This is Episode 9. If you wish to read from the beginning, the posts are placed in reverse order here.
Written by Niki Moore, edited by Gudrun Kaiser ….. In which our heroine attempts to get answers from the Medical Profession, and finds herself following a trail of breadcrumbs into the Black Hole of the Public Health System
In order to get started with the medical side of my campaign, I needed to consult a doctor. I had never been to a hospital before (well, not knowingly, anyway). I do not have a family doctor because I seldom get sick, but there is a local sawbones whom I consult on an irregular basis when I need to have official confirmation of what has just finished ailing me. So I went to see him.
When I explained my symptoms, and what I thought was the cause, he got a hunted look on his face. His eyes scurried around in their sockets like two rats looking for a way out.
“We-e-e-e-ll,” he said slowly, “this is not my area of expertise, I don’t know much about this.”
“It’s about time you learned,” I replied tartly. “You are going to get a lot of people with this kind of thing.”
“I have already noticed a lot of people coming in with these symptoms,” he replied. “But they don’t know what is causing it. I don’t know either.”
There was a heavy silence.
“What do you recommend, then?” I said eventually.
“Firstly we need to eliminate anything else,” he said, getting back onto firmer ground. “There are a number of tests to check for any other underlying conditions.” He began scribbling on a prescription pad.
“Here,” he said, tearing off a page and presenting it to me like a waiter proffering a complimentary cocktail. “Take this to King Edward Hospital. I could refer you to a private hospital, but then these tests would cost you around R50 000.”
He added dryly: ‘From what you are telling me, you are going to need to preserve your pennies.”
There were many things I was needing to preserve, and pennies was certainly one of them. So I left the doctor, hugging the referral letter.
I was not far from King Edward, so I decided to take a short walk down the road to the hospital to perhaps make an appointment for the following day, and to find out what I needed to bring.
Oh, I was so naive!
I arrived at the public gate to the hospital, an ugly affair of corrugated iron and steel bars. The pavement outside the hospital entrance was cluttered with fruit sellers, sweet sellers, and a few people roasting mielies over braziers. The road and pavement were carpeted in litter and congested with badly-parked cars and taxis. My first port of call was a large female security guard who stood protectively across the entrance.
“What do you want?” she barked at me.
“I have a referral letter,” I said a little timidly. “I want to make an appointment and find out what documents I need to bring.”
She grabbed the letter, held it upside down, and squinted at it.
“Hhmph,” she said, and thrust it back at me.
“Get in line,” she ordered.
“But I am just making enquiries …” I began.
“Get in line!” she said in tones that brooked no argument.
So I went into the dark and dirty reception area, where around 50 people were sitting patiently in lines of blue plastic chairs. I joined them. We all exchanged nervous smiles. I was wondering if I should not abandon this attempt, as I had brought nothing with me but my referral letter. But by then several more people had tailed onto the end of the queue, so I decided to stay put. Usually, when faced with government processes, I bring a book to read. But I had not been prepared for this. So I just stared into space, interspersed with reading the large multi-lingual notices on the walls every few minutes and looking at the large faded photographs of the President and the Minister of Health and the MEC for Health and their wives, children, colleagues and friends that dotted the walls. OK, so maybe I exaggerate about the wives, children and friends.
I had entered the maw of the hospital shortly after lunchtime that Wednesday. It was close to four p.m. by the time I got to the front of the queue and took my seat in front of a harried clerk. I was now thoroughly cowed. I offered her the letter and opened my mouth to ask the first question.
“Name?” she said, not looking at me and taking a brown file off a pile next to her.
“Er … I really just want to find out what I need to bring when I come here,” I said, a trifle desperately.
“You have to open a file.” Her tone was final and we looked at each other for a moment. I knew this type: if you cut her in half, the words ‘petty bureaucrat’ would be all the way through.
So I opened a file, got a reference number and a little blue piece of paper and meekly paid the fee. Then I walked home, feeling as if I had just escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp.
The following morning I presented myself sharpish, shortly after 7 a.m. I thought I would beat the queue.
Oh, I was so naive!
There were already around 50 people ahead of me. I wondered idly if it was the same 50 people from yesterday that just got shuffled around for show. But this time it only took two hours to get to the front of the queue, where I presented my little piece of blue paper, got my file, and was directed wordlessly away down a corridor.
The corridor ended in a large noisy echoing hall with doors opening up on every side. The lino on the floor was cracked and peeling, the walls were stained with damp, and every chair lined up along the walls and down the middle of the hall was occupied. Through the open doors I could see wards and offices, but most of the doors were closed with no indication what was behind them. There was an overpowering smell of antiseptic with fruity undertones of drains and the cheeky hint of sewage.
I stood helplessly in the middle of the hall, with no idea what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to go. I collared a passing nurse and waved my file at her.
“Go and wait over there,” she said. “We will call you.”
“But how will you know what to call me for …?” I began, but she had already walked off.
The ‘there’ she had indicated was a little further down the hall, to a cluster of chairs, all full of waiting people. I wandered over and resumed my advanced course of Helplessly Standing Around.
I must have been emitting rays, because in a short while I had a attracted a group of like-minded individuals, who had all been told to Wait Over There. We clustered together like ducklings on a cold day, trying to catch the eye of every passing nurse or sister or vaguely official-looking official.
Our desultory conversation revolved around the likelihood of never being called at all, and our relatives scouring the hospital after a few weeks in order to cart off our desiccated remains.
After a few hours a couple of the chairs became empty (we never dared ask what had happened to their previous occupants) and we all sat down, keeping to formation. The lady to my left had TB, she said, and I tried to lean away from her as politely and unobtrusively as possible while breathing through my ears.
Then a porter wheeled up and deposited a gurney to my right, which contained a gentleman so thin he was in danger of falling through the slats. Every so often the threadbare blanket that covered him would convulse with his coughing and his body odour would get up, leave in disgust, and stalk up and down the corridor. We all watched in horrified fascination as his soul appeared tethered to his body by the merest of threads, and rose and fell along with his breathing.
We had now been waiting for five hours when the hospital suddenly fell completely silent. The bustle disappeared. Like a still life in an Edvard Munch painting, the waiting patients sat or lay around motionless in the corridors, too scared to speak or move. There was a deathly hush.
I consulted my watch.
At around 2 p.m., the hospital came back to life, and I – with great daring – accosted a sister returning from her break. She took a quick look at my file, and told me, inevitably, to wait. Gathering my courage, I asked her what we were waiting for.
“The doctor,” she said, looking at me with her nostrils. “There are no doctors. We have asked another hospital to send us some doctors.” And she bustled off.
I returned to my group and conveyed the news. Someone (who had obviously visited the hospital before) produced a lunchbox and opened a Tupperware of sandwiches. The smell was wonderful – whatever was on those sandwiches had had a very close friendship with curry and garlic – and our gullets collectively convulsed with longing. Our eyeballs swivelled towards the slabs of fresh bread and gleaming curry sauce as if pulled by strings. We had not eaten or drunk anything since early that morning, and the air was thick with suppressed whimpers of hunger. The owner of the lunchbox must been brained by the force of our interest, because he looked up at us with a sandwich halfway to his mouth, and made as if to offer the box round, but we refused politely. We could not deprive a fellow-sufferer of their lunch.
Eventually, at half-past three, we saw some doctors arrive and disperse into the consulting rooms. The mood in our little group became almost jolly. A clinic sister appeared, perused our files one by one and began directing us to the various rooms, sending some people off to other parts of the hospital. The gurney, with its mummified contents, was wheeled off.
I had now been waiting for seven hours, and my rear end was numb. But at this point things became very brisk. The doctor drained me of a few pints of blood, did a number of tests that involved little hammers and spanners and pliers, asked me a number of questions, and then released me into the care of a very young and very nervous lady who was going to do X-rays and scans.
Our conversation revealed that she was a trainee radiographer, and I was her first unsupervised patient. She trembled so much while arranging me for the X-rays that I wondered if the machine would not get seasick. After several false starts, she was satisfied that she had X-rayed all my moving parts and the stationary outlying regions of joists, flanges, rafters and buttresses and she handed me back to the doctor, who told me to come back in four days for my results.
Four days later, and the wait on that attempt was only five hours. I got to see the doctor comparatively quickly, who gave me a clean bill of health.
I had no diabetes, no arthritis, no allergies. My bones had exactly the right amount of boniness. My hormones were all marching in time. My plumbing ticked over. My bloodwork was a showpiece and hummed along at precisely the correct pressure. My brain was as succulent as a block of Cheddar. All he could find wrong, he said, was dehydration which – considering I had been waiting for seven hours in the hospital – was hardly surprising.
“You’ve got the body of a 25-year-old,” he said.
“Where?” I replied, and laughed merrily at my own wit.
In relief and triumph, I carried this report back to my own doctor. So … we had done the test for underlying conditions? Check. The next step now was to consult a specialist.
So I went to see specialist Dr Bernhard Insam, in his air-conditioned and ficus-plant-filled waiting room. His receptionist, who was wearing so much powder and mascara that she looked like two flies had crashed into a sugar bowl, cheerfully took R1 500 off me as a consulting fee. Dr Insam listened to my story, consulted my file, and then told me I was talking out the back of my neck (he did not use those words exactly, he was a bit more tactful than that, but that was the gist). The whole thing took less than half an hour. No, there was nothing he could do for me and there was nowhere to go from here.
So I was now back to square one. A little poorer but still no wiser.
Was this really all worth it? I wondered. Everywhere I went there were closed doors and sceptical faces. Perhaps I should just resign myself that the mystery would never be solved.
And then something happened that was about to change everything. It involved some arson, a deliberate misunderstanding, and the most pain I have ever experienced in my life.
And that will be the next episode.
Postscript: Two very important pieces of information
First of all, despite the almost criminal inefficiencies and neglect at King Edward Hospital, the doctors (when we got to see them) were world class. They are young, tired, thorough, patient and competent. It is just such a pity that they are so badly managed.
And secondly, this hospital visit took place in the early months of my bombardment with MTN’s Death Rays, and proved I was extremely healthy with no chronic conditions. But after a year of living in the eye of the illegal masts, things were very different……
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this series of articles are purely those of the writer, they are not endorsed by Safrea or any of its members.