Back at the beginning of the millennium a woman on the island of Bornholm felt something in one of her breasts that wasn’t supposed to be there. I can’t imagine the agony this woman, her family and all others who have faced the threat of cancer, have gone through. But I’m pretty sure that all the women of Bornholm have found some consolation in the fact that the Danish health care system provides every citizen of the country with free and cutting-edge treatment. No matter what the illness. No matter what the price.
The Bornholmians have been told all their living years that even though they are geographically detached and pretty far away from the rest of the country out there in the Baltic Sea, equal treatment means equal treatment, so if anything is wrong with them and the expertise to cure it is somewhere to be found in the Kingdom, help is at hand.
But there’s something on Bornholm called ovre. I guess the best translation will be to ask you to think of the term ‘over there’ and then get lazy and just think of ‘over’. Ovre means ‘everything in Denmark that is not Bornholm’.
Bornholmians have a love/hate relationship with ovre. On one hand the island is in no way big enough to support itself. The amount of sunshine, smoked herring and granite just isn’t sufficient to keep 42,000 people self-sustained. Especially not the granite, since that would mean literally carving up the island piece by piece and exporting it to vain house-owners all over the world. On the other hand the island has been under Swedish, German, Soviet and Danish supremacy through the centuries, so even though peace has reigned in the last 64 years there’s still a great animosity towards everything and everyone from any ovre lurking around in the back of the Bornholmian brain.
The woman’s cancer was cured. But she lost one breast. She lost the breast because the freeze microscopy facilities needed to perform a breast preserving treatment was only available ovre and the doctors at Bornholm Central Hospital and the mayor of Bornholm County had agreed to not let ovre boast about their fancy equipment and steal their patients and therefore did not inform women with breast cancer about the possibilities modern treatment provide and their rights to choose freely from any facility in the country. Five women lost breasts unnecessarily before someone intervened.
And what happened then? How did Denmark cope with the fact that five women were mutilated in the name of Bornholmian hygge? The two doctors are still working at the same hospital. Their boss has commented on the incidents with only one word: “unfortunate”. The Bornholm County Mayor first stated that the decisions were made because the removal of the breasts improved the patients chances of survival, but that was immediately denied by the doctors from ovre. Then he changed his explanation to: “There was a waiting list for breast preserving treatment” but that was firmly refuted by several hospitals around Denmark. Then the mayor went silent, perhaps because the then Minister of Health stepped onto the scene and called the events “unacceptable and irresponsible” but apart from looking and sounding a bit upset – did nothing.
The five women each received compensation averaging 34,000 kroner. That’s about 4,000 euro or 6,400 dollars or a tad more than the average Dane earns per month. Or what a cancer specialist earns in a week at Bornholm Central Hospital. Quite a bargain – one breast for one month’s pay. That’s the amount that says: “something was wrong” but not nearly enough to say “something was very, very wrong”.
Apart from that – nothing happened. There were no angry letters from citizens to politicians. There was no public outcry demanding those responsible should be held accountable. The mayor still enjoys a blossoming political career. The then Minister of Health is now our Prime Minister. And the Danish Cancer Society – whose expressed purpose is to “ensure optimal conditions for those living with cancer and its consequences” called the amount of compensation “adequate”.
But what about Danish society as a whole? I suppose it could be considered a civilized reaction to this wretched state of affairs to refrain from anger and just make sure that nothing like this could ever happen again by giving the whole health care system a thorough going over. But going over systems means changing systems and we know how Danes respond to change, don’t we? Change compromises hygge. NEVER, EVER compromise the hygge.
So Danes did the opposite of reducing the problem with local patriotism. They scaled it up and took it nationwide. Last year the European Commission had to threat the Danish government with sanctions for not allowing all Danes to use their right to seek the best possible treatment anywhere in the EU. Several cancer patients died after being declared incurable by the Danish health system even though both German and Swedish hospitals were able to treat them.
The Danes’ reaction to this? Nothing.
Because nothing must disturb the hallowed ground of hygge. Not even death.