19 May 2019

Living in fear, part 2

[This is the second part of a three-part series. Read part 1 here.]

I didn’t have to wait long. Less than two weeks later, I was at the emergencies of a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. Chest and heart pain had persisted, forcing me to request paracetamol from the airline crew and, three days later, to request medical assistance to know what to do. Symptoms described on the phone prompted the doctor to call for an ambulance right away. The French doctor, a woman, was very kind and I knew she didn’t want to make me feel more stressed with what she feared I could be going through, especially considering my medical history and my recent long-haul flights, namely another pneumothorax, embolism, a blood clot in the lung, or a heart attack. What joy.

Tha ambulance ride was uneventful. Similar to my past experience in a Swiss ambulance, I suddenly felt no more acute pain while inside the vehicle, making me feel I would be wasting everyone’s time. And similar to that previous ride, I would feel ripped off with its cost ($500 for 2km in Switzerland, $80 for 4km in Nairobi). At least that saved me from some waiting time at the hospital as I was immediately admitted and seen by a nurse to have my vitals checked (cardiac rhythm, blood pressure) and soon after getting an electrocardiogram. Those were normal, so it was now a question to wait for further tests. I was told three hours would be necessary for me to go through a blood test and a CT scan. Those theoretical three hours would transform into ten real hours – but such was life at hospitals, especially when one is not the most pressing patient. Ironically, all I felt I needed was rest, something I couldn’t get because of the constant chatter and stark lighting.

Stuck in my tiny cubicle, hidden behind a curtain, I waited patiently albeit too stressed to be able to continue reading my very interesting book about the invention of the telegraph, The Victorian Internet. I couldn’t help but anticipate – once again – that I would have to cancel all my upcoming trips. I felt thirsty: was it being in a hospital that made me not want to take better care of myself, as if I had given up on myself? I wasn’t given any water throughout the entire day – and I didn’t request any either, even though I had had the presence of mind to throw a bottle of water in my bag before getting into the ambulance.

Hours passed. Normally the passing of time would take much more of a toll on my mental state. Not this time. I was perhaps too tired, too worried – worrying of course never helps unless it’s followed by concrete action, but it’s always easier said than done. I lied down on the hard hospital bed. I didn’t close my eyes for long before I was asked to go register – and pay – at the hospital’s main entrance. A mistake on my family name made me not realise I was repeatedly called to a side room… to get my vitals measured once more – a process which was interrupted when I pointed out it had already been done a few hours earlier. The ambulance nurses were still on my tail, waiting to get paid: that’s only when I realised how the amount I had to pay was indecent considering the purchasing power of the average Kenyan; that’s also when I realised the ambulance folks were more than happy to wait for me the entire day to bring me back to the hotel… at the same cost, naturally. Yes, they were friendly (you bet) but I waved them goodbye, thank you very much, I will take a taxi when I’m done (I would end up in a security car chartered by my company).

The day dragged on further. The intravenous drip was inserted on the top of my hand, in preparation of the CT (short for “computed tomography”) scan. Of course it hurt, what did you expect, but that was nothing with the pain that I would have to endure later on. An empty wheelchair was pushed in front of me an hour later. It was for me, not sure why, but I was not in the mood to question such trifles. A bed sheet was put over me as soon as I sat down in the wheelchair which was too short for me. I was all crumpled and immediately remembered one of the studies Daniel Kahneman mentions in Thinking, Fast and Slow: two groups of healthy students were asked to read seemingly innocuous press articles, one (control) group reading random news topics while the other was given stories about sick elderly people. What they didn’t know was that the study started when they had finished reading and were asked to head to another room down the corridor. The group which had read about sick old people was statistically walking more slowly than the control group, as if they had themselves become the old people who had to be careful of their movements.

I tried to resist “becoming” that sick person, despite the knowledge of that drip on my hand – I write the “knowledge” because I never dared looking at it; feeling it was enough. As my wheelchair was pushed towards the radiology aisle of the hospital, I noticed the sun had finally emerged after some torrential rain usual for the month of May in Nairobi. It was 3pm. I would have to wait another hour in that annoying wheelchair before I would be called in for my CT scan. The radiologist was friendly, explaining what was to happen – in general all Kenyans I encountered displayed a sort of internal calmness which contrasted violently with the extrovert nature of most Nigerians I knew.

I lied down and was shortly afterwards inserted into the round scanner. “Take an inspiration and hold your breath,” the machine ordered. I complied as I could hear the scanner’s guts spin at high speed. I hadn’t felt a thing. For a moment, I thought the radiologist had forgotten to pour the iodine-based contrast material into my veins. Lo and behold, he had not forgotten! I started screaming as the liquid entered my bloodstream, giving me the impression that it was burning my hand and, immediately afterwards, my feet and my bladder (no, I didn’t wet by accident, I checked afterwards). It felt like dying and the experience reminded of the gross lethal injections practised in the US. But I had survived, rather shamefully and cowardly, no longer able to hold my tears. While I apologised to the doctor for something I didn’t have to be sorry for, in part using the half-valid excuse that a recent death from cancer was also weighing on my morale, he briefly comforted me before I was wheeled back to another similar dreary cubicle hidden by the same green curtain.

I was told I would have to wait another hour to get results. At that point, I couldn’t be surprised anymore that this actually meant three hours, three f*cking long hours to know if I was okay or not. I was exhausted but I didn’t want to send away the driver who had just arrived to keep me company. So I made him talk about his family, about the country’s health system, about his work. I struggled keeping my eyes open.

Night had fallen but I could only tell the time it was from my phone. And then suddenly it was all over, or so I thought back then: another doctor – since the previous one had finished his shift – came with the results and notified me that they hadn’t found anything, that I was good to go. No embolism, no pneumothorax, nothing. I was relieved, and assumed once again that my chest pain was merely due to stress and tiredness.

As soon as I reached my hotel room, I ate the remainder of my pizza left over from the previous day: yes, I don’t like to throw food away, what do you want. I was looking forward to go on my first safari the next day. I was looking forward to living again.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end here – and it doesn’t end well, at least for now. I had to fight a little to get access to the actual medical results which, for some weird reason pertaining to “hospital policy”, were not meant to be given to me. Using the pretext of being a non-resident who travels often, I ultimately received those reports three days later. One line written in one of the reports revealed that there was in fact a problem.

[Continued in part 3]