Monday, January 18, 2010

Kidney for a Cold

I ran from shower to tuk-tuk this morning, sopping wet and blurry-eyed (from not having put in my contacts). Channa laid across the laps of two of her friends who held her hands as we moved in stop and go traffic. “I’ve never felt anything like this,” Channa said, fighting back tears. Channa is a girl who has toiled on her parents’ farm since birth. Her hands and feet are calloused. She wasn’t being a hypochondriac or pansy. She was really hurting. When we arrived at the hospital, we had to move Channa from the tuk-tuk to an abandoned wheelchair (found behind a crowd of off-duty nurses and moto men). Lifting Channa’s limp body was no easy task, but the next few hours proved to be a series of even more difficult tasks. If you’re not a patient, then you’re on the staff.

We entered the ER and walked to the front, passing by rows of patients on cots—some groaning, some writhing, some completely still.

“What do you want?” asked a man in a soiled white coat behind the rusted metal desk. I wasn’t buying coffee or cigarettes. I wasn’t ordering fries and a burger at a drive through. I was at Calmet Hospital speaking to a doctor.

Reasmey, one of the girls spoke up: “Lok Kru, I want you to help my friend.” The doctor eyed Channa who lay quivering on the rolling cot. She whimpered softly.

“If you’ve got money, I’ll fix her,” the doctor said. I didn’t know if he was serious or joking, but from the girls’ meek smiles at this asshole’s glib comment, I reasoned it was the former. We handed the man Channa’s health card, and explained that we were from Harpswell. This meant that we had money to pay for treatment costs. Little did we know, we would pay for unnecessary treatments.

“Get her a bed,” the doctor barked. A nurse rolled one in our direction. The three of us girls struggled to move Channa from wheelchair to bed. These rolling beds are old, rusted, and stained with former patients’ blood and markings. There wasn’t another option, though. We were lucky enough to have wrestled a bed from these money-mongering doctors.

The doctor walked to the front side of the desk, and leaned against it, clipboard in hand. “What’s her major?” he asked.

“She’s studying at the Red Cross Hospital,” Reasmey answered.

“Why, then, she should know what sickness she has. Let’s ask her, and see if she’s a good medical student.” He chuckled holding his dirty pen to his lips. He proceeded to ask her questions regarding her symptoms. He decided she needed an ultra-sound. But we would have to go find the radiologist ourselves. Proceeding to the radiology quarters, we took Channa’s IV in hand and rolled her cot to another building hoping that it was the right one. Thank god, it was.

She might have an ovarian cyst. She might have a blood clot. Or, she might be pregnant. These were the three diagnoses we were given. We rolled Channa back to the ER, and gave the lab tests to the doctor. He was busily telling someone that he was a very good doctor. I work until six tonight, he said. I haven’t even eaten my breakfast, and I am working. We don’t close. This hospital never closes. After the doctor was done bragging about his work ethic, he handed me—the Westerner in cowboy boots, who most likely was paying for the treatment—the prescription to take to the pharmacy. In order to administer the tests Channa needed, it was our responsibility to secure them.

At the pharmacy, I was told that the pharmacist who was in charge of selling one particular test—a pregnancy test—hadn’t arrived yet. The test was in plain view sitting on a shelf behind the counter. Perhaps the current pharmacists on staff had some moral objection to selling it. I went to another building hoping the people there could help me. They charged me for the test, took my money, then refused to give me the test because the doctor failed to fill out the form with the patient’s information. I went back to the ER, explained the problem to the doctor, who fussed over his oversight. Why did he have to write down patients’ information? He was an upstanding man. A doctor! He ranted to himself, and finally, I got the test. But, it turned out that Channa didn’t need it.

Channa has never had sex. Ot they, cyom out mean they, she cried, insisting that it was impossible that she was pregnant. To say that Channa may be pregnant is the equivalent of calling her a whore. At least that’s the way Channa understood it. These girls have an 8 o’clock curfew. They’re good girls, and, yes, some of them have boyfriends, but the extent of their physical affection for each other is handholding.

No to pregnancy. That leaves a blood clot and ovarian cyst—neither of which she had. But, she definitely needed surgery according to one doctor. Chakrya, the dorm manager, brought her friend who is a doctor from the US to see Channa. After examining her against the wishes of the Calmet doctors who cursed both him and Chakrya, he determined that Channa had a UTI (urinary tract infection). Channa never needed an ultrasound—but, she received two. She needed her pelvis region examined in the very beginning; it never was. She needed a few pills as treatment; she nearly had her stomach cut open.

Another one of the Harpswell girls was brought to the same hospital today. She was determined to possibly have swine flu. She was put in the hallway of the ER because the ER room was too full. I was in the ER with ten patients, all of whom had different illnesses. At one point, I heard a very loud beeping. Looking over to the opposite end of the room, a man’s heart had stopped beating. I watched his hands curl around the metal grip of his cot and release.

This hospital shouldn’t be in operation. But what is the alternative? No hospital at all? The people who are treated feel lucky to receive care from the doctors. Wear lots of gold and jewelry to the hospital. Dress up. Look like you have money. This is what I’m told will guarantee treatment. And don’t expect good treatment. That’s asking too much.

I was told of a story of a girl who came to the hospital because she had a respiratory condition. While she was unconscious, one of her kidneys was taken out. After harvesting other organs, the doctors sewed her back up. She died later that evening.

Today, I looked around the room witnessing medical professionals acting more like Khmer Rouge cadres than doctors. Cups of urine tests lined empty tabletops. Patients breathed in the same bacteria-filled air. I wore a measly mask, hoping that none of the bacteria would transfer to me. Fresh blood was smeared on floors and cots. Used needles were left on trays.

I was telling my mother today that I might want to live here in Cambodia for a few years. I explained to her all the things I love about the country. The difference in lifestyle. The family and community values. The affordability. The richness in culture. The language. But am I willing to give up things like receiving proper medical attention? Do I dare put my health in jeopardy to be here?

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