Surgery Abroad: How I Got My Ear Reconstructed for Free in Spain

I wasn’t nervous about my impending reconstructive surgery until the nurse walked into my room and swiftly attached a pole to the back of the hospital bed where I lay and it sprung and rolled to life. Next stop: the operating room.

Suddenly my world was gliding at a slow but steady speed backwards and the friend who was casually perched on the edge of the sofa next to my bed, began to fade from my sight. It helped slightly that I could only see a blurred outline of her silhouette in front of the window in my private room. I had long since taken off my glasses in order to mentally and physically prepare myself the rest of the way for this surgery. The fact that my surroundings were now fuzzy and out of focus didn’t impede my mind from entertaining anxious thoughts and letting them dance around inside my head. The day I had waited nearly 15 years for had finally come.

 

My room at Hospital La Luz. Can you just imagine how much this would cost per night in a US hospital?…

 

But how exactly did I end up here?

 

Background Info

Let’s back up a few years, shall we?

When I was 13 years old, my parents allowed me to get my ears pierced for the very first time. It was all I could think about when I was 12. The closer it got to my next birthday, the more I began to count down the days. It seemed like all of the other girls at school had already gotten theirs done years ago. Some even as babies. Nevertheless, my parents wanted me to wait until I got older as I needed longer to mature in some aspects of life than others. In hindsight, they were right. Yet even still, I should’ve waited a few more years before I had the piercing done. Why, do you ask? It’s an interesting yet cringe worthy story.

Several months after I got my ears pierced, I began to experiment with earrings, like any normal teenage girl would. I started trying out all sorts of earrings–all shapes, sizes and colors–though my modest allowance didn’t provide me with a lot of cash to spend on them. Besides, those multi-pack, inexpensive earrings from Claire’s at the mall would suffice.

Earrings or no earrings, I’m glad I don’t look like an awkward teenager anymore!

At the same time, I began to get a little lazy with the overall care of my ears and that extended to whether or not I took my earrings out at night.

I was old enough to know better to not sleep with them in but young enough to not comprehend the consequences if I did.

And now here comes one of the most heart wrenching moments of my life.

That summer my mom, brother and I were spending two weeks with my grandparents at their home in rural Nebraska. I was enjoying my time there and showed off my earrings with glee to all of the family members present. However, after five days of sleeping in dangly earrings in a row, I felt that something wasn’t right with my ear the morning of that muggy, mid-August day. I woke up and felt around my ear and quickly shot out of my bed and darted off to the bathroom across the hall. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and gasped in shock at the image before me. My eyes were fixated on the now droopy right ear. I was in disbelief that that was happening. With the state of my ear as it was and how it clearly was unable to support regular earrings after what I had done to it, I did the only thing I could think to do next: I pulled it out with a slight pop and let the earlobe rip.

What I didn’t realize at the time was simultaneously, a little tear also began to appear in my self-image and self-esteem that day. It was tiny and unnoticeable at first but over the years, I let it grow into something much bigger than the small tear in my ear. And that was just the start of what would become a long journey to restoration, both physically and emotionally speaking.

Nebraska: surprisingly diverse geographically but also the perfect place to spend my summers during childhood.

The sensation I felt at that moment in time over 16 years ago, and later on, the desire to repair that ear never went away.

My journey to restoring a part of me I hid for over a decade was an exhausting and frustrating one at times. I hadn’t had health insurance for the majority of my life. Just for a few years when I was a child and my dad was in the military and then later on in college when I was a student and having some coverage was mandatory to attend. And coming from the United States where almost all healthcare services are privatized, it wasn’t likely that I would be able to receive full coverage for a procedure that seemed to fall under the category of plastic surgery.

However, it wasn’t until many years later, in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where I was teaching English in a primary school, that I became aware of how to repair my ear. After speaking with a receptionist at a local health clinic, just to inquire about the cost of plastic surgery for an ear, the friendly and informative lady told me that it didn’t qualify for that type of surgery. She went on to say that an ear nose and throat doctor would be the best person to see about it and proceeded to schedule an appointment for me.

 

I walked away from the clinic in disbelief and with a million thoughts swirling around in my head.

I would later have to miss a day of work in order to get the surgery done but that was a small sacrifice to make. (Photo: 3rd grade classroom at CEIP Padre Coloma in Madrid)

My private insurance plan provided for me by the Spanish government while I taught English as a language assistant in the public school system covered everything: from doctor’s visits to tests, x-rays…You name it, it was covered.

 

Could it possibly cover this entire surgical procedure?

 

I would soon find out that the answer was yes.

 

Yes, it would.

As much as I wanted to get the procedure done in Galicia, it was not meant to be. (Photo: a beautiful view of Playa de Riazor in A Coruña)

But, in the end, I wasn’t able to have the procedure performed in the north of Spain. The reason being that my insurance for that school year had already expired by the time my appointment rolled around.

Nevertheless, I had to wait a few months after my move to the capital city and revisit the idea of this surgery again. In Madrid, I found an excellent ear, nose and throat doctor at a private hospital just a short walk from my apartment in the north of the city. After a few weeks of consultations, a blood analysis and an EKG test, the surgery date was set for early April 2017.

 

That was just the first step in my journey to restoration but it was the most important one.

 

The night before my surgery, as my nerves began to gnaw at me, I indulged in a bit of earring shopping. It was something I hadn’t done enough of in my life. I wouldn’t need them until a few weeks later once my ear had time to heal and was ready for the earring to be inserted. I went to sleep that night with a sense of peace and knew that within 12 hours from that moment, physically speaking, I would never be the same again.

 

A part of me would be restored and my life would forever be better for it.

 

If you work hard enough, all your dreams can come true. Even in a big city 4,000 miles away from home.

 

The Procedure

 

Let me go back to the day of the surgery that I started to recount in the beginning of this post. I woke up early the next day on April 6th, 2017. It was a Thursday and normally a day I would have to work but I was able to get the day cleared by my very strict school principal at the time. I was within a 15 minute walk of the hospital, Hospital La Luz, but I caught the metro to get there a bit quicker.

 

The surgery wouldn’t be performed at the time in which I was scheduled (9 a.m.) due to some paperwork delays.

 

*Shakes head*

 

A couple weeks prior to the surgery, my doctor instructed me to call my insurance company, MAPFRE, so that they could authorize the procedure and select the correct code for it in the system. As far as I understood, I did this correctly when I called and spoke with an agent.

 

I did not. Oops.

I almost wanted to go watch a sunrise somewhere instead of being at the hospital so early and on an empty stomach… (Photo: Puerta de Alcala)


However, when I arrived at the hospital that morning and went to the section of the first floor lobby labeled, “Registrar” (Registration), the employees told me that I didn’t have the green light for the surgery. I sort of panicked at that time (as this particular doctor only did surgeries on Thursdays) but it was mainly hunger speaking as I had to fast for this procedure and the local anesthesia they would administer.

After a couple of attempts on my own dime (and a few euros later), I went back up to the registration desk and asked if the lady could help me with the authorization. The main issue I was having was that I didn’t know what type of surgery I was having medically speaking. The doctor had something recorded in his reports on file on his computer but he was in a different surgery at the time I was trying to call and the insurance agent was trying to find the correct code.

A frustrating situation to deal with on an empty stomach if you ask me.

I was really grateful for the company of a new friend who wanted to be with me during the time of my surgery. She was actually the only person I knew who had mornings free and that was a blessing to us both. We found we had a few more things in common than we thought and got to know each other better. All the while distracting my tired mind and growling stomach from the many tempting foods I could be snacking on.

After what seemed like an eternity, the lady at registration came over to our side of the large waiting room with good news and a smile on her lips. She told us she was able to reach the doctor and got the correct medical code for the surgery. Which meant the surgery was now authorized and I was all set! She did the rest of the paperwork for me and told me to go up to the second floor and its reception desk to receive more instructions.

We gathered up my stuff and paperwork and made our way over to the set of six elevators there on the main floor.

I later learned that there were a couple of elevators to the left of the front desk that would take us straight up to the second floor and its reception desk but it didn’t matter. (That shows that I had been inside that hospital one too many times but oh, well, haha. I used that tip for the follow-up appointment.)

Once we reached the correct floor and I checked in there (and was given an ID bracelet), they directed me to the room I was assigned for the surgery, that my insurance paid for. The fact that I was having surgery in just under an hour still didn’t officially hit me.

 

Not even after I had changed into the hospital gown in the adjoining bathroom. Or when my friend asked me if I was feeling nervous.

Though I only had the room for a few hours, I wished I could’ve used this shower! Pretty nice for a private hospital, huh?

Nope, I was still mostly focusing on how hungry I still was. (Distracted much? haha)

It wasn’t until the nurse who I was assigned latched a pole onto the back of my bed and said we needed to head up to the 11th floor. I looked at him quizzically and asked,

 

–Por qué tenemos que ir al piso once? (Why do we need to go to the 11th floor?)

 

He smiled.

 

–Allí está la sala de operación y donde le veremos al médico.

(The operating room is there and that’s where we’ll see the doctor.)

 

OK, then it got real! I was going to the operating room?! But why?

 

The doctor actually came into my room a couple moments later. He instructed the nurse to bring me up, after lightly scolding me that I should’ve planned ahead in order to get the surgery authorized on a day that wasn’t the day of the surgery. Oops. Well, other than that he was glad to see me and was ready to get the procedure on its way.

 

So, going back to the beginning of the story, the nurse then latched a pole onto the back of my bed, turned it and then rolled it across the room, down the hall and into the next available elevator.

At least I got to admire this view in Northern Madrid later on that day.

Another nurse or technician was already in the elevator and started to make small talk with us. Meanwhile, I tried to hold back a nervous smile during the elevator ride but it backfired. The nurse who was with me looked down at me at just that moment and inquired,

 

– Estás bien? Estás triste? (Are you OK? Are you sad?)

 

– No, solo es que estoy un poco nerviosa… (No, I’m just a little nervous is all.)

 

The real thoughts running through my mind: Why on earth am I going up to the operating room? This is practically one of the smallest surgeries in the world! Why do I need to go there?

 

Well, it was so I could be in a more sterile environment, I learned afterwards.

 

And once we got off the elevator at our stop, he took me and my bed on another trip, down another hall and whoosh..through the doors of said operating room in one full sweep.

 

The ride was over for now.

 

But the main event of the day was just about to begin.

 

A close-up of my torn right earlobe. It was soon going to be a thing of the past and something I no longer had to hide.

While a couple of nurses began to get things set up, the anesthesiologist asked me a couple of questions and prepped my arm for the administration of the local anesthesia and an antibiotic to help me with the pain. Carlos, my doctor, also asked me a couple of questions, calmed my anxious mind and said the procedure would be over quite quickly. All I had to do was relax. But he also urged me to tell him if I needed anything or if I was uncomfortable during the surgery.

Then, after covering my face with a sheet of polyester fabric and cutting out an ear sized hole in it, the surgery got underway.

I was so thankful for the numbing power of the anesthesia as I didn’t feel anything during the time he was stitching me up. However, I felt a bit of the needle towards the end (as I didn’t realize I could ask for more anesthesia, oops!) but I survived.

And then I had to keep my ear and its stitches wrapped up for a whole 24 hours. Funny thing was trying to keep it on for a couple days later as I was flying to Switzerland the very next morning. The only cost I incurred from the surgery was an antiseptic cream I bought in Italy and the cost per minute to call my insurance company.

 

The post-surgery stitches I had to keep in until April 27th, 2017. (Otherwise known as the first day I got to wear an earring in that ear as an adult!)

 

(Plus, the doctor said weeks before I would be okay if I traveled sooo….)

That was it. A surgery that lasted less than an hour but changed the rest of the course of my life. And freed me to tap back into a part of me I had pushed down for too many years.

I had quite a few years of earring shopping to make up for (and a whole collection to pick up from back home whenever I could make it there).

I bought the middle pair of earrings but the other two pairs were gifted to me by two special people in my life. 🙂

Reflections

It’s now been a full year since I finished the healing and recovery process from that surgery. I would have to go back and look at which day in particular I took the earring out and finally got to stop sleeping with them every night. I was so relieved that day.

But the most ironic thing about my whole experience from torn earlobe to restorative surgery later was that the very thing that hurt me, healed me. If I hadn’t slept in the dangly earrings in the first place, I wouldn’t have needed the surgery.

But, if I hadn’t slept in the earrings like the doctor instructed me to do (and spent four months without sleeping on either of my sides), it wouldn’t have healed and the hole wouldn’t have formed correctly.

Isn’t life funny sometimes?

All that I have left from that experience is a scar. That scar will be visible whenever I take an earring out of that ear and it’s a mark on my body that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life. It’s something I’m still learning to accept and embrace. The good news is that the emotional scars have begun to fade ever since the first stitch was sewn that beautiful spring day. It’s amazing how much change and healing even the smallest surgeries can manifest. Even when you’re the only one who knows the aftereffects.

The most important lesson I learned from this whole experience was that you should embrace yourself, imperfections and all, as you never know if someone else around you is struggling to accept themselves. Your story might be the one that has enough impact to motivate them to overcome their insecurity. And that is what I hope my story can do for you.

 

After all the years of pain, self-shaming and hiding, a part of me was restored. And it took traveling all the way to Spain and building a life for myself here to finally get to that point. (Photo: Plaza de España, Sevilla – my favorite place in the whole world)

 

Have you ever gotten a surgery done abroad? Where were you (or where did you go) and how was your experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

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