A creative nonfiction tale about perceptions
The quiet night carried the whining of the VW-van as it labored toward the hospital, its blaring siren doggedly holding the pace. The hedges, lining the winding road, absorbed very little of the racket.
The authorities thought it wise to install speed humps at fifteen-meter intervals. It is a mystery how the excursion didn’t kill the patients inside this speeding ambulance — it would slow down, bump across the hump, speed up again, crash across the next hump and continue bouncing its way to the emergency room entrance.
A nine-inch brick wall separated my apartment’s bedroom from that road, which was the only vehicular access to the ER. Ripped from sleep’s embrace, I would be forced to listen to the drivers offloading their human cargo. They took their time with this endeavor, sufficient for me, to slumber in again.
The saving grace of their return-journey down the speed-hump-rich road was that the siren at least was muted. But now, the driver vented his frustration, for being on duty at that unchristian time of the night, taking it out on every swell in his path.
Is it any wonder that I developed a sense of selective hearing, after residing in that doctor’s apartment the entire twelve months of my intern year?
It was a small provincial hospital: the medical staff consisted of us six interns, three medical officers and the superintendent, with access to private practice specialists.
From day one, it became clear that this would be akin to long-distance open-water swimming: exciting. Challenging, intimidating, and exhausting. We had to learn to swim, to tread water, to float, to swim underwater, to hold our breaths and not to drown. The six of us would rotate, on a two-monthly basis, through the main disciplines. One of which was, running the emergency room as a solo-physician. Indeed, as green interns. The belief was it gave us hair on our chests.
Knowing the theory of the signs and symptoms of a stab wound in the heart is one thing. It is an entirely different narrative to encounter one in real-life for the very first time. Once I realized that the youth, with the tiny puncture holes in the chest, wasn’t being obnoxious, but fighting for breath and his life, the surgeon was alerted and the injured man rushed to the operating room — in time to save his life.
As the year progressed and the strain of being on call six night out of seven, for eight months straight, took its toll on us. The other four months we did one night on, one night off. The ER call remained the most dreaded of all. What pulled us through, though, was the camaraderie.
It became the unwritten rule, especially over weekend evenings, when we had a social gathering, that everyone would chip in, and go and help to clear the ER from patients, see everybody, treat them, and return to the barbecue, only to repeat it two hours later.
There was often so much blood and mayhem in the ER, that we after time got rid of our pristine white coats — usually during after-hours and on weekends. It was impossible to keep them white for longer than an hour. And, being in Southern Africa, made it unbearably hot to wear long-sleeve overcoats.
I would be busy treating a person with a severe asthma attack, inserting an intravenous and administering nebulizing medication to break the cycle of the bronchospasm, when the next moment, our friendly ambulance-team would drop off a mother with an eleven-month-old with bacterial meningitis, its tiny head pulled back in spasm. The baby, having fever-induced seizures, required immediate attention.
That did not include the fifteen patients already waiting to see me, who kept being bumped to the back of the line. And, then, while I was busy performing the lumbar puncture on the febrile infant, the ER outer-doors swung open once again, like the bar-doors of an old Wild West saloon. In barged the ambulance-team with their next catch of the day: a bleeding patient. One of them would announce triumphantly, “Doctor, this man got stabbed in the stomach!”
Hallelujah! We had just received our guarantee: that night too, would not be boring.
I would finish up with the baby, wash hands and drag the stabbed victim from the clutches of death. My clothes, soon enough, was smeared with fresh red blood. The single ceiling-fan lost the battle against the humid air hours ago. The decision was easy to make: the white coats had to go.
If things became chaotic at night, we had the candidness to phone one of our fellow interns to come and assist us for a short while, to perform some emotional life-support.
As we became more seasoned, especially if we were called back to the ER in the early morning hours, after things had quieted down, we would return with only a short-sleeve shirt, running shorts, sandals and our stethoscope around the neck.
One such night — it had been a particularly rough stretch — one of the family members of a wounded patient, both partially inebriated, stood watching my antics. I carried a patient from one stretcher to another, because the orderly didn’t show up in time to assist me with the transfer.
The family member threw his head back, and with hands on his hips, proclaimed, “But you don’t look like a doctor, man!”
Too exhausted to say anything, I merely rolled my eyes at him, continuing with positioning the patient.
He wasn’t done and stumbled closer, breathing his sour wine-vapor over me. He gestured up and down my person, pushing the air in front of him, trying to poke my chest.
“Those are not doctor’s clothes you’re wearing!”
I found my voice and stepped into his personal space. “Oh, yeah?”
He spun around and mumbled, “Yes … You look like shit, man!”
The next moment he passed out, falling headlong onto the bench among his buddies. They laughed with abandon at the public display of their friend’s immense bravery.
I shook my head, only to realize, I felt exactly the way the man said I looked like, and to my detriment had lost sight of the white coat’s magic.