This all starts with a call to an insurance company. My British travel insurance has a service where they can provide you with the names of local services, like doctors. I needed one of these because my asthma has really been troubling me since the sandstorm. For a day or so I sounded like I had emphysema between all the wheezing and not being able to finish a sentence without drawing a couple of breaths. It’s gotten better, but I still want to know what to do when – and it will – it happens again.
I called the insurance people up and they asked if I wanted to speak to one of the medical services staff there on call. Well, couldn’t hurt, I thought. They were busy at the time but they offered to call me back later in the evening. Unfortunately something went wrong and I never got a call back, so I called them again this morning.
When I described my symptoms to the on-call doctor, she said, “Okay, love. I advise you to get down to an Accident and Emergency where they can look you over and give you a nebulizer treatment if they need to. No need to fuss about trying to get an appointment in a clinic, just go to A&E because they have all the equipment there and they can have a look.”
So I woke up one of my roommates (it wasn’t early but she’s on student hours) and explained what was happening, called my Egyptian friend Flora to meet me at the hospital and got myself to the emergency room at the Anglo-American Hospital via black-and-white taxi.
When I arrived the waiting room attendent didn’t speak English, so she sent me straight to the office, I realized later, of the director of the hospital. There I found a man in a lab coat with mysterious things pickled in brine on the shelves behind his desk who graciously listened to me and told me to go right upstairs where the ICU is.
It became apparent quite quickly that though all the doctors spoke English none of the nurses did. A hilarious ten minutes ensued as the nurses tried to ask my name and really couldn’t for the life of them work out how it was spelled. (I wrote it down for them. Then they couldn’t pronounce it.) In my rudimentary Arabic I learned that two of the nurses were sisters. They chattered cheerfully at me in Arabic, trying to make me smile. It worked.
After all my vital signs were taken, the doctors said I was actually absorbing oxygen pretty well and there wasn’t really that much wheezing. Nevertheless, they decided to administer some oxygen (I’m pretty sure they don’t have a nebulizer.)
I was moved into a private room and got some tubes in my nose. Finally Flora arrived in high dudgeon because the receptionist hadn’t been able to tell her which room I was in. She began haranguing all the nurses in Arabic to find out what was going on, where’s the doctor, why hasn’t she been fed, who’s in charge here? I began to feel like I was in good hands.
Then she left the room for five minutes and suddenly a team of nurses bustled in (not the cheerful sisters, sadly) holding all sorts of saline drip equipment. Hmm, I thought to myself.
One marched into the bathroom and wheeled out a drip stand, another one hooked up the line to the bag. Then they tried to hook the saline drip to me.
Unfortunately I have extremely stubborn veins and the drip wouldn’t go in my hand no matter how the nurse twisted and turned the needle. I yelped and gasped and whimpered and finally she stopped.
Then, instead of holding a gauze pad on the needle wound like a sensible person would, this nurse grabbed an alcohol swab – which, as I predicted aloud, only made the blood flow more freely instead of stopping it, but at least I was clean – and she SQUEEZED IT INTO MY HAND AS HARD AS SHE COULD.
“Stop, stop, I’ll hold it myself, stop!!!” I tried to yank my hand away. She wouldn’t let go and kept applying pressure at an unbelievable rate. Now the back of my hand is swollen and blue and it hurts all the way up to my elbow when I touch it. I can’t turn the faucet in the sink because it hurts too much. (Typing’s not so bad, mercifully.)
Finally the nurses realized the drip wasn’t going in my hand no way no how. The nurses motioned for me to give them my elbow so they could stick the needle in there. They smiled encouragingly. I cradled my hand to my chest and glared at them. “Leysh? Leysh??” (”Why? Why?”) They fluttered and bustled, calling in a senior nurse in response (who still didn’t speak English.) I pointed to the drip. “Leysh?!”
She looked at me and made a stabbing motion at the inside of her elbow. “Drip! Drip!” she explained.
“LEYSH drip?” My command of Arabic exhausted, I switched to English: “You tell me in English why I need this drip or get somebody who can, or I’m not letting you anywhere near my damn elbow,” I said, folding my arms.
The nurse smiled at me like I’d just declared I was Napoleon come to rally the troops and backed out of the room. Flora finally came back and asked why I was refusing the drip. They’d obviously waylaid her and explained I was being difficult. I showed her my hand and said none of them could explain WHY I needed a drip. She tried to find out and came back shrugging her shoulders. That was the end of that. (For them, anyway. I’ve got a weeks’ worth of bruise-rainbow ahead of me.)
Some doctors and nurses came and went. We tried to find out when I’d be allowed to leave with little success. We discovered the admitting doctor had to approve my dismissal, and finally managed to get hold of him.
Dr. Dude came into the room and asked gently if I was under any particular mental strain at the moment. I explained that I’d come in on the advice of a doctor back in Britain. He said I wasn’t actually having a bronchial spasm and I didn’t need any follow-up care. I asked why, if I wasn’t sick, he’d given me oxygen. And why, if my asthma is just in my head, I already have two prescription inhalers just to maintain normal function when I’m not in Egypt. He shifted his weight and started to ask me about my insurance arrangements.
Truth be told, it wasn’t any worse an experience than ones I’ve had in some American hospitals. In a way it didn’t really make a difference that the nurses and I didn’t speak the same language.
I’m thankful my friend Flora was able to be there and look after me. The whole experience could’ve gone so, so much worse. I’m back at home now and the oxygen really did make me feel better. But it hasn’t solved the underlying problem, which is how to deal long-term with the particulated air in Cairo. The awful truth is it’s looking increasingly likely that though you can’t take the Cairo out of the girl, the girl may in fact need to take herself out of Cairo. More on this later.