By Dan Ebener
It was 6 a.m. on Monday, my first day of teaching a weeklong leadership course for the Zagreb School of Economics and Management (ZSEM) in Croatia. I had 10 St. Ambrose University students and 42 Croatians counting on me to start class at noon.
The flashing lights in my eye were familiar. A similar experience in my right eye two years ago had left me with a retina detachment and near blindness in that eye. This time, the flashes were in my good eye. I began praying right away.
My mother taught me that God can work through guardian angels. They protect and guide us. Or relay our prayers to heaven. My mother begins her bedtime rosary by praying that her guardian angel will finish it if she falls asleep. She believes that guardian angels can also invite, inspire and influence the people around us. In Croatia, that is what seemed to happen next.
The university hospital looked like an ancient government building. It was hard to find the ophthalmology unit. Signs were in Croatian and no one seemed to speak English. Fortunately, a young doctor, Kresimir Yulkich, noticed that I was lost and guided me to the right elevator. This first responder was to become my eye surgeon.
The waiting room was a shock. About 150 people packed into a room built for 60. Elderly patients waited for a seat to open up. About 30 people pushed toward a large window where a woman seemed to be announcing names of patients. With each name, the crowd pushed harder toward that window. I had no clue what to do.
This time, Dr. Marin Davidovic rescued me. A young doctor who had interned at the University of Michigan, Marin was coming off a 12-hour night shift and was trying to set up an eye appointment for a relative. I figured that in Croatia, if you need a translator, just find a young adult and that person will know English.
Marin became the second person to respond to my guardian angel’s call for help. He translated for me and patiently guided me through the whole application and waiting process.
The wait seemed to take forever. I was nervous about the fireworks in my eyes. When a seat opened up, we did the only thing two able-bodied men should do: give the seat to someone else. Marin kept reminding me, “You have to be patient with our medical system.” You wait. And you wait. Marin and I waited. We visited about the history of the Balkans, the future of the euro, the quality of medical care in this part of the world. And last year’s Ohio State /Michigan football game (which he attended).
I kept asking Marin if he didn’t need to get home. But typical of Croatians, he said, “You are my responsibility now. I’m not leaving until I know you are taken care of.” Marin stood with me for over two hours until my name was announced as the next patient.
Inside the first door, a nurse dilated my eyes and said to come back in two hours. That gave me time to start my class at ZSEM, a five-minute walk from the hospital! Two hours later, my 10 Ambrose students became the next responders to my guardian angel’s call for help. They took charge of my leadership class. I walked back to the hospital.
Dr. Yulkich found that my retina was torn, but not yet detached. Thank you, dear God. Yulkich applied laser surgery. Five minutes later, I was back to teaching. Two mornings later, I returned to the hospital to have my eyes checked. They found another tear! So they did laser surgery, again. Five minutes later, I was back to teaching.
At this point, my family, students and Croatian colleagues were urging me to head home and see my doctors in Iowa. Even my guardian angel was probably feeling overworked at this point. I began looking for flights to come home.
Unfortunately, it was going to cost $3,650 to cover the change fee for my United Airlines flight. The dean at the school where I teach became the next responder to my prayers. He said, “We’ve got this covered, Dan. Just get home and make sure your eyes are all right.” So I flew home on Saturday morning, which meant canceling my trip to Medjugorje.
A few days later, I visited the University Hospital in Iowa City for an eye appointment. Everything checked out. The doctors in Iowa said that they would have followed exactly the same procedures as the doctors in Croatia. They said the quality of the Croatian laser surgery was perfect.
One more amazing part of this story: As a foreigner, I had to pay full price for both surgeries. Croatia has a single-payer, government-sponsored health care system. Croatians have no co-pays or deductibles. Their taxes pay for their public health care (or they can choose to pay and use their more expensive private system).
Total charge for my eye surgery: 57 kuna per visit, which amounts to $9.95.
We can learn a lot from experiences like this: the warmth, hospitality, friendliness and patience of the Croatian people and the quality of their public health system. What I also took away was that my mother is right: Our guardian angels do protect us.
My mother always prays for me when I am traveling internationally. I think her guardian angel must have finished her rosary the week I was in Croatia. Thank God.
(Dan Ebener is director of stewardship and parish planning for the Diocese of Davenport and teaches at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)