Monday, March 14, 2011

Hospital Tour of India

“Ow-ow-ow-ow-AAYYEEEEEE!” I eloquently explain to the doctor, who simultaneously asks me where it hurts and pushes down on the puffiest bits of my injured foot. He is to be the first of three doctors I will see that night in Jaisalmer, each exam beginning with that same painful introduction.

It was not exactly an easy feat to get me to the hospital in the first place. Oh, the hotel is in possession of a car that can drive me there without problem. It is more a matter of overcoming my fortitude of denial. With my usual combination of stubbornness and optimism, I insist that the lump on my foot is no more than the sign of a bad sprain.

Upon our arrival at the Shahi Palace Hotel, I almost immediately crawl to the rooftop. It has, one of the hotel employees informs me, both a restaurant and a great view. The view is, indeed, magnificent. In the light of the dying sun, the Golden Fort seems to glow from deep within the ancient stone. Long stone benches, covered in an assortment of mustard yellow and ochre red cushions, jut over the sides of the Shahi’s roof. I prop my foot on a bolster and stretch out across one of the benches. I order a large mug of steamy masala chai. Someone drapes a blanket over me.

{rooftop of the Shahi Palace Hotel}

One of the hotel workers offers me a tube of ointment, which I gently and optimistically daub on my foot.

“I think the swelling’s going down,” I lie to both Katie and myself.

Katie looks dubiously at my super-sized foot but amicably nods in agreement.

{"Good luck storming the castle!"}

Jaisalmer is a sleepy town at the edge of the Thar Desert. I feel at peace for the first time in India while basking in the remnants of the sun. From my bird's eye vantage point, I can see the edge of town. Passing on the street are just a couple of motorbikes, a few ambling cows, a young goatherd boy and his charges. There is the faintly melodic sound of tiny bells as the herd passes beneath the hotel. Later that night the silence will be broken by revelers at the Titanic Hotel, which is across the street, as a group of men sings a passionate version of the chorus to "My Heart Will Go On." After the last notes of their song die down, Jaisalmer will return to quietness once more.

It isn’t until I crawl back down from the roof to my hotel room that the hotel owner sees me. He first encourages, then kindly tricks me, into going to the hospital. Our dialogue goes something like this:

D: Oh, that looks bad, very bad. You need to see a doctor.

Me: No, not so bad. (hides wincing) Just need a good night’s sleep and I’ll be ready for our camel trek tomorrow.

D: I don’t think you can ride a camel like that.

M: I’m getting better. The swelling’s gone down.

D looks to Katie for affirmation. She shakes her head slightly in the negative.

D: If you come to the hospital, they can give you drugs for your foot. You’ll enjoy your camel trek more if the swelling goes down.

M: Well, that makes sense. Okay. Let me just crawl to a taxi or something.

And that’s how to successfully lure me into a hospital.

{inexplicably but genuinely happy in the red wheelchair -- before drugs or cast!}

The second doctor I visit takes an x-ray which verifies the worst: I am dead. Okay, maybe I don't get the absolute worst diagnosis following an accident, but possibly the second worst: my foot is broken.

"You know what I miss?" I ask Katie and then answer without waiting for her to reply. "I miss the time when rats were our biggest problem."

I continue on to visit a succession of doctors, each one established at a seemingly dirtier hospital than the last. Now, I'm a messy person, a very messy person. The state in which I kept my bedroom during my teenage years still gives my mother nightmares. "I was looking through a pile of papers on your desk, and in the middle of them was a koosh ball!" she'll still exclaim at times, a shock which has not lessened with the years. "You filed a ball in a pile of papers!" My messiness is very possibly my worst trait. But even by my low standards for tidiness, I am shocked by the hospitals' stratum of filth. At the final hospital I visit, I unwillingly heave myself onto an examining table that is covered by a thin green pad. The pad has dried blood, mucus, and other unidentifiable (to me, at least) bodily fluids spattering it. It is a veritable Pollock of pestilence.

One of the doctors comes at me with a long needle filled with some sort of clear fluid. He holds it, the sharp tip pointing heavenward, while walking quickly towards me. I have not seen him, or anyone, unwrap this needle. I am motionless, trapped on the examination table, unable to run away. But my voice still works.

"NO! NEEDLES!!!" I enthusiastically shout.

Katie folds into herself from embarrassment.

But I am glad to have shouted, whatever social mores I have broken. When I return home from my Indian trip, I read on the Internet (paraphrased), "While larger Indian cities boast some of the finest medical facilities in the world, the opposite is true of hospitals found in smaller towns. . . . It is not uncommon for the same needles to be cleaned with water and used for multiple patients."

After my outburst, the doctors quietly take the needle away. I ask if I can wash my foot, since I have just ridden the train two nights in a row without any means of bathing, but they only let me dab at it with a moistened cotton ball.

"Washing it is bad for your health," one of them says.

"That philosophy explains the state of their hospital," I wryly think to myself.

One of the doctors brings out a big plastic bucket filled with something wet and faintly white, a liquid which looks like watered-down milk. He bandages my leg, nearly up to my knee, by winding multiple strips of cotton and plaster of Paris around it. It soon dries in the air, forming a hard white shell. Only the toes, knee, and upper thigh are free.

After this, we visit a pharmacy of sorts, where I will be handed a fistful of opiates. The opiates pose some danger to me, not from risk of addiction but because, coupled with my fast-flowing adrenaline, they act as a wonder drug. I feel good, really good. There's still a pain in my foot, but it just doesn't seem that important.

At the end of the hospital tour, I am driven back to the Shahi Palace Hotel. I climb into the soft, clean bed and begin to rest as per the doctor's orders. I sleep all the way until about noon the next day. After waking and downing a few opiates, I declare to Katie that I feel fine. I want to go out. I want to ride camels.

{beautiful bed for resting at the Shahi Palace Hotel}

"No! Bed rest!" Katie declares, with as much sternness as her gentle nature can muster. She then distracts me by ordering room service. I eat tandoori chicken, deliciously savory from herbs and smoke, and swallow a tall, lumpy glass of lassi. When lunch is finished, I nestle back into my pillows and read several stories from the Mark Twain book I'd brought with me to India. I am so good, a model patient. Then Katie leaves the room to set out laundry and buy more bottled water.

I only have one functioning leg, but a few minutes after she leaves, I blithely use it to spring out the bedroom door like a deranged version of Tigger. I chance to see the hotel owner in the hallway.

"So. . ." I beam at him, radiant with the success of my bedrest escape. "What's there to do in Jaisalmer?"


  1. I honestly don't know whether to laugh or to be horrified while reading this story... love ur way of telling the story, and horrified at the fact that you almost got injected by a needle that might or might not be sterile.

    But get well, don't be one of those naughty patients and I do hope you get to ride a camel :) so I can hear all about it.

  2. Great story! Well, not great you broke your leg. I hear you about the cleanliness issue in India. An Indian idea of cleanliness is using the same dirty towel to wipe a poo stain on the floor.

    Hang in there!!

  3. Oh my god. Oh my god. You are seriously strong. I would have been freaking out!

  4. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

    Healthcare in India