Tag Archives: Hungary

An Ode to Semmelweis

Medical Museums

I graduated nursing school last year and as a flashback to that time in history, I’m dedicating the month of October to my fascination with all things nursing, medical, and otherwise health related.

First up in my orgy of medical museums and such is the Semmelweis Museum in Budapest, Hungary.   I feel bad for Semmelweis.  He made a major medical discovery, yet couldn’t explain it, so all his colleagues mocked him mercilessly, and then he died… a broken man.  Only to have his discovery proven right a few short years later.  He is one of the reasons we do a 2-minute scrub prior to entering surgical delivery rooms.

Here it is:  my ode to Semmelweis and his discovery of germs…

It’s a tiny little thing; it’s hardly ever seen.

But once inside, it can turn you  green.

Germs are many; treatments are few

For many years no one knew

What they were or their effects

Sickness was caused by air or a hex

Then Semmelweis figured it out

“Wash your hands” he wanted to shout.

But no one listened; no one cared

And no one cared how patients fared

A crusade against the little beasts he undertook

He gave speeches; he wrote a book

When he died he was outcast

But twenty years later, a hero he was–at last

Today entire classes are taught how to wash their hands

To wash away beasts tinier than a grain of sand

Semmelweis is the hero; he’s the man

Except to the microbes; talk of him in banned

semmelweis museum
Semme;weis’ father’s apothacary shop

Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor teaching medicine in Vienna. He noticed that the [male medical] students moved between the dissection room and the delivery room without washing their hands and their patients had a death rate of over 30%. [Oh, the infection control police at the hospital would be horrified] while the midwives’ patients, who didn’t do dissections, had a death rate of only about 2%. On a hunch, he set up a policy.  Effective immediately, doctors must wash their hands in a chlorine solution when they leave the cadavers.  Mortality from puerperal fever [aka childbirth fever] promptly drops to three percent and further drops to 1% after physicians began cleaning instruments in the same solution they washed their hands.

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The museum is also a medical history museum

Now here’s the part of the story where things grow strange. Instead of reporting his success at a meeting, Semmelweis tells his boss, but his boss orders him to ‘stand down’. Semmelweis says nothing. Finally, a friend publishes two papers on the method. By now, Semmelweis has started washing medical instruments as well as hands.

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The hospital director feels his leadership has been criticized [by Semmelweis]. He’s furious. Livid. Beyond angry. He blocks Semmelweis’s promotion. The situation gets worse. Viennese doctors turn on this Hungarian immigrant. They run him out of town. Finally, he goes back  home to Budapest.  He is an outcast among the “civilized” Austrian medical community. He brings his hand washing methods to a far more primitive hospital. He cuts death by puerperal fever to less than one percent. He does more. He systematically isolates causes of death. He autopsies victims. He sets up control groups. He studies statistics.  His has it all figured out.

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Requisite skull with a hole in it

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, in 1861, he writes a book on his methods. The establishment gives it poor reviews. Semmelweis grows angry and polemical. He hurts his own cause with rage and frustration.  He calls his colleagues idiots and ignoramuses.  He bashes their stupidity. He turned every conversation to the topic of child-bed fever.

After a number of unfavorable foreign reviews of his 1861 book, Semmelweis lashed out against his critics in a series of Open Letters.  They were addressed to various prominent European obstetricians, including Spath, Scanzonia, Siebold, and to “all obstetricians”. They were full of bitterness, desperation, and fury and were “highly polemical and superlatively offensive” at times denouncing his critics as irresponsible murderers.  He also called upon Siebold to arrange a meeting of German obstetricians somewhere in Germany to provide a forum for discussions on puerperal fever where he would stay “until all have been converted to his theory.”

By mid-1865, his public behavior became irritating and embarrassing to his associates. He also began to drink heavily; he spent progressively more time away from his family, sometimes in the company of prostitutes.  His wife noticed changes in his sexual behavior. On July 13, 1865 the Semmelweis family visited friends, and during the visit Semmelweis’s behavior seemed particularly inappropriate.  Later in 1865 he suffers a mental breakdown. Friends commit him to a mental institution. Semmelweis surmised what was happening and tried to leave. He was severely beaten by several guards.  He was put in straitjacket and confined to a darkened cell. Apart from the straitjacket, treatments at the mental institution included dousing with cold water and administering castor oil. He died after two weeks, on August 13, 1865, aged 47, from a  gangrenous  wound caused by the beating. His autopsy revealed extensive internal injuries, the cause of death  pyemia–the very thing he spent his life trying to eradicate.

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Semmelweis was buried in Vienna on August 15, 1865. Only a few people attended the service.  Brief announcements of his death appeared in a few medical periodicals in Vienna and Budapest. Although the rules of the Hungarian Association of Physicians and Natural Scientists specified that a commemorative address be delivered in honor of a member who had died in the preceding year, there was no address for Semmelweis; his death was never even mentioned.

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A memorial to Semmelweis, savior of women and children

That same year Joseph Lister [the person whom Listerine is named after] begins spraying a carbolic acid solution during surgery to kill germs. In the end, it’s Lister who gives our unhappy hero his due. He says, “Without Semmelweis, my achievements would be nothing.”

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The anatomical Venus mad of wax… see I do see art from time to time

PS:  I don’t write poetry often; there is probably a reason for that

Adventures of DJ and M | Shoes

My first visit to Budapest was a frosty sojourn where I tried to be either inside or in the toasty warm thermal baths at all times. I learned a lot about Budapest’s cafe culture, walked around the city with my head wrapped in hats and scarves, learned to use Europe’s second oldest subway efficiently, attended some grade A classical music concerts, and made a lot of mental notes to ‘look up’ the significance of what I saw, and explore more in detail should I ever return.

I have returned.

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January 2013…Oh, what I would do for a little ice in the Danube today.

 

August 2015–Danube River–basking in the summer moonlight

Anyway…

One of the things that I saw on my January walk along the river, was several pairs of cast iron shoes pointing towards the river.  Interesting, yes, but what is it’s significance.

I only snapped the one photo because…cold, and frostbitten fingers were a very real possibility.

Interesting…curious….something I’d like to investigate further.

It’s hard to look at a monuments like this–sometimes called ‘dark tourism’–especially in areas where life has gone on, but I think it’s important to look at them, ponder the significance, and reflect on the meaning.  Budapest, in 1944 was not a place you wanted to be if you were Jewish. But then again, most of central Europe was not a place you wanted to be either.

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Rusted cast iron looks like real, used leather, and these shoes in all shapes and styles represent some of the victims of the Holocaust.  In the winter of 1944, several Jews from Budapest were rounded up and stripped completely naked on the banks of the Danube River.  That would have be torture enough. January in Budapest is not balmy. Trust me, I was there in January and nearly froze to death despite my wool hat and coat. These Jews–men, women, and children– were told to face the river. A firing squad shot the prisoners-of-war at close enough range so that their bodies would fall into the icy Danube and be washed away from the city.  If the gunshot didn’t kill them, the river most certainly would.

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Leather was such a precious commodity that even shoes were taken from the victims. After the victims fell into the river, the shoes were rounded up, either re-distributed or the leather re-worked into something else.  Today there are 60 pairs of cast iron shoes modeled after 1940’s footwear lined up on the Pest side of the Danube.  The memorial was commissioned in 2005.

The monument is located on the Pest side of Budapest, Id. Antall József rkp., 1054 Hungary.

 

Adventures of DJ and M | Tourists (and refugees) in Budapest

Days 2-4 in Budapest… Let’s go adventuring, shall we, but first, a little history lesson. Budapest is a fascinating historical city seperated into Buda and Pest by the Danube River. This area represents the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which fell at the beginning of WWI.  After WW2 in 1949, Hungary was declared a people’s republic and was ruled by communism. The iron curtain fell in 1989 but when touring Budapest, you will see that there are reminders of the Communist regime scattered throughout the city today.

Today, Hungary is part of the European Union which is part of the reason it is facing its current refugee crisis.  DJ and I narrowly escaped Budapest ahead of Hungary closing its borders in an attempt to stem the influx of these invaders. Authorities in Budapest are trying to help the refugees [migrants, illegals, ect..] by providing shelter, water, and facilities at the train stations, but the migrants want more.  More handouts from not-exactly-wealthy governments. More demands from people not vetted by any type of security.  It’s quite the sticky situation… but I digress…


One of the few remaining Soviet Monuments is Liberty Statue on Gellert Hill. This statue was originally erected to honour the Soviets who sacrificed themselves to free Hungary from the Nazis occupation. As we all know, that liberation came with a price and the Soviets ended up locking out the Western world. The statue was damaged in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and in 1989 after the fall of communism, the statue was kept to honour all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for Hungary. An inscription in the statue states: To the memory of those all who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.

Ruin Bars are a popular spot that came out of the fall of communism. These are trendy hipster pubs that are decorated with retro furniture and have a very cool vibe.  Known by locals as ‘romkocsma’ (ruin pub in Hungarian), these pubs have been a part of the drinking culture for over a dozen years. Each one is unique but, more often than not, a ruin pub in Budapest will have a rundown and slightly sketchy exterior that completely contradicts the vibrant colours and unique ambience you’ll find inside. Filled with second hand furniture and nearly anything funky picked off the curb, these formerly abandoned buildings are now pretty integral to Budapest. And it all seems to have started in the city’s 7th district.

The neighbourhood was largely damaged and neglected after World War II and it’s said that ruin pubs are what changed the district’s future for the better. Where many saw abandoned factories and deteriorating apartment complexes, the people behind Szimpla saw potential. Over the years, the transformation of these buildings (and now others across the city) led to an entirely new concept in Budapest that super cool.

Budapest is in a major transition right now and an interesting part of traveling there is that you can see a contrast between the communist era and the modern day society of today. Communism is very much a part of the conversation in Budapest. People that are the same age as I am remember growing up during the regime. It has been slower to develop than other communist cities due to lack of funding, but this has allowed it to stave off the dreaded gentrification that is affecting so many cities today. It won’t be long until the West invades though, even now you will find McDonald’s and Starbucks. As a matter a fact, Budapest was the first city in the Eastern bloc to open a McDonald’s. They had a more relaxed form of communism than other countries, giving it the nickname Goulash Communism. They enjoyed a certain freedom and amenities that weren’t available to other countries in the Eastern Bloc.

Not the fancy one

Definitely the fancy one


Our train to Prague was nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes late getting in last night. It originated in Budapest, then went to Prague. For the first time in 10+ years of traveling, the police boarded the train at the Czech border, and checked passports. It reminded me a little bit of when I was hanging out in Zapatista territory– at least these police didn’t have machetes attached to their hips.

The migrants are now, shall we say, pissed. They are now attempting to block trains from coming and going by standing on the tracks unless they are allowed on them… without a passport… Without a ticket… without any type of security checks. And they all want to go to Germany. Germany. Does. Not. Want. Them. and neither does anyone else after these antics. To riot against the very people who have literally given you shelter, water, and a place to pee because you did get want you “want”, is a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It makes no sense. They are acting like children who got their candy taken away.

What’s the answer? Idk, but Greece and Italy can’t patrol all the islands that these people are arriving to. Hungary put up a razor wire fence on its border with Serbia but it can’t cover the railway which is being used as a highway. Romania isn’t strong enough to police it’s borders. The Austria / Hungary border is ground zero. People are trying to get into Austria by any means necessary since they see it as the gateway to Germany.  And people are dying–hiding in truck shells. And sealed refrigerators.

Let’s get naked–Budapest’s Thermal Baths

Let me preface this was that I never intended to get naked. It was a frigid January day in Budapest, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from exploring.  Bundled up in all the clothing I had with me, I set out from my hostel in the historic part of Buda. The steam rising out of the drain cover caught my attention first. I paced along the walkway, limbs mechanical yet numb, face frozen, eyes rimmed with weather-induced tears. All the while thinking ” was not made for this kind of weather.”

budapest snow

Everyone was cold. I saw it in the hunched shoulders and stooped spines of the commuters who huddled past, bundled beneath thick fur coats, scarves and fur hats.  Which was why the drain surprised me.  Whimsical fingers of mist curled through the gaps, growing thinner as they spiraled up towards the sky. The sky which experience told me still loomed overhead, but which I avoided looking at in case I inadvertently exposed another sliver of my neck to Budapest’s biting air.

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Clouds of steam teased me from the outside–“Was it because the water was really that warm or because it was really that cold?” I wondered.  I knew with absolute certainty that the concrete surface surrounding the thermal baths was freezing cold.  I had no idea whether the ‘thermal’ pool I had just paid money to use would be steaming hot or just slightly warmer than the below freezing winter air temperatures. Hoping that the steam was not a false promise, my toes tested the water below.  A split second passed before I internally began singing the Hallelujah chorus.

Warmth tickled my toes. And it was a small piece of  heaven. I stumbled down the remaining steps sliding deeper and deeper into the warm water.  I am sure people stared at me when I let out an audible sigh of relief. Luckily, it wasn’t too crowded at this bathing suit optional bath I had chosen to immerse myself in. Not knowing exactly what to do, I just sat there, naked, in my pool of hot water… watching snowflakes get eaten up by the steamy waters.

Budapest is well know for its thermal baths and Szechenyi didn’t disappoint.  It has held the title “City of Spas” since the year 1934, as it has more thermal and medicinal water springs than any other capital city in the world. There are 118 springs in Budapest, providing over 70 million liters of thermal water a day. The temperature of the waters is between 21 and 78 Celsius.  Budapest’s thermal waters were enjoyed by the Romans as early as the 2nd century, but it was only during the Turkish occupation of Hungary in the 16th century that the bath culture really started flourishing.  Today, there are 15 public thermal baths in Budapest, not counting the private thermal spas established in some luxury hotels, such as the Ramada Plaza, Thermal Hotel Margitsziget and the Corinthia Royal, which have their own spas that you can enjoy.

In some of them you can even keep your clothes on.