Stickman Readers' Submissions February 10th, 2006

The Hospital

The doctor didn’t look up from his writing. “You’ll have to stay in overnight for observation.”

I greeted the news with a small degree of pleasure. Why not? The rooms were as comfortable as any downtown hotel and lots of pretty nurses to console me with attention.”

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“I’ll stay the night, too” countered my wife.

“No need, honey.” I was thinking about those nurses but tried to sound concerned for her comfort and convenience. “I’ll be just fine on my own and you can have a good night’s sleep at home.”

But she insisted that it was her duty to be by her husband’s side if he were to stay over in hospital and despite my mild protests she began organising the rest of the family around my best needs, squashing any hopes of a little flirting

I’d already mentally prepared for hospital admission. It is fairly common that if you have little more than a sniff and fully paid up medical insurance, the private hospital system sees you as a revenue stream.

So straight into bed, those weird pajama bottoms that don’t tie up properly and hooked onto a drip. I try to catch the eye of the nurse as she draws a blood sample but the wife’s cracking jokes about the stuff filling up the
syringe.

“You’re lucky to get a bed for the night.” My wife stood over me. “There’s been a flood in Phuket and they’re bringing people up to Bangkok.”

“That’s what they told Jesus’s folks.” But my weak joke was lost in a cross cultural no-man’s land. “This is the day after Christmas”, I added by way of hopeful explanation.

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Around 4am a second nurse appeared, woke me up, took my temperature, pulse and a blood sample and left me to drift back into sleep. Was the really necessary? Whatever. I’m part of the system now. A body to be processed, patched up
and packed off the outside world. To swim in the tide another day. I’m a name on a card on the end of the bed. A chart of mountain peaks as my fever yoyos throughout the darkened hours.

I like those hospital breakfasts. The food is worse than they serve on airlines, but its fun to survey the little plastic bowls and rip off the cellophane wrappings and figure out how you’re gonna spread the hard pat of butter with
a wafer thin plastic knife that snaps as soon as you poke it at anything.

And then they’re coming around for some more blood. Didn’t the day shift nurses check with their night time sisters and know how many times I’d been drawn. What’s going on here? But I let them get on with it. After
all, they’re only doing their job, and it’s my best interests at hand.

I study the nurse as she hooks up the blood pressure equipment. The wife’s taking a shower so I’m free to roam. The nurse is late twenties, hair pulled back tightly in a bun and fastened under a little white cap. Her uniform
is immaculately pressed and she wears sensible flat heeled black shoes. She’s a little bit better than plain looking and goes about her business professionally. But she’s close enough that I can catch a deep breath of her fresh smelling
skin. I think about trying one of my lame hospital jokes on her but she’s probably heard them all before and I’ll end up with the label as lame-joke dude in the nurses’ station down the corridor. Instead I give her a great
big fat smile. A better reputation to have.

“So how are you doing this morning?” The young doctor breezes in with his entourage in tow. I’m hoping he had the answer to that one. He seems too friendly. I don’t like it when doctor’s become matey. It’s
usually a sign that something is wrong. Doctors should be brusque, hurried and out of the door in an instant. But when they want to sit on the edge of the bed and listen to you, then the alarms bells ring.

When he left, my wife broke the news. “He’s gay, you know”

“Really?”

“He lives with his boyfriend.”

“Um, OK”

I flicked the TV channels to CNN. “Hey, look. It’s Thailand on the news.”

My wife repeated her comments from the previous night. I read the red breaking news stripe along the bottom of the screen. Then up one channel to BBC. “Why are they saying tsunami? We used to say tidal wave.”

The gay doctor returns and sits on the side of the bed. “Do you know what platelets are?”
Hmm. First time he asks me for a self diagnoses, now he’s back testing my medical knowledge. Perhaps I should tell him to go
look it up in a medical dictionary.

I nod in the affirmative, not wanting to give much away. I wonder what his boyfriend is like. Older, younger, a Farang maybe?

“We’ve been taking your blood samples since admission, and your platelet level has fallen to almost zero.”

And, I’m thinking, and what about it? Disappearing platelets. There must be a good one-liner in there somewhere.

Then he hit me in the face. “You could have a brain hemorrhage at any moment.”

He paused, waiting for my reaction.

I was about to turn to my wife, to see if she heard the same thing as me; then thought that maybe moving was maybe not such a good idea.

“But I came in here with food poisoning”, I argued..

“It may have been the trigger”

“I feel fine. My stomach ache is gone. The antibiotic drip has really cleared me up”.

“You must not move at all. I’ll get a senior consultant to come and talk with you”

As he left, a nurse came in and slid a card into a rack above my head. It was in English and I read it upside down. It said ‘Absolute Rest’.

Then I was alone. Doubtless the wife was getting the full story outside in the corridor while I lay in my bed wondering whether this wasn’t some elaborate hoax. Maybe there is a Thai version of Candid Camera and in the next instant
some camera and sound crew would pile into the room and a cheesy presenter stick a microphone into my face. “Ho, ho, ho, Boy did you look scared to death there!” “Ha, ha, ha, Yes, Bob, you really got me there” And then
the doctor would come in and shake my hand and tell the world that he’s really an actor and he’s straight, by the way. And my wife would have a mischievous smile and give me a big hug and I’d say I never for a moment realised
I’d been set up. And she’d say how the rest of the family were in on it and no-one ever let on and we’ll get our own DVD copy and maybe we’ll be invited onto the show, and she’ll need a new dress.

But no-one came back.

The TV didn’t make sense. A tsunami in Thailand? In Sri Lanka and India? As far away as the east coast of Africa? I was totally confused. Absolute Rest. What did it mean?

A nurse came back into the room and was really angry with me. I’d dragged the antibiotic drip into the toilet. I needed a pee. It was farcical. Trying to hang onto the pajama bottoms in one hand, lifting the drip stand over the bathroom
step with the other. But it was a great piss.

She pointed at the sign above the bed. I’d already broken the rules and the system was displeased. You better take this seriously or else. Sorry nurse, I just needed a leak.

Doctor and wife returns. Now everybody is mad at me. I’m being beaten up so that I fit into a round hole.

The senior consultant enters the room. This is the head honcho. I’m getting platinum attention. She sits on the edge of my bed. A woman in her early sixties, a head of grey hair, wearing tweeds, a no nonsense approach. For some reason
she takes my blood pressure and listens to my heart beat through a stethoscope. It’s my blood, Madam, I wish to tell her, but her demeanour says she is not to be messed with.

She explains my situation in about three sentences. They seem like death sentences. I need my bone marrow extracted for examination. The gay doctor recoils in horror at the news and in that instant lose all faith in the healing capabilities
of this establishment.

“I’d like to go to Bumrungrad”. I want a serious, grown up hospital. I want a place that is going to tell me that this place has made a big mistake and that I really am as fine as I feel.

She agrees immediately and seems relieved that I will leave their care. “Yes, they have everything you need. But you must go by ambulance for your own safety.” My anxiety levels rise. Perhaps she ought to measure my blood pressure
one more time.

I am in the back of the ambulance. We are thundering through the streets with the blue light flashing. I know the way to Bumrungrad and count off every lamppost and overhead bridge that slips by the small rectangular mirror. My wife is up
front with the driver. I can hear them chatting about the wail of the siren.

The hospital sends a nurse with me. She is extremely cute, looks no more than eighteen years old, and I feel very happy that if my brain is about to explode then the last moments of my life will be spent admiring the slender legs of this
very pretty young, lady. That thought cheers me up no end and I’m grateful that fate is going to launch me into infinity accompanied by the memory of a lovely, Thai girl. But I struggle to keep the thought pure since I may be about to face
eternal judgment.

I’m almost disappointed to arrive at Bumrungrad alive. The moment is not to be. But as the ambulance doors swing open at the admissions door a Farang camera crew points a lens in my face. It is tsunami fever, and maybe some friend
or family watching in Farangland will sit up straight, point at the TV screen and exclaim. “Look, it’s him! On TV! They’re taking him into hospital”.

I’m a fake. A fraud. I’m dying any time soon and I haven’t been anywhere near Phi-Phi island. But this is breaking news, so don’t let the truth ruin a good story. I’ll put on a sorrowful but relieved face
for the cameras. If anyone asks, I’m thankful to be alive. I’ll give you a newsworthy quote in three different languages if needs be, I just ask in return that the pretty nurse can stay by my side a little while longer.

We’re all stacked up in Accident and Emergency. Trolleys wedged together waiting a room allocation. My private medical insurance card takes on the lustre of an American Express platinum card. It’s good enough for me to jump
the queue of those poor souls airlifted up from the South with nothing more the clothes they wore when the waves came crashing down.

“Is it going to hurt?”

“Just a little bit”, reassures my wife.

The doctor was going to cut out my bone marrow at 2pm. She did not appear. At 3pm her assistant came with a set of surgical knives and long skewer-like implements and dumped them at the foot of the bed. An hour later, I still sat staring
at these instruments of torture figuring out how they would be used on my body. Five pm and no sign of Doc. The skewers would make great barbeque tools, hefty enough to support a leg of pork over a slow charcoal grill. Six pm and I’m sweating
a little bit. Could somebody come and remove these things from my sight. “Well, she be here in a minute” says an unpleasant staff member.

Five star hospital, No star service.

“I’m hungry,” says the wife “I’ll go get something to eat and be back in a minute.”

“No, don’t leave me now. If you go, the doctor will surely come.” I was more than anxious. The wife was torn between following a Thai’s need to eat every two hours and being a dutiful wife. Stoically, she waited
it out.

“I think it’s going to hurt like hell”

“Doctor said only a little bit.”

Seven pm comes and goes. Eight pm. The wife and I argue. She needs to snack. I’m a big scaredy cat.

Nine pm, and I relent. “Go and eat, but be back quickly”. Just as she stands up to leave the doctor enters the room.

A bone marrow extraction is not a pleasant experience. The wife is collapsed on a chair as my blood flows over the bed. I’m rubbing her hand and telling her everything is alright. She’s lost her appetite. The doctor is a slight
wisp of a thing and finds it difficult to push her rods into the thick bone of a Farang. I have my back to her as she drill into my pelvis but I know she is tiring after a long day on the ward. I shout encouragement to her. “Don’t
give up, Doc, you’re doing fine”. She is trying to screw a hole in my bone and I am high on local pain reliever. “You can come and re-hang the doors in my house.” I tell her, but it’s another lame one-liner that
gets lost in translation.

It’s well past eleven pm by the time Doc’s finished. Some strange orange lumps in a bottle held up for my admiration. Doc is smiling. “We got some nice big samples”

That night I have the most incredible, opiate induced dream of my life. I see colours of such hue and vividness that in subsequent days I try, and fail, to re-create the exquisiteness of that moment. Now I know why addicts take heroin. I
consider to offer Doc another sample if I can have the same rush once more. Nothing before or since has matched that experience. Just colours and shapes. Another thought – when I’m terminal and the doctor injects a little something
to help me on my way, will it be like this? Whoosh, brothers and sisters.

Ugly nurse is checking my blood pressure the next morning. “The second doctor will come to see you in thirty minutes.”

“What second doctor? Oh right, I remember now, he left me his business card”. I picked it up to check out his name. Then I read his specialisation. Aids.

“He wants to discuss your blood sample”

Now we’ve hit the fast forward button and I’m sitting at home. I’m writing a letter of complaint to the hotel manager where I picked up the food poisoning that landed me in hospital.

I take a business-like approach, explaining that I’d brought my family in for Christmas Lunch, and having eaten nothing since entering hospital twenty four hours later with stomach cramps, diarrhea and a fever that we can only conclude
that it was his restaurant that caused my misfortune. I’d suffered a great deal, was off work for a long time, spent a considerable amount in irreclaimable medical bills.

The reply was swift and pleasant. The general manager was apologetic and could I supply further details. And by the way, could I come in to meet him.

Dutiful I sent off my response, detailing exactly what I had eaten, what my party had eaten, and suggesting where the problem could be.

Back came the reply. A five star hotel. A five star approach. Again he was sorry but that was it. No offer of compensation. No admission of responsibility, and by the way could I come in to meet him. What is it with wanting to meet me? Did
he want to put a contract out on me? Size me up as a potential trouble maker? Warn me to shut my mouth or face a libel action. After all, this is a global hotel chain with a very big reputation to consider. I threw his letter, typed up on quality
paper and signed with an expensive fountain pen, into the bin.

So I’m laying in bed confined to the luxurious Bumrungrad hospital waiting for the brain hemorrhage. And the Aids doctor is in the lift on his way up to see me. My wife has gone home, exhausted, to sleep. Why is he coming to see me?

Now I’m running scenes through my mind. A catalogue of past events. People barely known. Key-frame moments when I can stop the movie, peer at the blurred images and know that, yes, this was the one.

The second doctor is on his way to see me. He has something to discuss. Do we want to talk about it? Are we about to name names, recall forgotten events? Is it important anymore.

I want to get out of here, take a short taxi ride to the Christmas Day hotel and punch the smug, overdressed manager in the face

The second doctor, the Aids doctor, is in the corridor. Perhaps he stopped at the nursing station on the way to see me. Flirted with the ugly nurse, my medical notes rolled up in his hand.

He called me by my first name. Sat on the edge of my bed as though he had all the time in the world.

“You’ll be glad to know that your platelet count has responded well to the steroid treatment” he began. What steroid treatment?, I thought. I was unaware of taking any medicine.

“We ran a whole set of blood tests to find out the root cause of your illness.”

“It was food poisoning”, I explained.

“Well we did several tests, among them an HIV test.”

The doctor slapped his thigh with my notes, got up from the bed and walked towards the window. He stared out towards Ploenchit.

You take a coin, toss it in the air and watch it spin, It twists and turns, rising at first, and then, as if all the energy has been sucked out of it, the coins begins to fall to the ground.

When I was a kid, one birthday I had been given a book of join-the-dots pictures. You take a pencil and go from one to two to three with a steady hand, and lo-and behold at the final dot a butterfly or a elves’ house is revealed. It
was a pretty stupid book because I soon realised that if you held the book back a little way and studied the dots for a moment you could figure out what the picture was without having to join up all the damn dots.

The Aids doctor was waiting for me to join up the dots. He must have stood in hospital rooms a thousand times waiting for patients to join up the dots. I guess he recognised the moment. The silent gulp; the nervous shift of the gaze; a sudden,
sort intake of breath. Patiently, he waited for my moment.

The coin fell and hit the ground with a dull thud, rolled into a corner where we couldn’t immediately see its face.

My eyes flickered and the doctor turned back from the window. “HIV test was negative. So were the others, so we’ll keep on looking”.

He gave a knowing smile and left the room.

I don’t think I have ever hated someone as much as I hated that guy at that moment. He held my life in his hands and he knew it. He knew the results as he came up in the lift, walked down the hospital corridor and chatted with the
nurses. He knew everything about me as he sat on the bed and as he stared out the window.

But he had to let me blink. That was the real purpose of his journey up from the lab. To make me blink and then say never, never, ever again. The coin had fallen in my favour but it wasn’t enough. I was mad at him but the Aids doctor
had given me a cure more powerful than any pharmaceutical research centre could ever hop to achieve.

I hugged my wife for an age when she came by later in the afternoon. I felt like I had been reborn and renewed. It was like being handed a second chance and I wasn’t going to waste it. Altogether it took me twelve months to recover
from my food poisoning experience at one of Bangkok’s five star hotels.

My wife has a very interesting Thai take on the hotel situation. She says that I should go and thank the manager for finding out about my susceptibility to unclean foods rather than going in to punch his lights out.

I didn’t mention that Aids test.

Stickman's thoughts:

No comments today as I'm away from Bangkok and pressed for time.


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