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No cash? No chemo.

Daphne Grathwohl / nc December 16, 2012

In Greece, illness can spell disaster. The country's many unemployed are unable to afford the bribes needed to access medical care. A clinic run by volunteers is trying to help.

Reception area Athen (MKI)
Image: DW/D. Grathwohl

Anthina is struggling to stand. "She's so hungry, she's feeling dizzy," said Elena Bazakopoulou. She kneels down next to the small girl and hands her some sweets. "Just sit down for a bit and hold the dolls," Elena suggests. Anthina visibly relaxes when Elena starts asking her about school and her six siblings.

The previous day, the family's water supply was turned off after they had been unable to pay the bills.

But that's not even their biggest worry: Anthina's brother has a heart condition and his mother is at the "Metropolitan Social Clinic" for help. The clinic, in a former American military base, is located in Ellinikon, one of Athens' southern suburbs.

Poor, unemployed - and sick

The clinic was founded a year ago by the cardiologist Giorgos Vichas together with four doctors and seven volunteers. Vichas said he had seen ever more people lose their jobs - and access to medical care.

Elena Bazakopoulou in the clinic's pharmacy (MKI)
Some children are so hungry they can barely stand, Bazakopoulou saidImage: DW/D. Grathwohl

Some 1,200 people came to the clinic between the time it opened in December 2011 and August, but the last three months have seen a huge increase with some 1,800 people seeking help. Some 70 doctors, dentists, pharmacologists, psychologists, and therapists volunteer at the clinic. In addition to their day-jobs, they spend several hours or days at the clinic.

Cardiologist Vichas' consultation hours are on Thursdays and Saturday. He also drops in every day to check on the administration. Some 100 volunteers coordinate the appointments, their own work, and the donations.

Milk and nappies (MKI)
The clinic relies on donations - and hands out food and nappies to its patientsImage: DW/D. Grathwohl

No chemotherapy without cash?

The reception area is the heart of the clinic, said Bazakopoulou. The clinic's almost booked out for the next four weeks. That's why the team is looking for new volunteers.

They are also looking to increase the cooperation with hospitals. Patients with cancer are already treated at the University Clinic Sotiria.

A woman, who had cancer, spent four months begging hospitals for chemotherapy. Her pleas were ignored, as she couldn't pay for the treatment. When she came to the Metropolitan Social Clinic the cancer had spread. She was referred to the Sotiria and was given free life-saving chemotherapy.

Two maternity clinics are also cooperating. So far, one of the clinic's patients has given birth to a healthy baby girl. Her mother was seven months pregnant when she came to the clinic. She was distraught. She hadn't had a single check-up and didn't know where she was going to give birth.

"She came back to the clinic for pediatric care. There was such joy in her eyes. It was a very emotional moment for the entire team," Vichas said.

Desperate for donations and volunteers

The clinic's pharmacy is stacked with all kinds of medicine, ranging from headache pills to medication for chemotherapy. Sometimes relatives of deceased cancer patients donate the remaining drugs.

Georgios Vichas in the clinic (MKI)
Georgios Vichas founded the clinic a year agoImage: DW/D. Grathwohl

The clinic is proud that it owns a dental chair which a dentist donated when he retired. Financial donations are not accepted. After all, the clinic is not trying to replace the existing health care services, Bazakopoulou said. On the contrary, she adds, the clinic could be understood as an accusation of the existing system.

Cash keeps the Greek health system oiled. Greeks pay low health insurance rates, but when they get sick, they are expected to distribute fakelakia, or envelopes, full of cash to nurses, surgeons, anesthetists and anyone else involved in their treatment.

Greece's health system: change or collapse

It's good money for many - but a disaster for poor patients.

"It's a totally corrupt system that involves doctors, hospital directors, and even ministers," cardiologist Vichas said, adding that he is convinced that the crisis will be cathartic: in the end the health system will be forced to change - or collapse.

In the meantime, Anthina's mother has been given an appointment at a hospital and Vichas was able to negotiate free treatment.

When she leaves, she takes a small palette of condensed milk with her - food for her youngest child. The clinic collects and distributes baby food and nappies, Bazakopoulou said. She said she recalls a toddler who was recently treated for an infection.

"He drank the horrible-tasting antibiotics as if they were the most delicious sweets. If we had let him, he would have drunk the entire bottle. He was so hungry," Bazakopoulou, a mother of two, said fighting back the tears.

Bazakopoulou, an economist by training, said in July she started spending several hours in the clinic every week.

"Of course, it's hard to experience this terrible reality," she said. "But it gives me hope to see that, even in the worst circumstances, there is solidarity."

Many patients also end up volunteering. Take the cancer patient, who spent four months fighting for chemotherapy: A couple of days ago, she offered to clean the offices.

"Every day distraught people regain their dignity and hope - it's incredibly moving," Vichas said.