Thursday, March 26, 2009

The hospital

“Do I have malaria or what?” That was the question that had been bothering me since Tuesday morning. When Sister Juliana found out I was sick, she advised me to go to the hospital, and since I live in a place where malaria is quite common, I decided to take her advice. My hospital is Legon University Hospital, where all the university students go. I’ve been there a few times before, but it was nothing like this.

Okay, when I hear the word “hospital,” usually what comes to mind is a big, multi-story building, with sterile white walls and fluorescent lighting. Legon Hospital isn’t like that. It consists of a few buildings separated by grass and parking lot, and each building is only one story. The Out Patient building has two grassy courtyards, and each room (consulting rooms, laboratory, dispensary, records office, etc.) opens directly to the sidewalk next to the grass. Unless you’re in the room, you’re outside. Does that make sense?

Anyway, yesterday, I arrived at the hospital at 8:15AM. I couldn’t believe how many people were sitting on the benches that lined the hallways, waiting! I waited by the window of the records office with my hospital card in hand. I could see through the window the man in the office sorting files, and I waited patiently for him to help me. Finally, he opened the window and told me to put my card in the little box on the other side and wait. So I did.

I waited as the records people called out names of patients whose files they had retrieved. I sat on a bench next to the window, listening carefully, because Ghanaians often mispronounce my name. Finally, I heard, “Kat-lynn Dalton.” Close enough. The man at the window gave me my folder and told me to pay at the dispensary. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) I’ve been there before (four other times, to be exact), so I knew where to go. After waiting briefly in the line, I paid 10 Gh¢, and returned to the records office. I waited for the people crowding around the window to be helped so I could ask the man where to go. He pointed down the hall and directed me to Consulting Room 4. It was around 9:15.

After placing my folder in the box lying on the ground next to the door, I sat down on a bench with dozens of other Ghanaians and waited. A nurse came out with a stack of folders in her arms and called out names of the patients who had been waiting there before me. As their names were called, the other patients got up and arranged themselves on the bench in order of service. My name wasn’t called; the nurse hadn’t removed the latest stack from the box. I turned on my iPod and waited.

Apparently the doctor hadn’t even arrived yet! The nurse called in the other patients, one by one, and took their temperatures so that the doctor could see them right away when he arrived. We all sat, waiting, until the doctor finally arrived. I’m not sure what time this was. Once the doctor was in, the line of people sitting and waiting slowly shifted forward. After a while, the nurse came out with a fresh stack of folders and again called out names. On the fifth name, she was stuck. She squinted her eyes and moved her lips without making noise as if practicing the pronunciation. “Ka, Kath, Kath-lyn? Dalton?” Close enough. I got up and shifted next to the man just before me. “Ah, it’s you!” the nurse said when she made the connection that the foreign name belongs to the foreign girl.

It was about 11:15. I waited for the four patients before me to be seen, and finally, the man before me came out and nodded that it was my turn. No more waiting!

I went into the consulting room and sat down on a chair at the doctor’s desk. I explained to the doctor how I felt and that I was advised to come to the hospital to check for malaria. The doctor stuck a thermometer under my arm, and when he removed it, he informed me of my temperature.

“37 degrees” he said.

Do I look like I understand Celsius? “Is that... normal?” I asked awkwardly. “I only know Fahrenheit.”

“Ah, you’re American? We’re on the British system here. Let’s see, 37ºC is the same as...” he paused, trying to figure out the math. “90 something,” he declared after about fifteen seconds. I hope he’s better at medicine than he is at math.

“98.6” the nurse said. “No temperature. Healthy.”

That’s a good sign, right?

He gave me a slip of paper and instructed me to go to the lab for a blood test. I was to come back to him with the results when they were ready.

I went to the lab, put the lab request in the little box, sat down, and waited. I thought I heard them call my name, but when I went into the lab, they told me it wasn’t my turn yet. I went back out and waited some more, until finally, I heard, “Kath-lynn” again. I went inside and sat down on a chair next to one of the lab guys.

“So, did the doctor already prescribe you medicine?” he asked as he shoved the needle into my vein.

“No, not yet,” I said, closing my eyes and turning my face away. (I don’t mind shots or needles, but I don’t like watching them go into my skin.) “He said to come back in with the results.”

When he had finished, he flicked the vial of blood. “He hasn’t given you medicine yet? But by the time we finish with the lab results, he’ll already be gone.”

“What time will you finish?”

“We won’t have your results ready until about 4,” he said. Ahh!!! “Will you come back tomorrow?”

“I don’t know. The doctor just said to go back after the results were ready.”

The technician paused for a moment, considering my dilemna. “Okay,” he said at last. “Come back in an hour’s time. We’ll have it ready by then.”

After exiting the lab, I took out my cell phone. 12:15. I had been at the hospital for four hours. I was already feeling dizzy, so I left the hospital and crossed the street to buy a few roasted plantains to eat for lunch. After eating them, I went back inside and waited. I read James Joyce. I listened to music. I watched a mother taking care of her baby. At 1:12, I went back to the lab to ask about my results.

“You’re Kath-lynn?” another man asked, hunched over a ledger. “It’s not ready yet. Wait outside, and we’ll call you when they’re ready.”

I waited another half an hour. Finally, the lab guy called me back in, and handed me the request sheet with a little receipt-like paper stapled onto it. Each line had a three-letter abbreviation followed by numbers with percentages. There were about a dozen lines on the paper. I had no clue what the lines meant. Did I have malaria or what? I went back to the doctor’s office, and saw that only one person was sitting in front.

“Are you waiting to see the doctor?” I asked.

“No, I’m not waiting, but there’s someone in there right now,” she said. “You’ll have to wait for them to finish.”

I sat down and waited. I didn’t wait too long before a nurse walked by and gave the message that the doctor had gone home, but that I was to see the afternoon doctor in the emergency room. The nurse went into the office and brought out my file, asking me if I knew where to go. I did. I’ve been to the emergency room here before (thanks to the dogs), so I walked across the parking lot, through the waiting room, and down the hall, straight to the nurses station. As I was walking, I suddenly became nervous. What the hell is wrong with me? Typhoid? Malaria? But my nervousness was overshadowed by how sick I was of waiting. I explained to a sympathetic nurse my situation. He took my file from me, and told me to wait in the waiting room until he called me.

I waited. Finally, I heard, “Kath-lynn.” It was my turn! I sat down on a chair across from the doctor in the crowded nurses area (no privacy there whatsoever) and handed him the lab result. He considered it for a moment, before handing it back and dropping my sentence.

“Your blood levels are normal,” he said. “There are no traces of malaria or typhoid.”


“But, just because the parasite isn’t in your blood doesn’t mean you don’t have it.” Huh? He was trying to tell me what that meant, but two nurses were having a loud conversation right over our heads. He waited until they were finished talking. “You still might have it. I’m prescribing you some anti-malaria drugs, just in case.” He scribbled something in my folder and instructed me to take it to the pharmacy.

I walked back across the parking lot and into the dispensary. I handed my folder to the pharmacist, an old man with white hair and light brown eyes. I waited as he tapped away at a calculator and returned my folder to me. “It will be that amount,” he said, pointing to the 5.50 he had scribbled on the sheet. The pharmacy is right across from the cashier’s window, so I paid, returned to the pharmacist, and waited. I watched him sort out medicine, counting pills to put into a little plastic baggie. Finally, he handed me a plastic bag with three sets of pills. He gave me verbal instructions for taking the pills, and said I could go. Finally!

I left the doctor’s office at 2:30. I had been there for over six hours! I kind of wanted to kill myself, then I remembered that I was grateful that I didn’t have malaria so I could live a long life.

I DON’T have malaria (probably). I’m still quite sick with whatever I have, but I’m feeling better than I did yesterday. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers!


la-la-la-Laura said...

THANK GOD you are okay, my dear. I've been telling everybody to pray for you. I hope you feel better soon...and have a terrific bday ;) PS/ I actually tried calling your number from my phone today but of course it didn't work because I don't have international calling...

Diane Wills said...

I've been reading your stories. They are so sweet and engaging. I hope one day you will put your tales of Africa into book form. I especially think your stories about your daily interaction with the children would make great children's stories and help our kids know more about the African culture. Keep up the great work.