It was an unusual Christmas Eve for us last year. We were in Slovakia for the first time, staying in the High Tatras, but were repeatedly on the phone to our son's doctor in Manhattan, seeking reassurance about a fever and a sudden redness under his eyes that could have been a warning of a serious illness.
We were hiding out in the Grandhotel Praha, having mistakenly also booked at the Grand Hotel in Starý Smokovec, a few miles down the road. Both hotels were genuinely grand, but the Grandhotel seemed (at least from the limited view offered by the internet) to be in a forest and at the foot of an imposing mountain (Lomnický peak). Anyway, our New York travel agent couldn't tell the difference between the two hotels, so we had bookings at both (dear managers at the Grand Hotel, sorry about that).
Having had the local children sing what we presumed to be Slovak seasonal carols, my wife, Ping, noticed that Luke's fever was intensifying, so we were on the phone again to New York. Our paediatrician said prosaically that it was the first time she had ever returned a call to Slovakia.
She suggested that we call a local doctor, who recommended that we head down to the nearest hospital in Poprad, where there was a pediatrics department with the skills to handle an infant nearing his first birthday. The awkward thing about a reddening beneath the eyes is that it can be something fairly minor (a bacterial infection) or far more complex (a leakage of cranial fluid) and the local doctor was as uncertain as our Manhattan consultant about the cause.
The 20-minute drive down the mountain to the plains of Poprad was made a little easier than is normal at Christmas time because of a shortage of snow. It being Christmas Eve and winter (I was raised in Australia, where you associate Christmas with hot summers), the streets were mostly empty and the hospital was hard to find.
The first impression of Poprad is of the apartment blocks so beloved of central planners around the world - having been a correspondent in China, the scene reminded me of the outskirts of Beijing - but there is something charming about Poprad. Perhaps it is the earthiness of the people, perhaps it is that those apartment blocks don't reach the absurd, dehumanising levels of some cities.
We wandered into the hospital waiting area, looking for English speakers and fearing for our son. There is something about entering a hospital that makes an illness seem far more serious than when you were outside moments earlier. Two doctors gathered around, studied Luke and agreed that if there had been fluid leakage, he faced serious complications. And so the testing began.
We were taken to a specialist who studied his nasal passages and shone a light into his eyes. The doctor was sincere and softly-spoken. He was reassuring in that doctorish way that makes you wonder whether he is seeking to prepare you for an unfortunate diagnosis or is relaxed because you genuinely have little to fear. The doctor calmly explained that Luke had a bacterial infection and prescribed antibiotics, which we would collect the next morning from a pharmacy in central Poprad.
What struck Ping and me was the level of expertise and care among the physicians, all of whom could probably think of better places to be on Christmas Eve. Poprad hospital lacked the fancy technology that characterises some institutions in London and New York, but the empathy on display was inspiring.
We were insecure enough to check with the New York paediatrician on whether she would have prescribed the same medicines (she would have done exactly the same) and we were then even more guiltily grateful to the staff at the Poprad hospital. I have been to hospitals in China where communism has bleached out the humanity of some (not all) of the staff, but the level of concern shown to us was tangible and impressive.
That night, we allowed ourselves a little cheer and were conscious that goodwill to fellow men and women is more than a message on a Christmas card.
Robert Thomson is the US managing editor of the Financial Times
22. Dec 2001 at 0:00 | Robert Thomson