Friday, 18 June 2010

Good Old Garry Again

Chemo is a two day process. You have to appear for tests the day before the real thing. The Garry girls on the desk told me to come later next time as I had waited so long to be seen the week before. All the people getting their chemo on the Tuesday have priority, but as everyone for either day is bunched in together your appointment time doesn’t count. Just turn up sometime in the morning is the rule.

I got there at 11am and found it more crowded than previously. There is a very large waiting room, with three areas of high backed chairs in tranquil shades of lilac, many of them empty but the patients in “the clinic,” sit in a small alcove at the end of a corridor, with not enough seats, so that people in all conditions have to stand.

The seating plan is a good metaphor for our situation; the waiting area looks fairly convivial, somewhere you might hold a conference or a “study day,” where people group together and enjoy themselves. They are in the midst of seething life, while we have been shuffled off to the edges. There you wait, an hour or more for your blood test, another hour to see a doctor, one you won’t have seen before.

A Malaysian looking lad taking blood told me that everything is chronically slow because the hospital computer system is so poor.

After ten minutes of standing tut tutting, a young man gave me his seat. I sat next to his mother, a round, jolly looking woman in a pink striped headscarf.

“It’s like Selfridge’s sale in here, isn’t it?” she said.

I asked her the big question, what exactly was “it” i.e. chemotherapy like? There is something redolent of torture about the very name and for some reason one wants all the bad news before it happens.

She looked as if I’d just asked her to describe the reasons we are at war in Afghanistan. She screwed up her face and tried to describe it but just couldn’t.

“It’s hard work, and you never know the outcome,” said her son helpfully.

She told me she had put on a stone during her months of chemo, which was worrying. This was due to the steroids you have to take at the beginning each session, ten the night before and ten on the day.

She also said you have to be careful with hygiene and domestic chores as your immunity is so low. “I had to take a lot of care about that,” she said with disgust.

So I felt I had learned a little bit more about my immediate future, but not much.

Through an open door I could see one of the young women doctors I’d seen before, in what seemed a long time ago. I remembered her sapphire engagement ring. She was talking to another doctor about a holiday, perhaps her Honeymoon, she’d just spent sailing up the Amazon. She was so happy, blazing with a life before her.

Opposite me sat a fat elderly man in very tight short shorts. His legs and thighs, hairless through chemo, were shining white.

“Why does any man think we want to look at that?” I snapped at the jolly lady.

“If only they were a bit longer, covering up a bit more ” she said wistfully. “Do you dislike men in shorts in public too? Most people don’t seem to mind.”

And we started a grumpy conversation about male dress, particularly those men in shorts on the tube who spread their legs wide.

“But you’ve got to keep in mind how lucky we are,” she said. “Fifty or even twenty years ago we wouldn’t be getting this treatment.”

She was right of course, and all over the developing world few people have any hope of surviving cancer. Sadly most African health workers move abroad, there is a mass exodus of nurses, doctors, care assistants and even hospital porters. Only one in six of the doctors trained in Zambia since its independence from Britain in 1966 have remained there. Every year, nearly five hundred of the seven hundred nurses qualifying in Zimbabwe leave - for the UK.

According to Indian Government figures published in 2008, India is lacking 600,000 doctors. This works out to be approximately one doctor for about 1,634 people. Other statistics on health workers in India are given on the WHO site. Whichever stats you take, they tell you the same thing – India is chronically short of docs. I can’t help being suspicious of people who leave such misery behind to make money in Europe.

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