October 6, 2006 lia

Cultural Lesson #5: Going to the Hospital

It’s almost poetic – shortly after writing “feeding oneself”, my apparent over-confidence regarding food in Ghana has bitten back. After suffering from what would otherwise seem to be really bad heartburn plus the flu, I decided to stop being a tough girl and took my guidebook’s health advice regarding symptoms of malaria. Rest assured, I don’t have malaria.

Malaria is the diagnosis of choice for foreigners in Africa.
Fever? Malaria.
Aching back? Malaria.
Heartburn? Must be malaria.

The hospital was much more beautiful than I expected – a big open courtyard filled with plants, lizards, and paths linking together the different wings. Much like in Japan, many of the “indoor” spaces like hallways are actually covered outdoor spaces. It breathes life into what would be an unimaginative, static, air-conditioned space in North America.

-So what’s the problem?
-Something I ingested is upsetting my stomach, and this afternoon I had a fever, headache, and dizziness, so I think it’s upgraded to an infection.
-No, I really think it’s my stomach. I started feeling this way after I accidentally used some tap water in something I ate.
-Malaria has many symptoms.
-I haven’t had a single mosquito bite, but I have drunk tap water and my stomach has been sore ever since. I don’t have malaria.
-Would you like to be tested for malaria? Or should we just go straight to treating you for it?

Two hours later, the malaria test comes back negative.

-Must be typhoid.
-No, I was inoculated for typhoid…
-Must be….
-And inoculated for yellow fever. Really. I get sick from food in Canada too. I like Ghanaian food, I promise. I don’t have malaria. There’s something in my stomach that’s…
-Please take this to the lab.

One hour later, the typhoid and yellow fever tests come back negative.

-Obaa yaa, take these tablets to relax your stomach, and come back Tuesday if you’re not feeling well.

Two days of being unable to eat and one feverish night later, I decide it’s time to go back to the hospital after my stomach swells the size of a bowling ball after taking some juice.

-Hi, I was here on Sunday, and…
-Obaa yaa! How’s the malaria?
[Shake hands, pull, and snap]
-I don’t have malaria, but I was told to come back Tuesday if I wasn’t well. It’s Tuesday. I’m not well.
-Your doctor has gone home.
-Is there another doctor available?
[Yells something I can’t understand in Twi across the hospital to another wing.]
-No, everyone’s gone home. Why didn’t you come this morning?
-I’m sorry. Clearly my stomach hasn’t adjusted to the time change yet. I’ll make sure I get sick earlier in the day tomorrow.
-Let me get directions to your doctor’s house.
-Please no, I wouldn’t want to bother him. I guess 2:00 pm is rather late in the work day to be coming to the hospital. Why don’t I just come back tomorrow at 9:00am?
-Please sit and wait.

Despite my protestations, they phone another doctor to come in and see to me. He looks at Sunday’s negative test results, looks at my swollen stomach, listens to my long history of getting sick from food all over the world, and provides his expert opinion on my medical woes:

-Really sir. I don’t have malaria. I just think my stomach is disagreeing with something I ate.
-Malaria has many symptoms.

I tire of arguing with him and eventually agree to be treated for malaria, mostly so that I can go home and lay down.

-You need to trust your doctor. Your doctor knows more than you.
-Yes, of course sir.

The malaria treatment involves taking medication also used to treat stomach infections – or at least the “malaria treatment” I was given involves taking medication used to treat stomach infections. My insurance company rings me the next morning from Philadelphia to check up on me.

-Hi Bonnie. Just wondering what dsfjdlfadlf is?
-That’s the medication we were going to recommend your doctor prescribe to treat your stomach infection.

In the end, my insurance company and I had a good chuckle, our phone bill well exceeded my hospital bill, my doctor’s pride wasn’t injured, and the only mosquito bite I’ve sustained since coming here occurred while waiting in the outdoor waiting area at the hospital for my malaria test results on Sunday.

At least I didn’t have malaria.