Linguistics and Hospitals

Over the past few days, I’ve been wondering about the connection between the Portugese and Japanese languages. A connection isn’t far-fetched. Portugal was the first western country to reach Japan, and for a long time was Japan’s only European trading partner. Westerners became fascinated with the orient, and likewise the Japanese began adopting western ways. (This later led to Japan being closed to westerners altogether in a doomed attempt to preserve its culture.) Since arriving here, I’ve spotted two similarities, and I keep wondering if there are more. (Knowing academics, *someone* has to have written a thesis on this subject.)

Note that the following arguments aren’t researched at all. I expect I even spelled the words incorrectly, since I have neither Brasilian or Japanese reference books available. Minor spelling errors aside, the similarities nevertheless exist. Also note that I’ve only concentrated on really basic language elements. The Japanese have borrowed many Portugese and English words, such as ‘pan’ for bread and ‘terebi’ for television. I’m more interested in linguistic elements that should have been present in both languages before contact.

First, there is the expression for ‘thank you’. In Brasil, it’s ‘obrigaddo.’ In Japan, it’s ‘arigato.’ Sometimes I find myself thanking people in Japanese. They laugh and ask me if I’m from Japan.

Second, Brasilians and Japanese both use the ending ‘ne?’ (pronounced ‘nay’). In both languages, the ending requests confirmation that the listener agrees with the speaker. Sort of like the American habit of ending sentences with ‘isn’t it?’, you know?

These sorts of similarities raise all sorts of questions. Did the Japanese not have a way of saying ‘thank you’ before the Portugese arrived? Did the Portugese like the sound of ‘ne?’ at the end of a sentence? Are these linguistic similarities also true in Portugal? In what other ways did this early contact change both Japan and Portugal?

Flashback: It’s October 26th. I’m standing in the parking lot of the Volkswagen dealership in Caixas, watching Tyler and Jeanne driving out. They’re continuing on their journey, and I’ve decided to return to the States. Just as Tyler disappears from view, a sharp pain hits me in my gut. I double over, then sit down on the cobbles. The pain starts to fade, and after a half hour it’s mostly gone. I figure that it was an attack of nerves, or just lunch.

A few days ago I started feeling small cramps in the same place. They were centered where I knew my colon to be. (Occasionally my medical training comes in useful.) Over the last few days they’ve grown worse. The night before last I could not sleep. I would try to escape into dreams, but the pain would follow and waken me.

The next morning I called for a doctor. Luckily there is a good English-speaking doctor in Recife, Dr. Cesar Barros da Silveira (T 0xx81-3462-6311, email (email hidden in RSS feeds)). He specializes in treating tourists. (His card reads ‘Medicina do Viajante’.) He arrived at the pousada within an hour.

He spent about an hour taking my vitals and pressing my belly. He asked about my diet, my medical history, and my bowel movements (none in the last week, actually.) He listened to my gut with his stethescope for a good 15 minutes.

Then he told me that I had a high fever, and there was a good chance that I might have appendicitis. If this was a TV show, I would have to be operated on immediately.

But first we were off to the hospital for blood tests. We went in his car, and I marvelled at a world where doctors not only made house calls but also drove their patients around. Along the way he told me stories of his travels to New York City (‘wonderful!’) and San Francisco (‘beautiful!’), to Japan (‘strange!’) and Europe (‘nice castles!’).

He brought me to the best hospital in Recife, but the power was out to their lab, perhaps for several hours. Power failures are common here. Nevertheless, it’s amazing to me that any part of a hospital would be allowed to exist without a backup generator.

Next we went to the second-best hospital in Recife, the Real Hospital Portugués, which fortunately was only a block away. (Actually, all of the hospitals seem to be clustered together in one neighborhood.) The lab was up and running, and the doctor requested a slate of blood tests, primarily a white-cell count. They drew the blood and presented me with the bill for R$18.20, or under US$10.

Dr. Cesar returned me to the pousada and told me that he would return that evening with the test results. He gave me some Tylenol for the pain, and said that I should try to stay in bed. He also told me that he had already scheduled a surgeon, a man who operated on Cesar’s own daughter. Well, I thought, I guess that’s a vote of confidence.

He also told me to drink agua do coco (coconut milk.) This surprised me. I had thought that coconut milk was full of all of the nasty fats found in coconut. I asked the doc about this, and he said that the meat was bad, but the milk was really very good. Sort of a natural Gatorade, full of electrolytes and minerals. He recommends it to all of his patients with severe diarrhea.

Coconut milk is available everywhere. It’s usually sold by corner stalls with signs reading ‘Coco Gelado’ (icy coconut). You can buy one for under a real. The vendor pulls the coconut out from an ice chest and starts to hack at it with a machete. Soon there is a small hole on the top. You stick in a straw and then wander the streets of town sipping the milk. It’s hard not to feel like a silly tourist while walking around sucking the juice out of a green bowling-ball, but locals do it too.

I got a coconut, returned to my room, and almost immediately fell asleep. I awoke much later with Dr. Cesar leaning over my bed. He said he’d knocked for a while before asking the maid to let him in.

He insisted on another hour-long exam before telling me what the blood tests revealed. Finally he was finished, and he told me that I had an elevated white-cell count, and he was thinking that perhaps I only had an infection. We would try antibiotics and see what effect they would have.

On Monday morning I felt a lot better, but Dr. Cesar insisted on an ultrasound. We drove into Recife where I was scanned. (Cost: R$100.) The test showed nothing abnormal. The doc gave me a bunch of antibiotics and dropped me off in downtown Recife.

Romero Santos (my shipping agent) told me that I needed to get a CPF. This is the Brasilian equivalent of a social security number. It’s possible for foreigners to get one by going to the Banco do Brasil, filling out a form, and paying R$4.50. That sounds simple, but going to a bank in Brasil is a long, painful process. First, I stood in line for two hours waiting for a clerk to fill out the form. After that, I had to wait in line for another hour to pay the R$4.50 (about US$3.) Tomorrow, I need to return at 10am to pick up my new ID card.

Unfortunately, standing for such a long period of time left me feeling weak. I also have recurring sharp pains shooting down my side. I hope that this is just a minor relapse, and that I’ll feel better in the morning. I don’t want to have surgery in Brasil. It’s too far from my family, and I want to be able to talk to the people in the hospital.

Romero has assured me that I’ll be able to fly out on Wednesday. I plan on doing so.


What do you think?