I don’t like hospitals. I never have. When my family goes to see a sick relative in hospital, I produce every possible argument against my going in. I also lose that fight because, well, when someone is on a hospital bed it’s nice to go in to see them and express your confidence that they will get well soon, even when you really don’t have that sort of confidence. So, I am forced to go in, to come face to face with the mortality of humans, to withstand the smell of fragility and despair, to realize, and not for the first time, that my life, all our lives, are really not in our hands.
What happens is that my entire body clenches. It’s like by entering the hospital I have agreed to meet with Death and I am bracing myself for a possible altercation with him. I go very quiet very suddenly and I walk with my arms tightly by my side and my eyes darting back and forth like I’m suspicious of everything and everyone. I am afraid. My siblings may begin to make fun of me. My parents sometimes go off on a speech about how I need to come to terms with the reality of hospitals and sickness and death and all that. Because one day I may have to be there and I may be alone and my attitude towards these things will only make it that much harder for me to be in that situation. It’s all very morbid. I listen to all this while feeling tension building up in my gut. I clench and unclench my fists continuously and if I sit down, I fidget uncontrollably. By the time we are getting to see the patient we are there to visit I can barely manage a greeting before I dash out of the room, usually dragging my sister or brother along because when you are afraid you don’t want to be alone. Also, I think that one day I may pass out from all the anxiety and I would prefer not to be by myself should that happen. I don’t like hospitals.
The way my life is set up has allowed me to avoid being in that environment for the most part. I hardly ever get sick. When I do, it’s those minor problems that go away in a couple of days, like a cold once a year, or that time I got ringworm from my cat. Yeah, I know that sounds gross and horrifying. It was. It was ugly, but it was temporary. For those problems, I go to a clinic and within about two hours at most, I’m done and I can go home and lament about how long I had to wait. Well, let me just say that nilijua sijui.
I had the misfortune of needing immediate medical attention last week. Because bad things happen sometimes. I will tell you all about it one day. But I had to go to hospital—an actual hospital—and let me tell you I have never been more thankful for my good health than I am right now.
There was no time to develop any anxiety about being there. There was no opportunity for me to pay attention to the various ways in which sickness manifests itself in our bodies. I could not freak out and I didn’t notice that I hadn’t freaked out until I had already left. You see, I had already faced my own mortality. That meeting with Death? It had already happened. And he had let me go. It turns out that my anxiety over being in the presence of sickness and pain existed because I was fine. The pain and sickness were someone else’s burden and being there was only a reminder that they could just as easily be my burden. I didn’t want that reminder, hence the tension. It was also a reminder of helplessness. When such things happen, you can only hold on to hope.
Things were different this time because I wasn’t fine. The burden was now mine. I didn’t need the reminder. There was no need for tension and anxiety. I wasn’t the physically okay person forced to be there among the physically not-okay and acknowledge that that could be me. I was the one who needed to be there. I was the one sitting there, thinking about humanity and whether or not we deserve salvation. I was the one sitting there, thinking about life and death and how all that separates the two is a very thin line, one second, one decision, one step. I was the patient who needed people to be there for me and express confidence that I would get well soon. And it was nice to have them there. Comforting. If any of them were like me, they would be outside trying not heave. But they weren’t. They were in there with me, doing the only thing people go to hospital to do, I have found out: Wait.
At this hospital, I learned that when given the choice between human life and money, the hospital will probably choose money. I learned that when you go to hospital you should go there prepared to sit with your mortality and wait because really, that’s all you can do. I know I must sound…unexposed…when I say this. Cut me some slack, I have never had a hospital experience before. Even when you are on the brink of death, you must wait, and you must have your money ready. I was not on the brink of death. But this one man was wheeled into one of the many lobbies in the hospital on a bed. I couldn’t tell whether his eyes were open or not. He just lay there on that bed and they parked him in the middle of the lobby for almost half an hour because there was something wrong with the payments for his admission. He had to wait, like the rest of us. I learned that it is not difficult for someone to die in the lobby of a hospital.
I spent the whole day waiting. In pain and waiting. Moving from one waiting area to another. I needed only two things done, there were no long and complicated procedures that needed to be done on me. What was I doing all that time? I was waiting. Everything I did was preceded by about half an hour of waiting, at least. Do you know what happens when you’re in pain and you are forced to wait? You begin to imagine worst-case scenarios. You begin to think that maybe WebMD was right that time three months ago when you had a pimple on your nose and it told you that you might have an illness for which there was not yet a cure. You start to feel weak and like you’re about to collapse. You imagine that you have begun bleeding again. You start to think about your own death and how your mother will look at people who say to her, “Don’t worry, she is in a better place now.”
You think these things because you can’t understand how you can feel the way you do, having experienced what you have, and yet the hospital staff do not seem to care. You can’t understand how there could be any number of things going wrong in your body and these people have the audacity to tell you to pick a ticket and wait to be called. For all you know, you could be dead by the time your name is yelled out by a tired-looking lady at one of the many counters. You worry and you panic and you calm down and then begin to panic again before finally resigning yourself to ‘whatever is coming, let it come’. When you get to this stage, you begin to mentally put your affairs in order. You have an M-shwari loan of 1000 bob you haven’t paid, who will you ask to do it for you so that debts do not plague your family after you are gone? Your sister will take your clothes because half of them are hers anyway, and you will divide your electronics between your brother and your boyfriend. You may not have accomplished very much in your short life but you are sure you made a difference in someone’s life. All these people are here with you after all, aren’t they?
You sit and you wait and in your waiting you begin to despair.
And then finally, after a whole day of waiting for death to come once again, you are told that there is nothing very wrong with you, you can go home, your wounds will heal in a couple of days, and here is some paracetamol to help with the pain.
Of course you are happy. Everyone is happy. Your mother is relieved beyond description and can finally breathe. There is nothing wrong, you will be okay. There is a lot of gratitude going up to heaven. Also, a lot of frustration, because as much as you are glad to be alive and well, you cannot believe you spent an entire day reflecting on how short life is, mentally preparing to hear the worst possible news, only to be told to take some painkillers. It’s like a much worse version of meetings that could have been an email.
I am well, thank you for asking. I don’t even need the painkillers anymore. I have spent the past couple of days thinking about how all I really have is this moment. I have thought many things and re-evaluated a lot of my life because that is what you do when you meet Death and he lets you go. And here is one of the thoughts I’ve had: I didn’t think it was possible for me to dislike hospitals any more than I did. I was wrong.