Back in the trenches

by zunguzungu

Recovering from dysentery again, the gritty details of which I’ll spare you. This time I know what it was because I was worried enough to go to the hospital and get blood and stool tests. I thought it was malaria; didn’t even realize that dysentery still existed, that word being associated indelibly in my mind with trench warfare or napoleonic cavalry charges. But of course it still does, anywhere where there is a high prospect of, as the doctor put it, delicately “contamination in the food.”I imagine I got “contamination in my food” because we don’t use toilet paper here. I won’t go into details for the more squeaish among you, delicate readers, but the gist is that one’s left hand is often “contaminated” of necessity. Your imagination can fill in the details, should you so choose, but please remember, these are wartime conditions and I was just following orders. Tanzanians very carefully use only their right hand to eat with for this reason, and I bet that being an mzungu I’ve not been as careful as I should, not having been trained since birth about which hand to use (and pity the left handers, by the way!). But there were other factors; both times I got sick, I did so immediately after drinking, not a lot but more than I’m used to. And I’m also taking a malaria preventative, Doxycycline, which is an antibiotic and is also sometimes used to deal with stomach infections, the upshot being that my stomach has been bombarded with antibiotic for long enough the various good bugs who would be called upon to fight off such infection are somewhat depleted.

So I find myself, again, marvelling at how complicated our bodies are, but particularly when compared to the pathetically unsubtle procedures by which a hospital tries to cure them. And, by the way, the hospital I went to was not particularly “third world”; in fact, while there was a notable absence of clear procedures for things like checking in and who went to which doctor and so forth (one first pays at the cash window and then one goes to see the doctor, who may or may not be the same doctor one saw before), it was a sturdy, orderly hospital with doctors who knew their business. But, as in the states, the doctor seemed to spend more time and effort filling out forms and writing down the things I told him than trying to put all these pieces together. I knew that doxycycline is both an antibotic and a malaria preventative, but when I told him I was taking it, he wrote that down and asked if I was getting any relief from it. “No, no” I explained “I’ve been taking it for two months, long before I got sick,” and his first reaction was to look down at his paper he was filling out and try to figure out how to alter it without rewriting the whole thing. After a pause, he went on to the next question (the first question, by the way, had been marital status). A small matter, perhaps, but the irrelevence of that form which he was so studiously poring over was driven home to me when, upon having a blood and stool test and waiting three hours for the results (some catholic nuns down the street let me sleep on their couch, actually), I returned with the results in hand to speak with a new doctor, who neither had nor seemed to want to see the chart that the previous doctor had so meticulously filled out. I had dysentery; here’s what you take for that. And I was done. Not that I felt misused, particularly, but the complexities of health and unhealth are such that no form can really encompass them, especially if you aspire to something more like wellness and prevention than the whack-a-mole game of curing (and thank you the pentagon for putting that metaphor in my mind).

That said, of course, my all-time favorite doctor (not counting those wacky guys on scrubs; how I love their zany shenanegans!) is the one who, about a year ago, told me that the surgeons I talked to California were ambulance chasing nuts and there was no way I needed back surgery. For his money, he said, Americans are crazy about surgery, and unless you’re an olympic athlete (and at this point, he looked over my physique in a distressingly contemptuous manner) a herniated disc of the kind I had did not need surgery. He was right, too, it seems, as I’ve since fully regained the ability to carry out my indolent scholarly lifestyle, without surgery. And he told me, as I was leaving and I saw him talking into a pocket recorder, that he didn’t write notes by hand because it took up too much time. So there!