Drug Money

img_20180511_0825463502

I have twenty-seven thousand dollars worth of drugs in our house, legal drugs I used because, as I’ve written, I have Rheumatoid Arthritis, one of the 87 different auto immune conditions afflicting about 20 percent of the people in the US.

RA causes terrible joint pain and constant inflammation. Initially I lost the ability to bike or canoe; later I was unable to walk a flight of stairs, turn a key in the ignition, peel an orange or cut a stick of cold butter with a knife.  I became almost completely dependent on my husband, even to pull up the covers in bed at night.  I felt overwhelmed by the chronic pain and depression.

Because of the drug costs, Rheumatoid Arthritis tops the list of pre-existing conditions which insurance companies don’t like to cover.  The cost of this particular drug is $4,500 per month.

I am no longer using it.  Six months ago I began taking a capsule once a day, of a prescription medicine which has been much more effective for me.  My pain and depression are gone!  For the first time in 13 years, I feel well!  The monthly cost without insurance is $29.00.  Because it’s a generic drug being used off-label, no pharmaceutical company can patent Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN) and therefore there is no money to be made.  Doctors are still learning about it, a difficult task because, with so little time available to them, they typically learn about drug uses from drug reps who come to their offices providing the latest information.  There is nobody “repping” LDN to physicians.

At this very low dose, up to 4.5 mg, naltrexone has a unique action.  Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN) spurs the body to produce more of its own endorphins and dopamine, natural neurotransmitters which increase focus, enjoyment and motivation.  More dopamine, naturally made by the body itself, causes the healing which I and so many others are experiencing.  As an immune system modulator, LDN nudges the body to heal itself.  It is not a cure, but LDN has been used successfully to help people with irritable bowel conditions, lupus, fibromyalgia, Multiple Sclerosis, anxiety/depression and many other painful chronic conditions, including Lyme disease.

Our old dog Niko, age 15, has Lyme disease.  It’s a painful, chronic condition which can seriously affect muscles.  I shared my LDN with him and after three days, Niko could again run up the stairs and jump up on the bed.  He no longer stumbled and could lift his leg to pee.  It, too, costs us $29.00 per month.  Niko acts happier and we have stopped giving him medication for pain.  Since I began taking LDN I have no pain and no brain fog or depression.  We are all much happier in our house.

And I still have twenty-seven thousand dollars’ worth of drugs I don’t need in my fridge. I’ve found a charitable pharmacy, St. Vincent de Paul, which can redistribute unused medications to people who have no insurance.  I’ll take twenty-four syringes, worth $27,000 to them to redistribute.  I’m also motivated to increase awareness of the miracle-like benefits and low cost of Low Dose Naltrexone.  Pharmacists at my compounding pharmacy who teach doctors and patients about LDN point out it has virtually no side effects and can be very effective.  Their position is “Why not ask your doctor to learn about it?”  Information is available at http://www.ldnresearchtrust.org.

14. Results

sararadonphoto

Results

Even before I left home to go to the Czech medical spa, I wanted to hear about people who’d had positive results. Gabriella, the person in sales had told me on the phone that her father returns to the medical spa as a patient every year, but didn‘t give specifics.  I’ve already referenced the double-blind, placebo-controlled study of patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis (R.A.), considered the gold standard in medicine, done in Austria in 1992 and 2000.  They showed beyond a reasonable doubt that patients who were given radon treatments experienced benefits such as less pain, more flexibility and reduced use of medicines at 6 months post-treatment than those who did not receive radon.  There are similar studies claiming that irradiation of the lower body with very low dose radiation twice a week is beneficial in treating non-Hodgekins lymphoma (1988). Earlier research shows that small doses of radon can prevent cancer in mice.  These scientific studies published in international journals provided the information about radon for health which had convinced me to travel to the Czech Republic to try it for myself.

After I arrived, I asked Dr. Ludmilla Khaled at my second appointment with her, if I could see data or stories.  She said that in the past they had collected such data, but because of new privacy policies, they could no longer ask patients about their results.  She generously loaned me a stack of research papers about the use of radon for health, but only the papers which were written in either English or German were accessible to me.  For weeks I pored over them, using a translation program on my phone, German to English, and took copious notes.

Here’s my summary of the data:  Epidemiological studies, such as that done in Japan in 1992 relate that survivors of the nuclear explosions of World War II (acute exposure) showed decreased cancer rates compared to cancer rates in people further away from the nuclear bomb sites.  Similar results are reported in studies done in 1985 and 1987 for U.S., British and Canadian observers of atmospheric nuclear explosions.

Additionally, studies done in 1990 and 1993 show, in the case of chronic exposure, that male nuclear power plant workers (exposed workers) in the U.S. have lower cancer mortality rates, as is true of workers in large radon clinics in Russia, compared to general populations (1988).  Similar results were reported in Canada (1983) and U.K. (1992).

An American researcher (Luckey, 1990, 1993) noted that while there is a maximum amount of radon in enclosed spaces such as basements, above which it should be eradicated, that some radiation is essential. He wondered if whole populations should be supplemented with radiation.  He argued that “the dose makes the poison,” and that many functions are improved in the body with the appropriate use of radon: “growth, neuromuscular development, hearing and visual fecundity, learning and memory, fecundity, immune competence, cancer mortality and average lifespan.”

Three possible mechanisms of action of radon on the body include: 1. Radon encourages DNA repair at the molecular level. 2. Radon causes free radical detoxification at the molecular level, and 3. Radon provides stimulation of the immune system at a cellular level. This is an area for further study and it is likely the actions are complicated.

But I also craved stories, and talked of this desire to Blanka, the concierge at my hotel, whose command of English was superb.  She suggested that after she was finished with her work shift some day, we might interview a few patients together, maybe in a small group, and she could translate from Czech to English for me.   I was very excited; the project gave me purpose.  Honestly, I wanted to discover something which could potentially be helpful to many people in the future.  I went downtown to buy cookies to serve at the meeting, and prepared a short version of my story and some basic questions for Blanka to translate to the patients she would invite.

Blanka had already told me her mother had worked in the radon area of this spa for many years, and that like many other former practitioners who celebrate their good health into old age, her mother had few incidents of sickness and is healthy.  Blanka spoke of her own pain which sounded spookily like mine (heaviness and morning stiffness requiring a long hot bath and ibuprofen) and we talked of happy things, too.  She would marry on a weekend during my three-week stay; her travel advice and attention for him had helped Glenn so much that he wanted to buy her a wedding gift.  She was a charming, loving person with great sensitivity to energy. She and I discussed the inherent challenge in her job not to give away too much energy or become a rescuer who puts others’ needs before her own.  I wished I could talk with her, but there was almost always a line of patients waiting to ask her about events, bus schedules and upcoming tours.

Other patients told her of their successes that had them return to Jachymov this time, for example, a seventy year old woman who had taught chemistry in Prague is here for the 10th time.  This would indicate a high level of satisfaction with results.  I also met a woman from Ukraine who is here for the second time after spinal surgery in which three discs were removed.  Last year’s treatments reduced her pain, she said, and she now has returned hoping for similar results.  A math teacher who spoke English told me she’s here for the first time.  She recently had a blood clot and a stroke. Half of her body is disabled and, like me sometimes, she needs two hands to pick up a glass. I sincerely hoped all of us would find relief from pain and acquire more ability.  I’d learned directly from each of them that Gertrude was here for the 20th time and Doris for the 7th time.  They and others warned me that symptoms get worse before they get better.

Unfortunately, Blanka was unable to carry out the interview project because of privacy policies, but the first result I can personally report for myself is that after one week, just six radon treatments, the bottoms of my feet stopped hurting.  It felt like a miracle!  I had injured my feet by doing too many lunges, part of a recommended workout at the advanced yoga workshop I’d gone to in upstate New York.  I couldn’t learn whether it was plantar fasciitis (per the podiatrist) or neuropathy (per the chiropractor).  But for more than a year, I had been unable to stand or walk without burning pain.  The pain kept me awake many nights and kept me home a lot, dependent on Glenn’s help.  The laser therapy at my chiropractor’s office had helped my feet a lot, but it was easy to re-injure them with just a minimal amount of walking.  During the first week at the medical spa, Glenn went out walking on the many beautiful hiking trails in these tree-covered Ore mountains while I went to scheduled treatments or stayed in the hotel room and looked online at wheel chairs for sale or the double canes which support the lower arm used by many people here.  Then, after a week at the spa, I could suddenly walk without pain!  I hiked a couple of miles and felt no pain, even at night.  Now that I could walk the stairs up and down to my fifth floor room (sometimes from the floor -2B in the sub basement) I was free of needing to use the elevators, reminding me that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.  I felt relief and unimaginable joy in the freedom of having no pain in my feet.  Eventually I went on four mile hikes out of town to pick raspberries and even did a little dancing in the lobby some evenings.

During week two, I developed two very big sore pimples, one in my ear and one in my nose. My stomach was a little bit upset, probably from the change in food, and my digestion was slow. Then, after the first two weeks at the spa, my feet were still fine, but as the physician and patients had predicted, my joint pain got worse.  Both shoulders hurt at the same time (this had never been true in the 12 years I’d had R.A.) and both my hands were less flexible, as painful as they’d ever been.  The morning stiffness was worse and my wrists felt weak and fragile. Some people predicted it will stay bad for two weeks after finishing the treatments before feeling pain relief, others said it could take 6 weeks before one feels the benefits.  It was beginning to feel like there was a carrot dangling out in front of my nose on an ever-lengthening stick, never really achievable.  Some patients even reported to me that the best benefits don’t occur until after returning for the treatments for a few years in a row!

The same increased pain level continued after I returned home.  After one week at the spa I wrote in my journal: “I hurt like a son of a bitch,” and reminded myself that Maria (the elderly woman who’d lived in Canada) had said to me as her pain increased while still at the spa, ‘I feel like somebody would hit me with a stick.”  Back at the spa, other people had also spoken of their pain and hopes for change.  Here at home, it seems my husband and friends have no idea about chronic pain, so in an odd way I feel lonelier here.  The fingers on my left hand became so swollen that I had to go to a jeweler and have my wedding ring cut off.  I decided to go back on the weekly injection of Orencia, a drug which is prescribed for auto-immune diseases to block the formation of inflammation.  I hadn’t needed it for the past seven months.  Looking at the notes I took while at the spa I read “some people feel results after 2 or 3 months.”

Then, wonderously, it really seemed to happen just as people at the spa had predicted.  After three months at home, I noticed I have stronger, more flexible joints, no pain and do not need to take any medication. The best result from the radiation treatments, however, is the increased energy which infused my whole body.  It was as though my body had been plugged into an electrical socket.  My acupuncturist said my pulses have more vitality.  The definition of panache is: self-assurance, confidence, energy, verve, zest, vivacity.  I did real physical work helping our daughter move to another apartment! I was able to be a hostess for guests at our house and in Chicago in a way that had been impossible for years.  Unfortunately, the pain in both feet returned because I injured them again by doing too much cooking, walking, and shopping.  It ended up taking months and other alternative treatments such as cold laser therapy and castor oil packs for my feet to repair themselves.  I feel hopeful knowing I can return to Eastern Europe for radon treatments again, after at least a year has passed.

As a result of having more energy, my thinking became clearer, again maybe as a result of lessening depression.  My dreams were very vivid and I was able to imagine scenarios which kept me less locked into just one way of thinking.  It took three months post-treatment to feel a significant decrease in pain, and I again stopped taking medication.

People want to hear about my experiences and results of attending a Czech medical spa where radon was administered as a treatment.  I’ve enjoyed bringing back to mind the people I met and introducing them, through this writing, to family and friends.  Taking on this challenge to communicate brings me a feeling of agency, of resiliency, of accomplishment.  As a result of radon treatments, I have more energy and am truly grateful for the opportunity to benefit from unusual treatments in the mountains of a very beautiful eastern European country.  It feels hopeful knowing I can return to Eastern Europe for radon treatments again if needed, after at least a year has passed.  Thank you for “traveling” with me.

A friend emailed my favorite comment about this blog:  “Such color and meaning in multicultural healing stories.”  And on that theme, I’ll appreciate the international friends who visited me at the end of summer, just after I returned from the Czech medical spa.  Their visits from Canada and Japan were heartwarming.  One friend I hadn’t seen for 15 years flew from Japan and stayed only three days, bringing sweet heartfelt feelings and sharing healing hugs, then returned to her family in Kyoto.  All of you, readers, commenters and visitors alike aided me in my journey, healing from Rheumatoid Arthritis.  I am grateful.

riekoandsara

 

 

 

 

P.S.  I will be adding one additional post, that is, a post script post  🙂

 

13. Good Bye

airlineposter

Good Bye

In my journal I wrote, “I f-*king DID it!” and I left.  Okay, there was more to it. I was careful to say good bye to people I’d spent time with.  I bought and delivered a bunch of bright red gerbera daisies to Maria in a vase made by cutting up a red plastic soda pop bottle and weighing it down with rocks in the water.  We hugged and I cried.  I gave big tips (in Czech crowns) to those who helped me feel especially welcome: the housecleaner, the dining room hostess, the concierge and Vlasta who had often made me laugh. I told each that her job is very important and her work had benefitted me.

The library at this hotel contained about 400 books.  I would leave behind one of the books I’d brought, Pema Chodron’s “Start Where You Are,” making it a library with about 401 books.  I shelved it with the only other English book in the room, “Soft Soil, Black Grapes,” which compared labor conditions and prejudices of immigrant grape pickers in Italy and California.

On my last night there, I also sat in the lounge a bit with the old man I had sung to on the roof so many days ago.  He thanked me for singing to him and asked if I wanted a song from him.  Of course I did.  My fear at the time I was singing to him on the roof was that he had been a really talented opera teacher or a famous gifted composer, judging my weak voice and silly simpleton’s songs.  The song he sang in Czech that evening in the lobby sounded like a children’s song, dah da de da, punctuated by “Hallo, Hallo!” after every line.  I was intensely relieved by his comparable lack of talent, and felt my heart open again.  He said we should have spent more time together; his wife was not here and my husband was not here.  He asked, “Is your husband a very big strong powerful man?  Is he rich?  Does he get angry easily?”  I laughed and said, no, no, he is not big; yes he is rich and best of all, he is honest and good.  He said, “All men are good.” We smiled.  It was relaxing and fun to connect with people.

And then a last experience in the café.  Adil, the Arab man with MS and in a wheel chair, invited to me to go have a drink with him.  We each ordered a ginger and hot water drink and wished each other well.  Next summer he will live at a different Czech spa where there is more emphasis on strengthening exercises.  An older man from Saudi Arabia asked to join us, and Adil introduced him as a man who works with the royal family. Mr. Abu asked me, through Adil, where do I live in the U.S. and which university is the best for his 17 year old son.  If he sent him to my city, could the son live with my family?  I thanked him for the honor of his invitation, and noted his great love for his son, but, no, our home is too small.  Would I help him find a safe family to live with?  Of course, I replied, secretly hoping it never comes to pass.

Early the next morning, a driver took me to the airport and dropped me off at the same wrong terminal where a different driver had waited for Glenn and me 22 days ago.  I dragged my aching body and pulled my rolling suitcase through lots of hallways to Terminal 2, bought a t shirt for my 4 year old friend Luca, (my only souvenir purchase) and headed home, feeling satisfied with my adventure and hoping to feel better soon.

Post #14 will be:  Post Treatment Results

12. Treatments

treatmentsphoto

Treatments

But the biggest difference here from how we do things at home was the attitude I perceived of treatment practitioners toward patients.  My brain ruminated on this topic.  I didn’t feel exactly like a rough, labeled sack of potatoes, or a big mackerel needing a bath, but maybe more like a number to be served and crossed off the list.  Lord knows the client lists were long.  A tight, computer-generated list governed the workload, which was tightly scheduled and delivered.  And I didn’t speak Czech, so there were definite unusual obstacles.  But a tone of voice or a touch on the shoulder can convey at lot in terms of feeling cared about.  Admittedly the services were purely physical that is, not energy work, and were paid for in advance. Less than $100 per day included room, meals and treatments.  My program entitled me to 21 radon baths, 7 hot wax hand dips, 12 sessions of laser therapy on the bottoms of my feet, 6 partial massages of 20 minutes each, 7 movement classes in the warm water pool and 5 CO2 dry baths, these while lying naked in a blue plastic bag on a massage table for 20 minutes.

In the radon bath area in level -2B, two floors below the ground level, it smelled like freshly cut hay. Three female practitioners were on duty, each in charge of 5 or 6 new patients every half hour.  My radon bath was always scheduled for 7:00 or 7:30 am and it seemed everyone was done working by 2:30 pm (14:30).  When my name was called, I was assigned to a numbered private room where I undressed, wrapped myself in a bed sheet and stood at the door to another hallway until called to a private room with a steel bath tub already filled with nice warm water and a floating yellow neck pillow.

After I was settled in the water the technician turned the lever on a faucet which added exactly 5.0 kBq of radon gas to the water at my feet and then turned it off.  She tapped a timer, which was pre-set for 20 minutes and walked out, pulling the curtain closed behind her, sometimes first making eye contact to check if I was OK.  She then moved on to help the next 5 patients scheduled in this same half hour.  When the timer dinged, she came back, pulled the plug to drain the water and escorted me, wrapped in the bed sheet, back to the first room where I laid on a low padded bench and she covered me with a fuzzy blanket.  I had 10 minutes to rest there, then dress and leave, making room for the next radon bath patient on the next half hour of her schedule.  This happened six days a week; we all had Sundays off.

After the first three radon treatments I noticed I woke up shaking, as if my spine was vibrating and I was scared about it.  It’s not the first time; Glenn reminded me that spine shaking was the reason I stopped taking methotrexate, the first drug usually prescribed for Rheumatoid Arthritis.  But even so I insisted to see a doctor before my next radon bath.  Dr. Hornatova is about 85 years old; I’d read her name in scientific literature concerning radon treatments and I was thrilled to meet her.  I had practiced saying the words for “shaking spine” and “shivering” and “tingling” in German.  Dr. Hornatova replied, “Absolutely not.  It is not possible that radon caused this.  It could be many things: the new climate for you, the new food, many things.”  So off I went to radon treatment number 4, at least minimally reassured.

In other areas of the treatment section, the paraffin hand dip room, for example, treatments were done in a group setting and interactions between Czech patients seemed to lighten things up.  I, though, was feeling isolated and lonely.  Before my radon bath on the 10th day, I asked the technician to turn on the background music, and when an American song from the 80’s played, “Alright now, Baby it’s alright now“  I began to sob. I wanted to abandon this stupid plan I’d had to come here and go home early.  In my journal I wrote, “This experience is feeling like a punishment for having R.A.  I wonder if Swiss Air flies to Chicago every day, like maybe tomorrow?” I’d made it to the half-way point, had 9 of the 18 recommended treatments.  What we label “hump day,” has a counterpart word in German which translates to “mountain celebration.”

I was also grieving the January death of my friend and traveling buddy, Bonnie Michal. The first time Bonnie and I came to the Czech Republic in 1973, it was to visit her family.  Both times I’d lived in Germany for a few months, it was with Bonnie.  I missed her enthusiasm about “all things Europe,” like the insistence to drink each kind of beer from its corresponding shape of glassware, or the many different ways to flush the toilets.  We had both noted that bathrooms in homes and public spaces were not kept to the clean standards most people have in America.  Later in life we laughed that I adopted those standards, that a bathroom was merely a place to “do your business,” but she became obsessed with large clean tile bathrooms and as a realtor professed that the bathroom should have bright color, so that it “popped.”  Many memories of Europe, including some of the smells, brought her almost to life in front of me. She should be here with me; I felt miserable.

In phone calls home, both my sister Connie and my friend Sheila were practical with their advice, asking: how would I feel if I didn’t finish the prescribed number of treatments and didn’t get any of the hoped-for health benefits?  Then I’d never know if radon can be beneficial for people with R.A.  I should be brave and persevering.

For solace and encouragement, I turned to Pema Chodron’s book, “Start Where You Are.”  I imagined telling Pema, who is a Buddhist nun, that I couldn’t wring a drop of compassion out of these people no matter how hard I tried.  I imagined her smiling, maybe advising me to “exchange yourself for another,” a Buddhist way of saying “walk a mile in their shoes.”  I remembered that Americans at home had told me the Czech people are very introverted, which I’d also experienced during my bike trip there in 1994.  It seemed wise to ponder the kind of life most people I’m meeting had endured under Soviet dominance and the effects, especially of so much mistrust: families fractured, dreams destroyed.  Freed less than 30 years ago, everyone I encountered here at the medical spa had certainly experienced it. Technicians were 40 – 65 years old; patients seemed to range from 60 to 85 years old.  Communism, in place here from 1948 to 1989, also forbade capitalist competition, so there was no need in those days for a shop keeper to be especially friendly to a customer.  Vaclav Havel, the first president elected after the country was freed, said, “It will take at least two generations for us to undo the effects of communism.”

Then I began to focus instead on the technicians who were friendly, the Serbian masseur who seemed happy to be photographed and the woman who told me her daughter, age 14, wants to come to America.  Another, Vlasta, the water class teacher and physiotherapist, was always happy and ready to joke.  In the pool, she led us in singing children’s songs in German. I looked forward to my appointments with her.  In German, she and I talked about becoming forgetful.  She told me that she and her husband have a kind of routine joke between them.  If she asks him to remember the name of a movie, or a song title or a brand name or something, he replies, “How much time do I get to answer the question?” I laughed, and remembered Pema Chodron’s other advice: to laugh at yourself.

My heart started to soften.  With gratitude, I decided it’s a real privilege to be here in the Czech Republic at a medical spa that delivers radon baths in a great degree of comfort. The experience felt almost like being on a cruise ship.  Here at Jachymov, there are splendid buffets which feed us three meals a day, live musical entertainment is provided and art vendors are brought to our lobby to make shopping easy.  I don’t know where this particular “cruise ship” is going, and I also decided that I won’t ever have to come here to do this again, but that this time I’d give it 100% of my effort.  And from then on, I did.

pemabookphoto

11. “Shukraan”

shukraanphoto

“Shukraan”

I know Yasmine and her family will leave tomorrow, driving to Prague then flying about seven hours south to Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf.  It’s a desert country neighboring Saudi Arabia. The four clocks on the wall above the hotel welcome desk show that the time in Dubai is two hours ahead of us here in the Czech Republic.  It’s time for me to give Yasmine the adult coloring book and say good-bye.  I had colored one page which I cut out of the book and put into a clear plastic sleeve.  I told Yasmine this one is intended for her mother.

“You can give it to her yourself,” she said.  When I turned around to the three women sitting on the bench behind me, I couldn’t distinguish her mother from the others.  I looked at Yasmine and raised my eyebrows.

“She is that one,” Yasmine said and pointed.  I gave the colored page to her mother, a woman probably 20 years younger than me.  “Shukraan,” she said, thank you, in Arabic.  Yasmine said, “I want to hug you but not right now.”  We parted.

Fifteen minutes later I received a text from Yasmine. “Where are you?  I need to see you.”

We met near the elevators and she gifted me with a small gift bag.  I thanked her and we hugged, wishing each other wonderful futures.  “I want to show you my face again,” she said.  I felt overwhelmed, maybe even scared.  I muttered something like, “Oh, no, no, no, you did that already. Shukraan.”   And I hurried up the stairs.

My gift bag, it turns out, contains chocolates and four stunning pieces of jewelry.  Ostentatious and beautiful, the ring, ear rings, necklace and chain are heavy and beautifully hand enameled.  Each has a row of sparkles surrounding a gold teardrop.  I am overwhelmed by the sentiment and the generosity of the family.  I took a selfie photo of me wearing the jewelry and blowing a kiss.  I titled it, “Shukraan” and texted it to Yasmine.

10. Let’s Face It

SarainArabic

Let’s Face It

I was too uncomfortable playing cards with Yasmine in the lobby, so we stop.  Her repeated swearing in English was much too stressful for me even though her mother, on my right, doesn’t understand English.  Yasmine’s father was sitting in a group of Arab men, 10 feet away.  Arab men spend time in public here only with men, sometimes on their I-phones.  An elderly man in the group was asleep in a chair in the lobby.  Yasmine and her mother pointed at him and chuckled.  Then another Arab man entered from outside, wearing a flimsy transparent blue plastic rain poncho with the hood up.  I said, “It looks like a burqa.”  Yasmine laughed, “Like a ghost,” she said and translated to her mother.  Her mother laughed too and reminded us not to be obvious.  Yasmine translated her mother’s warning to me, running her index finger across her neck and laughing.

I was becoming accustomed to seeing only the eyes of these women covered in black, and I know Yasmine by her voice.  After a week or so, not seeing the women’s faces or body shapes was feeling normal.  Although it felt like a handicap to communication to me, I wondered what it felt like to be inside a floor-length black rough linen or polyester covering, loose in every way, except for the tailored cap which covered the forehead.  Does she feel protected? Anonymous?  Are burqas worn as a sign of respect or is showing one’s beauty forbidden for women?  Yasmine told me of a recent incident here in Jachymov when a young child screamed upon seeing a group of women wearing burqas walking down the street.  The boy’s mother explained apologetically.  “It’s the black.  When my son sees you he thinks of batman.”

Then Yasmine asked me, “What do you think of British?”

“I like everybody.” I replied.

“No, I mean the language,” she said. “My teacher of English at University is American, and the languages are not exactly the same.”  I acknowledged that’s true and wondered later if maybe the American teacher is the source of the swear words which I had endured during our short stint of playing cards.

We three left the lobby together and stepped into the elevator, Yasmine, her mother, and me.  When the door closed, the mother removed her face scarf and smiled at me.  It’s the biggest gift, this intimacy, to show one’s face.  I touch my heart, but I’m shocked.  A level of symbolism dropped away.  It feels too intimate, a deep secret revealed, almost like seeing a woman’s bare breasts.  Then Yasmine removed her face scarf and they both smiled at me, a bit nervous.  The shining bare faces are shocking to me.  I was accustomed to seeing only their eyes.  I forgot they’d have other face parts and I wasn’t prepared.  They look very much alike and they are not pretty.  I am ashamed of my reaction.  I had become accustomed to a sort of “otherness” and now I want to run away.  What is beauty anyway?  Faces in general, I will notice in the next days are not pretty, with their protruding noses and drooping skin and mismatched eyes. I force a smile, then get out of the elevator and say good night.

The next evening in the lobby, Yasmine, fully covered again of course, waved to me.  I had wanted to give her a small gift, an adult coloring book which I always take with me when I travel, so I asked her, “Do you like to color?” and explained that in America, adult coloring books are popular now.  She answered, “I like to draw.  Do you like to draw?  What do you like to draw?”  I answer, “Oh, maybe trees or buildings or my dog.”  I remember to ask, “What do you like to draw?”

“I like to draw faces, “she replied.

Again I was surprised.  I had just decided all faces are ugly, but more ironic still is that Muslims, as far as I know, aren’t allowed to use statues or photos of people or faces.  Aren’t they referred to as graven images and forbidden in sacred texts?  The Taj Mahal in India, for example, is gorgeous, covered with scrolls and designs of sacred calligraphy, but contains not a single statue or visual reminder of people or faces. Even images of Mohammed, the great prophet, are prohibited in order to prevent idol worship:  There is no god but god.  I am bewildered that Yasmine can never show her face in public, but likes to draw faces.  Is she allowed to share her drawings?

The Arab patients here are referred to as “the Arabians.”  Muslim is only my label. Of course not all Muslim women in the world cover their faces in public.  The Arabs are the most conservative of Muslims and are known to be generally wealthy because of oil rich areas in their countries.  One evening outside I overhear men talk about “millions and millions,” and Vira, the aide for Adil said to me rolling her eyes, “money, money, money.”  For several reasons, these people can be experienced as “the other.” And like me, they come here to the Czech Republic for services, without learning to speak or understand the native language.

9. Yasmine

burkahannelora

Yasmine

“Yes,” I replied, “I speak English.”

“I am afraid of dogs” she said, and told me her story of being attacked by a dog here just a few days ago.  She showed me the puncture wounds on both hands. “The owners apologized.  They said the dog doesn’t like to see black.”  I probably looked shocked.  “I like cats,” she said, “not dogs.” Our time here at the medical spa would overlap 9 or 10 days.  The whole time she was very concerned about the appearance of the puncture wounds on her hands.

“You are young,” I said, and asked if she is married. “No, I am 20 years old.  I am here with my mother who is getting treatments for the 4th year.  My name is Yasmine.  And you are American?  I had an American teacher at my University for 6 years.  I love America!  I really love Texas.”

“You have been to Texas?” I asked, incredulous.

“No,” she replied.  “I like cowboy movies in Texas.”  I laughed aloud.

A German woman sitting on another bench heard the words “cowboy movie” and looked at me quizzically.  I translated to her in German.  Then Yasmine’s mother came to sit next to her and Yasmine translated to her in Arabic.  We laughed together and visited a bit more, comparing, for example, our comfortable orthopedic shoes, using all 3 languages.

Later, Yasmine told me her family had arranged a marriage for her when she was 18, but she refused.  I had many questions to ask, but we had little opportunity to be alone.  She’s very anxious and jumpy.  Is it because she is always supervised?  Yasmine and I exchanged phone numbers.

The next morning Yasmine was sick.  She texted, “Because I have a menstrual period.”  When I sit with the other Arab women that evening, we can’t communicate.  I look for signs.  Which woman is this?  Because of the complete burqas, I can see only 10 square inches of features, and 3 of the women wear identical small-framed eye glasses.  I pay attention to body shapes (one woman is pregnant) and movements.  I learn the name of the one with chipped fingernail polish and wearing flip flops, Johari. She shares a stick of gum with me. Another, Soha, who carries a cane with a distinctive rubber bottom, teaches me to write my name in Arabic in the little notebook I carry everywhere.  The next time I see her, I show off to Yasmine:  I can write “Sara” in Arabic!

One day I decided to buy a deck of cards at the small corner store downtown and texted Yasmine, “Can you play cards? Come to the Lobby.”

“Yes.” She texted back, with lots of smiley faces and heart-shaped emojis.

Down in the lobby, her mother sat next to me on the couch, but did not accept my invitation to play cards.  I chose to play a simple game, “War,” which Yasmine said she played in Dubai as a child.  There this same card game, where the winner takes all each time, is called, “Eat.”  Czech people walking by us in the lobby seemed curious.  She began to teach me a game “Crazy Sevens,” also based solely on chance.  When she got a bad card, she exclaimed, “Oh fuck!”

I gasped.  ”What the hell!” she said at the next card draw, and then “God help me get a good card.”

“Oh, Yasmine,” I told her.  “Don’t use those words.  “They are not acceptable for us.”
I looked her in the eyes, which was all I could see.

“Really?” she replied?  “Jimmy Fallon says them all the time.”