Post 69 An Unfortunate Anglo German Misunderstanding

Hans Schmidt had lived all his life in the village of Tutzing, on the shores of Lake Starnberg, in Southern Germany.   At the age of 21, he had married his childhood sweetheart, Gerda, and opened a small bakery, supplying bread and cakes to the local community.   When his working days were over, the couple had remained in Tutzing amongst their long-standing friends and acquaintances.  


Then the first of two disasters struck: Hans collapsed and died from a massive heart attack.  Gerda was devastated.  Hans had always been there for her. Essentially, he had been her rock, making all the decisions.   But in protecting her from all responsibility, he had left her ill prepared to live life on her own, as a widow.


Gerda, now 82-years-old, was quite unable to cope.   Fortunately however, they had a son called Helmut who, after obtaining a language degree had found employment in London.   He had married an English girl, and settled in Camberwell, south of the river.   Helmut, seeing that his mother was struggling, invited her to come for an extended stay.


It was then that the second disaster occurred.   Gerda had a stroke and was admitted to the hospital.   The stroke paralysed her right arm and right leg, indicating that the damage was to the left side of her brain.   She was also unable to communicate and the doctors needed to understand the reason for this.   There were two possibilities.   The first was expressive aphasia, a condition in which, although unable to produce speech, she could understand what was being said to her.   The second possibility was receptive aphasia; when the brain damage has rendered her unable to understand the meaning of words spoken to her.


It was important for the doctors to understand the nature of the aphasia from which she was

suffering so that the speech therapists would know how best to help her.  The doctors’ difficulties in making the distinction were, of course, compounded because Gerda did not speak any English.


The junior doctor on the female ward was Rob Martin, who spoke a little French but whose German was limited to the words ‘zwei bier bitte’, (two beers please) learned when he had been on a school skiing trip to the Austrian Alps.  Distinguishing between expressive and receptive aphasia in a non-English speaking German national was way beyond him, but he had a trick up his sleeve.   It happened that the junior doctor on the male ward at the time was Hans Meyer, who had moved with his parents to England when he was a boy.  Hans was a delightful character with a good sense of humour.


‘I am a geriatric doctor,’ he used to say to his English friends. ‘Do you know what a geriatric is?

He’s a German centre-forward who scores a hat trick against England and knocks them out of the World Cup.’


‘Hans,’ Rob said to his colleague, ‘have you five minutes to help me with a little problem?’   The way to resolve the riddle was to discover whether Gerda could follow simple instruction.  Hans was only too pleased to help, so together they went to Gerda’s bedside.

 ‘Close your eyes,’ Hans instructed.

There was no response at all from Gerda; she appeared to be oblivious to the spoken word.  It seemed that this must be a case of expressive aphasia.

 ‘Try again,’ Rob said.

 ‘I want you to close your eyes, Gerda,’ Hans repeated a little louder, but still there was still no response.

 Hans put his mouth close to Gerda’s ear.      ‘CLOSE YOUR EYES!’ he shouted.

 Rob fell about laughing. ‘She’s German, Hans,’ he said, ‘and so are you. Try speaking in German.’

 ‘Schliesse deine augen,’ Hans said to Gerda when he had recovered from his embarrassment – and she did!

This story is reproduced from All in a Doctor’s Day by Peter Sykes.  It’s available at Amazon Books

 Thought for the day

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If you don’t understand English, press two.                   



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