Blind in Leipzig:
Life, death, and post-Brexit healthcare.
On the day the draft Brexit deal is presented in the House of Commons, 1919 frontman Rio Goldhammer considers another possible implication – this based on an incident in Leipzig when he thought he might lose his sight; thankfully he had his EHIC with him – post Brexit will this be an option?
In 2015 I flew to Leipzig for my first gig with 1919. The morning after the gig I woke up unable to see. Attempting to find emergency healthcare in a foreign country was a farce at best, but without my EHIC it would have been much worse.
There is a huge wave of trepidation at the moment, amongst touring musicians, over the impact that Brexit will have on our ability to perform in mainland Europe. For smaller bands like mine, with enough of a fanbase to demand international touring but unable to command the fees of larger acts (let alone employ someone to take on logistics for us), the cost of applying for visas could be the difference between a tour being economically viable or not. This issue is at the forefront for most touring professionals at the moment, and the Musicians Union is rightfully campaigning for some sort of post-Brexit EU Touring Visa. However, lurking in the background is something with potentially even greater significance to our livelihoods than the right to work: the future of our EHICs.
For those of you unaware, the EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) allows UK citizens to access healthcare services in the EU just as you would at home. This applies not only to musicians, but to anyone visiting mainland Europe for a short stay. Naturally, when you’re playing in a new country each night, this is a valuable asset, and if you haven’t got yours already then do so now (it’s free, takes 5 minutes, and you apply via the GOV.UK site).
Anyway, back to Leipzig. We’d just released the ‘Revenge’ video and were invited to play at Gothic Pogo Festival X. It was something of a transitional stage for 1919; the embryo of a reformation that was still lacking its final ingredient. Mark, our late guitarist, was still out of contact with our drummer Mick at this point, and he wouldn’t return to complete the puzzle until shortly afterwards. Still, it was the first step in our adventure together and you couldn’t shake the excitement Mark and I had for the whole thing at the time. There was interest in what we were doing, and our introduction to a lot of bands and promoters, from Sweden, Germany, France, Britain, America, Spain, the Basque country, and all sorts of others who we would become friends with and go on to work with to this day.
It’s not often you get to play the first night of a festival and have a day off to enjoy the following night. The city had already stolen our hearts; we drank into the night and looked forward to the next one. The following morning though, I awoke but my eyes were sealed shut. Peeling the lids back with my fingers it was as if they were coated in dry sand. The hangover was worse than I thought, it seemed. I showered and stared into the water stream. My eyes were open now but my vision was blurred, like I was looking through a camera lens coated in Vaseline. I dressed as my eyes crept shut again, still painfully sore. “I think I’m having an allergic reaction to something”, I said to Mark. My nose was running too. “Rough night!? Let’s get some breakfast in you…”
Outside was the worst. The sun had been blistering since we arrived and today was no different. We wandered into town for food, me squinting, arms outstretched, through the narrowest of eye openings, but even chili sauce was no remedy! I needed to find a pharmacy. I speak a little German but couldn’t open my eyes enough to interpret what was on the shelves in front of me. “Hast du… er, antihistamin?” It was no good. I had to see a doctor. So Mark and I headed off in a taxi to the nearest hospital, which with it being a Sunday was virtually the whole way across town.
We arrived at the hospital eventually and I tried to explain my ailment. “Meine augen sind… verbrannt.” More terrible German, but of course the receptionist spoke perfect English. “Do you have your insurance details?” I handed over my EHIC. It almost wasn’t enough as I didn’t have my passport with me. After challenging him to quiz me on the details and suggesting he googles me, he eventually gave me the benefit of the doubt (probably more out of pity than charm!) Shortly afterwards I was on my way to see a doctor.
Initially they treated me for an allergic reaction and was given an I.V drip full of antihistamines: one of those upright ones like they have on telly. Still blind, I was trying to feel my way towards the waiting area, only now I was tied by my veins to a pole on wheels. I’d honestly have been completely fucked without Mark, and the last part of our journey was to become more absurd still. Having ruled out an allergic reaction we were to cross the hospital campus to see the optometrist, Mark doing his best to read me the signs along the way and me doing my best to translate them. But, like Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, we made it! It turned out that a mixture of cheap facepaint and bright stage lights had caused me to damage the cornea in each eye. The doctor gave me some eyedrops and I was able to see again!
Thanks to my EHIC I was able to return to the hotel with my sight restored, prescribed eyedrops in tow, and recount my story over a beer with some fellow musicians and festival-goers. I’d been prescribed two sets of drops, one of which was covered by the EHIC and another that was over-the-counter, working out roughly the same as a prescription at home. I didn’t get to see any bands that night and I’d spent my share of the gig fee on taxis, but I didn’t care. I could see.
One of the most enduring experiences of the day for me might seem incongruous to some international readers. It was the feeling of arriving at a hospital, fearing the worst for your health, in desperate need of treatment, and being asked not about your condition but about your insurance details. As someone born and raised in the UK it’s a profoundly unnerving thought. To have readily available healthcare might seem like a privileged position, and I suppose it is in a sense, but it’s also a right. It’s a right that was fought for and won by the generations before us, and whilst the existential threat to such a right from conservatives and neoliberals is very real and likely constant, there is no threat more dramatic than Brexit.
I look back at this day quite fondly now. It’s a fun story, Mark and I grew closer as friends, and I learned a lot about stage makeup! If our healthcare is not assured after Brexit though, UK musicians risk a fate much worse than mine. Fortunately, emergency healthcare is not an everyday concern for most people, whatever their line of work. But while we worry about visas, let’s not lose sight (pun intended) of how a bit of bad luck could have drastic consequences.
Words: Rio Goldhammer
Image Credit: Anukool Manoton / Shutterstock