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July 26, 2015

Giving up the ghost

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Written by: DW

It was a metaphor that was not uncommon in earlier moments of the crisis, that of Greece as a patient on life support. The notion of a sick man of Europe has a long pedigree after all. It has come back with a vengeance now, most recently in the form of a commentary by Maria Katsounaki in the English pages of Kathimerini newspaper.

“Greece is like a person who seems able to keep on going,” Katsounaki writes, “despite suffering a serious debilitating disease whose effects are also evident externally. The sickness in all of its vital organs can been seen in almost every aspect of day-to-day life…”

The problem with this sort of thinking is that it often reveals an expectation that the patient’s condition is terminal. Let me explain.

During my recent stay in the hospital, two patients in my ward died in my presence, while a third went into a coma. Of the deceased you might say, as we do in English, that they gave up the ghost. One moment they were fighting for each breath, the next they had simply stopped breathing. We in the adjoining beds who had become accustomed to our wardmates’ constant struggles did not register our neighbors’ silence immediately. In the one instance, it was the sobbing of relatives in waiting, in the other, the clattering of the crew assigned to transport the corpse to the morgue and disinfect the room, that signaled the end.

I had been awakened in the latter instance not by the noise but by the light that the nurse had left on overhead. I could not fall back asleep, the gurgling of my co-patient’s breathing was so heavy. At a certain moment it stopped, covered by the less labored breath of another patient in the ward. “Maybe he has fallen asleep,” I remember thinking to myself.

Then the crew entered, placed a screen around the bed of the deceased, and began their work. The nurse on call came in from time to time to oversee the process, apparently unaware that I was awake. It was only when she moved the screen that she took note of my observing the goings on. “We woke you, excuse us,” she said, almost matter-of-factly. “No, it was the light.” “Oh, we left it on as we expected something to happen tonight.”

I regretted almost instantaneously not having offered words of sympathy for the psychic state of the nurse (I did make up for this lacuna a few days later). You see, although my parents both passed away a few years ago, they lived at quite some distance, and unlike many Greek families of my acquaintance I had not previously experienced death at such close quarters.

You may develop defense mechanisms to steel yourself against the inevitability of death. Maria Katsounaki seems to imply that breathing is a mere reflex, a habit, not more, not less: “we continue down the same old path, with the same reflexes and the same bad habits.”

But it cannot be a good thing when we consider the relative health of a national economy in the same cold, clinical way. Will we one day say that we left Greece in the eurozone because we expected her economy to die anyway?

 

 

 






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