“Have you ever flown in a chopper?” the emergency responder asked me. We were walking from the back of the local medical centre to the airport’s helipad. Nope, I’ve never been in a helicopter. I was about to get my first ride, and I wasn’t that excited about it.
I’d been building our new garden beds alone a few days earlier with pieces of timber too large and heavy for me to lift when I’d whacked myself accidentally in the side of the head with one. I sat down, cursed my own stupidity, and felt thankful I hadn’t passed out. For days it hurt to wear my sunglasses or lie on that side of my head at night.
But I didn’t think anything of it until Saturday morning when I got a nosebleed, had spotty vision in one eye, and then got a pounding headache that didn’t go away with ibuprofen the way I would have expected. “Is this a migraine?” I wondered aloud to Isaac. "I’ve never had one." My sister called and urged me to go get myself checked out. So, that’s what we did.
Medical care on the island is great but basic. The tiny medical centre is a single story building next to the airport and across the street from the itty bitty pharmacy. The GPs who staff it are capable and thorough, but if anything requires imaging or testing, they send patients to Auckland City Hospital. And so the doctor encouraged me to jump on the chopper for a scan in town. Isaac zipped home to grab me pajamas and a tooth brush, and I was off with no idea when I’d be back.
Ever since we’ve gotten here, it’s been surprising to me how easy it is to get medical help. If you need a prescription, you get it. If you need to go to the doctor, you just go in. And, turns out, if you need to take a helicopter to the hospital, they call one for you. It’s more straightforward than I’d ever imagined healthcare could be, and costs way less per capita than the US system.
The ER at Auckland’s busiest hospital was no exception. Kind doctors and nurses got me a scan within a few hours, which showed no head injuries. To be extra careful, the doctor recommended a lumbar puncture to test spinal fluid to see if I’d had an aneurism. The whole thing took about 8 hours and at 1am I was deemed healthy and free to go – I must have had a migraine, they reasoned. Before I left the doctors made sure I had a safe place to go for the night, and then I simply walked out, an even bigger fan of single-payer healthcare than I had been before.
It was a treat to be in Auckland, given that islanders aren’t allowed regional travel right now due to COVID restrictions. The smell of concrete and the glare of city lights felt oddly familiar, like I’d stepped back in time to our old fast-paced life. I stayed in the city an extra night to rest up, run errands (Christmas shopping!), and get a little alone time before flying back to the island.
I did all the city things I would have normal done back in San Francisco on a day off. I loved waking up and walking to my choice of multiple cafes. I slurped up yummy ramen and savoured vegan ice cream on a park bench. I hopped on a LIME bike and zipped through traffic to the bank. I lingered in the book store.
But I also noticed the smell of exhaust from all the cars, and the din of traffic. Auckland is impeccably clean, but I passed several homeless and mentally ill people on the streets and remembered how bad it had been in SF. And as the city gobbled up my money, I remembered how expensive urban life can be. After a day, I was ready to come home to the island.
And that’s really what my little medical-emergency-weekend-away taught me: that this island is home now. All the oddities of our off-the-grid life here were familiar when I got back to them.My own barefoot and dirty kids waving me off the tarmac brought me so much joy. The old house we’re living in smelled like home, with its creaky stairs, the missing upstairs window that we cover with cardboard when it rains, the way you have to turn the tap in the bathroom just so, the noisy parrots in the big tree out back. We’re so far from our old city life now, in so many ways, and our roots are here now.
Our toddler asked at dinner tonight, “Why did we move here?” I told him what I have said before when we asks this question – we came to play outside more, live by the beach, and be close to Nana and Grandpa. He didn’t look satisfied, so I asked him what he likes about the city. “The toy store, and ice cream,” he said. Fair enough. I promised him we’d go to the secondhand shop (the “tip shop” it’s called) here on the island to find some new toys soon, and that I’d buy him an ice cream bar next time we go by the store down the road. He seemed satisfied. And so was I.