So Sunday dawned, as it does, to the sounds of St N sweeping the stoep. I’d fallen asleep on the couch the night before listening to Assange in conversation with Zizek. This is my current entertainment: I knit on the couch in front of the fire while listening to political philosophy. This I find multiply soothing: the reverie of suspended thought as I loop wool and the comfort of voices speaking truth to power.
When N knocks on the door, as he does, he tells me that he needs to go early today: his brother has been ill for a month and the government hospital is not giving him a diagnosis. The family are gathering to discuss what to do. We discuss the symptoms, which worsened visibly the previous day. I consult WebMD. We agree that I’ll make an appointment with whomever is on duty at my local doctors. His brother, M, cannot walk the distance from the taxi rank to the doctors’ rooms. So we’ll fetch him from Masi.
Yet, my first call to the local doctors’ rooms yields the audio recording. The first call to the paging service yields the reassurance that they’re probably just running late. The second call to the doctors yields the audio recording. The second call to the paging service yields “I can’t page them as then I’ll ruffle feathers over there.” 9.30 and two more calls yield the welcoming response from the receptionist: “Yes, just bring him in.”
N wants to sit in the back of the car but I’m refusing to be a taxi driver. We laugh. And I tell him that of course he can throw the stuff I’ve strewn on the passenger seat into the back. We’re buoyant: we’re going to get a diagnosis, and I trust our doctors and sing their praises en route.
M is visibly ill. He coughs in the back of the car, and we speak about his symptoms and how long he’s had them. I tell N that next time he mustn’t wait so long to ask me for help. He says: but you’ve been coming home late and so I didn’t feel that I could disturb you. I say: you can always text me. Such is our relationship: N and D live in the room behind my house. At his request, he moved in a year or so ago, and D followed. Masi isn’t safe for them. They’re Malawian. Our deal is that they live here and he does the garden once a week. D works in the area. She previously had a job over the mountain but the person she worked for was abusive. “Too much shouting,” N told me when he asked me to help her find another job. So, onto a local fb group I went and posted a pic of her. My narrative was that she lived with her boyfriend on my property and was looking for work in the area. My recommendation was that although she was not employed by me she was kind enough to sometimes help me when she saw things were getting out of control (this, especially after marathon Saturday afternoon lunches in the garden). We’re kind to one another. And I am deeply grateful for how gentle our relationship is.
At the doctors’ rooms, M insists that I fill out the form. I challenge him to do it, telling him that he is capable and I’m not his mother although he is the exact same age as my eldest son. But, he pleads with me and I relent. I have to tell him and N that they can take a seat. They choose the hard chairs. I plop down on the couch and take out my knitting, and M reminisces about the jersey his aunt made him. We speak of the long tradition of handwork among Malawian men, as tailors. But, M thinks knitting is too difficult. And N says: one must be able to put one’s mind there or you can’t do it. I agree. I knit to find a place to rest my mind.
The doctor calls M’s surname and I lead them to the passage that leads to his rooms. They’re tentative, but I encourage them to go it alone. I manage another few rows of the shawl I’m knitting. The waiting room is pleasant. The receptionist is an older woman. She’s calm and nice. I notice the other people: there’s a family speaking Afrikaans. Two children playing at the waiting room play table.
I hear snippets of the doctor’s voice down the passage. “Come back tomorrow….Next door…Have the tests done.” M and N return clutching a Pathcare form and a prescription. They sit on the hard chairs. They can’t tell me what the prescription is for, beyond to treat “the infection”, undetermined according to them. As for the blood tests, they don’t know why they’ve been ordered. M is worried about the cost of having to come back tomorrow. I ask if they’d like me to ask the doctor, now milling in the reception area inbetween appointments, what the tests are for. “Please,” they say.
The doctor is a tall, slim man. I’ve often taken my sons to see him when their preferred doctor is not available. This doctor is normally jocular, and although he likes to dominate conversation, my sons enjoy his banter. He frowns when I ask what he is looking for by ordering the tests and follows up with a small smile: “Well, I can’t tell YOU that.” “They’ve asked me to ask you,” I say. His voice rises, and now there’s a scowl: “Well, I can’t tell you that in the waiting room.” “Sure,” I say, my voice shaking from fright. “So, why don’t we step into the passage or your room?” For I’m old enough to have learnt that diffusion is always the better part of valour. But, alas, the young doctor cannot step off the path he has set himself upon. His body and voice enraged, he bellows his refusal to make any more time available: “I’ve told him that he must come back for more tests tomorrow and as you can see I have a waiting room of patients waiting to see me.”
I’m pleased that he storms off at that point. Shaken, we discuss our need to get a proper diagnosis. We decide to stay until he is finished with his patients. I entreat the receptionist to do what she needs to so that the doctor will speak with us when he’s done. I retreat to the car to calm myself telling the receptionist that there is no value in me meeting his anger with the same, although of course he is deserving of censure. We wait. A half hour. The doctor returns now and flashes a smile. I’m hopeful. Yet when I enter the room he stares at me with what my mother would call a dirty look, my sons – a death stare. I shake my head.
And, thus, splayed in his chair, while I refuse the seat that N offers me, he barks: “Instead of shaking your head, you could thank me for seeing someone who is not my patient on a Sunday when I should only be seeing emergencies.” “I’m paying you to do your job,” I say. “I am doing my job,” he says. And then I have to tell him to stop. “These other people do not want to hear this. I will take this up with you separately, but now we need the diagnosis.” With a glance up at me, he predictably pretends to repeat the reasons for the tests: “As I told [insert surname]….”
But, we know what transpired previously. Perhaps, I think, he imagines that the word of two people whom he doesn’t choose to address as Mr is less valid than his. Perhaps when questioned about this incident, as surely he must be if the receptionist communicates freely, he will rely on their assumed poor English language skills. Yet, a lack of English is not what has prompted these men to ask for my help.
I ask about the prescription. He says, “It’s to treat the infection.” “What is the infection you are treating?” I ask. “It’s bronchitis.” “Okay,” I say, “Thank you.” And in response to his address to M about when he will call him with the results, “thanks, but we’ve decided that in future we will be seeing Dr …”. M and N have requested this when we discussed the waiting room shouting. Neither of them is comfortable now. Neither of them is happy that the diagnosis was not forthcoming. And, thus, I thank him for his time and we leave.
“Jissus” is N and my repeated lament. It takes a full hour of intermittent conversation to and from the pharmacy, and back to Masi, for us to eventually laugh at the rudeness of other people. They want me to drop them before the house. They are surprised that I’m not frightened to drive in Masi. We speak of my work in the schools in townships that frighten them. Of how to distinguish between a gangster and a well-meaning poor person. Of the fear that poverty and/or race inspires in some south africans who have been raised on fear, and made it loathing. Of the power of language to soothe or incite. Of xenophobia.
Lastly, we speak of the potentially long road of diagnosis and treatment. Of using the private practice’s diagnosis to get proper treatment at the government hospital. There is a way through this, we agree, but it starts with information. And, if we’re lucky, others we meet on this journey will be deserving of our admiration.
The bridge party later that afternoon raises the questions that were begged by this interlude. We discuss various compensation scenarios: two, separate, formal apologies; proof of censure; and a payment from the doctor’s personal bank account for the half hour he kept us waiting for the diagnosis. This is the minimum that is due , we agree, given the high cost of this doctor’s services and demeanour on what was to begin with a hopeful Sunday.
Next day my mother advises that I give him a piece of my mind. But that, too, would be costly. Instead, I tell her, we must find a way for this to be resolved that will also maintain this doctor’s self-esteem. “I’m just going to blog it,” I say. “And send that to the most senior doctor in the practice. Much context is always needed if one hopes to grow understanding.”
We are here, in part, to grow our understanding.