then boarding the Heathrow Express to the airport. Paddington...I love the name, regardless of the bear, which of course is being hawked in kiosks throughout the station.

Once at Heathrow, we wait. And wait. And wait. We arrive much too early for a flight that is delayed. At least I am able to get a cup of coffee at Costa's (it actually seems to be an Americano--the barista pulls a couple of shots of espresso that magically morphs into a cupful, and they add the milk for you; one way of controlling expenses and mess, I suppose). It dulls the ache in my head, the ache I know so well. Per my daughter J's request, I craft a sign with our last name in large dark block letters, much like a limo driver or tour guide. I brace it against the railing that separates the arrivals from the waiting masses, in imitation of the other livery services. Travelers trickle out of the sliding doors, some emerging from the right, others from the left.

Finally I spot a clean-shaven lad wearing a black "Wales" shirt (tricky choice, there) and towing an oversize black suitcase, followed by a blonde girl in a green plaid fedora. They are here!

We buy rail tickets and sandwiches and wait. And wait. The train finally arrives and once we emerge into the daylight J is all grins through the British countryside and into Paddington Station and into the taxi queue. Still smiling as we are ladled into a black cab and hurtled thought the streets, this way and that, on our way to High Holborn and Chancery Court. As we travel I notice a bicyclist trailing us. Our eyes meet and he gives me a smile. He is able to keep pace with our cab, catching up at the stoplights, until we overtake two double-decker buses and he is lost in traffic.

There are hugs all around as family converges at the hotel. We maneuver bed occupancy once again, in order to house all of us. I later learn from my cousin that we have totally befuddled hotel staff with our room--and bed--swapping. Adding to the hilarity is a lovely tray of chocolate-covered strawberries in honor of hubby and my 50th Anniversary, which, as the card notes, "is an amazing milestone" (made more amazing by the fact of my prenatal nuptials. Hubby wasn't even a gleam at the time.) My parents--who are the REAL Golden Anniversary celebrants--have already received a complementary bottle of champagne in honor of the event. Did the confused hotel staff conclude that they were hosting a group of swinging 70-year-olds whose secret of lasting marriage involved random group hookups?

After a chat, we decide the afternoon's expedition will be to Harrods' by way of Covent Garden, a former flower and produce market of the 19th century and now a walkway of shops. We thread our way though cobbled alleys and antique facades. And then we find ourselves before Harrods and it is SALE DAYS...and overcrowded. Synchronize watches, pick a meeting point, and off we go in pairs, like the animals in a 6-storey ark, to see what we can see.

J is my partner, and we decide to start at the top and work our way down. Some floors are definitely better than others--Sporting Goods is a yawn, Books/Music resembles what we have back home. But Toys is amusing (Reusable Artificial Snow, on special this week! Imagine.); Fossils and Minerals are fascinating, if just for the mystery of who would spend L 10K on a trilobite; Art Glass was lovely. Musical Instruments were diverting; I was taken with the staff performing a duo piano concert, while a young opera singer leaning over the stairwell balcony captured my uncle's attention.

But what really captivated us--for its beauty AND its ugly--was Couture. I don't know if J will ever design a chain-mail-and-leather-dress in imitation of the one we saw, but she did like Balenciaga, and RM's folded lapels and pleats were stunning. The hats were a hoot, truly wearable sculpture. When we reconvened, it was fun to compare how other duos spent their time.

Back to the hotel for strategizing about dinner. But I have a problem. Earlier in the day I notice a dull ache in my left breast, like the onset of PMS or a strained muscle. But now it is a burning, and when I look at the skin it is scarlet. To my mind, it's a rapidly brewing infection and needs attention. I hail my cousin, who is well connected in the medical world, and she starts making phone calls. She connects with an MD from Milan who knows London, and he suggests an exam with a Gyn on Monday, but I push for an eval today, now. Memories of my knee infection flash in my mind and I picture PICC lines and Vanco and inpatient admissions...and by conclusion, trashed vacation plans. The doc admits that the A&E (Accident & Emergency) is not ideal, especially on a Saturday night, but University College Hospital is one of the best and it is nearby. I break the news to my parents nd kids, reassure them that although it IS an emergency, it's not life-threatening. Discussions ensue; my mom will accompany me, my cousin and her beau will take my place to collect hubby at the airport and hopefully reassure him. NHS, here I come.

We decide that we ought to take dinner with us, given the now international regulations governing A&E units (3 hour minimum wait time), but the only shop open is the bistro across the street. Not every meal works as a 'take-away' option, so we settle for Croque-Monsieur (seemingly the only sandwich on the menu). And wait. And wait.

In retrospect, the bistro wait is perhaps equal to the A&E wait. Maybe longer. Catch a cab and nervously inform the driver of our destination. I feel like a pregnant woman about to give birth on the back seat; it feels vaguely like the stuff of comedies. Too bad I feel so lousy.

Again serpentining through the streets. The driver wants to drop us at the corner but we beg for the entrance, unfamiliar with the area (he comes pretty close but he could have done better). The second door brings us to a dismal waiting area which looks a bit too much like a bus terminal. The registrar explains the process to me, emphasizing that "the nurse will decide if you need to see the doctor." Which makes me wonder what percentage of customers come to the A&E with false alarms, not unlike the US, really. The form I complete has squares for corralling block letters...and not nearly enough to house my name or my symptoms. The waiting room is nearly empty, the other patrons exotic-looking (Two well-dressed young women walk in, carrying Harrods' bags and an icepack. We speculate: did the patient injure her nose in a scuffle over a sale item?).

A petite nurse bellows my name and I am taken into what feels like an alcove in a hallway, although there IS a door that shuts behind me. The nurse asks me brief questions and to convince her of my diagnosis, I pull up my shirt. She responds by telling me it may be a 2 hour wait until I can be seen by the doctor...and that I can go ahead and eat.

It's maybe half an hour--I barely finish my sandwich and the accompanying wilted salad--when the doctor calls me in. She is young, slender, but thoughtful, carefully examining my breasts and axillae, and concluding that I have cellulitis. Why? How? She can't really say, but a penicillin knockoff should do the trick. Gosh, I hope so. I've heard of inflammatory breast CA and it scares me. How do I know for sure?

I walk out of the A&E with a free box of antibiotic capsules and a brochure I snagged from the waiting room. "Neighbor Strapping" sounded too bizarre to leave behind, like something out of "Bum Paddle Magazine"...you "Arrested Development" groupies will know what I mean. Not to mention that the back page was a paid advert from a malpractice attorney's office. How absolutely unreal.

Mom & I realize we are mere blocks from our hotel, and to forgo the swerving taxi ride--as well as get a bit of exercise--we walk back. It's breezy, a bit chilly, but we motivate ourselves with the thought of the hot cuppa waiting for us in the Club Lounge, as well as the hugs of reassurance from our growing circle. And I plot how to best tell L. that I have done my part to increase his tax burden by being another one of those non-residents utilizing the NHS.

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