by Richard Rupnarain
With the pungent odor of Smell-O-Pine and Dettol bombarding their olfactory senses, commuters and visitors could tell they were in the vicinity of the Georgetown Public Hospital long before they actually saw the blue and white Hospital signs posted at street corners. The unmistakable scent of these common household disinfectants had pervaded the neighborhood for several blocks and was especially intense in the residential area west of Honda Ward.
The nursing staff nicknamed the ward the Honda Ward for a very simple reason. Most of the patients were casualties of motor cycle accidents and as far as the women were concerned motor cycle was synonymous with Honda, just as Xerox was synonymous with photcopying. The S90 Honda was the most popular model. It was sleek and quick on acceleration and, with its metallic and chrome finish, upswept exhaust pipes and upraised handlebar, it had a futuristic appearance. But as far as the nurses were concerned the Honda was culpable for every incident in which someone hit the asphalt and fractured a few bones.
The ward overlooked Thomas Road, a two-lane street always teeming with traffic to and from the hospital. Across the street was a small taxi stand with several Morris Oxford and Austin Cambridge cars idling while their owners patrolled the entrances and exits of the hospital in search of passengers. A few medical laboratories, doctor's clinics, and pharmacies, juxtaposed between cake shops and beer parlors, filled the street across from the taxi stand. Most of the patrons were either friends or visitors of patients, some waiting for visiting hours and others for a taxi to go home.
In the center of Honda ward lay Rickey Singh, the victim of a true Honda accident the night before. For the past hour he was trying to straighten up himself on his bed but felt as if he was being pulled back unto the bed by an unseen force. Slowly he turned around and saw the culprit. He had been admitted earlier that night with a broken clavicle and a severely lacerated back incurred when he collided with a slow moving vehicle at a speed in excess of 40 m.p.h. He landed hard on the asphalt road and continued to slide on his back for about twenty feet, losing his nylon shirt and a large section of the skin on the upper back. Now the deep bruise had begun to ooze a clear sticky substance that felt and acted like glue and as it dried he found himself bonded to the bed sheet. He tried pulling gently at the sheet but it was stuck fast. He thought about getting up and going to the bathroom to try and loosen the sheet from the skin but changed his mind as he would look like Superman in a white cape and that kind of attention he could do without. So he fumbled with the sheet and little by little managed to loosen a few centimeters. Just then he spotted the ward nurse coming towards him and lay back on his left hand as if he was in some form of mystical contemplation. She walked up to him with a chart in her hand and casually asked, "How is Mr. Singh today?"
"Oh! Good! I am ok!" he replied.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, why do you ask?"
"Could you sit up please?"
"Why, what's the matter?"
"Sir, please sit up."
By that time Rickey's ward neighbors were all looking on intently. He was the newcomer to the ward and had not yet made their acquaintance. The nurse was a buxom black young lady who seemed dedicated to her work. She moved beside him and before he could ask her what the problem was she yanked the sheet off his back and elicited from him a blue streak of expletives. Totally indifferent to his pain she returned to her mahogany desk and continued reading her charts as if nothing had ever happened.
On the two beds to his extreme left were the brothers Johnny and Lance Williams. They were twins who were involved in a serious accident that left Johnny with both legs broken and Lance with a broken jaw. Lance was in deep pain, not so much because his jaw was broken but because his loquacity was put on a sabbatical. Being unable to speak for three weeks was the real torture. He attempted to laugh when Rickey turned the air blue but was held to a pucker by the heavy gauged copper wire that sutured both jaws and made him look like Jaws from James Bond flicks.
To Rickys immediate right was Mohan Ramballi, a trained teacher who broke his right leg in three places when a tree ran into his S90 Honda along the East Coast highway. Mohan insisted he never saw the tree even though he traveled the highway for several years, prompting the conclusion that the tree was at fault. He was a gregarious gentleman in his mid-thirties and was very popular with the nurses. At nights, after all the patients were fed and tucked in, the nurses would gather around his bed as if he was some patron saint. That night Rickey strained his ears to glean some fragments of their conversation, mostly out of curiosity, as Mohan was by no means a good looking or godly man. He could not have been more than five and one half feet tall, weighed at least one hundred ninety pounds, carried the load of a pot belly, and held an average paying job. So what was it that drew this nightly conference of nurses around his bed?
Just as they did the night before the nurses came from the different accident wards and tiptoed their way to Mohan's bed. Rickey closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. Two of the nurses sat on the outer edge of the mattress, one at the foot of the bed, and the ward nurse brought her own chair. Mohan said something and they laughed. The ward nurse put her hands to her lips to hush them to silence. Then Mohan whispered to the ward nurse, "So, how much did he say he was going to do it for?" Ricky clutched at the cotton and ever so gently pulled it down from his ears so that the conversation might be more audible. The nurse replied, "He said five grand!"
"Five grand! That is a lot of money! How much is his share?"
"That leaves one five for four of us."
"Okay, I will let his family know."
Then without another word they left Mohan's bedside and returned to their stations. For the next hour Rickeys preoccupation with the weird meeting dulled his senses to the biting pain in his left shoulder. What in the world were they negotiating over? Who wanted five thousand and for what? Were they involved in some drug deal? Who were the nurses mediating for? The clues were too few to come to any conclusion but, assured that the morrow will bring some more clues, he pulled the sheet out from under his back, lay on his side, took two aspirins and drifted off to sleep.
It was still dark outside when the morning nursing shift stirred the wards to life. It was bath time. Those who were able to move around headed for the showers while the others had the luxury of a sponge bath on their bed. The old geezer obliquely across from Rickey's bed was up and about during the day but somehow was able to trick the pretty Portuguese nurse into giving him a sponge bath. She never noticed his wicked toothless smile and lustful eyes as she sapped warm water on his wrinkled back.
Ricky was not going to have the luxury of a bed bath nor did he want the humiliation of having to expose his naked body to the view of young girls. But he had a problem and one he had to get fixed soon. Despite efforts to keep the sheet away from his oozing wound he found himself glued once again to the bed sheet. He concluded that he must have fallen asleep and rolled unto his back during the night. After all, lying supine was his natural sleeping posture. Remembering the unconscionable actions of the buxom black nurse the day before he hastily wrapped the sheet around him like a sadhu heading for the Ganges and sprinted for the bathroom where he painstakingly sapped warm water on the sheet and peeled it millimeters at a time. It was the last time he would struggle with that problem as he was able to befriend a male nurse who had access to the supplies room and who applied some gauze and bandages that kept the wound dry. With the pain mollified he turned his attention to the secret meeting next door.
Morning visitors poured into the ward like customers waiting outside J. P. Santos supermarket for an advertised special. The old geezer had no visitors, the Williams brothers had a throng, Mohan had two girls, one old enough to be his wife, and Rickey welcomed a few family members. They brought him soup and stayed with him until visiting hours were over, talking about everything from work, to sports, and even about the injured or sick patients they knew elsewhere in the hospital. But as they chattered away Rickey strained his ears to catch a drop of Mohan's conversation with his two female visitors hoping he might grasp something that could shed some light on the mysterious deal that was being brokered the night before.
Unfortunately, he heard nothing that helped solve the puzzle. Either Mohan's visitors were just as clueless about his activities or they were really good actors. At six o'clock the nurses announced that visiting hours were over and ushered everyone out of the ward as though they were little disobedient children. It was bedtime.
The ward suddenly became eerily quiet. One moment it was jammed like a market place. The next it was like a ghost town. One moment it was noisy and full of gaiety. The next it was full of gloom and despondency. From the blank stares into nowhere one could tell that the pain of broken bones paled in comparison to the loneliness the infirmed felt after their loved ones had left the ward. Rickey felt that pain too but knew it would be short-lived. According to the ward nurse he would be gone in two days. His broken shoulder needed no surgery. The doctor put his arm in a sling to keep the broken bone in alignment and said it would heal naturally in a couple of weeks.
As night fell he rehearsed the jokes and lighthearted gossip of his friends and visitors. In a short while he would be back in their company, not for a few hours a day, but for good. He pondered the fate of his motorcycle. It sustained minor damages to the front fender and headlights but was otherwise in excellent condition. The real problem was with his parents. They were on his case from the moment he purchased the bike. As far as Guyanese parents were concerned, East Indians in particular, a motorcycle was a portent of the grave, the very shadow of death. When Rickey brought the bike home he was forced to hide it for a few days in an empty chicken pen and asked Baljit, a family friend, to gradually and gently broach the news of the acquisition to his parents. Without much ado Baljit played his trump card. East Indians are first and foremost concerned about price. The first question they asked was not about quality or safety or practicality, but "how much?" So Baljit quoted prices for new motorcycles and compared the cost to Rickey's purchase price. He was given a deal, Baljit argued, and, if they did not want the bike, he would take it for himself. Baljit had no intention of riding a motorcycle but such was the intensity of his polemic. As expected the bike was there to stay.
Surprisingly, his parents expressed no real emotion over the accursed motorcycle when they visited the ward earlier that evening. But he knew it would be a helluva fight to keep the motorcycle. That he would deal with later. Right now there was a more intriguing story line developing and he wanted to be part of the breaking news. He remembered Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries he read in high school. Maybe he could solve this riddle.
A smile washed over his countenance. The big clock on the wall said it was 9 o'clock. A cool breeze wafted through the ward tossing a few charts and notes off the head nurse's table. Then, without warning, a loud scream pierced the walls of Honda Ward. It sounded like the voice of an anguished woman. Strangely, apart from Rickey and Mohan, who kept scribbling something in a notebook, the rest of Honda Ward remained in deep slumber, anesthetized by painkillers and antibiotics. Then Rickey saw the woman behind the scream. It was a middle-aged woman and she was sobbing as she paced alongside the men who carried a stretcher on which a wounded man lay. A trail of gore spotted the floor as the man continued to bleed profusely from his wounds. Shortly after, an Indian doctor came into the ward and gave the man a cursory examination. It lasted less than a minute. Then the porters lifted the man off the bed and back on to the stretcher for a trip to the emergency operating room. In the meanwhile the ward nurse calmed down the distraught woman and showed her to the waiting room. Rickey found out later that she was a relative of the injured man, the only person the police were able to reach that night. The man was run over by a speeding GDF truck and his right leg was badly crushed. Mangled bones protruded like spikes through the torn ligaments and muscles. The head nurse took one look and withdrew as if she was feeling really nauseous. From his elevated bed Rickey could see the protruding bones, white and red with blood and felt an emptiness in the pit of his stomach, a condition commonly referred to by his countrymen as "bad feelings."
Mohan had also seen the mangled leg but evidently was not perturbed as Rickey or the nurse. Rather he looked like an entrepreneur who had been presented with a wonderful business opportunity. He turned to Rickey and whispered, "See that man that came in here just now?"
"Yes, who is he?"
"I don't know. But they will amputate his leg unless his family come up with money."
"What do you mean by money? This is a public hospital and they are doctors. They are supposed to do what they can to save lives and limbs. Why should people pay?"
"You just said it my friend. Free hospital! Public hospital is free. Only poor people come here. The rich people go to Mercy Hospital or Woodlands or Medical Arts. They pay their money and the doctors look after them well. But here they don't care. Chop off your foot and send you home."
"So what if the man could raise the money. How will they know if he can raise the money? He is unconscious."
"That is where I come in, my friend."
"I don't understand. You come in with what?"
"The middle man, you know? The nurses can't get involved with the patients and money. You know, ethics and all that stuff. But they can go through me."
"You mean the doctors are involved..."
"Yep! They tell the nurses how much it will cost the family to give "special treatment", if you know what I mean. Then the nurses tell it to me and I pass the information on to the people."
"That's not right!"
"Listen friend, it's not a question or right or wrong. Take that chap who just came in here as an example. As far as these doctors are concerned the man's leg is mangled and the hospital cannot afford extensive surgery and rehabilitation costs. So the practice is simply to amputate his leg. But instead of chopping off the man's foot, which the doctor is allowed to do as long as the resident surgeon agrees, he offers to restore the man's foot for a price. I don't see anything wrong with that. If the bannas had to go to Mercy Hospital he would have to pay much more money. So, personally, I think the doctors and nurses are doing a good thing."
"What about you? What do you get out of it?"
"A frek and the satisfaction of helping people."
Rickey believed Mohan obtained some monetary compensation but doubted his altruistic motive. He had seen Mohan scribble notes and numbers in a little notebook he kept in his bedside cabinet. Besides, he did not act and sound like the philanthropic type. Nevertheless, just as Mohan predicted, the head nurse came to him, whispered something and left. Rickey was curious. He turned to Mohan and asked, "So what's happening?"
"Oh! You mean that nurse? Yeah! Just as I said. Doc wants $5,000 for the operation. If the man can't come up with the money by morning he gon lose the foot."
"So what are you going to do?"
"Oh! Just go over to the lady and let her know the deal. With discretion, of course!"
"And nothing in it for you?"
"Five hundred dollars?"
"Hey, look, without me there is no deal. The doctors could lose their licenses if they are caught and the nurses could get fired. I get $500 for my efforts."
"So how much have you made in the three weeks that you are here?"
"Oh! Two grand!"
"Wow! My friend, I don't know, but I feel for those poor people."
Rickey did not know what to make out of the whole situation. Were the doctors and nurses and guys like Mohan really crooks or people trying to do the best they can? On the other hand Guyana was not a welfare state. There were no safety nets and government sponsored medical plans for the sick who were too poor to pay. Rickey dozed off without answers but somewhat thankful that Mohan was being discharged the next day. Little did he know that the morrow would bring with it some interesting twists and turns.
Wednesday morning arrived with chirps and whistles from bluesackis and red bellies and a house wren that fluttered on the window sill outside Honda Ward. Mohan was ecstatic. After three weeks he was finally going home. But just before the doctor came by to remove the plaster cast from his leg a Korean physician strolled into the ward, stoic, and walked right up to a little boy who was brought in less than an hour earlier, and who sat pensive, anxious, on the verge of tears, holding unto his right shoulder as if trying to protect it from injury. Unfortunately, his shoulder was already injured. It was dislocated in an accident at Kingston riverfront where he and other kids his age were daring each other to jump into the Demerara River from atop the koker. The doctor spoke, and much to the surprise of everyone in the ward, who had nothing to do but gloat in the sufferings of each other, he was almost humorous.
Son, he said as he unbuttoned and removed the boys Terylene shirt, tell me, how this happen to you?
I been at the koker for a swim and dem boys bump me, he replied.
What means bump? the physician asked, clearly bewildered at the term.
They tossed him into the koker, doc! explained Williams.
Without saying a word the physician pushed him unto his back, and much to the awe of the onlookers, save for the accompanying nurses, climbed unto the bed, rested his left shoe on the shoulders and depressed it, swiftly, eliciting a piercing scream punctuated with expletives about the doctors mother, followed by a soft child-like cry. The shoulder was back in place and the doctor left, just as he came, stoic, robotic, looking for another patient on whom to exact his weird brand of medicine.
Mohan waved goodbye to his ward mates as two orderlies wheeled him out, one pushing the wheelchair and the other carrying his belongings. Shortly after, a nurse came in and changed the bed linen. The place seemed different with an empty bed; but not for long.
Twenty-five minutes had barely elapsed when to everyones surprise Mohan was wheeled back to his bed in a wheelchair. He looked steamed. Rickey was first to express his surprise.
"The cast has been removed but you are back! What happened?"
"Those idiots! You know what they did?"
"No! What are you talking about? Your leg looks okay to me."
"Okay? Okay? Look at this!"
Mohan sat on his bed, pulled his feet together and said, "Look, one is shorter than the other by about three inches."
"Oh goodness! How did that happen?"
"They said the leg was broken in three places and that was the way it healed."
"So, what now? Is there no way to correct the problem?"
"Yes, they said they would have to break the leg and attach steel plates. That is the only way to ensure the same length."
"So what are you going to do? It doesn't seem like you have any other option."
"I can't believe it. I already spent three weeks in this place and now I have to spend another three. These jackasses! At least they could have let me know I had an option."
"By option you mean, pay?"
"How much they want for the plates?"
"Two grand! Can you believe those bastards?"
Richard Rupnarain lives and works in Toronto, Canada. Rrupnarain@yahoo.ca