I wrote this story for a course I offered last year, titled, literature and medicine. (BTW, I loved the lecturer with a passion!) We were supposed to write about our personal experiences or experiences of people we knew that had suffered one form of misdemenour or another at the hands of medical practitioners in hospitals. I decided to write my personal experience and spiced it up with a lot of “salt”, as I described it to the class when reading. My sister says she doesn’t even like Nkem Owoh so I guess that’s just part of the “salt” I added.
I leaned heavily against the reception desk and shifted my weight impatiently from one foot to the other like someone who desperately needed to ease herself. The nurse behind the desk eyed me, muttered something to her colleague, who was seated beside her, before addressing me.
“Please, take your seat. A doctor will attend to you shortly,” she was chewing rather loudly as she gestured towards the black, leather seats at the other end of the spacious reception. She was a young woman in her early twenties, probably a year or two younger than I was. The dark or “purple” patches forming on her face and the dark blotches on her knuckles and elbows which she placed on the desk in front of her suggested that she was bleaching. Some people called it toning but I didn’t think it mattered what it was called as long as it drove home the point. She wore one of those extremely tight fitted white uniforms that I feared her body would just burst right through it. I wondered if she had no difficulty breathing through the uniform that just hugged to her breast as if for life. On her right breast pocket that exposed a pair of red and blue pens was written the name “Nkiru”.
I looked from her to the seats, as if seeing them for the first time and grimaced. How could I make this nurse understand that I was in pain and couldn’t sit for a moment? If she saw the expression on my face, she chose to ignore it for she immediately buried her face in the John Grisham novel opened in her lap. She suddenly fingered the gum in her mouth and resumed her chewing. The sound sent searing pains through my nerves and balling my hands into a fist was all I could do to stop from slapping the gum right out of her mouth. I stood hesitantly, hoping the doctor on call would ring the bell for his next patient. I was, however, disappointed because the doctor on duty was leaving for the night and the next doctor who was supposed to take over had not arrived. Nkiru’s colleague explained this to me. She was everything Nkiru wasn’t. Her blue uniform, suggesting she was a junior staff, was well tailored and neat but neither hugged nor hung loosely on her. She looked a mother in her late thirties and the soothing ring to her voice gave me the impression that she was quite the mother. I imagined her having three grown boys who were stubborn but could not help being well behaved around their mother. I pleaded to see this doctor before he left but she said there was nothing she could do. I voiced my thoughts; What if it was a life or death issue, I’d be dead in a matter of minutes, wouldn’t I?
“It’s not a matter of life or death,” Nkiru said, without looking up from her novel.
The older woman just smiled and said, “Please, take a seat. I’ll let you know as soon as the doctor comes in.” At least she told me the truth, I thought to myself. I stooped a little while longer. The pain in my stomach was too gripping for me to stand straight and I didn’t want to sit either. I just needed to see the doctor immediately but when none was forthcoming, I moved to the seats.
My elder sister was already seated and was in fact watching the movie showing on the TV hung at a corner of the now empty reception. Besides the women on duty, there were just two of us at the reception. It was quite late, the long hand of the clock on the wall struck 10 pm.
“Are you okay?” my sister asked in her usual composed self. That was what I admired most about her. She was always calm even when faced with the most difficult of situations. She had returned home from work to meet me rolling on the floor, clutching my stomach and in excruciating pain; and had immediately called for the cab that brought us to the clinic.
“Yes,” I slurred the word and forced a smile. It was the most painful smile ever. Something seemed to be eating at my insides and I felt quite nauseous.
“You’ll be fine,” she said. She returned her gaze to the movie. It was an Igbo comedy showing on Africa Magic. Nkem Owoh was doing what he knew best, as far as I was concerned, that was making a fool of himself. I scowled when my sister giggled at something he said. She caught my expression quickly and stopped. Everything was jeering on my nerves; the giggling, the nurse’s chewing, even – not even – especially, the volume of the TV. I could not for the life of me think why the television volume in a hospital had to be this loud. That screamed wrong in every sense of the word. The wait for the bell was agonizing and by the time it finally came, a tear drop or two had rolled down my cheeks.
The nurse seemed to take an eternity to get up. She tore her eyes from her novel, picked my case note and in a deliberate slowness walked around the desk, through the corridor and to the second door on her right.
“Olurin!” she called as soon as she returned. She was still chewing loudly oblivious or choosing to be oblivious to what her chewing was doing to me. I made a mental note to report her bad manners to someone if I had the chance. But who could I report her to? It was a private hospital whose owner was never present and most of his members of staff acted in a similar fashion. So who was I to report her to? I asked myself.
“The doctor will see you now,” her high pitched voice invaded my thoughts
I moved past her to the door she had just stepped out from and knocked gently. A raucous voice answered, “Come in.” No, that wasn’t right I thought to myself. A doctor’s voice was supposed to be gentle, this was jeering on my nerves. I tried to still my irritable nerves as I stepped into the consulting room that looked little more than a cubicle. It wasn’t my first time in this particular consulting room but its size shocked me still. I didn’t understand why a hospital so big would have consulting rooms so small that one could hardly even stretch legs in. I greeted and immediately sat on one of the two chairs placed across the doctor’s desk. I was feeling nauseous again and my stomach was churning.
“Hello. How are you?” that raucous voice again. The voice belonged to a young man in his late twenties, whose white coat was not the neatest I ever saw. I was initially disappointed that it wasn’t the young, handsome doctor I expected to see, the one I had grown to like or wouldn’t admit I had a crush on. Then I became appalled by this doctor’s disheveled appearance. His hair, beard and moustache were unkempt but nothing shocked me more than his nails. They were not in the least clean. As if dazed to silence, I stared at him through unseeing eyes as he flipped through my case note.
“So what is wrong with you?” he asked.
I wanted to say, “If I knew the answer to that question, I wouldn’t be here, would I?” Instead, I described the pain I woke up to in my stomach, the nausea, the frequent visits to the toilet all day that only ceased when there was nothing left to empty, and the weakness in my limbs. Well, it was definitely not menstrual cramps, he noted. Something about indigestion or ulcer, he insisted. What was my eating schedule like? Did I eat late at night? Did I often skip breakfast? Didn’t I know that it was the most important meal of the day? Could I add fruits to my diet? The questions were endless. He scribbled some things in a hand writing I could barely read on my case note. Then he said, “Come lie down so that I can see where exactly it hurts.”
I did. I lay down on the brown leather bed pushed to the wall and raised my gown up, exposing my underwear, thighs and legs. I caught him staring and as he pressed my stomach, asking each time, “Does this hurt?” I felt his hands stroke my navel. I kept quiet. Maybe it was just part of the routine, I tried to believe my voice. He returned to his seat and I to mine. He scribbled some more and asked that I see the pharmacist outside. Then as I stood up, he came round and held my stomach from behind “Hmm…you’ve got really flat stomach,” he said. That shocked me. Was that a compliment? I felt his hand linger through my dress. I laughed nervously, picked my purse from the chair and all but ran out of the room. I swore then never to return to that hospital.