Hygge and Healthcare in Denmark

Sunny Hutson '22
Sunny Hutson ’22

Written by Sunny Hutson ’22

In the time it took me to get from the Copenhagen airport to my apartment in Odense, I had already decided that I made the right choice to spend the summer in Denmark after my first year at the UVM Larner College of Medicine. The mellow landscape and down-to-earth atmosphere reminded me of where I grew up in Illinois, and I felt right at home.

The Odense University Hospital was right across the street from my apartment, and the lab where I did research was five minutes by bike. A typical day in lab involved collecting samples from patients who underwent radical cystectomy, a procedure to remove the urinary bladder. I used microsurgical techniques to isolate the detrusor muscle, then used myography to determine the effects of various agonists and antagonists on muscle activity. I was able to make friends with many of the Danes I worked with while engaging in challenging work that kept me thinking.

Outside of research, I had the opportunity to shadow residents and physicians at the hospital, where I experienced some of the key differences between the Danish and U.S. health systems. The centrally administered system – largely absent here in the U.S. – has an efficiency that is quite admirable. My time working within it helped me to realize that there is more than one way to promote the health and well-being of a community, as long as there is a supportive infrastructure. I also learned that cultural ideology and the decommodification of health services affects efficiency and affordability of care in many ways.

When I wasn’t in lab or at the hospital, I spent time traveling. I went to Norway, where I hiked Gaustatoppen to a peak with an unbelievable panoramic view of the western fjords. I also spent a weekend in Hamburg, where I memorably ordered an iced coffee and received something resembling a milkshake, presumably because they thought I said “Eis coffee” (which means ice cream coffee in German). Towards the end of my stay, my research group took a day trip to bucolic Ørnehøj on Langeland to have a picnic and see the wild horses. I even made it to Copenhagen to have a reunion with other Larner students who were traveling through Europe!

A word you hear often in Denmark is “hygge,” which is translated in English to mean “cozy.” But most Danes will tell you that this translation doesn’t quite convey the full meaning. Acknowledging that my grasp of this word is far from perfect, I’ve come to understand that “hygge” embodies something along the lines of wholesomeness with good memories and warmth and friendship. Fittingly, it describes my time spent in Odense. I am profoundly fortunate to have had the opportunity to make memories that will be close to my heart for years to come. I’ve compiled a shortened list of some of these memories:

  • The delicious bread and pastries
  • Getting a great deal of exercise from biking everywhere
  • Not having the translate app on my phone the first couple days in and having to ask a stranger at the grocery store if “brun sauce” is the same thing as gravy (it is)
  • Seeing the doctors ride little razor scooters around the hospital
  • Being the person who people would approach if they wanted to know some obscure English grammar thing
  • How the gym I frequented had a coffee machine but no water fountains
  • Being coached through how to pronounce the word “rye-bread” in Danish (call that active learning!)
  • I wasn’t kidding about the razor scooter thing from a few bullet-points up. I have a video of it if you don’t believe me.
  • The incredibly mild summer (I don’t handle heat well.)
  • Learning enough Danish to have a smooth encounter with a cashier without them having to switch to English

This summer was replete with novel experiences, innovative research, and all the joys (and occasional frustrations) that come with existing in a place that you’ve never been before. It is quite difficult to convey just how meaningful this experience was for me. Suffice it to say that the privilege to do research in another country has been one of the most exciting and rewarding opportunities that I’ve come across in my 24 years of life. The memories will stay with me.

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